During the latter half of Monday’s “24: Live Another Day” finale, the franchise delivers one of its most gripping, powerful, resonant scenes to date.
Populated with imagery that is neither pretentiously subtle nor tastelessly overt, one of star Kiefer Sutherland’s strongest performances (amid a seamlessly infinite sea of them) and a development that is as is important for its reflection on what transpired as it is for how it will impact what will transpire, the scene transcends even the most optimistic expectations for the rebooted “24” event.
A sign of trust in the viewers’ appreciation for the narrative and faith in the viewers’ investment in the outcome, the moment reflects why a show four years removed from the limelight and eight years removed from its prime can still elicit viewer passion like nothing else on television.
It reflects how a season that initially seemed like a half-hearted exercise in fan service turned into a superb one.
“24: Live Another Day,” more than not only virtually every other show on television but also the previous three “24” seasons, knows its characters. It knows what they value. It knows what makes them tick. It knows how they will respond.
Suffering from reduced stakes, an affinity for introducing undeveloped twists and character complacency, the sixth, seventh and eighth “24” seasons failed to adequately tap into that knowledge. Jack was still good for an epic “Dammit” and Chloe still offered her endearing flavor of quirkiness, but they–and the other key characters–started to operate more as pawns to react to the various twists and turns than organic beings of emotion.
“24,” dating back to its iconic first season, has always relied on an abundance of twists (including the infamous “mole reveal”), but those twists were only able to register because the show had prioritized the connection between the characters, their circumstances and the viewers looking on.
At a certain point, the priority question shifted from “what can we do to meaningfully impact these characters” to “what can we do to expand the aura of unpredictability.” And once that became the case, the investment viewers were willing to offer, belief they were willing to suspend and tears they were willing to shed all dramatically reduced in magnitude.
“24” viewers have always appreciated the show’s twists, but their top ambition while watching was never to be awestruck by the writers’ flair for the unexpected. It was always to be awestruck by the emotional and physical significance of the challenges placed before the characters. Seeing how they would respond to impossibly adverse situations–and how they would deal with the threat of tragedy that accompanied those situations–was and continues to be the chief motivation for watching “24.”
After veering off course for three consecutive seasons, “24” began righting its ship within the first few episodes of “Live Another Day.” Save for the clunky premiere that presented the thinnest possible version of a “24” storyline and the most superficial possible versions of the key characters, “Live Another Day” immediately located a level of focus and energy that had been conspicuously absent from the latter portion of the show’s original run.
Instead of concerning itself with communicating the masterful nuance of the terror plot, it concerned itself with the impact of the associated events. It remembered that viewers care more about characters like Jack, Chloe, Audrey, Heller and, based on focused writing and a committed performance from Yvonne Strahovski, Kate than they do the fictional universe. It is through its impact on the key characters–not due to the repetition of stats about how a war could be started or thousands of people died–that disaster on a show like “24” comes to life.
In addition to establishing stakes for the outcome, the revitalized “24” storytelling approach also provided motivations for the characters. This season did not simply rest its laurels on the notion of Jack Bauer fighting terrorists–it built drama from the personal connection he had to Audrey and President Heller. It built action from the personal trust he placed in longtime colleague and friend Chloe. It built humanity from the instant bond he struck with Kate and instant rivalry he established with Mark. This was not Jack Bauer, action hero, saving the day. It was Jack Bauer, flawed, broken but still emotionally empowered man, drawing from that empowerment to achieve his heroics.
Perhaps a product of the halved episode order or perhaps a product of the writers feeling rejuvenated, “24: Live Another Day” operated with a welcome sense of restraint and expediency. Whereas a weaker iteration of “24” might have initially attempted to portray Steve Navarro or Adrian Cross as altruistic to sell the shock of their eventual betrayals, “Live Another Day” did little to mask their intentions. It, refreshingly, did not care that many viewers were able to “guess” they were working for another side because the value of their betrayals was not rooted in shock. Save for the slight impact Cross’ betrayal had on Chloe (who, ultimately, still cares more about possibly ruining Jack’s mission than she does a devious, murdered ex-lover), the value of such “twists” was defined by the obstacles they created for the key characters.
“24: Live Another Day” did not want viewers to scream, “Oh my God, Navarro’s a mole!” It wanted viewers to worry about how Jack, Kate, Chloe and the rest of the team would recapture the override device before the consequences turned dire.
And insofar as it was used effectively, the restraint did not prevent important characters from establishing themselves with viewers. Details of the frame job behind Kate’s husband’s imprisonment (and suicide) were all delivered in exposition, but the character’s integration into the key storyline and trusting, respectful relationship with Jack assured that she became three-dimensional for viewers anyway. It assured that they would care, albeit not as strongly, about her ending in Monday’s finale alongside the endings awaiting Jack, Audrey, Chloe and Heller.
Driven by the right priorities, “24: Live Another Day” also knew when to draw upon shortcuts. Needing “big bads” to cast a shadow over the narrative as it approached its conclusion, “24” turned to Cheng Zhi and “The Russians.” Recognizable for their legitimacy as threats and for their history with Bauer, the characters added immediacy that could not be rivaled by newly introduced villains.
Tate Donovan’s Mark Boudreau, meanwhile, escalated into a more memorable nuisance not simply due to the actor’s strong performance but due to his marriage to Bauer’s former flame Audrey. With the source of animosity already evident to viewers, “Live Another Day” was able to concern itself with revealing how the impact of the animosity would throw Jack’s effort–and the fate of the world–into jeopardy.
Of course, the expert craftsmanship and legitimate emotion of the first eleven hours would have been for naught if the show did not stick the landing in the twelfth hour (which actually jumps from 10PM to 11AM on the show’s clock).
It is also because of the expert craftsmanship and legitimate emotion of the first eleven hours that the finale is a sensational episode of television. Committed wholeheartedly to the story that was being told and the outcomes that were being earned throughout the season, Monday’s finale is as effective as season finales get.
Nothing that happens is utterly outrageous or unpredictable, and the finale is undoubtedly better for it. Instead of shoehorning in a creatively seismic but emotionally vacant twist, “Live Another Day” trusts the natural momentum of the season–and thirteen years of character development, relationships and tragedies that preceded it–to steer the “Day” to its most natural, most meaningful conclusion.
In some cases, that conclusion involves heartbreak. In others, it involves serious contemplation of one’s worth. In others, still, it involves acquiring a renewed appreciation for what–and who–is most important. In others, it means securing a just, satisfactory outcome for all involved.
“24” finales, almost by rule, require elements of unhappiness, and this one is no different. But because those elements are so earned, sincere and faithful to the season and series, they transcend the usual level of emotional resonance. They serve to completely shake the foundation on which these characters exist, and they play a pivotal role in creating the season’s poignant final few images.
Most notable about the season finale is that the brilliance–and that is a word many will use to describe the episode–comes not from the conception of any individual scene or story thread but from the application to the “24” universe. Scenes with dialogue that would be considered saccharine in some environments or cliched in others work because of how well they align with the “24” characters and ongoing narrative.
While not as strong as the scene referenced at the start of the review, one of the episode’s closing visuals epitomizes this concept. For some writers, the concept would lack the creativity and ingenuity needed to warrant such a prominent position in the show.
For the reborn “24” writers, the concept provides a perfect platform for declaring the most important, most fundamental truth of “24.”
An unimaginable assortment of evil, tragedy and victory will take place each season. Viewers will remember some elements of that assortment and forget many others.
But no matter what, they will remember–and either cherish or resent–the impact those elements had on the characters, both as individuals and as souls who are united by cause and circumstance.
Whether this shot proves to be the introduction to another chapter of “24” or its final moment, you will feel–and never forget–its power.
FOX’s “24: Live Another Day” finale airs at 9PM ET on Monday, July 14, 2014