TV Recap

The Unmaking of the President

In the season finale of ''24,'' after wasting Bierko and Henderson, Jack tricks Logan into incriminating himself, but then is trapped by some old enemies

SHANGHAI ANXIETY We have to wait till 2007 to find out how Jack will escape the Chinese prison
Image credit: Kiefer Sutherland: Anthony Mandler
SHANGHAI ANXIETY We have to wait till 2007 to find out how Jack will escape the Chinese prison

The ''24'' season finale: Victory and defeat

In the culmination of a superb season of 24, we found ourselves being pulled back in time along with Jack Bauer, making literal the old cliché about taking a ''slow boat to China.'' Seized by the Asian enemies he had foiled 18 months ago in 24-time, a beaten, bloodied Jack could only gurgle, ''Kill me,'' and his plea seemed like a surrender to despair. He had had everything within his grasp — President Logan disgraced, Audrey waiting for him and their future, and what he thought was going to be his daughter on the phone — and it was all taken away from him.

This conclusion was more than a setup for next year; it validated the central theme of the season, which was, at bottom, the contradiction at the heart of this series: Can one man make a difference? Unlike any other series on TV, 24 suggests that the answer is probably no. It's been great to see Kiefer Sutherland run, shoot, and outwit so many foes, but the layers of evil, corruption, and rot, fanned out last night to include the entire globe, seem for now at least to have defeated him. It takes guts to go out in a blaze of...defeat.

The action in this two-hour finale was suitably ruthless. Throats were slit; Jack broke Bierko's neck with a quick scissoring of his legs; Peter Weller's Henderson was shot down by Jack in cold blood. Yet what was probably the season's single most selfless yet repulsive moment took place off-screen, during the break between the night's two episodes: Jean Smart's Martha had sex with her loathsome husband solely in order to delay his departure to speak public lies about the dead President Palmer. The disgust on Smart's face after they'd done the deed was as wrenching as anything anyone has seen on 24 — and again, like the season-long exertions of Jack, her gesture came to naught. Logan will ''cut a deal.'' The cabal behind his actions will go unrevealed, uncaught. The biggest revelation of the night, really, was that Chloe has an ex-husband, a bald, bearded Brit blowhard whom she was obviously well rid of but whose computer expertise (would she have married any other sort of man?) was necessary for her sacrifice last night. Again, a major character did something he or she detested for a greater good, and gained very little, if not nothing.

The finale was loaded with great moments, the best of which were Martha's screamed accusations at her husband when they reached the airport tarmac where Palmer's coffin momentarily rested: ''You murdered him!...You're a criminal!''

Soon thereafter, Logan pulled her aside, the two of them alone, and his search of his wife's body (''I'm onto you, Marti,'' he said, his use of a nickname wielded like a knife) to see whether she was wearing a wire amounted to a kind of rape. These two brief scenes contained some of the season's best acting from Gregory Itzin and Jean Smart — and to think they could conceivably be back next season.

All the implausibilities some viewers have complained about melted away, as far as I was concerned, as the finale slowed to its conclusion. (Yes, slowed — time seemed to grind to an agonizing halt the closer we came to Jack's final capture.) How can you complain about the logistics of space and time, how this character couldn't get transported here or there within this or that many minutes, when so much larger an adventure, this vast awful conspiracy, was playing out inexorably in front of you?

This season of 24 began with some outrageous moves, including the deaths of Palmer and some of the series' favorite characters. There were weeks when it seemed as if it were all Sutherland could do to keep Jack Bauer's voice croaking an exhausted command to stop or to stand down or to give up some crucial information. But in the end, it turned out that Sutherland had modulated his performance perfectly — the clock reached its 24-hour point at exactly the second when Jack had reached his breaking point. His possible failure of nerve minutes before, when this loyal government agent couldn't bring himself to kill his president (Itzin's ''I'll go down with Lincoln and Kennedy'' while Jack would ''go down with John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald'' was genius dialogue, because it would have been the truth) — that was probably the moment we can assume Bauer's spirit was broken.

That's why he'd rather simply be killed now. Jack failed, but 24 was a triumph. I'd say I can't wait until next season, but that compliment doesn't seem adequate to acknowledge what a fine, harrowing tragedy 24 presented us with this season.

Thanks for all your comments throughout, TV Watch readers. Please continue now, and tell me what you think. How did you like the season and the finale? And what do you think will happen next?

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Originally posted May 23, 2006
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