Our old friend, the 24 Absurd-O-Meter, would have gone into overdrive last night. Not because the hour was any more absurd than any other, but because it was so keenly aware of its absurdity.
The (absurd) premise of 24 is that weapons of mass destruction are ubiquitous and constantly falling into the hands of the enemies of America. That might not have seemed so absurd when the show first aired in November of 2001, but intelligence since has taught us better. Far from being easily accessible to terror plotters, weapons of mass destruction seem to have been completely unavailable to our enemies.
But that history never happened on 24. Jack Bauer is repeatedly called upon to foil the plots of villains who have acquired or are about to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. When we’re caught up in the action of watching Jack stab, choke, punch, axe, and shoot the baddies, it’s easy enough to forget that the show lives forever in that dark, fearful underground cavern of our souls that emerged from beneath the rubble of the Twin Towers.
Last night it became impossible to believe in this suspension because the show kept reminding us: “Are you out of your mind? Nobody deals in nuclear arms. No one!” At least three times different Russian gangsters muttered this phrase or something close to it. Reality intruded into the ever-repeating Groundhog Day of 24. We were told that the very premise of this season is crazy.
Perhaps the producers decided that a bit of an inside joke on the show was necessary because it has become so dark. The path of former FBI agent Renee Walker has been deeper and deeper undercover and into darkness. Last episode she found herself having to accept the sexual advances of a Russian gangster who once attempted to rape her. Last night the beatings began again, only to be cut short by Renee striking back and brutally killing her assailant. In a murderous rage, she even stabs Jack when he comes upon the scene.
In order to keep the pursuit of the nuclear arms going, Jack has to pretend that he killed the Russian gangster alone. But his deceit goes further than required for the investigation. He also tells Renee that she should claim self-defense, and that he will back up her claim. He’s plotting, in short, to cover up her murderous rage, probably because he finds it so understandable given the circumstances.
This is the start of a new part of Jack’s journey undercover and underground. He is now actively deceiving the good guys about what happened in order to protect Renee. And he literally finds himself underground, in a tunnel with the other Russian gangsters who were sent to find out why someone was asking about nuclear materials.
This journey into deceit takes place in almost every story line. CTU agent Dana Walsh assists her manipulative ex-boyfriend in carrying out grand larceny. President Hassan of Kamistan arrests one of his closest aides because he is convinced that almost everyone close to him is betraying him. (And we all suspect that it is really his wife who is in league with the bad guys.) The top Russian gangster — the one with the nukes — lies to a priest about the circumstances of his son’s death. If our webs become tangled when we start to deceive, almost every story line is now a Gordian Knot of lies.
Except for the U.S. president, Allison Taylor. When asked by the British representative to the UN peace conference to share the national security secret she refused to talk about to the other conference delegates, Taylor fesses up and tells him it’s about loose nukes. And if you believe her honesty won’t be as dangerous as everyone else’s lies, well there’s the Absurd-O-Meter buzzing again.