If the drooping ratings and fan grumbling is to be believed, very few will miss 24 when it’s gone after tonight’s series finale. Many original devotees of the show complain that it has become rote, and Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer has grown tiresomely repetitive with his playbook of growling, snapping “damn it!” and inflicting pain on those who get in the way of his protecting America. But that very predictability is a reason to still love 24 and miss it terribly. The key to enjoying the show is to have stopped caring about Jack Bauer a long time ago — just around the same time that the show did. Jack the human being vanished after the first season, replaced by Jack the killing, torturing automaton. And to human Jack, good riddance.
In 2001’s season one, Jack resembled a real person, with his feathered hair, amnesiac wife, and suburban ennui (his biggest issue as the show began was whether his wife would ever forgive him for a workplace affair). In charge of the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit, he was a flawed but firm manager, undermined by subordinates and endlessly frustrated with bureaucratic red tape. His task was simple: protect African-American presidential candidate (crazy!) David Palmer from an assassination plot. By the end, he was rescuing his perpetually in need of rescue daughter from unwitting punk-teen terrorist accomplices, dealing with the first of about 45,000 moles inside CTU! and, in the “shocking” season finale, grieving over his dead wife.
This was the last time Jack was a human being. Sure, throughout the years the producers would give him a few love interests, toss his daughter into peril again and again, make him weep once, and have him fiddle with retirement (“This isn’t my problem! I just want to go home!”), but with every season, Jack morphed a little bit more into the Terminator. Part of this was because he was indestructible: He has survived two heart attacks, a heroin addiction, six gunshot wounds, and countless torture sessions. But mostly, it’s because Jack simply became a convenient plot device to keep the show moving. With the million conspiracies constantly afoot, Jack turned into a super-genius master ninja who nevertheless was always wrong about the Big Conspiracy right when the story arc demanded him to be, but he would always figure it out in time. He shed his humanity because there was no time for Jack to be human: 24 hours is pretty fast, after all. There are people to be tortured! We need answers!
The all-action-all-the-time transformation of Jack has brought us to this season: He’s no longer trying to root out a conspiracy or save the world, really: Now he’s just randomly murdering people out of revenge and, presumably, boredom. (Two weeks ago he gutted a man, Braveheart-style, and in last week’s episode we didn’t even get to see him kill a lead bad guy and all his henchmen. Even the show is bored of Jack’s murdering.) This has made the last season oddly freeing: There are no rogue daughters needing to be saved, or ticking time bombs ready to blow up fictional Los Angeles suburbs. It’s just Jack, killing everyone in sight. Excellent.
Through all the series’ supposed politics and colorful villains (the best being former Vice-President Charles Logan, who sadly appears likely to survive yet another season tonight), and in spite of the tragic season-six Bauer family reunion (the year most fans gave up), this is a show that’s best when Jack is simply a badass. Jack has nothing left anymore, no family, no country, no ideology: He is the killing machine that first attracted us to this show. There is still talk of a 24 feature film, which means we likely won’t see Jack die tonight. (Sutherland, whose career appears to have reached a point in which he can only play this specific kind of role, told me once that he hoped the series would end with Jack’s death. I suspect that franchise money has changed his mind.) Jack will likely live on forever, stopping plots real and imagined, eviscerating baddies, barking to Chloe back at CTU, glowering on as a walking, grunting deus ex machina of death. It doesn’t really matter whether or not he dies tonight; all that matters is that lots of other people do. There are no politics; there are only actions. And that action is kicking ass. Go get ‘em, Jack.