We almost made it one-sixth of the way through a season of 24 before weapons of mass destruction made an appearance. That’s quite an accomplishment.
In the world that Jack Bauer saves each season, terrorists are constantly getting their hands on WMDs. Underground networks exist to market and transport biological weapons, toxic gasses, and weapons-grade uranium. It’s like a deadly version of your high-school science curriculum — bio, chem, and physics — is constantly for sale to the most evil bidder.
In the world that the rest of us inhabit, weapons of mass destruction have proven to be more elusive. The deadliest terrorist attacks are carried out with conventional explosives or ordinary means of transportation, like cars and planes. In our world, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists are most notable for their failure to ever appear. (Thank goodness.)
We’ve heard it argued that this divergence from reality is evidence that 24 is engaged in fearmongering, attempting to create a frightened citizenry that can be easily controlled by the government or Fox News. But after all these years, we’re beginning to suspect something even more devious is at work: that the message of 24 is that we cannot trust our government to know where the real threats are, much less keep us safe from them.
Government officials misdirected their efforts for much of last night’s two-hour episode. The head of CTU kept insisting on following the bogus lead planted by the Russian assassin, even as evidence began to mount that he was being misled. A police officer bound Bauer in a basement and beat him senseless after mistaking him for a cop killer. In each case the error was never discovered by the person who committed it — he was just overcome by sudden violent action on the part of the heroes.
In more abstract terms, if there are ideas undergirding the action of 24, they track very closely with the theory of violent anarchism. The world is beset by evil and incompetence that can only be overcome by direct action taken by individuals like Bauer and Agent Cole Ortiz.
Of course, 24 wouldn’t be so compelling if it were so simple. In the final minutes of last night’s episode, we saw a kind of counter fugue play out through the character of former FBI agent Renee Walker. Remember Renee? Last season’s straight arrow is now back with a death wish, Goth-y eye makeup, and, generally speaking, a much higher level of hotness. She goes from seducing a former low-level Russian mobster to cutting off his hand with a circular saw. The anarchist solution to the problem of bureaucratic incompetence suddenly doesn’t seem so inviting.
But, then again, Renee is definitely much more attractive now. So let’s not pretend the counter fugue totally undermines the romance of Bauer’s anarchic violence.