Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TV Review: "24: Live Another Day" caps a very good season with a genuinely great finale

24: Live Another Day - the resurrection of the classic TV action series, which happens to be one of my favorite shows of the 2000s - has just concluded its 12-episode season, and I have many spoiler-filled thoughts on the season as a whole, and the finale in particular, coming up after the jump...

I had few expectations going into the start of 24: Live Another Day eleven weeks ago. 24 was one of my favorite television series growing up – having begun in 2001, the show has been around over half my life – and while my enthusiasm petered out towards the end, having never watched most of the final season, it was always a show I enjoyed watching, on some level, even during its weakest periods (though much of season 6 tested my inner masochist). My memories of it were mostly very fond, and my only real hope for Live Another Day was that it wouldn’t tarnish any of them, and might even provide a nice, fun, warm blast of nostalgia.

But then the season began, and almost immediately, Live Another Day felt like something more, something greater than I ever could have reasonably expected from the belated ninth season of a creatively erratic television series many years past its prime: It was good. Genuinely, qualitatively good, and consistently so in a way 24 had not been since its fifth season (if ever, given that Live Another Day largely lacked the filler episodes and groan-worthy subplots that were a 24 staple even during the show’s greatest years). The season premiere was a rather stunning return to form, a beautifully tense hour-long suspense piece that re-introduced existing characters to terrific effect, and brought newcomers – namely Yvonne Strahovski’s Agent Kate Morgan – into the fold more effectively than I could ever recall 24 doing. It didn’t feel revelatory, but it did feel fresh and exciting, or at least as fresh as a nine-season old show could feel, a sensation undoubtedly assisted by the four-year gap between seasons.

And I will freely admit how immediately and consistently nostalgia played a factor in my enjoyment of Live Another Day. Seeing Jack Bauer run down a dark corridor, whispering Dammit! while holding a pistol aloft, is about as nostalgic as TV viewing gets for me, because 24 is at the epicenter of many of my earliest serialized television memories (the first show I ever blogged was Lost, but the first modern show I ever loved was 24). And in the second and third episodes, which definitely lagged behind the masterful suspense of the premiere, I wondered if nostalgia might be the primary fuel compelling me to watch, and if the seeming brilliance of the premiere was just a fluke before the series settled back into more pedestrian rhythms.

But then the fourth episode aired, featuring Jack taking a room full of embassy workers hostage as he tried to uncover proof of the terrorist plot, and which saw his story converge with Agent Morgan’s in a rather spectacular way (it was here that both Morgan and Strahovski started proving themselves Jack and Kiefer’s equal), and at that moment, I think Live Another Day took a rather big step beyond nostalgia. This wasn’t 24 going through the motions, as it mostly had been for the last three seasons of its original run. This was 24 giving us its all, creating ingeniously staged, shot, and edited suspense sequences that surpassed just about anything else currently on television, and which had satisfyingly reoriented itself around a handful of characters – Jack, Chloe, Heller, and Kate, primarily – who were genuinely, immensely compelling.

And for the majority of its run, Live Another Day continued to impress. The plot, while by no means masterful by non-24 standards, worked excellently under the paradigms of this show, keeping the action moving quickly and putting the characters in interesting places, while the things 24 always did best were being done as well, or better, as 24 at its absolute prime. I will always defend 24 as having historically great action choreography and suspense for a television production, and Live Another Day often went above and beyond, not just in the premiere or the hostage episode, but in quieter hours like Jack transporting President Heller to Wembley Stadium, or in dumber hours like Jack and Kate going undercover and having their operation blown (a narratively incoherent episode that nevertheless nailed the suspense), or in big set piece moments like Jack and Kate escaping the drones in downtown London, surely one of the most exciting moments in the history of the series. It’s easy to downplay these accomplishments as pure low-brow spectacle, but the fact is that few television series are this effective at putting viewers on the edge of their seat, and for 24 to be doing it so incredibly well fourteen years after it premiered is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Moreover, I really do think Live Another Day had a great handle on its cast, consistently giving Strahovski great material, on her own or alongside Jack, finding new(ish) beats for Mary-Lynn Rajskub to play, letting William Devane make us feel inspired, heartbroken, or both on a near-weekly basis, and most importantly, letting Jack Bauer kick unholy amount of ass, week in and week out. I had forgotten just what an incredible performance Kiefer Sutherland always gave in this role, and this was easily one of his best seasons, not just nailing the large amount of beautiful emotional moments Jack had to play – the season was, in many ways, about Jack coming to terms with just how far gone he is, and Sutherland nailed every moment of it – but spiking the viewer’s heart-rate with a piercing glance or a quiet threat. He was terrific, and that the writers allowed Sutherland to unleash Jack’s cheesier iconic side every now and again – “Immunity’s not on the table. BUT YOUR HAND IS!” – allowed the show to have its cake and eat it too, letting Jack be the legend he is, while also challenging him and moving him forward.

By the time we got through last week’s penultimate episode, I was feeling far more positive on Live Another Day that I ever reasonably could have expected to. This was a very good season of 24, easily better than any since the fifth, and probably a few rungs higher than the fourth as well, and for the ninth season of a series to place that highly in its own overall canon? That is a pleasant surprise indeed.

But tonight’s season finale was something else. This wasn’t ‘very good’ 24, or 24 matching its own peak, but 24 pushing through its own barriers and delivering something that felt positively transcendent by the standards of this supposedly irrelevant TV staple. This was one of the best single episodes 24 has ever produced, and perhaps the most viscerally and emotionally resonant hour the series has crafted since Jack cradled a dead Teri Bauer in his heartbroken arms.

I don’t even know if I have the language to discuss a 24 episode that felt really and truly thematically unified, top to bottom and character to character, but that’s exactly what we have here. For instance – while it would be easy to just spend several paragraphs recapping what a deliriously awesome piece of action choreography and direction Jack’s assault on Chang and his forces was, it isn’t a sequence one can analyze or express glee at in isolation. It lands as forcefully as it does because of the context in which it exists, a context wherein we have spent an entire season following two characters – Jack and Heller – who both believe the price of peace is theirs to pay, who are dead-set on dying for their cause if the need arises, only for Audrey – the last link to humanity common to both of them – to pay that price. It’s a smart piece of tragic drama, because it undermines the clean ‘redemptive’ arc Jack, Heller, and the audience thought they were a part of. Audrey’s death isn’t particularly hard-hitting in and of itself – she was never a particularly vivid character, and Kim Raver only had so much to do this season – but what it represents, at this point in the series and in the life of Jack Bauer, is immense, and it transforms the finale not only into a terrific culmination of each characters’ story, but a subtle commentary on 24 storytelling in and of itself.

For as triumphant as Jack’s unleashing of hell on Chang and his men is, it exists within a context of complete and utter defeatism the likes of which we haven’t necessarily seen on this show before (seasons 1 and 3 end on notes of emotional devastation and exhaustion, respectively, but this finale spends a much longer time lingering on it). Before Jack explodes, director Jon Cassar lets the camera rest on Sutherland’s face for a good thirty seconds, just watching Jack as he processes the news of Audrey’s passing, and in that moment – one of Sutherland’s absolute all-time best – we see resignation roll over Jack Bauer’s usually determined face. Once again, he’s lost a loved one. Once again, the day cannot cleanly be saved. And once again, he’s the one left alive, incapable of making the sacrifice we have been reminded several times this season he internally wants to make (for a moment, it even looks like Jack just considers putting the gun to his head and ending it all). It’s a familiar event for Jack Bauer, but at this point in the cycle, having nearly redeemed himself one more time, it makes the horrible truth of Jack’s existence clear – he exists in a world of violence, he himself is an object of violence, and those he loves are victims of violence. As they always will be, as he always will be, as the world always will be. And when the truth of the cycle washes over his face, something snaps within him, perhaps permanently.

Every major character has a moment like that during the finale. After the time jump – more on that in a moment – we see Kate lay down her badge and gun, too emotionally devastated to walk this path any further, having learned over the last 24 hours where it will lead. Mark doesn’t even seem to care he’s likely going to spend the rest of his life in jail – he’s dead inside, after Audrey’s death makes him fully cognizant of what an awful hand he played in the day’s bloodshed. And Heller, most powerfully, welcomes the encroachment of his Alzheimer’s disease, knowing there is nothing he can do to stop it, and that losing his memories may even be cathartic. “I won’t remember anything that happens today,” he says. “I won’t remember anything that happens period. I won’t remember that I had a daughter who died in such a horrible fashion.” Where did you learn to write like that, 24? Because that – and the bit preceding it about the picture on Heller’s desk – is tremendous writing, and it sums up the themes of the episode – and, ultimately, the season – in rather devastating fashion. These are dark and terrible experiences, in a fundamentally dark and violent world, and at a certain point, one must resign oneself to the horror of it all, because fighting back against it, in whatever fashion one chooses, only makes it hurt even more – a sentiment Kate, Mark, and Heller are left with in the final split-screen of the series.

In the end, it all comes back to Jack, as of course it must, as he grapples with the same existential dilemma. His violent explosion on the deck of the ship – which kicks off the final, nihilistic act of the episode – isn’t just a great action sequence, though between Jack gunning down every single man in his path, killing a man with a giant kitchen knife, slitting a throat with a tiny pocket knife, kick-boxing Chang, and finally beheading his nemesis with a giant fucking sword, all executed with the absolute highest technical merits possible, I would easily call it the best Jack Bauer rampage in all nine seasons of the show. I think I briefly died and went to action movie heaven while watching it, giggling like an overwhelmed schoolgirl the entire time. But I digress. The scene is, indeed, more than all this, because it’s also a sensory expression of everything the last act of the episode is about, with Jack’s unhinged assault charting his realization of his life’s violent inevitability. He lets himself become the monster he knows he is, cleaning this mess up as quickly as (super)humanly possible, because there’s nothing else left to do, no reason to hold back, no higher meaning to fight for other than retribution.   

And when the call comes informing him what has happened to Chloe, there is no other option. All the fight has left him, and I think the true effectiveness of the unprecedented 12-hour time jump the episode gives us here is that it makes Jack’s surrender seem all the more absolute. He resigns himself after hearing about Audrey, cleans up the terrorist threat as quickly as he can, and then gives up, 12 hours passing in an instant. In a traditional season of 24, those 12 hours would be spent on Jack doing everything in his power to find Chloe and kill her captors, but Jack doesn’t rally this time. He just gives in, 12 hours disappear, and when we see him next, he is ready and willing to march headfirst into captivity. No miraculous save. No big moment of ‘redemption’ or ‘escape.’ Just defeat and surrender.

“It’s time for you to go home,” Jack tells Chloe as they cross paths. “You’re right about what you said earlier. About being my best friend. Thank you.” The season has come full circle, having also started with Jack risking everything to save Chloe’s life, but the meaning has changed. Jack breaking into the CIA at the beginning of the day was the start of another violent cycle, one that once again culminated in the death of a loved one. Here, Jack knows he has only one more person left to lose, and so he chooses to stop that cycle once and for all, giving himself up rather than fighting any longer. Symbolically, he is doing exactly what Kate and Heller are – resigning himself to the inevitable, rather than rallying in futility.

Overall, it is the darkest ending 24 has yet devised. Even Season 1’s finale has a pervading sense of triumph before Jack discovers Teri’s body; here, though, nobody seems to care at all about the terrorist threat being lifted, and that feels honest, direct, and self-referential in a way 24 never has. After so many years of this, for the characters in the show and for the show as a long-running story, why should there be any celebrating? I don’t know if there will ever be any more 24 after Live Another Day, but this ending sure feels definitive to me, because I don’t think the show could ever go to a place this utterly pessimistic – where every single character is abjectly miserable and the audience is left contemplating the repetitious nature of the series in a substantive, intentional way – before the bitter end.

I always thought 24 had to end with Jack dying, and while having him board the helicopter to Moscow obviously leaves the door open for more stories in the future, I think this is an even more haunting conclusion to Jack’s story than if he had actually perished. He’s now in for a long, humiliating trial, possibly some torture, and most likely an execution – it is horrifying to consider. And yet, somehow, Jack seems very at peace there, on the helicopter, in the final shot of the series, knowing he shall never see anyone he loves again, but also that he will likely never have to suffer any more of the emotional trauma that has marked his life for years. He even smiles briefly before boarding the helicopter. It is a tremendously defeatist ending. Every single surviving main character has had their lives torn apart, has been thrust into an existential quandary so severe they have resigned themselves to giving up, and the only person who gets to smile is Jack, the man willingly heading straight to the gallows.

After nine seasons of terrorism, torture, gunplay, murder, loss, absurd plot twists, and violent conflict, it is a disarmingly honest, potently disturbing end to the series, one I would never, frankly, have considered 24 capable of.

And in that way, tonight’s finale, and Live Another Day as a whole, not only elevates itself to peak 24 greatness, but perhaps, in some ways, above and beyond what this series once was. I don’t know if the impact of tonight’s episode would still stand if Jack were somehow rescued and put back in the field several years down the road, but if this is it, and 24 closes up shop for good after tonight, I think it concludes with its legacy strong and intact, going out on a season that demonstrated all the ways this series could be great – all the ways it could entertain, excite, and, yes, occasionally exasperate (even this season had to have a mole) – and with a finale that felt equal parts challenging and satisfying.

I never thought I needed to have new 24 in my life, but Live Another Day did the impossible: It made this long-dead series feel essential again, and while I am overjoyed it concluded so well, TV will undoubtedly feel less rich for this great show’s absence.

Other Thoughts

  • Speaking of the mole, one of Live Another Day’s best attributes was its ability to take stock 24 characters – like CIA director Steve Navarro, ultimately revealed to be corrupt – and make them feel, if not fresh, important to the story and distinctly non-obnoxious. Navarro, for instance, was at the heart of two of the season’s best moments, as Kate got to confront the man who framed her husband, and Jack got to smash the shit out of the man’s hand. And Mark Bordreau, who started the year as one of my least favorite 24 character types – the stupid White House jackass who distrusts Jack Bauer and exists only to make Jack’s life difficult – he evolved in really interesting ways, and Tate Donovan did really good work in these last few episodes, after Mark’s secrets came out. I could have done without the subplot about Margot Al-Harazi’s son-in-law, which felt incredibly rote and dull, but otherwise, Live Another Day used the 24 archetypes intelligently and effectively.
  • Something no one talks about, but was one of my favorite unexpected pleasures of the season: The goofy, retro-style red neon clock that replaced the old yellow standard. I don’t know what it is about that particular color and style, but for whatever reason, I grinned when I saw the clock every single time. 
  • Outside of Jack’s rampage in the finale, my favorite Bauer moment of the season – also one of the best of the series – has to be Jack’s confrontation with Margot. “Hundreds of people died today because of you and Heller! You think you won, but this is all on your head!” “The only death tonight on my head is yours.” Commence defenestration. Absolute. Perfection.

  • Yvonne Strahovski was so good throughout this season, and I appreciated that the finale found a real story for her to play that worked in with the larger themes of the episode. There has been talk among fans of a 24 spin-off with Strahovski as the lead, and while I think that might undermine the purity of tonight’s ending, I do think she would be perfect for the job, because she has the same quality Sutherland does of committing tremendous gravitas to every scene, grounding the action and emotions no matter how outlandish things get. It’s a very rare skill, and if this franchise ever wants to move beyond Kiefer, Strahovski is obviously the best option.
  • “She loves you.” “SHUT UP!!!!” That could so easily have been a cheesy Jack Bauer moment, but instead it's a powerhouse Jack Bauer moment, because it instantly conveys everything you need to know about Jack’s turmoil upon hearing of Audrey’s capture.
  • Chloe was used more sparingly this season than usual, but I thought it was a very nice touch that she and Jack got several moments of in-person communication over the course of the year, rather than just talking via split-screen, to drive home their connection. Tonight’s scene in the car was great, and Rajskub and Sutherland played the hell out of the final sequence (even if Chloe’s Lisbeth Salander makeup is still ridiculous).
  • Two silent clocks this episode. Have we ever had that before? More importantly, have we ever had a silent clock for Jack specifically – because if not, that would certainly lend credence to the idea that he is marching off to death.
  • Extreme kudos to the entire crew of the season, because Live Another Day was, if nothing else, a spectacularly mounted production. Jon Cassar and all the series directors brought their A-game every single time, the production design was consistently great, London locations were used often and excellently, and Sean Callery’s score was as good as ever, and particularly effective throughout the finale.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan--you've taken the words out of my mouth. PERFECT recap for an excellent season. Thanks for taking the time to process all of this and share it with the rest of us.