24: Season 8, Episodes 23-24
2:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m.
Nine years ago I sat down alone in my bedroom with the lights off, and turned the TV on. I was about to watch the pilot of a show that I thought had an interesting gimmick, and one I figured would probably entertain me. No one I knew watched 24 at the beginning, and it was almost better for it. Each week I would go into my room, sit there alone with only the glow of the television, and get engulfed in a frenetic thrill-ride with so many twists, turns, and cliffhangers I could sometimes barely hang on. Each week I would rush out of my room afterwards to freak out to my mother about whatever big twist or reveal had occurred that week, even though she couldn't possibly have cared (in my defense, I was in middle school at the time. In hers, she became a fan starting with Season Two and has been a die-hard defender of the show in even its darkest hours ever since). What drew me to the show initially, and what received a great callback tonight for the first time perhaps since as far back as that first season were five simple words: "Events occur in real time."

You'll excuse me if this review is only partially about those events that unfolded in real time over the two hours that ended the show, and is also partially about what the show has meant to me, and to television over the past almost decade. To say that 24 is a landmark show that changed television might sound like an overstatement, but I believe it is the absolute truth. That isn't to say that 24 wasn't a flawed show (in fact, it was often a deeply flawed show), but it redefined the action genre and changed the way we think about suspense and pacing in ways that will long outlive its run time. Its legacy also far surpasses the gimmick that had me worried the show could never last past the first season. Sure it became increasingly unrealistic that one man would be thrown into that many horrible events that would each take exactly 24 hours to resolve, but let's get honest here: we never watched 24 for the realism.

We watched it for the chance to follow along with everything that occurred, to see actions, yes, but also to examine their consequences. I have been mocked for trying to read too much into 24 before, and I may be guilty of that again in this review; if that is the case, I ask you to humor me for this one last examination. This show wasn't about terrorism, nor was it about the national security state (though the pilot's preemption because of September 11th did give it the opportunity to become a show of its times). At the end of the day, 24 was never about an us versus them mentality. It was never really about the good guys triumphing over the bad guys, nor was it about America kicking the rest of the world's ass (Though the good guys did invariably triumph, and America pretty consistently showed the world who was boss). The show was really about good people trying to do good things, being forced to sacrifice for their convictions, and ultimately being morally compromised by their dedication.

In that light, these last two hours were a fitting end to the show. Jack Bauer has lost literally everything in his drive to stand by his convictions: he sacrificed his wife, his relationship with his daughter, two girlfriends, his health (he became a drug addict and got radiation poisoning), his freedom, his life (even if it was a faked death) and, briefly here at the end, his sanity. The series began with Jack being forced to aim a sniper rifle at a world leader, and ended with him choosing to point the gun himself. I do think I am reading too much into that comparison and giving the writers and directors a bit too much credit in their attempts to wrap the show up. But it also struck me that the way that Jack forced Jason to his knees and regretfully aimed the gun at his head echoed the execution of Ryan Chapelle those many years and many bodies ago. This time, though, Jack refused to compromise. This time he did not kill to fulfill his convictions but placed his final faith in a system that, while broken, was the only thing he hadn't lost by tonight.

I don't think the last half hour of the show really worked dramatically. Taylor's going so far but then no further to protect her peace agreement, and Jack's coming so close to pulling the trigger on a world leader only to back off seemed like they were done more for convenience sake than because they truly made story sense. And Jack being saved by a call from the president in the nick of time also didn't really feel true to me. It was a literal deus ex machina as the drone from above saved Jack from certain destruction, and honestly, though this show hasn't been above that in seasons, I hoped it would be tonight. All that being said, I never really thought Jack would pull that trigger, and I knew that Taylor would get her comeuppance before the end, so the show satisfying those expectations isn't that shocking. What did work about the ending was Jack's speech to Chloe, which was incredibly moving and allowed him the chance to thank her for years of having his back. Just like him, I never though the mouthy computer geek from Season 3 would end up being Jack's longest running ally, but I am glad that after sacrificing that bond for story's sake in the last few weeks the show paid homage to it in its last moments, and I am glad for that in the end. I also appreciated the heartbreaking and insightful message Jack recorded before steeling himself for an assassination. What he said can easily be read as a message from the show's creators to its audience, a final statement of sorts. "Lasting peace cannot simply be political," Jack told us. It must be built on truth, on honesty, and on real intentions of all involved parties to move forward.

Throughout its run, 24 has often been co-opted by the conservative movement as evidence of the efficacy of torture and as an example of how bad things could get without improved national security. It is fitting, then, that its final season developed such subversive politics. Think, for a moment, and realize that the bad guys of this season were Americans as well as Russians and Middle Easterners. At the last, the most prevalent threats came from within, as factions within the government fought against truth and justice for personal gain and political points. I'm not saying that this season of 24 should be read as an indictment of American politics, or as a criticism of American foreign policy. This show is nothing if not fiercely patriotic to its last. The point I am making is that at the end of it all, 24's villains weren't just two dimensional bad guys or terrorist stereotypes like the show was often lambasted for. Its bad guys were villainized because they were flawed. They were morally compromised, forced into impossible positions, and lead to act in ways that promoted evil over good. In short, the show's bad guys were just people.

This has never been a show I expected to come together as one narrative, and I wasn't looking for some big closure tonight that would tie everything together (especially since this was written as a season, not a series, finale). 24 was at its heart an action show that aimed to thrill and entertain. That it was also during its run an exploration of personal ethics, an in-depth character study, a moral compass that revealed by its existence that sometimes compasses cannot point north, and yes, a vehicle for political messages on both sides of the aisle is a testament to its efficacy and its enduring legacy. It transcended the strictures of its procedural conceit (even if it was a high-concept show from the get go) and became something much more. It was never a perfect show, and it was far from it in its last few seasons, but I loved it anyway. I loved the action, I loved the suspense, I loved the ethical quandaries, and I loved Jack Bauer. He gave everything he had for his country, and I appreciate his (admittedly fictional) sacrifice. I can't say I wish the show wasn't ending, because I recognize its time has come, but I am still sad to see it go. The preceding took place between the day of the California Presidential Primary, and the day of an aborted peace treaty with the Middle East. The preceding took place in a decade rife with security risks, moral compromises, and political strife. The preceding took place in a quintessential American time, and told a very American story. Let's send it off with a silent clock.

Episode Grade: B+ (great first 3/4, pretty standard ending that left a little to be decided)

Series Grade: A- (flawed, but bold, original, and for far longer than it should have been, very successful)
Tags: 24
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