Tonight’s hour of 24 illustrated how sometimes padding is necessary. When it was announced that the new season of 24 would be a “limited-run series event” (whatever that means), fans saw the announcement for what it was: a quick way for a once-dominant network to recapture its early-aughts glory. The fact that the season would be truncated posed an interesting creative question: How do you do a show known for its real-time, day-in-the-life-of-an-intelligence-operative plotting? How do you do 24 in less than 24 hours?
The answer: through jumps in time. This sounds like a reasonable solution, but it turns out that sometimes those hours where it seemed as if nothing was happening were necessary for setup and for fleshing out backstory. They were placeholders, episodes where we could exhale and get ready for the next sprint to the finish line. Tonight’s episode gave us so much set-up motivation that it, at times, felt like a late-night finals cram session. The 24-in-12 structure has presented its own set of problems. We’re sometimes getting two character beats on top of each other. The writers (Sang Kyu Kim and Patrick Somervile) keeping running into speed traps.
Case in point: how we are made to feel about Tate Donovan’s Chief of Staff Mark Boudreau. Donovan did such a good job of walking a tightrope between asshole and villain in the first two hours of the season that I was looking forward to seeing him straddle that fence for a little while longer.
But it looks like that’s not the case. He had asked his No. 2 about what it would take to turn Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) over to the Russians. Boudreau’s loyalty to both President Heller (William Devane) and Audrey Raines (Kim Raver) compels him to make sure they never hear the name Jack Bauer ever again. When Boudreau’s underling says the order to turn Bauer over to the Russians requires the president’s signature, there’s a moment where he pauses as he contemplates falsifying the signature himself. This action has the character on the verge of crossing an invisible line that I don’t think he can come back from. When he then asks Audrey to convince her father not to speak to Parliament and she decides to support her father’s wishes instead, we get a confrontational scene between Mark and Audrey that puts their marriage on notice. She calls him out on his overprotective, somewhat controlling ways by saying, “It’s like you keep me in this little box like I’m some fragile keepsake. I don’t know, maybe it’s a habit from all the time you spent taking care of me, but I don’t want that anymore.”
In a full season of 24, these two incidents would’ve taken place during separate hours and there would’ve been a little more shoe leather involved. In the span of one hour, Boudreau went from a stern but loyal chief of staff to a potential bad guy to an ineffectual husband. It felt a little much. The need to expedite both the story and his character development is dizzying and not entirely convincing. I’m now wondering if the writers are setting him up to be a sacrificial lamb for Jack and Audrey.
A little better was the handling of Jackie Bauer (I mean, Kate Morgan) back at the apartment building where Yates was hiding out, trying to figure out whom Bauer was looking for. When Navarro tells Ritter to get out of there before local authorities arrive on the scene, Morgan punches group leader Basher before taking him for further questioning. They drive him to where his enemies hang out and threaten to leave him there unless he tells them what they want to know.
Typical tough-cop stuff, but that’s not what makes this subplot intriguing. The first thing we notice is Morgan’s willingness to violate Basher’s civil rights in order to get him to talk. She punches him without being provoked. This is different from the way Bauer operated. In the past, Jack would find a way around the rules in order to get the job done. He might’ve flirted with breaking them, but almost always he found a way to justify his actions. Not so much with Morgan. (I wonder if this subtle change in characterization will even register with viewers.)
It’s as if the show is saying Jack’s way of doing things is starting to become obsolete. Morgan’s single-minded determination to get her man causes a hiccup in plotting, as she doesn’t bother to inform Ritter or Navarro that Bauer told her he was trying to prevent an attack on the president. (You’d think this is something the CIA should know.) Yvonne Strahovski’s commitment to the role is so strong that you’re willing to overlook this glitch. Her eagerness to leave an impression in the role is so obvious that she sometimes makes Morgan come off as a little stiff, but the final moment of the episode suggests she’s starting to get into the groove.
What also helps to humanize Morgan is the softening of Ritter, who goes from being an antagonist to developing a grudging respect for his new partner. This is clearly a result of the shortened season. Instead of dragging out their testy back-and-forth bantering to the point of stretching credibility, 24 seems to have dropped it. Smart move. Now if they could only decide if Navarro is a no-nonsense leader or a cover-his-ass lackey for Boudreau.
But the best example of the accelerated storytelling came in the opening section with Jack and Chloe. After last week’s premiere, a Facebook friend suggested to me that this season was going to be about their relationship and how it has survived over the years. It looks like he might be right. Picking up Yates’s trail a couple of minutes after Simone (Emily Berrington) killed him, Jack tracks her as Chloe uses her laptop to tap into surveillance cameras throughout the area. It’s a tense and fun cat-and-mouse sequence that you think is going to develop into a hostage situation but turns into something surprisingly emotional.
Chloe’s inability to keep track of Simone forces her to tell Jack about what happened to her husband Morris and son Prescott. Turns out they were killed in a car accident as Morris was taking Prescott to soccer practice. According to Chloe, they were targeting her because she knows what happened to Jack the day he decided to go off the grid. In a regular season, this revelation would be saved for the halfway mark, but having it kick off the first segment of hour three gives an emotional depth to Jack and Chloe’s relationship that has only been hinted at in previous seasons. Dropping this chunk of backstory in the middle of an action scene could feel arbitrary, but Mary Lynn Rajskub and Sutherland are so good in the scene that it feels organic. They have a rhythm together that is different from all the other character interactions on the show. It’s not romantic or paternal or even big brother/little sister. It’s more like survivors of combat who rarely speak about what they’ve seen or how they feel. That’s why it’s startling when Jack stops long enough to comfort Chloe by telling her, “You can’t bring back the ones you love. Trust me. But you can honor their lives by helping others.”
By learning what happened to Chloe’s husband and son, we can piece together how she got radicalized and decided to join the Free Information Movement. Having worked for the system that President Heller represents, Chloe now believes keeping secrets about covert operations is what led to the deaths of Morris and Prescott. (Jack’s words of comfort are genuine, but they’re also a subtle form of manipulation to get her back on his side.) Chloe’s radicalization is chillingly contrasted with Margot Al-Harazi’s. Turns out her husband was a top commander in Al Qaeda. He, along with two of her kids, was killed in a drone strike authorized by President Heller three years earlier. Like Chloe, Margot views America as being responsible for the deaths in her family, and sees these coordinated drone strikes on the day the president attempts to finalize a treaty to keep a military base open as the best way of exposing the hypocrisy of America’s supposedly more humane approach to combat. Or something to that effect. I kinda wish Al Qaeda hadn’t been evoked this season. It feels so 2004. But what really disappoints about this Chloe-Margot parallel is that it really isn’t a fair and balanced argument. Jack may have told Free Information Movement leader Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott), “You make it sound like what you do is benign,” but that’s only lip service. No real attempt is made to show the consequences of Chloe’s actions. It’s a way of keeping her morally clean. While the show doesn’t explicitly endorse the Free Information Movement, it doesn’t criticize it, either. (See Bill Condon’s criminally underrated The Fifth Estate for a more provocative examination of this topic.)
Luckily, Fairley is more than up to the task of playing a ferocious queen leader. I must confess I stopped watching Game of Thrones after its first season. (Needing to take notes to keep up with a show is not my idea of quality Sunday-night viewing.) But Fairley was one of the show’s few regular cast members who stood out from the sexposition and back-room scheming. She managed to suggest shades of warmth along with a steely resolve and mature femininity that wasn’t always part of text. (Having started watching Thrones again this season, her absence from the show is felt.) She became a fanboy favorite, and 24 was smart to cast her as the Big Bad for this season. Her casting doesn’t really require any backstory. Fairley turning to the camera at the end of the season premiere and saying “Mommy’s waiting” is all we needed to hear to know what was in store for us. This hour’s scenes of Margot interrogating her ragtag team of followers had a chilly, slightly eroticized feel. Her maternal nature is tinged with self-preservation, especially when she tells her daughter Simone, “If you think you’re safe, remind yourself that you’re not.”
Odds & Ends
- I’m really loving Stephen Fry as Prime Minister Davies. He brings just the right touch of almost-paternal concern for President Heller, that when he suggests maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea for the president to address Parliament, we realize, unlike Mark and Audrey, he knows exactly how his comments will be received. He doesn’t even mind Heller’s rather lame attempt to compare himself to Churchill. Here’s hoping Fry gets more screen time as the season progresses.
- Wincott, sounding a little bit like Jason Statham’s older brother, had the line of the night when responded to Jack’s command for help with, “Has anyone ever mentioned your rather rude habit of asking for favors accompanied by the threat of a gun?” The writers blew an opportunity for Jack Bauer to make his first-ever joke by answering, “Once.”