Continuing to build upon the momentum of last week’s episode, last night’s hour of 24 was a textbook example of maintaining suspense and springing new plot twists that propelled the story forward. Characters that felt perfunctory (like Benjamin Bratt’s Navarro) and story lines that were underwhelming (like the family dynamic inside the Al-Harazi hideout) clicked this hour. Nothing felt like filler. This is what 24 does best: It hooks you right when you least expect it. Before you know it, the hour is over and you’re ready for more.
The action began back at the communications room of the American embassy, where Agent Morgan is trying to take Jack into custody before a Marine unit can barge in and find a way to justifiably kill him. There’s a funny throwaway moment where the head of the Marine unit gets into a staring contest with Bauer and he doesn’t even flinch. This is all an elaborate distraction in order for Jack to give Morgan the flight key so he can finish the decryption program and find the proof needed to show that Margot Al-Harazi is planning to hijack American drones and launch another attack. With the aid of Chloe, Adrian, and the other hackers, Morgan is able to prove there was an override code in Tanner’s drone. Navarro finally shows some initiative and presents the information to President Heller, which leads to one of two great William Devane line-readings. The first is when Heller orders all U.S. drones to be grounded as precautionary measure. When it looks like six of the drones are not responding, Heller says, “What’s going on, General?” Devane’s McCain-like impression in that moment is so earnest, almost whiny, that it’s touching. A few minutes later, when everyone is trying to figure out how much damage one of these drones is capable of and it’s revealed that it’s nearly impossible to strike it down, Heller says, “So what you’re telling me is that we created an aircraft that can’t be destroyed, even by us?” That’s the closest 24 will ever come to sounding like Dr. Strangelove.
This hour kept Jack on the sidelines. The writers (Sang Kyu Kim and Patrick Somerville) know that the longer you keep Jack offscreen, the more tension gets built up for when he finally shows up. His two big scenes reverberated with history. Heller wanted to talk to him face-to-face, and you could feel the mixture of animosity and frayed loyalty between the two men. Jack told Heller about an underground arms dealer who might know how to find Margot. He asked to be put back in the field in order to make contact with this person. Heller declined, citing that it would be too risky to have Jack running around while the Russians are still demanding his surrender. Instead, Heller asked Jack to give him the name of the contact and he’d have him picked up. When Jack refuses to give up the name, Heller says, “You’ve been in exile for four years, Jack. Haven’t you learned anything?” Unfazed by Heller’s condescending tone, Jack calmly says, “Mr. President, I hope you consider my request. While you still have time.”
The other emotional scene saw Jack and Audrey seeing each other for the first time in years. It’s a brief scene, but both Sutherland and Kim Raver do it justice. When Audrey first sees Jack, it occurs to us that she hasn’t seen him since the season-five finale almost a decade earlier. Sutherland is mostly still in the scene, which creates a level of suspense as we wonder if they will embrace one another. Jack asks Audrey, “Are you married? Is he good to you?” I feel the one misstep in the scene is when Jack gets up and tries to comfort Audrey. It would’ve been more effective if he stayed seated. Still, Sutherland creates a wrenching moment when he tells her, “Everything they said is true. It was complicated, but I killed those people.”
The scenes set in the Al-Harazi hideout have finally attained something resembling a poisonous Gothic family drama. After pulling a Luca Brasi on her daughter’s left hand, we first see Margot comforting Simone by telling her, “… the one thing I don’t want you to do is blame yourself.” Fairley’s icy delivery and sharp facial features almost earn her some sympathy. We stare at her and wonder what exactly happened to her for her to go this far. We quickly find out as she releases a video demanding that Heller surrender himself to her in three hours for authorizing the drone strike that killed her husband and 23 civilians (including women and children) or she’ll use the six U.S. drones she has under her control against the U.S. and its allies. As terrorist videos go, Margot’s falls somewhere between Eric Bogosian’s in Under Siege 2 and Ben Kingsley’s in Iron Man 3, but Fairley’s coolness sells it.
Margot’s ultimatum to Heller led to the episode’s big political scene. It’s clear that this season of 24 has taken up both the issues of leaking classified information for the greater good, and the U.S. drone program as talking-point fodder. While the show doesn’t really seem to be interested in the Free Information Movement, it has been interesting to see the way drones have been used for both action and debate. When Heller is shown footage of Margot barely surviving a drone attack from two years earlier, he demands to know why he wasn’t informed about the civilian casualties that also occurred. He accuses Chief of Staff Boudreau of withholding this information so he wouldn’t be distracted while lobbying for approval for the drone program. Mark (and us) find Heller’s outrage to be dubious at best. Mark tells Heller, “'No military action is purely surgical. And when the fight begins collateral damage is always a factor. But our U.S. drone program lets us hit our enemies with the fewest civilian casualties' — Those are your words, Mr, President.” When Audrey attempts to defend Mark’s actions, Heller says, “We’ve just given our enemy a moral victory.” It’s these kinds of clearly delineated arguments that are hallmarks of 24. Somewhere between the outrageously jingoistic NCIS franchise and the moral quicksand of Homeland, 24 positions itself on the dividing line between justification and moral ambiguity.