24 Says Goodbye Without Kid Gloves
It would be nice to say, of "24," that nothing in its life became it like the leaving it, to borrow a tribute from "Macbeth." The trouble is, that would be far from true. Whole seasons like the incomparable fourth, a spellbinder about an Islamic terrorist group in California brimming with superbly conceived characters, argue otherwise. Who can forget, say, Shohreh Aghdashloo as Dina, a member of a suburban sleeper-network plotting a nuclear meltdown designed to wipe out millions of Americans, or Arnold Vosloo as Marwan, the chief plotter?
Still, there were reasons for the distinct sense of satisfaction which "24" managed to stir up in viewers in its final hours. It could easily have gone otherwise, but no one with any memory of great series that have departed badly, or at least strangely—try Tony and Carmela Soprano and children, gathered in that restaurant when the screen goes suddenly, shockingly, to black—has to be told that. Among its achievements, the "24" finale delivered—the first time in its long run—the show's first persuasive rendering of the bonds of love.
Both the writers and Kiefer Sutherland, skillful in so much, were at their weakest when attempting the portrayal of a love-sick Bauer, a Bauer happily married, a Bauer in the throes of a last great passion—this for FBI agent Renee Walker, who ends up murdered by Russian agents. The plain fact was that Agent Bauer—viewers of "24" surely understood by the end, if not well before—didn't do romance. When scripts required him to do so they waited it out till Jack got back to doing what he was supposed to do—pursue the plotters, extort the intelligence, save the nation.
All the more right, and wonderful, that the one and only love scene in "24" to come flaming to life on-screen was that between Jack and his staunch friend and ally of many years, Chloe O'Brian (played inimitably, as Mary Lynn Rajskub has always played her)—and that it should have been ignited by a hellish, bloody encounter. One, furthermore, in which Chloe is forced to shoot Jack, at his command. Forget why—nobody cared.
Like most of the series' action scenes and accompanying mad stretches of reason, it worked. It would lead to that farewell scene, one without standard romantic overtones, but passionate nonetheless in its picture of love between comrades-in-arms: Jack, clutching the ubiquitous cellphone in his blood-stained hands; the tearful Chloe, monosyllabic as ever, even now. Characters like hers, sustained with such sterling consistency over eight seasons, don't yield for anything as trifling as heartbreak.
There were few such cases of enduring loyalty and love in this series so flavorfully saturated with plotters, would-be mass murderers, opportunists and enablers. One of the most distinguished of these creations, the indefatigable former President Charles Logan—a character now and forever owned by Gregory Itzin—bolstered the last few episodes of "24" with his return. He was, as ever, a delectable presence—it was hard to get enough of those eyes, at once piercing and dead, and that loopy but never less than ominous neck thrust. Not many actors have been able to say so much with a neck as Mr. Itzin can. Logan was there, of course, in a last-ditch quest for political power—with his way in to be that other unforgettable character, President Allison Taylor.
Critics who found a political slant in the series—some suggested that Jack Bauer's triumphs encouraged torture of terror suspects, and that the show inflamed anti-Muslim sentiments—weren't much appeased when the producers responded, midway through the series, by avoiding plots about Islamic terror operations and focused instead on lethal threats from the Chinese, from Mexicans drug lords and, everywhere, Russians. All, to be sure, with some greed-crazed American operator at the heart of each threat, to even things out racially and ethnically. Still, the show never quite reformed enough to satisfy those critics.
Their minds couldn't have been much changed by the introduction of President Taylor (Cherry Jones), a wonderful caricature of virtue run amok, lurching dreamily around the White House, planning for world peace and harmony. By this last season of "24," the warm-hearted, caring president is making determined plans for a deal with terrorists that would sacrifice the lives of millions of New Yorkers—a move, she explained, that would secure peace in the wider world. Not much later, President Taylor was aglow over a treaty that would bring peace to a certain region of the world where it had never before existed. Don't ask.
In the interests of ensuring that the signing of this treaty will go forward, the president was willing to jail journalists, to overlook criminal conspiracies and even for a time, countenance murder—because, as she kept explaining (and Ms. Jones was impeccable in her grasp of this character), all that was in the interest of a higher good. Peace at any price, she meant.
Seldom has television offered so lethal a picture of delusion in high places, of idealism that knows no bounds and recognizes no realities, and painted it with such zest. Not a bad way for this extraordinary series to leave the field.