Written by Evan Katz
Directed by Frederick K. Keller
Original Air Date: 11th February, 2003
You can’t escape the feeling that the gloves have definitely come off by this episode and that we’ve probably witnessed them being removed inch by inch over the last few hours. So far this season, torture has been dispensed by either America’s allies or the antagonists.
Last week, we saw David Palmer convinced by Mike Novick, his Chief of Staff, to go a little further in his methods to get information from Roger Stanton. That prompted Palmer to bring in a Secret Service agent with a background in ‘Covert Ops’.
This ended up paving the way for Stanton to be interrogated with a defibrillator used in an evasive manner while Palmer watched from his office via a camera feed. It is perhaps another indication of how 24 isn’t afraid to take the dreamy liberalism of a character like Palmer and plunge him into darker territory, but now we get to see Jack Bauer himself take part in the type of interrogation that so far has been the domain of the terrorists he is hunting down.
This is a great episode of the series by any measure. Evan Katz joined the writing staff this season and would go on to become one of its most prominent voices and you can see why with this episode. Most of it is contained to the Mosque where Bauer interrogates Syed Ali, with little to no expansive action sequences, but it’s still a considerably suspenseful hour of television that leaves the stomach in knots, both emotionally and in terms of the level of physical violence being thrown about by our heroes no less.
This will perhaps not be the last time I’ll write about torture on 24; it will become part and parcel of the series, being both explored and frequently used as a dramatic device, becoming a massive part of the series’ language, right up there with its trademark ticking clock, split-screen boxes and Jack’s yelling of the word ‘dammit’.
At this point in the series, there is still a potent dialogue going on with regards to the content of the story; the use of torture, Islamic terrorism and how the US will react to an event of this magnitude in a fictionalised prism while the real world was also contending with it means that this is a season that has the feel of something approaching a conversation with these ideas.
That dialogue will become less so, especially with regards to the fourth and sixth seasons (both of which would prove controversial upon their premieres, the latter in particular becoming a lightning rod for a lot of criticism), but the fact that Jack’s actions here are shown to invoke a disgusted reaction from Kate Warner and the Imam of the Mosque says a lot about how much the writers were more inclined to actually engage in asking questions about the ethics of Jack and Palmer embracing torture as opposed to seasons four and six were it was basically treated as simply a way of doing things.
While this has been a considerably more violent season than the first (not that season one wasn’t violent because it also was), Jack’s interrogation of Syed Ali is perhaps as brutal as the story has gotten on this particular day. There is a palpable sense of violent conflict on the horizon now that Jack is on the cusp of finding the main architect of the bomb plot (at least at this stage) and it doesn’t flinch from showing our hero having to do what he feels is necessary.
The torture scenes themselves flit between the physical and the psychological, and it’s when it moves towards a psychological prism that it becomes more interesting.
Physical coercion soon gives way to Jack opting to threaten Syed Ali’s family, changing the scope and means of what it is Jack feels is necessary to attain his goals in protecting the public. It’s a stomach-churning moment, perhaps the most chilling we’ve ever seen Jack. Season one was happy enough to hint at the creative use of a towel when Jack kidnapped Ted Coffell, but here it almost feels as if the series may very well prove unflinching in showing such brutality. It’s one of the most powerful things the series has done all season, but it’s hard to know where the series is maybe drawing the line at this stage.
Palmer insists that Jack put a halt to any hostage situation that might lead to the murder of children, a stance he takes only after Mike tries to convince him that maybe the ends justify the means, but then again this is a President who is currently having the head of the NSA tortured for information that he may not be capable of giving because his guilt is not guaranteed.
What cannot be disputed are the performances of Kiefer Sutherland and Francisco Quinn who give the episode their absolute all, filled with bluster, yelling and one-upmanship. The psychological overtones to the scene are fantastically played, but it once again reminds the audience of just how much of a different character Bauer is this season compared to the equivalent point in season one.
As noted before, these elements of his character have been hinted at previously, but to watch it laid bare here is shocking. For the briefest of moments, we do believe that perhaps Jack is willing to go all the way here. After all, we did watch him shoot a witness back in the season premiere and then infamously use a hacksaw as a result. What’s one more murder on his conscience at this stage?
That Jack is using the death of a loved one says a lot about his own mindset at this point. As we saw only a few episodes ago in his interactions with Nina, this is a character still driven somewhat by grief and loss and he knows how powerful an instigator the death of a child in this case will be.
It’s an episode that pushes and pulls in so many darkly brilliant directions, but it’s also something that will give one pause for thought watching in 2021. Bauer was something of an iconic character of the 2000s, in much the same way that James Bond was in the 60s and John Rambo in the 80s, but like the latter, he perhaps represents where the American psyche stood at the point when the character became as popular as he did.
Not long after this episode aired, the American military and the Bush administration would find themselves mired in controversy over the methods used in Guantanamo Bay when it came to the interrogation of terror suspects (and often, these people were suspects, held without charge due to the Patriot Act). These actions would face much in the way of legitimate criticism. Maybe at this stage of 24’s run, audiences and television critics were okay with it because, at this point, we still thought of the series more on somewhat fantasy terms. Sure, it was dealing with aspects of the geopolitical sphere that was dominating the news cycle, but our acceptance of what Jack was doing here seemed to be fine, but that would famously change when the series got to its sixth season.
The slight difference between here and what would transpire a lot in seasons four and six (and I always find it oddly interesting that it was the even-numbered seasons of 24 that dealt heavily with Islamic terrorism and were the most torture heavy) is that the reactions of the Imam and Kate are legitimately dealt with, in comparison to say the inclusion of an Amnesty International proxy in season four.
It wouldn’t be until the seventh season when 24 would deal with torture and Jack’s methods in a way that felt like it was legitimately questioning of it, with a genuine form of criticism of it coming from characters such as Renee Walker and Larry Moss.
As it is here, while this is settling into an element of the series that will become a big component of it, you can still sense a taste of despair and distress that it has come to this, that this is what Bauer needs to do to find the bomb and is now part of a world where torture is a vital part of the espionage language. There will be more torture in the season, some of it once again from Bauer, at other times Jack himself being the one facing torture.
In many ways, it was indicative of what was becoming a dark new world.