We Do Know Jack. We ARE Jack.

We Do Know Jack. We ARE Jack. May 25, 2010

The final words spoken in the final episode of the series 24 belonged to the endearingly cantankerous Chloe O’Brian, the best friend Jack Bauer ever had.

“Shut it down,” she said. And with that Jack did what no one does as well as he. He went dark.

Every Monday night for the past eight television seasons Jack has been for us what after last night he’ll never be again: the ultimate man of the hour.

Jack Bauer is a lot like Santa Claus: both men work only one day per year. And what they each accomplish in their day of work is positively astonishing. Of course, Santa, with his jolly chuckle and big red sack, brings people joy by leaving them presents; Jack, with his menacing growl and satchel of doom, brings people pain by leaving them dented sternums and missing digits. When Santa drops down your chimney, it’s best to lie in your bed, close your eyes, and hope he thinks you’re asleep. When Jack crashes through your front door, it’s best to lie on your floor, break your own arm, and hope he thinks you’re dead.

If you’ve done bad, that is.

And you probably have. If you’re in Jack’s world, you might not have done wrong yet. But if you live long enough, chances are good you will. And you’ll probably do whatever bad you do for reasons that are perfectly good.

And in a nutshell, that’s the terrible, intoxicating alchemy of 24: It takes what should be good — what we know is right, fair, principled and honorable — and, step by step (or, shockingly, all at once) turns it bad.

Stopping terrorists from killing innocent people? Good. Getting terrorist suspects to talk through means so traumatizing that, in real life, the dean of West Point met with the producers of 24 to ask them if they could have Jack do a little less (and a little less creative) torturing? Bad.

Peace in the Middle East? Good. Heads of state committing and/or covering up murder (as happened in the final season of 24) in order to secure peace in the Middle East?

You tell me.

Most of us believe that morals exists as absolutes, that their qualities aren’t subject to variation based on context. We tend to accept as reasonable the paradigm of the purely good and the unquestionably evil: that right is right, wrong is wrong, and never the twain shall meet. The clarity of that model naturally appeals to us. It’s the Ten Commandments — not The Nine Commandments, Plus Maybe One More, Depending. It’s not The Eight Commandments, With Two Possible Alternates. It’s ten, period. Thou shalt do this; though shalt not do that. No ambiguity. No waffling. We react to a halo over Satan’s head as we might to fur on a fish: it doesn’t make sense. More than that: it’s wrong.

What makes Jack Bauer such a compelling figure isn’t that he’s brave, canine loyal, makes lightening-quick decisions, is a natural leader, doesn’t need sustenance, and is so awesomely resourceful he could probably make a cell phone out of a rock and a coat hanger. What keeps us so engrossed by Jack is that, in the starkest and largest possible terms, he is living out the exact same dynamic that so often keeps us so riveted by the drama of our own lives.

Jack is trying to do good — he is doing good. And yet, somehow, the results of his efforts continue to transmogrify into something that he can’t quite feel proud of.

And though in our puritan heart of hearts we are almost certain to resist admitting it to ourselves, we are each of us nonetheless aware of how readily what we mean to be good becomes, seemingly (but never quite) of its own accord, bad. We know how quickly our strengths become our weaknesses; how often our resolve dissolves. Like Jack, we, too, are forever intending to serve a good higher than ourselves, and yet in so doing coming up against the worst of ourselves.

Meaning to cleave to the high road, we yet find ourselves trudging through the mud and the muck.

In order to get what we want, we too often do what we shouldn’t.

We are devils with halos. And (God knows) we know it.

And there is Jack, the everyman’s hero, living out for us what that feels and looks like, twenty-four times a year. Jack’s life is our own writ large.

What in the end proved most true for Jack is the same thing that in the end we all hope (and many of us trust) will prove most true for us. Yes, our way is difficult. Yes, in our drive to achieve our goals we cause and endure unimaginable amounts of pain. Yes, time and again we find ourselves isolated and helpless, done in by the unceasing intensity of our own fury. But, for all of Chloe’s tears, the ending of 24 was a happy one. Ultimately, what saved and redeemed Jack is the only thing that can save and redeem any of us. As we ourselves must be, Jack, our hero, was saved by love.

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  • Bill

    Brilliant. You write so succinctly and say so much in so few words and manage to tie it all to a greater lesson. Who are you? What plane of evolution did you come from? How does it feel to be a tool of God?

  • Natalie

    You have said everything about Jack Bauer and 24 that I've never been able to put into words. I don't hang out with a group of people that watch the show regularly. I've never missed an episode. I've stayed true even when I wasn't enjoying the plotline or when something really made me mad (the torture is awful, of course – sometimes almost unwatchable. Plus I almost swore it off when Jack killed Curtis in season 6). I convinced my husband to watch it when we were first dating (smack in the middle of season 4), and he's a good sport, so he watches it with me, but I think he lost interest during season 6. I got some of his friends to watch it – they paid attention for a season or two but didn't like going week-to-week and kept saying "i'll wait for the DVDs". So I've been the only steady beacon in my life with regards to Jack Bauer, and no one could really understand the appeal – no one really got my tangents about how he represents the best and the worst of America.

    There was always torture in 24 – in season one Jack threatens to stuff a wet towel down a guy's throat in order to find out where his wife and daughter are being held. In season 2, he cuts off someone's head with a hacksaw. Season 6 certainly pushed the envelope, but I think it became more of an issue later on only because of the real-life allegations of torture like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. That led into the whole "violence from TV" debate – that 24 actually glorifies torture and violence (which I think is utter B.S., come on, people he's a fictional character. But to each his own). Jack is a violent man. He was trained to be the best at what he does, and he is the best. But Jack isn't some mindless torture machine. He has values, he has morals, and he always does (or at least tries to do) what he TRUELY believes is the right thing. Jack's dialogue with Renee Walker in Season 7 offers insight into his perspective on torture and its ramifications: “ I see fifteen people held hostage on a bus, and everything else goes out the window. I will do whatever it takes to save them, and I mean whatever it takes. … Laws were written by much smarter men than me. And in the end, these laws have to be more important than the 15 people on the bus. I know that's right. In my mind, I know that's right. I just don't think my heart could ever have lived with it." (thanks Wikipedia!) And that's how Jack lives – that's how many of the seasons start. He's out, then he's pulled back in (insert Godfather

    joke) because he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't do everything in his power to stop the bad things from happening. If a few terrorists (and some innocents) are tortured or killed along the way, isn't it worth it if many more lives are saved?

    But this season saw Jack cross that invisible line. He still maintained some measure of justification for his actions – that everyone killed was in some way responsible for the terror attacks or the cover-up – but he didn't fool anyone this time. He was out for blood. My husband said "He's finally become the Punisher." (click: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punisher) Was he doing it to punish the terrorists? Maybe. Was he doing it for revenge? Probably. But even at his worst, when he's in the darkest place he's ever been, Jack knows that if he pulled that trigger – if he assassinated the Russian president, he'd be no better than Charles Logan for facilitating the murder of David Palmer.

    Does America know these things? I hope so. America has the potential to be a shining example of equality and human rights for all. But like Jack, America has had to make compromises. Who is expendable? How is one life worth saving, and another may not be? How can we make peace

    without trust? Can there be order without justice? Can there be justice without truth? How can we torture some and protect others? How do we define terrorism and terrorists? Is it worth compromising all morals and all values to obtain information that could save thousands? What happens when our own government is involved, either in torture or terrorism?

    I don't know the answers to these questions. The writers of 24 maintain that they never intended the show to be a spotlight on some of the more unpleasant current events, but Jack Bauer seems to be a walking moral dilemma between what is right and what is wrong.

  • Natalie

    I was so sad when I found out Dick Cheney loved 24. I felt like I was a dirty terrible person for liking a show that neocons not only loved but glorified. But it was worth sticking with, and I know it wasn't written for only neocons. In fact, David Palmer was a democrat! It's the only political affiliation mentioned in the entire series, and it's only mentioned once in season 1.

  • Thanks, Tracey, very much. Love it.

  • Well, I think the important word here is “tool.”

    No, wait. Forget I said that. Never mind.

    Thank you, Bill, for this very kind compliment.

  • linda borowski

    i could not watch this series because of the neocons , who thought that they were like jack[sic] i am a losty, that jack had a journey that drew us all into the story line and taught us that we all can be redeemed. each character had it’s share of the dark and light side, therefore it was one of the most mesmerizing series ever.just my humble opinion!

  • Chills, John, I got chills! Seriously, though, I think you hit the nail on the head. Wonderful comparisons…and thanks for not bashing Jack. For all his baggage, I’ll still root for him!

  • Rosie Vitale

    I want more. I'm a 70 year old grandma, and I waited each week for my hour with Jack . I only took emergecy phone calls, and hated every commercial. I have only the movie and the hope that it does so well, that Jack will be back on "24" or whatever they want to call it. Thank you

  • Although you are so much more epic than me (I know no grandmas that watch 24!), I am with you! I turned off my phone (something I never do – I'm of the millenial generation!), didn't leave the room during commercials (I might miss something!), and wouldn't engage my husband in conversation.

    When the movie comes out, I will keep you in mind, and perhaps although we are in different locations, we can have solidarity in each other!