24 is now officially over. As with so many of the previous seasons, this final one ended with Jack Bauer wounded, bereft of sleep, separated from his family, barely hanging on to see another day, but hanging on with his enemies including his own countrymen continuing in their pursuit of him.
Through all the years, the sheer genius of 24 lay in the fact that viewers returned show after show, even though they already knew its outcome. No matter what the odds, no matter how dire the circumstances, no matter how evil the enemy, Jack Bauer was going to find a way to survive.
What is it about this character that so captivated the American public? It was not Jack Bauer himself but the ideals he represented.
Jack was good, and there is still something embedded deep within the American spirit that makes us long to see this good triumph over evil. Regardless of the political correctness of the program in recent years, and regardless of the bastardizing of those who strive for truth, justice and morality in popular culture, there are still Americans out there of all political stripes that understand that in this world there is good and evil. Every human being is nuanced, and man’s imperfection is endemic, but we still intuitively know that there are real heroes, protectors, patriots.
Jack was one of these people. He stood up for the defenseless. He sacrificed his entire being. He defied authority when he knew it in his heart to be unjust. He willed himself to live when others would have simply curled up and died.
Jack is that underdog that this country loves and has always loved. He is Rocky, Rudy and Reagan rolled into one. He is that soldier bloodied on the battlefield who with every ounce of strength continues to fight. He is that fireman who rushes into the burning building.
The cynical or realist part in me knows that these statements may be romantic and naive, and I grant that some readers will take these views to be not only these things but in addition to them simplistic and immature.
But my emotions tell me that there are certain transcendental values in this world that go well beyond human conception. There is most certainly good and evil, there is most certainly righteous and wicked, there is most certainly just and unjust. Jack Bauer was a transcendent character because regardless of one’s politics, all knew that he was good. Moreover, in a world which seems to clamor to the crude, the depraved and the diabolical, naturally his character was not only refreshing to us, but also evoked our empathy because we identified within him what in our hearts, in our minds, and in our souls is the ideal that we strive for, that of the virtuous.
And so when he lived on at the end of the last episode, in the same predicament he found himself in so many times before, it was representative of the fact that the good and the virtuous in our country and in this world will always triumph over the evil, but that it is hard fought, it is perilous, it is volatile, it is tenuous and it tests men’s souls. Sometimes good triumphs inexplicably, and sometimes for decades or even centuries good is overpowered by evil, but in the end even the smallest bright spots of good can, must and do shine through the darkness.
Jack Bauer was a character that for an hour on so many Monday nights not only diverted us, but allowed us vicariously to shine through the darkness. Jack Bauer was America qua America, and for that America loved Jack Bauer. If the good in America is to last for generations, it is going to require many of us to take up his mantle.