Teleplay by Robert Cochran & Howard Gordon
Story by Evan Katz & Stephen Kronish
Directed by Brad Turner
Original Air Date: 6th January 2004
To look at the action genre decade-by-decade is to see that it is one that has always been on the periphery of shifting patterns. For a long time the genre was dominated by cowboy figures played by John Wayne, or swashbuckler types characterised by Errol Flynn. A darker variant of the western genre hero would eventually show up with Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, where the laid back swagger of Wayne gave way to something of an anti-heroic vibe carried along by an easier flip into quick violence and a stubble-lined face, a cheroot hanging from the mouth indicating an outsider status.
While the 1960s was dominated by the suave toughness of James Bond, a character with roots in the novels of Ian Fleming that emerged in the 1950s, the 1970s gave us the even tougher equivalents of Eastwood again, this time as Dirty Harry, not to mention the rugged mannerisms of Steve McQueen. Moving into the 80s, we’d see the emergence of the muscle bound bodies of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, both of whom would lay waste to their antagonists in a heavy onslaught of explosions and machine gun fire, their personas captured perfectly in the likes of Commando or the Rambo sequels. The 90s would see another shift, this time towards more sensitive but no less tough heroes, with the genre dominated by more thoughtful and sensitive characters played by Will Smith and Keanu Reeves, bringing a flavour of charm to their action heroics.
As 24 premiered in the 2000s, and inadvertently became a response of sorts to the politics that emerged in the post-9/11 climate, Jack Bauer instantly became an iconic figure and one that straddled the lines of what we’d come to think of as an action hero. To look at the posters and DVD covers for the show is to be presented with Sutherland in a pose with his gun pointed to a threat just beyond the frame, and while someone who had never seen the series might expect something approaching a Chuck Norris character based on that image, 24 was too intelligent to be lumbered in with the more instantly reactionary thrillers that Norris starred in for Cannon Films during his 1980s peak (Invasion U.S.A, The Delta Force).
If one wanted to see how different a character like Jack was to the type that led to Chuck Norris Facts or what became of John Rambo in his sequels, one of the most quietly pivotal scenes comes at the end of this episode.
One doesn’t expect Jack Bauer to get killed here, although if any series was capable of killing its heroic lead it was definitely this one, but the look of panic in Jack’s eyes as he is confronted with being shot dead and left in the Mexican desert is palpable. Sutherland was not an actor famous for action roles prior to this; a career in popular Brat Pack movies such as Stand by Me, The Lost Boys and Young Guns always had him play beyond the limits of those bad boy good looks, and while 24 gave him what would be the most iconic role of his career, it did so because it wasn’t just playing in the realm of angry action hero cliches where character development was a well-timed punch or ability to shoot stuff and have it blow up afterwards. It was one that played to the talents of an actor that could go beyond what was expected of him. It helps when you have writers unafraid to push things in terms of the storytelling and being unflinching when it comes to unexpected plot twists.
The final scene comes after an hour that brings Nina Myers back into the mix, and the revelation that she has become caught up in this season’s plot is one of the best moments of the episode, but it’s a revelation that Jack plays cooly until his attempts at trying to buy the virus for the Salazar brothers goes off the rails when he is outbid by Nina and the only thing waiting for him in response is a bullet to the head by Ramon and Hector who are clearly looking for any excuse to kill him.
The final moments feature Jack trying to convince them not to do this, his tone of voice and face conveying a sense of panic and fear at the prospect that the end has finally caught up to him.
This season has offered a Jack that is on the edge in a way that we haven’t seen before, a natural extension of character development that has built and bubbled away due to the loss he experienced at the end of that first day. This is also a season in which three years have passed for the character since we last saw him and so much has happened in the interim. The finale of Day Two promised a potential new beginning with Kate, but as we’ve seen from Sarah Wynter’s brief appearance in the season three premiere, the relationship didn’t last and while three years have passed for the characters, for the audience we’ve gone from that near kiss towards the end of last season to an awkwardly tender goodbye a few episodes ago with its ‘you left your jacket at my place’ conversation.
Just to show how flawed and all too human Jack can be, we get to see that a relationship developed between himself and Hector’s girlfriend Claudia (Vanessa Ferlito) that effectively ended when Jack’s undercover mission resulted in Ramon’s arrest. There is emotional collateral damage being left in his wake, and not just from the series’ high octane action. That he is also in the middle of an addiction to heroin and experiencing withdrawal just adds to the never-ending set of complexities at play here, but perhaps nothing is as powerful as watching someone we’ve watched shoot, jump, dodge explosions and be tortured to death over the last two and a half seasons pleading with his enemies for one last chance after having spent a few episodes clearly jonesing for his next fix.
These are the type of moments would never even been touched upon in the more bombastic action dramas of yesteryear, let alone explored. We might have started to look back yearningly with nostalgia for those films by this point in time, but the 2000s had seen audiences clamouring for a more emotional undercurrent from these types of characters. This was the decade that also saw the popularity of the Jason Bourne series with its own frenetic camera work and ferocious editing that made it a companion piece of sorts, at least in terms of style, to 24, but with a lead character that was literally exploring who he was due to amnesia and dealing with his own bereavement and loss come the second film. Later on in the decade we’d get grounded reinterpretations of both Batman via Christopher Nolan and an equally gritty reboot of James Bond starring Daniel Craig that would see brutality and intensity added to the mix.
In many ways a lot of this was a response to 9/11, or at least it was a knock-on effect from an atmosphere that pop culture couldn’t ignore. Jack Bauer may be a tough hero capable of saving the day (literally), but it doesn’t always come easy and 24 frequently proved itself to be uncompromisingly brutal and deadly in a way television action series had never really been in previous generations, at least when it came to the networks. This was a world away from the type of series where everything went back to normal at the end of each episode, a reset button being hit to restart a new adventure the following week.
24 could never fall back on that and was all the better for it. Best of all, it was unafraid to expose the emotional nerve of its lead character. Here we see him share a tender moment with Claudia, later we watch him beg for his life. The next episode will see him having to deal with his wife’s murderer, all the while the hint of chaos hangs in the air. Even more perilous dramas and moments await a character who was proving to be somewhat different from the many you could get in a genre where it was all too easy to have him shoot and jump away from explosions. The unflinching commitment to doing something so very different from that, while also utilising those tropes to an incredible effect, has forever made 24 a prime example of the genre overall.