Written by Robert Cochran
Directed by Ian Toynton
Original Air Date: 4th March 2003
For all of 24’s famous stature as tough, violent, and confrontational, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how sentimental and emotionally engaging a piece of work it can be sometimes. For a season of television that featured scenes of prolonged action and torture, the most-watched episode of the second season was one that placed heart and emotion, perhaps even a smidgeon of sentimentality, ahead of incident and sequences depicting damage to the human body.
That isn’t to say that the fifteenth episode of season two isn’t suspenseful. It very much is. It places its characters against unbeatable odds and leaves everyone facing nothing but potentially bad choices going forward from this point, but also puts them through the wringer this hour before pushing ahead with even bigger and more epic concerns.
Famously, this is the hour of 24 where fans must say a sad and heartfelt goodbye to George Mason, and if you had said to anyone at the very beginning of the series when Jack had to blackmail the character after shooting him with a tranquillizer gun that we’d be crying over these two characters sharing a sad and heartfelt goodbye to each other, then you might have been thought crazy.
Character growth and development on television series is one of my favourite things ever, especially watching somewhat antagonistic characters go through a rich emotional journey that changes them into better people. The first third of 24’s premiere season pitched Mason against Jack quite a bit, and even in the latter stages of the season, the two characters weren’t exactly what you would have called the best of friends.
And yet, here we are, the series taking these two men and having us cry tears of sadness at one saying goodbye to the other. What’s even better about this episode is how epic and eventful it all feels even though it essentially boils down to two men in a plane and copious amounts of goodbyes and tears. After several weeks of Jack, Kate and CTU running around Los Angeles in pursuit of the nuclear weapon, where guns were drawn and interrogations took a violent turn, the entire hunt the bomb narrative boils down to an airplane journey into the desert and characters having to face even tougher choices as a result, with no let-up in sight going forward.
Like season one, you might have been forgiven for thinking that the pivotal piece of the plot this season, the hunt for the bomb, might have ended up being resolved at 7:37am in the season finale. Instead, there are nine episodes left after this and 24 is showing no signs of turning down the encroaching feeling of terror yet.
While it manages to dramatically resolve the bomb plot so powerfully in this episode, it has bigger concerns to deal with going forward, and ones that would run parallel with the real world in a manner that made watching it back in 2003 a borderline surreal experience. Judging from interviews with Surnow, Cochran and Gordon on the season two DVD behind the scenes documentary (well worth watching to see how a block of episodes was constructed on the show), this wasn’t something that was planned, but instead, the series somewhat fell into without warning and which its writers were divided on whether or not it hurt the series at the time. Personally, I don’t think it did, but we’ll deal with that more in the next few reviews.
David Palmer intones that World War III is on the horizon and it gives the already apocalyptic feel of the season an even more frightening charge than you might have previously thought. A few years before this aired, you might have laughed at such overwrought plotting and dialogue, but in 2003 it didn’t play as melodramatic. It played somewhat more real and all too plausible.
Robert Cochran’s teleplay is fantastic, and it’s directed with genuine zeal by Ian Toynton who finds amazing ways to mine genuine emotion from everyone in front of the camera here and who would come back to direct several episodes towards the end of the season and again in season three.
It once again is a reminder that while Jack Bauer was most famous for being one of the action genre’s most famous and controversial characters of the decade, the only reason why the character worked as well as he did was down to Kiefer Sutherland finding so many layers to work with that went beyond the tough and physical parts of the role.
Even before we get to Jack and George having their moment prior to the bomb detonating via the plane that both are carrying the thing on, we get a heart to heart between Jack and Kim that is amongst one of the very best scenes of the series. For all the criticism that Kim gets for her role throughout the season (and I devoted an entire review just to that), Cuthbert shows just what a great actress she is. The goodbye that she shares with Jack is a genuine heartbreaker. Of course, we know that Jack won’t die here and in the grand scheme of disaster movies and the like (a genre I have a soft spot for), you can tell which way the story will go here.
There is a genuine catharsis to be had in watching father and daughter finally have the conversation that we know the series has been building towards all season. Kim’s heartbreak at saying goodbye to her father and apologising for her attitude towards him since Teri died will bring out tears in the most hardened of hearts, mostly down to the tender but genuine dialogue and fantastic performances from Sutherland and Cuthbert. When it comes down to it, all Jack Bauer wants to be is a dad and yet destiny will always chart deadlier paths for him.
It’s interesting to note that on the course towards what they feel are their inevitable deaths (and in George’s case there is sadly no going back), both reached out to their children for one last heartbreaker of a conversation. George even mentions his son before saying goodbye to Jack one last time. It’s strange how so much of 24 for all its brilliant set-pieces, murky political depths and onslaught of sudden violence frequently comes down to characters who just want to reach out to their family, specifically their children. Season one was built on so much of that, and part of those themes have kept going into season two.
The season began with Palmer on a fishing trip with his son Keith that got cut short due to the bomb threat, having to take himself away from his child due to his responsibilities as President. There is a lovely symmetry that the bomb threat and the decisions they must make are what bring George and Jack back to their own children, albeit under circumstances that mean that they may never see them again.
Then comes the last time we see George, going out in a literal blaze of glory. Yes, the CGI mushroom cloud has maybe not aged well, but the symbolism is clear. Under any other circumstances, such an event would be the end of the tale, disaster averted, the world saved.
Instead, the world itself is perhaps in even more danger as a result and the repercussions for everyone have yet to be felt. Amazingly, 24’s second day will become even more fraught and suspenseful.