Jack of All Torture

Illustration by Jason Gnewikow

 Spoiler alert: This piece reveals significant details about the plot and ending of Sunday night’s episode of 24.

‘Redemption,” this Sunday’s very special episode of 24, is intended as a narrative bridge, or perhaps just a very violent sorbet. It clears the palate for January, when Season 7 debuts, along with President Obama. In the interim two months, the official melodrama of the Bush Doctrine asks us to dwell on one theme: Jack Bauer as America’s Christ.

In the two-hour mini-movie, Jack is brooding in “Sangala,” a fictional African nation, ducking war-crimes charges and bonding with an America-loving local boy. The same day, a new president rises into office, borne by talk of hope and change. The two plots converge until we see these characters side-by-side: an idealistic leader glowing in her nation’s adoration, while our shadow hero sacrifices himself to save suffering children. The message is clear: Soaking up sins like extra-strength Bounty, Jack has absorbed our nation’s crimes to protect us. Forgive him—and by extension, the outgoing administration.

Back in 2001, when 24 debuted, it fed the national appetite for revenge. A right-wing West Wing, escapist as long as you sang “la la la” over the Patriot Act propaganda, it was the ideal DVD binge for a nation afraid to leave the house. Then came that devastating Jane Mayer profile in 2007, which showed co-creator Joel Surnow shrugging off the military’s pleas to tone down his show’s torture porn. I stopped watching, with a queasy sense that the series was less a guilty pleasure than an actual guilty act—then found myself tuning in again as the show inverted, becoming as paranoid about executive power as it was about America’s enemies. With a Nixonian weasel at its center instead of a CTU mole, it morphed into a perverse neocon anxiety pit, stirring the embers of what John Leonard drily summed up last year as “morbid second thoughts about racial profiling, secret tribunals, torture, and the inconvenient Constitution.”

The ascent of Obama presents a chance for the show to pivot again, re-creating itself as a puckish minority report. Instead, judging from “Redemption,” the creators are stewing in the same rancorous self-pity as their allies at the National Review, shriveling their fever dream into a chiding allegory. The show opens with painful scenes of child soldiers taught to think of their enemies as cockroaches. I teared up at these manipulative scenarios, meant to establish Jack’s virtue. Only later did I think about the irony of Jack Bauer’s own history of egging on American boys yearning to kick some Arab ass.

At hour 3:44:45, Jack is literally strung up crucifixion style by warlords, who threaten him with machetes to make him give up the boys at the school where he works. But Jack could survive the Spanish Inquisition without relinquishing his pin code, and when he gives himself up at the embassy, Africans wail gloriously around his resolute, puffy frown. His tormenters are cartoons of iniquity: Ally McBeal’s Billy brandishing subpoenas and bad facial hair, plus a United Nations androgyne, the Euro Goofus to America’s Gallant. “Whatever I’ve done, I’ve paid for in full,” Jack growls. “All I have left is my freedom.”

Meanwhile, a Democratic hybrid enters the White House: a lady senator with a mandate for change, played by the wonderful Cherry Jones, radiating amused majesty even as the outgoing POTUS warns her, “Let’s talk after you’ve been sitting in my chair.” Of course, she has no idea her funders also fund Sangalese warlords or that her son is mixed up in the mess!

It’s not impossible to imagine 24 as a thought-provoking, if surrealistic, investigation of the risks of presidential idealism. But Jack will always block real greatness. Less a hero than a golem, he’s uncrushable, agitprop in unshaved form—blocking nuance with his symbolic weight. He is 24’s true cockroach, immune to nuclear war or electoral landslides. Even if he didn’t have God on his side, he’d always have Fox.

The series recommences January 11 at 8 p.m.

Jack of All Torture