Moving Pictures January/February 2010

The Clock is Ticking for Jack Bauer

Fox’s 24 is exquisite nonsense. But can its limerick logic survive in the post-Cheney era?

Jack is a shape-shifter, a trickster, a will-o’-the-wisp. “This Bauer thing,” President David Palmer’s chief of staff tells him, “is an illusion, a mirage! Every time you get near it, it moves further away!” A heroin addict (long story) at the beginning of Season Three, panting and vague and asking for a glass of water, Bauer opens Season Five as an oilman in the Mojave Desert. Season Six sees him shuffling in irons off a Chinese transport plane, his tawny captive’s mane and beard foreshadowing the Jesus/Aslan role he is about to play: Jack is to be handed over to some terrorists, old enemies of his, whose price for intel about some other terrorists is Jack’s head. “Bauer has to be sacrificed so this country can survive!” Is Jack bitter? Hell, no. “To be honest with you,” he confides huskily to his ex-CTU boss, “it’ll be a relief.” (“Is it life?” asks O’Brien’s Martin Finnucane. “I would rather be without it ”)

If you have a spare 24 hours, watch Season Two. Here context is supplied by a loose nuke on the streets of L.A., and Jack is appropriately off-the-charts. “Inactive” as the show begins, with flickering eyes and a bum’s habiliments, he’s back in business within 45 minutes. At CTU a fat villain isn’t cooperating, so Jack takes him out. Bang! One in the chest. Then—“I’m gonna need a hacksaw!”—he chops off the villain’s head. (Somewhere the Queen of Hearts is licking her lips.) President Palmer wants to trade intel with some dodgy foreigners. The director of the NSA voices the concern that this might set “a dangerous precedent.” “We can’t worry about precedent,” rumbles the prez. “Not today. Not under the threat of a nuclear attack.” That’s the spirit. No precedents and no principles, just the peremptory demands of the moment: the nonsense imperative. Human rights, naturally, go by the board. Dragging a couple of suspects into CTU for interrogation, Tony Almeida wonders aloud how hard he can push them. “Hard as you have to,” he is told. “Stick bamboo shoots under their fingernails. Get what they got.”

24’s torture scenes are infamous, and have been taken as an endorsement of the Bush administration’s well-documented excursion into “the dark side.” Indeed, executive producer Joel Surnow has blowharded quite happily to that effect: “America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer,” he told The New Yorker in 2007. “He’s a patriot.” Jack uses patriotic electricity, patriotic towels, patriotic sharp instruments. In Season Five, it looks for a minute as if he’s going to have to patriotically torture the president. The human body is the information source on 24: a dying person with undischarged intel must be revived with hypodermics or buzzing paddles. Or maybe Jack can pry a microchip from the still-warm corpse. As Season Seven begins, he’s up on Capitol Hill, getting grilled by a pinko senator: “Basically what you’re saying, Mr. Bauer, is that the ends justify the means, and that you are above the law!” “When I am ac-ti-vated,” enunciates Jack with harsh precision (screw this guy!), “when I am brought into a situation, there is a reason. And that reason is to complete the objective of my mission at all costs.”

But in all of this, 24 is only showing its devotion to the canons of nonsense, within whose tradition the abuse of persons has always occupied a hallowed place. Lear’s limericks are a catalogue of thumpings, beatings, smashings, knockings-about, and shuttings-in-boxes, accompanied by plenty of screaming; Père Ubu, in Jarry’s Ubu Roi, slobberingly consigns his enemies to the Debraining Machine; Lucky in Waiting for Godot is hauled about on an Abu Ghraib–style leash. In The Third Policeman, reality itself gets a bit of enhanced interrogation, as a beam of light is put through a mangle by Policeman MacCruiskeen, rolled and crushed until an awful, indecipherable shout is heard. (“I have been listening to shouts and screams for years,” says the clinical MacCruiskeen, “but I can never surely catch the words. Would you say that he said ‘Don’t press so hard’?”)

Cheneyism provided the perfect cover for flat-out nonsense, but Season Eight of 24 arrives conspicuously in the era of Obama—in what we hopefully, wistfully perhaps, think of as the post-torture era. What now for Jack? Kinder and gentler? Protocol-friendly? He can’t go soft, he just can’t. It wouldn’t make sense.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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