January 14, 2007
Descent into HellBy Rick Moran
Tonight, 16 million TV viewers will make themselves as comfortable as possible on the edge of their seats as Fox Network's pulse-pounding actioneer 24 returns for another season. This means that an American entertainment icon will also make a return, sparking both intense loyalty and raging controversy.
Jack Bauer (played by Emmy Award winner Kiefer Sutherland), the fictional counter terrorism agent working for the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU). is perhaps the most recognizable character in American television today. Even people who have never seen the show have an opinion about him. Bauer's well know predilection for torture, violence, rebellion against authority, and a rather novel approach to civil liberties, has sparked debate far beyond the confines of the show. Serious forums involving intellectuals and constitutional experts have convened to discuss the implications of what Bauer does in order to succeed and defeat the terrorists threatening America. Numerous articles in newsmagazines from Newsweek, to The New Republic have been written about Bauer discussing his impact on our culture and politics.
Bauer has transcended the entertainment world and become a political talisman; stroked by the right and bashed by the left, 24 has become the favorite guilty pleasure of the political class in America. Even many liberals confess their addiction to the show, despite Bauer's enormously troubling use of torture and the cavalier way in which he disregards the constitutional niceties. And many conservatives, seeing Jack taking the fight directly to our enemies (along with maintaining a moral certitude that is both refreshing and emotionally satisfying), cheer Jack on as he battles evil.
Last year at this time on these pages, I called Bauer "The Perfect Post 9-11 Hero:"
Torn as America is between getting the job done at all costs while upholding American ideals, Jack simply can't help himself. He necessarily sees the world in stark relief, a place populated by some really nasty thugs who don't even blink at the idea of murdering hundreds of thousands of people. We recoil at some of Jack's tactics. But we recognize that Jack is the guy doing what needs to be done to keep us safe. This makes Jack Bauer the perfect hero in a post 9/11 America. He doesn't engage in any kind of self destructive hand wringing about not being able to do anything about the threat. His doubts - if he has any - have been left on the cutting room floor. He sacrifices his personal life for the greater good. In this respect, he is a true patriot.
And while Bauer still fills that bill, events transpired on the show last year that narrowed the focus of Jack's universe and ultimately, made his quest to bring down the terrorists a personal matter.
The murder of ex-President Palmer, Tony Almeida, and Michelle Dressler along with the terrorist nerve gas attack on CTU headquarters turned Bauer into an avenging angel of death. Stopping the terrorists became a means to an end - finding and killing the murderer of his cherished friends. Every thread Bauer unraveled, every bad guy he killed brought him closer to the man who took so much from him. Christopher Henderson (played brilliantly by Peter Weller), a super patriot who wanted to use terrorist attacks as a smokescreen to secure oil rights in the Caucuses, met his end not in a violent shoot out but by cold blooded, deliberate execution. There was something shocking in the way Jack carried out the sentence of death:
JACK: You are responsible for the death of David Palmer, Tony Almeida, and Michelle Dessler. They were friends of mine.
HENDERSON: That's the way it works.
The sound of the shot from Jack's gun was jarring. The realization that Bauer was capable of such a cold blooded act - especially since Henderson would have had information valuable to the continuing hunt for suspects - was disconcerting because it took the character into uncharted waters. Bauer was human after all. And the sense of loss that drove him to what can only be described as murder had finally overwhelmed him.
This theme of loss has been a part of the show ever since the end of Season 1 when Bauer's wife was killed by a CTU mole. It seems that ever since that first awful day, Bauer has been descending slowly into hell; a place not of his own making but one that he chooses to inhabit in order to give his life meaning. Indeed, one of the most common questions asked about Bauer is does Jack have a death wish? Placing himself deliberately in harms way as often as he does, it may very well be that in some way, Bauer longs for the release that death can bring him. But what he really craves is to fill the emptiness in his heart, the hole in his soul. If death is the only means to that end, Bauer will gladly take it.
The death of his wife and estrangement from his daughter along with the death of almost all the people he ever cared about has exacted an emotional and psychological toll on the troubled hero that makes him an extremely vulnerable character, one the audience wants to wrap their arms around and protect. This vulnerability was never more in evidence than in the conclusion of last year's final episode when, having been kidnapped by the Chinese for a past transgression, he is lying beaten and bloodied in the hold of a cargo ship bound for Shanghai. Slowly, Bauer raises his head and says in a pained and pleading voice,
"Kill me....Please kill me..."
This from a man who has faced death a thousand times, a thousand different ways. Does the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a Chinese prison make him think that death is preferable to an existence without friends, family, or purpose?
It is this kind of vulnerability that will drive the show this year. The Emmy Award winning production team of writers, producers, and special effects wizards were faced with the problem all long running TV dramas must come to grips with: How do you top what you've done previously?
Rather than go for bigger terrorist threats, larger explosions, and more expansive plot lines, the drama this year will be telescoped to an emotional level not experienced by fans of the series before. Released from the Chinese prison where he has been beaten and whipped into apparent submission, Bauer will spend the first 24 hours of his freedom trying to stop a year long spate of terrorist attacks that have the country in an uproar. A war in the White House is going on between civil liberties absolutists and security advocates. But the heart of the show will be the emotional turmoil and self doubt of Bauer himself. Jack's personal demons are finally going to get a thorough airing this year and it should make for compelling, riveting television.
In order to defeat the terrorists, Bauer will once again have to descend to their designated circle of hell to confront them. From the terrorists inhabiting Dante's Seventh Circle who commit "violence against their neighbors," to the bureaucratic hypocrites, evil counselors, and falsifiers in the Eighth Circle, all the way down to the worst of the worst - the betrayers of their own country in the Ninth Circle where Dante saved his most gruesome descriptive of punishment - the tormented souls are condemned to gnaw on the heads of their neighbor for eternity.
But unlike Dante, Jack has no guarantee that he will escape. He has been living in his own personal hell for so long that it is an open question whether he can tell the difference between the light and the darkness. For him, there is only a grayish existence, both in and out of the world. His one connection to the sane, the rational - his girlfriend Audrey Raines - is tenuous at best. Audrey and Jack's past is one of enormous pain and betrayal. There is much to overcome if those two are to find any kind of happiness.
But I doubt whether Bauer will be thinking much about happiness in the coming 24 hours. And that is the secret to success of the show. It is anti-formulaic. Just when you think you can't be surprised any more, the writers drop a bomb so unexpected, you don't know whether to clap your hands in glee or throw something at the TV screen. Unexpected deaths of series regulars is the signature of the show and there is no reason to expect that will change this season.
So sit tight, get set, and strap it down. We're about ready to experience another thrill ride that will alternately have us gripping our chairs in white knuckled suspense and cheering Jack on with a gusto we usually reserve for our sports teams. Like the knights of old, he sallies forth to engage in single combat with the terrorists, defending the honor of the United States and protecting her through the sheer force of his iron will. There's nothing like it on television. And there's never been anything like it before.
Rick Moran is publisher of Rightwing Nuthouse and a frequent contributor to American Thinker.