Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by Bryan Spicer
Original Air Date: 18th December 2001
The cyclical nature of 24 means that when the sun comes up, as it does at the end of this hour, it feels like something approaching an event. We’ve been so used to seeing these characters navigating darkened streets, and a foreboding sense of the night, that when the episode gives us a quick glimpse of the sun coming over those Californian mountains, it almost has you gasping for a quick moment.
Night time is over, the daytime has begun and yet 24 delivers the first shock twist of its run, followed not long after by the dawning look on Teri Bauer’s face that she is in real danger, and possibly has been for the last six hours.
Lying and subterfuge are key components of many works with a suspense edge, especially in espionage thrillers were false identities and a double agent status are part and parcel of the genre.
The revelation that ‘Alan York’ is not who he claims to be comes two thirds of the way through the episode, in what amounts to 24’s most chilling moment of the show so far. We’ve spent the last few hours watching Janet cling for survival and just when it looks like father and daughter are about to be reunited, the nice guy act that Richard Burgi has perfected over the last six episodes, complete with sad backstory about his wife leaving him to go back to Australia and not having spoken to Janet since, turns out to be nothing but a careful ruse and his whole character has been part of the larger narrative this whole time.
The concern and sensitivity shown to Teri gives way to a look of cold-blooded murder as he suffocates Janet, who has no idea who he is and wants to know where her father has gone. There is an element of cruelty to the scene for sure, and the camera never flinches from Janet’s agonising posture or Burgi’s eyes increasingly getting a colder, psychotic glint in them, but it’s a proclamation from the series about its unpredictable nature and that anyone truly is off-limits when it comes to death.
The moving parts of the episode are wonderful. It’s once again lighter on action, but the pacing and writing are magnificent, with an assured footing and a brilliant ability to balance so many plates in the air.
It also marks the first script of the series from Howard Gordon, who would go on to become one of 24’s most important voices. With prior experience writing for The X-Files, Buffy and Angel, as well as co-creating Strange World with Tim Kring, 24 represents a world away from aliens, monsters and vampires, although one can sense the taste of conspiracy that dominated Mulder and Scully’s world on the periphery of 24, albeit one less interested in aliens.
When it came to The X-Files, Gordon contributed some its most intense stories and memorable guest characters that were at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control and it’s this which he runs with here for his 24 debut.
We get many scenes of Jack with Teri at the hospital and Palmer with Sherry that play in contrapuntal ways; Jack and Teri are loving and caring with each other, even as they become aware of the larger story they are a part of and the danger their daughter is in, who spends the entire episode helping Rick (Daniel Bess) bury Dan’s body.
The by-play between Sutherland and Leslie Hope is wonderful, managing to convey so much in a short space of time, reaching something of a powerful peak when Jack tells a distraught Teri about Kim’s kidnapping and then again towards the end of the hour when Jack has to leave her against his will. Ira Gaines (Michael Massee) has been on the edges of the story up to this point, a menace getting ready to put his plan in motion, but is now making his presence felt by forcing Jack away from his loved ones just as they need him the most.
Jack’s absence from the family home has been a recurring theme of much of the storytelling and character development, but here Gordon’s teleplay doesn’t merely make it part and parcel of the narrative, he turns into a slowly dawning horror movie as Jack takes one last, lingering look at an increasingly confused Teri and then finds himself in a thriller of nightmarish proportions, being heavily surveilled by a villain who has everywhere around Jack under his eye like some sort of Orwellian villain who has found himself in an Hollywood produced action drama.
Palmer, meanwhile, learns just how much in the dark he really has been with the revelation that Sherry had a large hand to play in the cover-up that his son was a part of.
It’s a somewhat inevitable twist, and it makes total sense, but it just adds to Palmer’s increasing awareness that he has been surrounded by dark deeds and mistruths in a fashion that is either Shakespearean or pure soap opera, but either way it’s massively entertaining. Haysbert has the look and grace of the type of politician you wished existed, but only do so in the movies or television shows.
That 24 was airing at the same time as The West Wing gave audiences a double fantasy of politicians that we wished existed. The West Wing began in the latter days of the Clinton administration, an era marked by scandals involving sex and cigars and which Monica Lewinsky shamefully paid the price for. We watched Bartlett in a way that we wished we could with Clinton, but going into the early 00’s and the onslaught of incident that would define Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, the fantasy element that came from watching these fictional politicians became something more powerful.
The plights and stories that await Palmer are a different beast to what Sorkin, and subsequently John Wells’ writers’ room, would cook up for their fictional Commander-in-Chief, but already 24 is angling itself to present a presidential candidate and politician of moral integrity being presented with difficult prospects.
The scale and scope of the story might be considered small potatoes compared to where 24 would eventually go from Day 2 onwards, but you can already sense the entanglement of morals and politics going hand in hand with dark fervour even from these early hours.