24: Welcome to Jack's Nightmare

Maybe I’ve been watching too much of the NBA playoffs. Or possibly the Manhattan setting for this year’s 24 put me in a New York state of mind. But as I watched Jack Bauer work his way through his toolbox from hell before he quite literally extracted evidence from the Russian agent and sniper Pavel, I was caught between two reactions. Both of them are best expressed by Marv Albert:

A. Yessssss! And it counts!

B. Oooooooh! That had to hurt!

Way back after this season’s first episode, when Jack returned to the field instead of becoming the most badass grandpa in a SoCal preschool parking lot, I wrote that he wasn’t just heading out onto the streets of Manhattan. The reality was that he was going back to Jackistan—a place where nightmares, and not dreams, are made.

This week, we saw just what a dark and lawless place Jackistan can be. This is the stateless mental and emotional landscape that Jack Bauer operates in. As much as 24 fans revel in Jack’s ability to outsmart and out-tough whatever is thrown at him, he’s not a super-hero. Granted, the dude bounces back pretty quickly from a knife to the gut and the occasional gunshot wound, but we all sometimes forget that he’s flesh-and-blood.

Last night, Jack Bauer was both the torturer and the tortured. When he spoke to reporters last Friday, 24 executive producer Howard Gordon described the show as a “tragedy.” Gordon also said that it would be artificial, after everything Jack has been through, to deliver him to some kind of happy ending. No, I never expected him to turn up on Dancing With The Stars. But what added to the shock of last night’s episode was that I didn’t expect Jack Bauer to end up as Dexter, either.

Hard as it was to watch, Jack’s little Q & No A with Pavel had a certain truth to it. And it was about more than Renee, too. What we saw was the sum of all the betrayals Jack has endured, the moral compromises he's made, and the mayhem he has inflicted over the years. As Gordon said, there’s never been a reset button for Jack Bauer.

Last night, we saw both sides of Jack. There he was, moving nimbly through the racks of ladies' casual on the third floor of Turner’s Department Store before deftly taking out a squadron of back-up baddies. We’re so accustomed to him doing what he has to do that the swift justice and violence he administered barely registered. Besides, they were hunting him.

But Pavel? That was personal. With blood literally on his hands, Jack brought down his full wrath. We got some vintage Jack, such as his little tap to the cheek and “You first!” response when Pavel told him to go to hell. His breakdown of how the Russian shot Renee to guarantee maximum suffering helped make what was to come a bit more understandable. He even delivered an “I give you my word” before Pavel spit in his face. That was not a good idea, and what ensued may have been the most brutal and graphic (at least in audio) torture sequence we’ve ever witnessed on 24.

Jack provided a moment and Jackism that many 24 connoisseurs will cherish forever: “You dumb bastard, you swallowed it. You swallowed it! This is from my friend.” Insert knife here, remove, then cleanse SIM card. Revel, if you like, in Jack’s actions; it was certainly hard to find much sympathy for the likes of Pavel. But triumphant he wasn't: If a man wielding an acetylene torch and caramelizing a now-defenseless adversary’s abdomen can ever be described as vulnerable, then that man was Jack Bauer. “All you had to do was leave us alone,” he told Pavel. “Why couldn’t you just leave us alone?”

It's tough to see Jack like this, tough to see him committing these acts. He has done it all before, saving cities, his country, his President, his family, his friends, and maybe lost himself along the way. Last week, I said it was Jack against the world. But he’s got a bigger battle on his hands. Because now it’s Jack Bauer vs. Jack Bauer.

Do you think that Jack went too far on last night's episode? Or was he just getting the job done as he always has in the past?

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