Written by Robert Cochran & Howard Gordon
Directed by Ian Toynton
Original Air Date: 16th December 2003
‘It was a benign deception’ explains Jack via a video message to President Palmer in the early stages of the third season’s eighth episode. Understandably, President Palmer is a little aggrieved at having a major decision not only taken out of his hands, but also in being deceived by Jack a few episodes ago when it came to his breaking Ramon Salazar out of prison.
In retrospect it all makes sense; we knew that Jack wasn’t going to simply throw his life away just to keep US policies on non-negotiation with terrorists on firm ground at the drop of a hat, but it also left the viewer wondering how the writers were going to get Jack back to CTU and on an even keel with CTU for future episodes. This is 24 after all, and one wouldn’t put it past the series to find new avenues to tell stories, and yet the magic that comes from the series is in having Jack involved with CTU in some capacity, so alas, we knew any sense of Jack going fully rogue would have to be jettisoned at some point to get the series back to a sense of normality.
Palmer’s angry reaction (and Haysbert plays it brilliantly as always) is one that was somewhat shared by the viewers and fanbase at the time. There is the threat that it might make the season up to this point somewhat of a waste of a time, not quite a ‘it was all dream’ style twist, but one that has the benefit of making events seem somewhat false or outside the sense of the real when it comes to the series storytelling.
Of course many are left reeling from this revelation, not just Palmer; Michelle is left confused at learning that Tony was keeping secrets from her (Reiko Aylesworth says so much with so little and is all the more powerful for it) whole Chapelle is characteristically a jackass about the whole situation. Chase, meanwhile, is plunging head-first not only into danger but in potentially undoing all of Jack, Tony and Gael’s work just as it’s getting started.
There are more questions than answers in a way. It leaves one wondering why certain characters talked and conversed behind closed doors or a one-to-one level in the ways they did when they knew full well what was going on and were part of this plan (there’s a Jack/Tony interaction in the first episode especially that makes no sense in retrospect). And leaving Chase in the dark now means that Jack has also placed his partner in considerable danger as evidenced by the final moments and Jack having to make the type of decision that would break anyone else. It’s also perhaps one of the most quietly chilling moments in the series and is the first hint at just how far into the realm of the emotionally dark Jack has fallen into that he doesn’t even think twice about putting a gun against his partner’s head and pulling the trigger so as not to interfere with his mission.
The best parts of the episode are very much in the first couple of minutes as everything is explained and the next stage of the season is set. It’s very much a ‘let’s catch our breath’ hour coming on the heels of two episodes of intensity that saw helicopter chases and Jack holding everyone at gunpoint on a private plane.
It might be easy to complain at the machinations that have gone on and the writers having to clearly improvise a lot, which in fairness they have always been honest about, but it also shows how experimental the series can be even after three seasons.
Intriguingly, Howard Gordon’s next series Homeland would also feature a similar twist in its own third season which would see characters hiding key pieces of information from the audience and other characters in the show that led to a massive ‘gotcha’ moment as the season reached the end of its first third. That type of machination managed to get Homeland back on track in the middle of a season that was at the time being criticized for having lost its way after the acclaim fostered on the seasons before.
With 24 there was more of a sense of confusion and maybe even anger from some quarters, but I honestly think it works well, even though it is rather telling that the series would never return to having Jack himself involved in this type of twist in future seasons.