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24 Recap: Jack Does Jack

In the first hours of this season, we discovered that the underlying theme was identity. What is it that makes us what we are? Can we change? Who are we anyway? Can Jack Bauer really become a consultant in California?

Last night took this a step further by almost taking Jack out of the episode altogether. Jack became a voyeur, watching the perhaps suicidal violence of outcast FBI agent Renee Walker. Reduced to passively watching and listening as Renee coerced cooperation out of a man she mutilated, and then as she met with Russian gangsters who very nearly murdered her and may have raped her, Jack became us — the viewers of 24.

As if to drive home the reduction of Jack to the level of the ordinary, CTU’s famously advanced technology completely broke down. The satellites tailed the wrong car out of the hideout of the Russian gangsters. Renee’s Bluetooth cell-phone gadget lost its signal, cutting her off from Jack and CTU. Who hasn’t had a computer crash or a phone call drop?

But if Jack can become us, the question is raised: Has he been us all along? On the level of action, of course, the answer is no. We certainly would have perished several seasons ago. Probably right at the start of season one, actually. Or we would have slunk away in cowardice and incompetence. The world would have suffered any number of devastations if left in our hands.

But if what separates us from Jack is just our failings, that tells us something about ourselves. Most of us would like to think we wouldn’t torture someone to get information we wanted. We wouldn’t knowingly lead a reformed criminal to his death, as Renee did last night. But is that because we’re good — or because we’re weak?

Jack didn’t do a damnable thing last night. But that was because he was unable to until it became unnecessary for him to do anything. He was saved from his own incompetence by the insane courage and daring of Renee. How much do we owe our own ability to moralize against violence, our own safety despite our weakness, to those who are strong enough to go beyond good and evil?

The same questions were playing out in the political plotline. The U.S. president urged the president of the Islamic Republic of Kamistan to cease his brutal crackdown on those who were planning a military coup so they could continue to pursue Kamistan’s nuclear ambitions. But if Kamistan were close to acquiring nuclear arms, would the U.S. president be so concerned with human rights? As she lectured the president of Kamistan, agents of her government were maiming a man simply to get to Russians they suspected may have been supplying the Kamistani coup-sters with nukes.

Of course, there’s an even deeper question raised by 24: the flexibility of traffic patterns for the purposes of forwarding the plot. At one point, a deranged ex-boyfriend encamped in a Manhattan apartment demanded that a CTU agent get home from work in Brooklyn Long Island City in fifteen minutes. As a conciliatory measure, he allowed her a half-hour. And she made it. Despite the technological failures that plagued CTU last night, those agents sure are better at negotiating bridge traffic than the rest of us.

More Recaps:
Amanda Rykoff and friends live-blogged the episode, producing this truly obsessive transcript.

Photo: Courtesy of Fox