Bottle Up and Explode
Day 5: 7:00 pm-8:00 pm
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general. 

"We don't have time for that!"-Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland)

Over the course of its eight seasons on the air, and especially in its early years, 24 was consistently inventive and fairly constantly pulse-pounding. I was a fan of the show throughout its run, though it certainly went downhill over time as the writers struggled to determine just how much they could take from Jack Bauer before he lost it all, and just how many twists and turns could realistically (or eventually, even if it defied realism) fit into one 24 hour period. The show consistently put on a summer blockbuster action movie on a TV budget, which meant that it very often went over budget to keep its big-budget feel. The biggest budgetary needs inevitably came at the beginning and the end of the season, which often lead to the show struggling to keep things on a smaller scale during the middle stretch (fans of the show might recognize the coping strategy of taking care of the season's first major threat around the half-way point before leaving Jack without any leads or anything to blow up for five or six episodes, saving money for the final stretch). Every season of the show had this built-in lull, but only one of the eight seasons used its budget saving necessities to further escalate the tension of the season.

Season five of 24 (which, for my money, is probably the second or third best season the show ever did) opens with (SPOILERS AHEAD for the rest of this article) the assassination of former President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and former CTU employee Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth), and doesn't slow down throughout. In the moments prior to the episode we are looking at today, "Day 5: 7:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m.," a terrorist has infiltrated CTU and released Sarin nerve gas, killing 40% of the employees and leaving much of the senior staff trapped in lockdown rooms, sealed off from the world while chemical response teams rush to clear the place out. Simply locking these people into small spaces and keeping them from getting out and saving the world provides some nice tension and bottles them up quite well, yet this is 24 and things always need to be taken to the next level. So tech-savvy sidekick Chloe O'Brien (Mary Lynn Rajskub) quickly realizes that the nerve gas also features an acidic element that is eating away at the sealants protecting them from exposure, and that they have (you guessed it) less than an hour before the sealants will dissipate and they will all be killed.

The quote I used to open this column (or some similar variant thereof) is maybe the most spoken phrase in all of 24, but this particular episode ratchets that idea up to heights reached only by the very best episodes the series ever turned out. For one thing, Chloe is in shock after watching her friend and colleague Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi) be killed by the nerve gas while she was locked safely away. For another, Jack's estranged daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) happened to be in CTU when the attack occurred, and is now trapped in a room with the father she never wants to speak to again. And perhaps worst of all, CTU's one lead in the case is trapped in medical with Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), a man whose wife he killed earlier in the day, and a man looking for brutal revenge.

Any one of these threads would likely be enough to sustain a pretty tense episode of another show, but 24 was never an exercise in restraint, usually throwing everything it had at the wall and running with what stuck. The episode takes place almost entirely within the rooms of CTU, with only brief interludes to check in with the show's political subplot (no episode of 24 could ever be entirely contained), and does what the best bottle episodes tend to: It boils down the show to its basic elements and plays with them. The two biggest elements of 24 were always the relentless ticking of the clock (this was, after all, the show that took place in real time) and the question of how much Jack would lose for the benefit of his country. Let's look at what "7:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m." does with each of those threads.

Time is always a factor on the show, and seeing as it is an hourlong network drama that plays out in real time, most things on 24 tend to take "about 45 minutes" to play out, ensuring that a concept can be introduced and dealt with inside of one episode, leaving enough time to throw in a twist or the beginnings of the next concept to get people coming back. In this case, we quickly learn that the characters have "about 20 minutes" to live if someone can't get to a computer in the contaminated area and quit a program that is blocking Chloe from flushing out the system. Jack springs right into action (of course he does), deciding that he will exit through an airlock, hold his breath until he can quit the program, and reenter the airlock before he can become contaminated. This is a standard Bauer plan, and he is as willing to put himself on the line as always, but of course things don't work out quite as planned. Jack runs into a grate that keeps him from accessing the computer, and is forced back into the airlock with nothing accomplished.

Enter the second major 24 plotline: the question of how much Jack will lose. No season of 24 contained quite as many casualties as season five, and no episode takes as many important ones away from Jack as this one. Though Edgar technically dies in the previous episode, his death hangs over this one as a life Jack failed to save. When Jack can't get to the computer, he is forced to ask Lyn McGill (Sean Astin) to quit the program. Unfortunately, Lynn is in a different room, and too far from an airlock to be saved once he opens the door. So Jack must ask Lynn and the security guard that is trapped with him (Peter Asle Holden) to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. And by the end of the episode, Jack will also have lost Tony, who is overpowered by the suspect who killed his wife and injected with the deadly (or so it seems for a few seasons) chemicals he was about to inject into his wife's killer. These deaths will hang over Jack's head for the remainder of the series, and his failure to save the day will haunt him for years to come.

"Day 5: 7:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m." is not just one of the series' most intense episodes because the characters are in an enclosed space with time working against them. The show knows the themes that lie at its core, and it uses these most prevalent ideas to enrich an episode that was created almost certainly for budgetary reasons. This could have been an inconsequential money-saver for the show, and a lesser program would have gotten everyone out ok by the end of the hour. Instead, "7:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m." is a bottle episode with weight and with heavy consequences for the rest of the season, and for the rest of the series. 24 knew what kind of show it was, and when it bottled itself up, it closed in on its very essence and turned in one of its greatest achievements.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

5/20: "The Next Phase," Star Trek: Next Generation

6/3: "The Beast in the Cage," One Foot in the Grave

6/17: "Objects in Space," Firefly

7/1: "Torando!," The United States of Tara
Tags: 24
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