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05.23.10

24's Tortured, Torturing Hero

Jack Bauer’s TV journey ends tonight—Denise Martin argues that both he and 24 have embodied the past decade’s turbulent politics. Plus, WATCH VIDEO of Jack’s 10 craziest kills.

In the end, Jack Bauer is a man wrecked, snapped after eight extraordinary days of putting America’s do-or-die needs before his own.

When the final season of espionage drama 24 draws to a close tonight, the tortured—and torturing—über-agent continues his rampage. Jack has been on a revenge-driven bender for several episodes, violently murdering anyone and everyone connected to the death of his fellow agent and lover Renee Walker. Pity the foolish Russian assassin who swallowed critical evidence; he was beaten, blow-torched and disemboweled. Even Jack’s long-time ally, tech whiz Chloe O’Brien, knows that this time he’s gone too far.

Click the Image to Watch Video of Jack Bauer’s 10 Craziest Kills

It’s been a long, hard road for pop culture’s pre-eminent post-9/11 hero, whose journey reflects the turbulent politics of the last decade.

Throughout eight seasons Jack, embodied with steely resolve by Kiefer Sutherland, has repeatedly saved the country from terrorist plots (not to mention more than one nuclear explosion). But working for, and sometimes against, the fictional government agency Counter Terrorism Unit has cost Jack his sanity and more than a few loved ones. He’s tortured his own brother, endured the assassination of friends, and even killed innocent colleagues to prevent larger threats.

The show was hatched as a smart action thriller, with Jack as its noble center, and a novel real-time narrative as its gimmick. But when 24 debuted on Fox in 2001, less than eight weeks after the 9/11 attacks, it was instantly super-charged with meaning—though it didn’t become an actual hit until its second season. An escapist fantasy to be sure, Jack’s heroics also served as a well-timed, black-and-white answer to the nation’s collective anxiety and anger. Here was a whatever-it-takes warrior whose aggressive methods of coercion on television seemed justified, even cathartic, given what had been lost in the real world.

It was no surprise when the show found an especially vocal following among the Bush administration and conservative pundits, many of who held up Jack as the model patriot: A pissed off man-at-large in the War on Terror, breaking traitors down one finger at a time.

But after several seasons of torturing his way to victory, headlines began to clash with the drama. Graphic accounts of prisoner abuse inflicted by American personnel at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo emerged. The national mood grew increasingly divided. Suddenly, Jack’s bloodied fists and rogue swagger didn’t seem so sexy to its creative team.

“It didn’t seem distasteful until then,” executive producer Howard Gordon told The Daily Beast last week.

24 is really an action show,” Gordon said. “You may as well take every action hero from John McClane to Rambo to Dirty Harry and say they’re all repugnant anti-heroes that should be tried and convicted.”

Yet some conservatives viewed the continued popularity of 24 as a sign of support; in 2006, the show averaged nearly 14 million viewers. That summer, conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation approached producers about hosting a panel—“ 24 and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does It Matter?”—during which then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff praised the show's depiction of the war on terrorism as “trying to make the best choice with a series of bad options. … Frankly, it reflects real life.”

(And still today, the image of Jack Bauer remains linked to the national debate on torture.)

Gordon, a registered Democrat, recalled how the right-wing’s warm embrace marked a turning point for the show. “The idea was patently absurd that the show was a mouthpiece for any point of view,” he said. “That Jack Bauer was suddenly the poster child for this misbehavior, that there was this presumption of causality for misbehavior in the field among interrogators taking their cues from him? You know, we have graver systemic problems if that’s the case.”

Still, producers understood that Jack and the world he lived in needed to evolve with the political climate. “It was a conundrum,” Gordon said. “What do you do without sort of calling Jack Bauer a war criminal and disabusing the show?"

At the outset of Season 7 in Jan. 2009, Jack was forced to testify in a Senate hearing on human rights violations and sparred with fiery FBI special agent Walker, who initially recoiled at Jack’s violent reputation. And soon after the U.S. had installed Barack Obama as its new leader in real-life, Jack faced a new kind of adversary in the form of morally righteous President Allison Taylor (played by Cherry Jones), who was unbending in her anti-torture stance.

That season also saw Jack’s torture tactics backfire when he got too tough with an innocent bystander he suspected of terrorism. By the end of those 24 hours, Jack was on his deathbed, asking for forgiveness of his “sins.”

“He can’t stop being Jack, and he can’t renounce his character or his behavior, but he gets to the point where he’s questioning it. He‘s not so sure anymore, and he can‘t forgive himself for some of his actions,” Gordon said. “We don’t come to conclusions, but hopefully we presented a more nuanced kind of situation about a very complex issue.”

Those decisions also set the stakes for Jack’s final meltdown this season, as it appears the guilt and loss have finally caught up to him.

It doesn’t spoil the finale to say Jack will live on. A feature film is planned to continue his story. Whereas Jack reached his last straw on television, Gordon said the movie will revolve around “Jack trying to find his way home again.”

By any means necessary? If that's what the times call for...

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Denise Martin is a former television reporter for Variety and staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. She has also written for The Advocate, Premiere and The Hollywood Reporter and has a degree from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.