24: Jack Bauer Needed to Die

For eight seasons, Jack Bauer was presented as America’s Best Hope to save itself from bad guys foreign and domestic. He was a loyal soldier working for a government agency and doing what no one else was able or, more importantly, was willing to do. Red tape existed only so Jack could cut through it, and laws existed solely for Crazy Jack to break them. Not simply an iconoclast, Jack was a righteous iconoclast that fought the system as much as he cherished it – where Jack Bauer was the Good Cop, Crazy Jack was the Good Patriot who put Country above all else.

If a bad guy had information that he/she wasn’t willing to share and a bomb was about to go off, the bad guy was going to get shot or punched or knifed and he/she was going to give up the knowledge so Jack could go save the country. 24 presented this power fantasy in post-9/11 America, when a large section of the nation felt helpless at being attacked and was determined to make someone, anyone get smacked around for it.

Jack Bauer was the Christ figure for this movement, but the show was careful to almost always present Jack as right and justified. Which was needed, because without justification – without Jack being right – justice became criminal.

Jack might be crazy, but he was the right kind of crazy, a type motivated not by internal conflict but by exterior stubbornness. He was the kind of monster that didn’t Hulk Out because Banner was angry or Hyde Out because Jekyll was weak, but went Crazy because of someone else refusing to do what was clearly right for America.

Jack would have to pay some consequences for his actions over the years, but he was always pulled back because he was the one and only guy who could save the country’s latest crisis, and he was always forgiven because whatever crimes he committed, it was done in the service of God Bless America.

Until this season.

Until the death of Renee Walker, when Jack Bauer and 24 stopped being a story about justice and started being a story of revenge. Crazy Jack took over Jack Bauer after Renee’s death and although he and the show tried to justify his actions as exposing the Russian involvement in Omar Hassan’s death and President Taylor’s role in helping cover up that involvement, Crazy Jack was in full on revenge mode. He might try to claim that “everyone I killed was involved in the assassination,” but that’s not remotely true (the Russian security guards he murders on the way to get to the assassination’s architect play no direct role in assassinating Hassan or even Walker), nor can Jack’s downtown attack on Charles Logan’s motorcade be justified by saying, as Chloe does, that Jack was “shooting to injure, not kill.”

As if firing an assault rifle during morning traffic can be justified.

As if Jack’s god-like ability to injure and not kill a single Secret Service agent can be justified. (Sorry you lost your hand, Agent Williams, but Jack didn’t have time to explain why he was totally justified for kidnapping ex-President Logan.)

As if Jack could guarantee no innocent civilian would get hit by a stray bullet inside that cramped passageway by both his bullets AND the Secret Service agents’ bullets.

As if killing Dana Walsh was anything but murder.

No, this time around Jack’s actions aren’t motivated by a bomb about to go off but by a peace treaty being signed. He doesn’t need to stop the Russian President from detonating a bomb, but from signing a piece of paper, and he needs to do it not because it’s justice but because it’s revenge, and assassinating Suvarov in public, at the United Nations, isn’t a necessary violence by any stretch, but because it’s the best place for Jack to put a bullet in his head.

Even still, even as far off the rails as Crazy Jack has gone, the show could still attempt to redeem Jack because the Russian President was an evil bastard, because the American President was involved in a cover-up, and because he attempted to take the route of justice but was denied this by President Taylor.

But what irrevocably damages the Jack Bauer character was how coldly he turns against Chloe. As minor a point as it may seem compared to assassinating a foreign leader, Jack’s refusal to listen to the woman who has risked her career for him numerous times, his insistence on acting the spoiled child almost immediately after she gets the promotion of a lifetime as acting director of CTU and hijacking a helicopter off CTU’s roof, his repeated lies to her, and finally his choking her to unconsciousness instead of listening to reason when she finds him setting up assassination shop is the crime he can’t come back from.

It’s his callous attitude towards Chloe, no matter how he may try to justify his own actions by proclaiming “they took the option of justice away from me,” that casts Jack not as the Good Cop willing to do whatever it takes to save America to the Revenge Killer willing to do whatever it takes to placate himself – including putting clearly innocent American lives at risk and killing potentially innocent Russian security guards. Just because they work for an evil guy makes them no more automatically evil than it would make Jack because he’s working for an evil President or two.

This time around, Jack doesn’t simply refuse to listen to other options but uses everyone for his own selfish desires. (Which Freddie Prinze, Jr. keeps saying even though no one listens, proving that even in fictional worlds no one listens to Freddie Prinze, Jr.)

As a story, turning Jack permanently crazy is awesome, but it demands that Jack actually pay the consequence for his actions this time around. Not the “goes into hiding” routine which he’s done before, but, bluntly put, Jack needs to die for it all to work. The show doesn’t give us this ending, however. Perhaps they wanted to keep Jack alive to make movies, but if that’s the reason then they should have built this story to keep Jack’s actions justified. I’ve ended up tuning out to a season or two of 24, and while I’ve felt squeamish on occasion by what Jack’s done, I could still come back and root for him.

Not anymore.

They’ve pushed Jack Bauer past the point of redeemable return. When you do that, you have to make the hero pay for what he’s done in order to reclaim all of the good he’s accomplished over the years. You’ve got to show that bad actions lead to real consequences – even for Jack. Instead, Jack barely even shows remorse for anything he’s done, and only stops because Ortiz sends in the CTU troops to stop him. In other words, he stops only when he knows he can’t get away with it, not because he suddenly realizes how completely and utterly unjustified he’s been during the past 10 hours.

When you go this far and soak Jack in this much blood, the only ending that saves Jack is killing Jack.

In failing to do this, the show’s producers have permanently scarred one of the great TV characters of the past decade.