The post-9/11, Too Soon To era in American culture has been over for a long time. The brief period when it was deemed Too Soon To have movies and TV shows blowing up people, planes and buildings lasted, what?, 15 minutes? And last weekend the movie United 93 was rewarded with a strong 2nd-place debut for invading the sanctum sanctorum of our repressed 9/11 memories, recreating and reimagining the passenger rebellion on the doomed plane. (As usual TV got there first and with less attention, with hugely rated specials on Discovery and A&E.)
For all that, there was something more chilling than usual about this week’s 24, in which Jack Bauer executed a sort of Flight 93 rebellion in reverse, stowing onto a flight and taking it over to get to the co-pilot, who was ferrying an important recording for terrorists. Especially after all the publicity for United 93, you couldn’t help feeling complicit cheering for Bauer as he snuck out off the hatch, took an air marshal’s gun and took over the cockpit in front of the horrified, helpless passengers, who had to be thinking — well, you know exactly what they were thinking, and that provided the unspoken power of the scene. There was even a little nod to the idea of the post-Flight-93 empowered passenger, as one man got out of his seat and looked ready to attack Bauer, who quickly changed the guy’s mind by brandishing the marshal’s gun.
That said, it was one of the most impressive standalone episodes the series has ever done. During the overpraised season 4, I thought the series had run out of creative options, as its plot lurched from crisis to crisis — meltdown! missile attack! — but this year the series has become more exciting, paradoxically, by lowering the stakes and making the scale more intimate. This year’s WMD du jour, a nerve gas attack, was only the scene setting for the showdown betweeen Jack Bauer and the craven, corrupt President Logan.
The CTU on 24 accomplishes a lot with technology, an idea that last night’s episode played with by having fugitive techie Chloe aid Jack using a cell phone, a laptop and a hotel bar’s wi-fi hookup. But 24’s real, primal power comes from episodes like last night’s, where Bauer commandeered a piece of 21st-century flying equipment using, literally, his bare hands — at one point exposing cables controlling the plane’s rudders and yanking on them to threaten the pilot into complying. What’s thrilling, and horrifying, is what we’ve seen that other people can do using little more than brute force, audacity and imagination, and why, in the world of 24 anyway, we need someone as improvisatory and ruthless as Bauer to stop them. This is the thrill and the horror of 24: Jack Bauer is, at heart, a terrorist. But at least he’s our terrorist.