Monday, May 22, 2006

Another Long, Action-Packed Day Closes

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Thus the fifth season of 24 ends with a beaten-up Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) being taken away on a Shanghai freighter in what the Chinese see as long overdue punishment for the inadvertent killing of a Chinese consul during a covertly authorized break into the Chinese Consulate headed by Jack in the tail end of Season 4. As a season-ending cliffhanger, this might not have been quite as tragic as Jack's holding his dead wife Teri at the end of Season 1, as gut-wrenching as the last-minute poisoning attempt on President David Palmer at the end of Season 2, as intimately emotional as Jack's release of private emotion at the end of Season 3, and as poetic---yes, I said it, poetic---as Jack's walking into the L.A. sunrise forced to go into hiding at the end of Season 4. Still, for those who were wondering whatever happened to the thread about Cheng Zhi's (Tzi Ma) mission of revenge that was only barely acknowledged throughout most of Season 5...well, now we know.

Said Cheng Zhi to Jack: "Did you really think we would just forget?" It was almost as if the writers were telling the audience directly that they had really not forgotten after all.

That's another thing I love about this show: in spite of its action-thriller conventions, 24 never quite settles for the clean resolution. In the real world, Jack's sometimes disturbingly ruthless actions would have real consequences; while this show occasionally justifies those actions with implicit "ends justify the means" arguments, it never forgets that not everyone will things the same way, and react according to their beliefs. Jack may believe he did the right thing in spite of getting that consul accidentally killed when he stormed into the Chinese consulate last season; but obviously the Chinese would not see it that way, understandably.

Speaking of not seeing things the same way, tonight's two-hour finale boasted two remarkable scenes between treacherous President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) and wife Martha (Jean Smart), the latter newly emboldened to expose her husband after seeing a beaten-up Aaron Pierce about to be killed for his knowledge of the President's actions. The first one saw Martha trying to cleverly maneuver Logan into not getting onto a chopper to get to a funeral service for the late ex-President David Palmer so quickly (so Jack could get his way onto the chopper). A good liar indeed; she was so convincing in her attempt at an "apology" that she was even willing to have quickie sex with a person who a few hours earlier truly made her "sick"!

But it's the second scene that is worth discussing briefly: a pivotal scene in which Martha torturously extracts a confession of guilt from her husband. Now, a lesser action show less concerned with shades of character might have tried to overplay President Logan's villainy and make Martha seem too effusively heroic. This particular scene took a different approach: for a moment, it dared you to almost sympathize with President Logan upon his discovering Martha's insincerity. 24 has occasionally done this kind of sympathy-twisting: most notably, in Season 2, the show actually had the guts to make you, for a brief moment, sympathize with a terrorist as he witnessed what he believed was Jack Bauer's ordering his whole family to be slaughtered right in front of him. It turned out to be a ruse---but viewers didn't know that for sure until the end of the episode gave it away, and he fear in the terrorist's eyes were real. (I suppose the writers tried to make us sympathize with Hector Salazar's growing resentment in the first half of Season 3, but somehow it came off as all a bit too soapy to be nearly as compelling.)

But I think the source of the scene's power can be traced to the climax of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic Vertigo, in which James Stewart's Scottie Ferguson finally confronts Kim Novak's Judy Barton about her well-constructed "history" as Madeleine Elster. The emotional punch of that scene comes out of the reserves of anger Scottie clearly feels for having been seduced by what is essentially an image, not a real person. For a brief moment on 24, Gregory Itzin---who, along with Jean Smart in this scene, proved that maybe they both should be considered for Emmy nominations---tapped into that same angry desperation and almost made us feel bad for the weasly sucker for having been tricked by Martha's act, for having believed that Martha finally came to accept his actions. How could you necessarily argue when Logan responded to Martha's calling him a "hypocrite" with, basically, "you should talk"? For me, it made Logan's subsequent arrest after his David Palmer eulogy less sheerly heroic than it might have been---hardly a criticism, as this showed 24 at its best in casting shadows on what might have been clear-cut situations in less nuanced hands.

Now, lest all of that makes me sound like a pretentious 24 fanboy---look at him, comparing a scene on some popular serial TV action drama with a scene from one of the greatest films ever made---there is one scene from tonight's finale that also encapsulates what is rather problematic about this show. This occurred early on in the penultimate episode, during a terrific 20-minute cat-and-mouse action sequence in which Jack Bauer, Christopher Henderson (Peter Weller) and others try to take down Vladimir Bierko (Julian Sands). The show introduced a character, Petty Officer Rooney (Jeremy Ray Valdez), who was forced to kill one of the Russian separatist terrorists in order to get Jack & co. into the submarine with all the nuclear missiles in it. It was nice touch to give the petty officer character understandable reluctance to kill---but the show then falls back on one of the most troublesome of Hollywood cliches, the view of the dead close friend that emboldens an innocent into violent fury. When the petty officer saw that fellow submarine sailor lying dead on the floor, apparently he got over his human reluctance rather quickly and was able to sneak up behind a terrorist and stab him repeatedly in the throat.

Now, it was good to see that his action wasn't made self-righteous and heroic in the way the scene was shot and directed. Nevertheless, one of the tensions---maybe deliberate, maybe not---I've often noticed through these five seasons of 24 is the tension between trying to take a subversive view of Hollywood action cliches and also fuctioning as a gripping action thriller in the Hollywood style. So you might have a scene of torture in which Jack shoots a baddie in the leg in order to get information---crazy but undeniably effective---only much later on to find Jack having to sacrifice someone inadvertently in order to keep someone else alive: both of those scenes occurred in the same season (Season 4). I guess maybe some of my interest in this tension comes from the fact that I just have a pet peeve about violent revenge scenarios when they reinforce the view that vengeance will somehow be a cathartic release of anger or some bullshit like that; that's the kind of adolescent mindset I felt that one moment on tonight's second-to-last episode subtly endorsed. (Another slightly problematic moment in Season 5 was when Audrey suddenly turned vengeful in goading Jack to shoot Henderson after her father had driven off a cliff and was assumed dead; thankfully, I guess, she saved him for Jack to carry out tonight, in a startling moment that was presented without a hint of righteousness or heroism on the soundtrack.)

But then Jack's cold-blooded (if perhaps emotionally understandable) murder of Christopher Henderson moments later---after Bierko had been killed and the terrorist plot foiled---brought the violence right back down to earth, especially with that look of fear in Petty Officer Rooney's eyes when he witnessed the act. Jack's act of revenge just didn't seem so glamorized, did it? Call it the History of Violence approach to criticizing violence: present brutal violence that gets the right people killed, but then subsequently present a more ambivalently violent scene to plant doubts in a viewer as to what's good and what's evil. (Admittedly I balked at that ambivalent approach when I saw David Cronenberg's good-though-overrated thriller last year without fully realizing that 24, though much less overtly and art-consciously, has done something similar, to varying degrees of success, over its five seasons.)

Perhaps this ambivalence is what fascinates us all about Jack Bauer, the hero (antihero?) of 24. He is the embodiment, in a way, of the tension that has gripped the country post-9/11 regarding how to fight terrorism: throw civil and even human rights out the window, or do it within moral limits? Jack's approach isn't nearly as one-dimensional as, say, Dirty Harry's shoot-first-think-later approach to crimefighting, but he can turn cold and violent when he has to be. But how far can even a supercop like Jack Bauer be pushed before he's considered kinda inhuman? Season 3, especially, delved rather deeply into this question by presenting Jack reacting startlingly to one of his toughest days, and then, with that one quiet scene of him breaking down in a car at the end of the season, eloquently showing his private compassion and humanity. In Season 4, his cold tactics as a CTU agent essentially destroyed him to the point that he was forced to forsake his own identity in order to stay alive: that is what I found poetic and satisfying about the way the otherwise wildly uneven (and occasionally stale and predictable) fourth season concluded.

It's been welcome to see the Jack of Season 5 remind me somewhat of the Jack of Season 1, in which the welfare of his family was at stake and you could sense both his human desperation and also his willingness to do nearly whatever it took to keep Teri and Kim alive. Season 5, as a whole, has been remarkable in bringing back the gut-wrenching human emotion that I had thought been shafted in favor of more "action" in Seasons 3 and, especially, Season 4. But of course this had to be the case: with old friends becoming casualties in another crazy terrorist plot, one that goes all the way up to the White House, of course it'll all take a palpable toll on the people still alive and in the thick of things. It was a nice moment to see a picture of Edgar to remind us of his sad loss in the middle of the season, a victim of a nerve gas attack on CTU.

A few more loose ends. The final scene between Bill Buchanan and Karen Hayes suggests a possible romantic relationship in the future. Interesting, though not nearly as interesting as discovering that reliable computer nerd Chloe O'Brien used to have a husband named Morris! Who else was surprised to discover this? I certainly was.

Finally: I think it was just grandly refreshing to see the interrogation scene between Jack and Logan proceed through dialogue rather than through violence. Season 4 had taken the use of torture on the show to slightly ridiculous extremes (although maybe that was the point); Season 5 has thankfully dialed down the torture, relegating it to mere threats of violence rather than finger-crushing, needle-injecting action.

So another exhausting day in the 24 universes closes with Jack once again having to pay for past actions. I think this has been a pretty damn good season, and while it didn't totally extinguish my anxieties about how far the writers can take these terrorist scenarios before they start to seem played out, at least Season 5 successfully kept those concerns at bay for the most part. In all, I'd probably go so far as to call this season second best, just after the show's masterful second season (and yes, superior even to the groundbreaking first season). Bravo!

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