Teleplay by Joel Surnow & Michael Loceff
Story by Robert Cochran & Howard Gordon
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Original Air Date: 21st May, 2002
There’s a feeling of foreboding dread right from the moment the episode opens. In fact, it’s been there for the last few episodes, but here 24 strikes hard, on its characters and the audience. This is unforgivably intense television, a culmination of what was a daring experiment of sorts to do a real time series. For the most part it worked. It faltered a little just after the halfway mark, admittedly, but these last five hours saw the series redeem itself with an escalation of suspense and terror that this episode peaks with triumphantly.
24 would go on to last for a further seven seasons after this, a four-year-later revival and a spin-off with sequel elements. There would be highs and lows once again (how could there not be with a duration of nearly a decade on the air), not to mention controversies which will start to make their mark on the second season, but after all of that, with stories and episodes that would invite debate and even anger from some quarters, the season one finale is still held up as not only one of 24’s best ever episodes, but also one of the best season finales in US television history.
The reasons why it’s so good usually come down to the series utilising a somewhat hoary old cliché by which to throw in some emotional engagement for the next season, but the final moments of the episode sting like nothing else that network television dared to do at the time.
No matter how dark and intense it got, this was American network television, a medium that, more often than not, dispensed justice and happy endings. The more bitter stings were reserved for the influx of cable shows that were starting to make their mark, the likes of HBO’s The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Oz, where brutal violence and frequent deaths were part and parcel of their narratives about gangsters, funeral homes and prisons filled with the darkest examples of toxic masculinity.
Certainly 24 racked up a body count right from the get-go. The first episode featured a plane crash that had to be rightly edited down, while Jack’s boss Richard Walsh was killed in the second episode. Death was everywhere on the series, but we took all of that as part and parcel of the conventions of an action thriller, which for the most part this first season of 24 competed with the best off from the big screen, in terms of storytelling and production values.
If you were amongst the regular cast, you were safe.
Until this episode. A warning shot for the audience and the rest of the characters.
You weren’t safe. Even if it seemed like you were, in one single hour of television 24 showed that here was a television series that was not going to mess around.
Looking back on it, maybe killing off the pregnant lead female character of the series might seem a tad too dark and certainly an example of ‘woman in refrigerator’ trope (it would certainly fuel a lot of Jack’s development over the next two seasons), but it’s also a daring way to end an episode that throws itself ever more into emotionally dark territory.
It’s dark enough to kill Teri right at the very end, that the bullet is fired by Nina with the series throwing itself head-first into the reveal that not only is the she the mole but also responsible for Jamey’s death earlier in the season and working with a phantom menace of sorts operating out of Germany gives the episode a sadistically vindictive quality as if Surnow, Loceff, Cochran and Gordon are going right for our comfort zones.
The moment when Jack sees the footage of Nina killing Jamey, a retcon of sorts from earlier in the season, is of course an example of the series just going right for the plot hole with which to deliver the revelation. Tony told Nina the room was dark, but apparently there was a camera and it caught the murder. It should be a problem. It probably is a problem, but it’s another example of the grisly glee with which the episode is going right for the comfort zones of the audience.
We thought Teri was safe. She’s not. We thought Nina was one of the good guys. She’s not. The episode features perhaps the most chilling image of any television series of its decade, Nina staring right into the camera after she kills Jamey, challenging you to accept this turn of events. It’s perhaps the most terrifying moment of any television drama of the 2000s.
After twenty three episodes of being one of the most sympathetic characters on the series, Nina turns bad in epic style, killing a plethora of CTU employees in her means of escape and killing Teri off-screen just when it seemed as if she was going to let her live.
That Nina knew she was pregnant, told last week in a scene that was, strangely, cut from its initial US broadcast (and which led to a large amount of confusion when the series was released on DVD in the UK) only adds to 24 showing no signs of shying away from targeting any sense of safety and destroying both that and the audience’s belief that ‘hey, it’s an American television series, it will have a happy ending.’
It’s also a legitimately tremendous hour of television which brings things to an end in a satisfying way. It may not be a happy ending, but it feels like a full stop.
If this had been were 24 was cancelled, it would have been one of television’s best ever endings, but this being the year Fox lost The X-Files, Ally McBeal and Dark Angel, such a distinctive newcomer was never going to be let go. If The X-Files defined the fears of the 90s (the oncoming millennium, conspiracy culture, mistrust of technology, the proverbial ‘They’ as represented by the Cigarette Smoking Man and The Syndicate) then 24 was to be an outlet of our fears for the 2000s. The War on Terror, military incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq, coercive interrogations (torture), they would all get a work through here. If The X-Files defined our fears through a liberal point of view, here audiences were about to get something approaching the grim right-wing equivalent, with no easy answers.
Bill Clinton’s face adorned AD Skinner’s office throughout his time as President when The X-Files premiered. George W. Bush would not be afforded the same privilege when the last two seasons premiered during his initial few years in office, instead being used for a punchline in 2008’s second feature film. While 24 would give audiences a fictional commander- in-chief, you could imagine Bush’s face being on display somewhere in its universe.
It was this world that 24 was about to respond to, and it would do so by beginning to tell the audience that in no uncertain terms that nobody in it was safe. Death was a spectre that would haunt the series, not only in terms of the lead cast, but also in regards to collateral damage.
The first season centred on a political assassination fuelled by revenge and lost family members. Season two, the first to be written and plotted from the outset post-9/11, would take its cue more directly from threats, fears and the news headlines dominating the period. It would be an approach that would redefine what the series would be going forward, but it would also make it a more controversial beast for sure on top of being a massive commercial success.
24: Day One is now available to stream in the UK via Star on Disney Plus.