”24”: Bosses from hell
Last night’s 24 offered a crackling illustration of the poet Delmore Schwartz’s observation ”Even paranoids have real enemies,” as we saw Sean Astin’s Lynn McGill accuse most of the principal characters at CTU of working against him and for Jack Bauer, who was on a renegade mission to stop those nerve-gassy terrorists. He asserted that Audrey was in phone communication with Jack after Lynn had ordered Jack taken into custody (true). He took the stalwart Bill Buchanan off the CTU operations floor for impeding his questioning of Audrey (true — Bill did attempt to divert Lynn). Now I worry for Chloe, who has repeatedly been Jack’s invaluable aide in tracing calls and retrieving data. Who’s next on Lynn’s hit list?
The great thing is, this juicy office intrigue was only one choice element in last night’s layered suspense. The producers finally brought that guy who’d been hiding in a dim blue light, giving info to the Russian rebels, into the harsh glare of day — he was Nathanson (Geraint Wyn Davies, known to the cult of fans who watch the Sundance Channel’s terrific Canadian comedy-drama Slings and Arrows), a self-proclaimed patriot like his dead colleague Walt Cummings, who’d been helping the Russian separatists for his own agenda, defending America’s ”oil interests in Asia.” Nathanson got in touch with Jack to help our hero locate the nerve gas, but this gesture was only an effort to save himself: He was being hunted down by the newly introduced leader of the Russian terrorists, Bierko, played by the movie actor Julian Sands. But in yet another killing-before-a-key-person-tells-Jack-something, the terrorists riddled Nathanson with bullets, but not before Nathanson gave Jack an info-filled chip that Jack inserted into his telephone to transmit its content to CTU.
Yes, this was exciting — lots of bang-bang and fast action; Jack even had to knock out the honorable CTU agent Curtis to make his getaway. (Were you as anxious as I was that Jack might be snapping Curtis’ neck fatally rather than just cutting off his wind to momentarily stun him?)
But most cunningly of all, 24 set up another scenario in which President Logan could prove what a coward, what a fool, what a patsy, what an amoral knucklehead he is. Bierko called Logan and said he wanted to release the nerve gas in Moscow, but if he couldn’t do that, he’d do it in America, so the president better give him the motorcade route the Russian president and his wife were going to take to the airport so Bierko could at least kill those two as a sign of serious terrorism at work.
At the top of the hour, President Logan had yelled to Lynn that if he had just managed to release the nerve gas into the mall, we wouldn’t be where we are now, ”which is nowhere!” (Once again, all praise to actor Gregory Itzin for putting the most subtle little scream of desperation into the president’s voice as he uttered this creepy rant.) So, of course, Logan was all for giving away the parade route — it’s nothing for him to shake hands with the Russian president, give the Russian First Lady a peck on the cheek, and send them off to their doom. Our own frazzled First Lady (Jean Smart) found out what her goofball whiny man was up to and, in a brilliant, literally last-minute move, hopped into the limo with the Russian dignitaries as the hour evaporated.
This episode was a lesson in, to use the term Nathanson did, realpolitik — the nexus where the niceties of politics collide with real-world cynicism and evil. Logan has been operating under a gutless form of realpolitik from the start of the season, though he probably couldn’t spell the word without his aide, Mike, thumbing through a dictionary for him. More broadly speaking, 24 is moving into areas of political suspense that, until now, were mostly the province of novels, such as those by Charles McCarry, Ross Thomas, and — on the other side of the pond — John le Carre. I’m sure that at Fox News (shown, as always, prominently reporting 24’s fictional news on this Fox-network series) there are studios full of pundits who’d side with Logan on nearly all his decisions. But 24 forces us to parse our own moral decisions even while we’re getting off on the pulse-increasing editing, the chases, and the gunplay. Yes, we want Jack to capture the bad guys, but this season, we’re also being asked, At what cost to our souls? That’s a pretty heavy theme with which to weigh down a 9 p.m. drama, and it’s exhilarating that, so far, the 24 staff is doing it without making the show a drag. Quite the opposite, in fact. With Alias in eclipse, 24 is the swiftest, sharpest corkscrew of a TV show on the air right now.
What do you think? Is Jean Smart’s First Lady turning out to be the surprise hero of this season? Will Logan let the Russian president and his wife get blown up? And what is the connection Jack has to an executive at Omicron, the company that originally acquired the nerve gas in this country?