During its regular eight season run, “24″ never shied away from killing main characters – a story element that, when it’s done right, leaves viewers feeling emotionally devastated.
Sometimes it worked, as in the case of Jack Bauer’s wife’s murder at the end of season one. Other times, it felt forced and unnatural, as if the writers were just trying to do something shocking. In my opinion, that was the case in several instances, most obviously when Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth), and David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) were all murdered in the first 20 minutes of season five (though Tony was later revealed to be alive).
This past week’s episode of the limited run “24: Live Another Day” finally got it right again. In fact, I’d call it the show’s finest hour in several seasons.
After going a little insane during season eight and living off the grid for four years, Jack Bauer finally resurfaces in London because he gets wind of a plan that a terrorist plans to use drones to assassinate the President of the United States, James Heller (William Devane), and his daughter Audrey (Kim Raver), who are on a diplomatic trip to England to negotiate the continued use of British territory as a base for U.S. drones. Longtime viewers of the series will know that Jack considers Heller a close friend – and Audrey a former love interest.
Over the course of the season, the terrorist leading the drone attack is revealed to be Margot al-Harazi (Michelle Fairley), whose terrorist husband was killed in a U.S. drone strike along with several innocents. She demands that President Heller turn himself over to her or she will destroy much of London. After she follows through on her threat by destroying a hospital and several other venues, Heller, who is witnessing the devastation on television, agrees to her demand. It was revealed earlier in the season that he is suffering with Alzheimer’s and will soon have to resign the presidency anyway. He believes that sacrificing himself in this way will save lives and give greater meaning to his own death.
Yes, it all sounds far-fetched, but it works in context, like many things on television.
SPOILERS AHEAD – This week’s episode, which took place between 6:00pm and 7:00pm, followed the aftermath of Heller’s decision and eventually the surrender. It gave William Devane, an already likable and commanding presence on the show, powerful moments of subtle courage and restrained-yet-heartfelt emotion.
Determined to keep his plan a secret from Audrey, Heller pays her a seemingly nonchalant visit and relives a fond memory from their days as a young family. They reminisce a little, before Audrey says she needs to get back to work. Devane’s silence before leaving the room conveys the weight of his burden and the depth of his love for the daughter he’s seeing for the last time.
In addition, Devane’s scenes with Kiefer Sutherland provided the episode with an unusual amount of emotional heft. Bauer always comes across as a tortured soul, but his personal relationship with Heller and the organic way the plan proceeds produced Sutherland’s best acting of the season. He’s accompanying a man he genuinely cares about to his likely death – and you feel his pain and conflicted conscience about the whole affair.
The whole episode, however, rests on William Devane’s shoulders, and he is more than up to the challenge. As an actor who’s played characters ranging from President John F. Kennedy in “The Missiles of October” to Greg Sumner in “Knots Landing,” the 74-year-old proves he’s got plenty of gravitas to add to any production.
So thanks to William Devane and the cast/writers of “24: Live Another Day” for creating their most memorable hour in a long time – not through big action scenes, but quietly moving performances in a story well told.
UPDATE WITH SPOILERS:
Well played, writers of “24.” Well played. If I had a gold star I would give it to commenter Jerry Vogelsang who, four days ago, wrote below: “I hope Ms Obrien uploaded a video feed on the other two channels of the drone, faking that Pres Heller was there. He was just the feed faked. Or maybe it is as it appears, goodbye Pres. Heller, what a way to go.”
While I would love for all the main characters to get a happy ending, there’s still time for the writers to kill off somebody important. We’ll see what happens.