After a somewhat bumpy start to the season, 24 is thankfully finding its feet again, delivering a well-constructed and refreshingly open-ended episode that proves eminently rewarding. The vast majority of the narrative strands in '8pm - 9pm' are distinctly scant, featuring little in the way of intricate minutiae. Key information is crucially withheld - the story behind the 'good brother's infection, details of the events in Kamistan, the nuances of Renee's history with Vladimir (well, until Jack unearths some of it, that is) - and as such, the stories feel loaded with possibility and, in several instances, unpredictable. Such surface-scratching steers the narrative away from inevitability, around obvious conclusions and pay-offs, and helps to disguise the fact that this is, in essence, a transitional hour, which is something that the show's writers have notoriously struggled with in the past.
As is perhaps to be expected, the episodic highlight is undoubtedly the continuation of Jack and Renee's undercover operation. Annie Werschung is outstanding throughout: whether she's convincing Zia that sawing off his thumb is a good idea (credit, once again, to Joseph Hodges for a wonderfully grizzly visual depiction of the horror of the situation), confronting Vladimir for the first time in however many years, begrudgingly confessing her troubled past with the guy to Jack or proving herself to her would-be assassins at hour's end, the actress pitches every single line beautifully, with just the right mix of stern-faced cold-heartedness and introspective melancholia to delineate the character's fragility. Kiefer effectively takes back seat to all of this, acting as her foil, and it's clear that he's quite willing to do so, given that this is truly brilliant stuff. Indeed, it's somewhat refreshing to have the microscope turned so vividly on a character other than Jack Bauer; over the course of the show's eight years, our superhuman hero has been put through the emotional wringer so many times, and with so much gusto, that it's hard to imagine what more there could possibly be to maintain our interest. The effect this life has on his family? Been there, done that. Emotional tiredness from all the sick and twisted things he's done or been subjected to? Meh, old news. The morality vs. expediency debate? Please, change the channel. What is intriguing though is the focus on another, less well explored, character and through this, the effect it may have on our protagonist.
It is a stroke of absolute genius to turn Walker in this manner, and in such a starkly contrasting fashion to the woman we knew in the previous season, because really, 24's never done it before. There is a palpable feeling of uncertainty running the course of the narrative: you just don't know where they'll go next, how Renee's instability will manifest itself. The first confrontation with Vladimir is loaded with tension precisely because you feel like she might snap and start slitting throats at any minute. And then there's her potential death; now, rationally, it's clear that Walker is not going to snuff it, given that the likelihood of the production crew bringing back an actress of Werschung's calibre for a meagre two hours is about as great as the Pope declaring tomorrow International Orgy Day, but credit to both she and the writing team for making it seem entirely possible, even if only for a split second. From a storytelling perspective, the uncertainty is considerable. It feels entirely like she could go the way of Zia, unceremoniously dumped into the sea (how awesome, by the way), at any moment, even when she's delivering her harrowingly psychoanalytical monologue. This is truly stellar stuff, wonderfully written and executed, cutting right to the heart of the character's agony without ever seeming extraneous or forced. The scene is considerably moving, and the added increment of Bauer's quietly desperate observation only intensifies its power. His coda, "they bought her cover", provides the perfect episodic period on the situation, summarising the scenario in beautifully understated fashion.
Amongst all of this incredible material, it's easy to forget about the episode's other myriad highlights. The journey that the Brothers Grimm take to the hospital, in order for the guy who's been Rod Stewarted to receive some snappy treatment, is an interesting little C-storyline that benefits greatly from its obliqueness. As mentioned earlier, we know little to nothing about these characters, which makes their interplay all the more believable and intriguing. It is definitely good to see a familial verismilitude amongst the 'bad guy' element, if you will, that isn't simply an unknowing, innocent lover or mildly misguided son who has second thoughts about what he's doing. Speaking of relations, Farhad's slippery, slimy descent into 24 villaindom continues apace as he shows little to no sympathy for the Roded one, communicates with fellow insurgents and anti-Omarists in his home country of the unbelievably-made-up-and-laughably-named Kamistan (which, it should be noted, is a nice touch in itself, allowing the viewer to appreciate the story's wider socio-political context) and then bags himself a couple of willing prossies to boot. Nice work if you can get it, eh? His brother doesn't get quite such a break, however, as he's hauled over the coals by President Taylor for rounding up and executing those that he believes to be a threat to the stability of his regime back at home. Again, this adds a much welcome political dimension to the show that is actually grounded in factual event. All too often, 24 tends to gloss over the consequences of attempted terrorism by foreign interests on US soil for the countries involved. Here, we get to see a head of state being proactive and making a response, and that it is a morally murky one only adds to the brilliance of the concept. This is highly complex stuff, and the writers treat it with the respectful ambivalence that it deserves. There is no right or wrong answer; the viewer empathises with both Kapoor and Jones and is able to appreciate the gravitas of the whole situation. This sort of thing is far, far more welcome than the sort of internal backstabbing and nepotism or emotional blackmail that has dogged the Presidential storyline in seasons past. More please.
The only weakness in '8pm - 9pm's well-woven tapestry is the furtherance of Katie Sackhoff's extraneous storyline. While the actress' general all round brilliance has been sufficient to keep this element of the show afloat for the past few episodes, now that it has opened up to reveal some of the detail behind past events and has been given more than the occasional minute and a half of screentime, even this cannot disguise the fact that the whole thing is utterly and hopelessly irrelevant. Sure, the cast involved all do a fairly admirable job of playing their respective roles, even if Dana amounts to little more than a wet fish and Kevin is a one-dimensional loutish stereotype, but come on... do we really need to press pause on the progression of the central, super-intense, edge-of-your-seat dramatic narrative in order to find out that Dana was in prison for accessory to murder when she was a minor? And to have her psycho ex-boyfriend push her around and threaten her life if she doesn't get him, "mwah ha ha ha, 1 million dollars!" (or some such)? Guys, this is all resolutely uninteresting, the sort of soap opera filler that would do well to maintain the interest of an As The World Turns viewer, never mind a 24 one. The narrative trajectory doesn't look particularly promising either; what are the odds that the next episode is spent scrambling for the money, then Ortiz'll find out what's going on, episode seven will see him struggle with her lies and by the end, he'll promise to stand by her and 'sort it out' (without telling her what that means), and then in episode eight, he'll gun down Kevin and his layabout friend, dump the bodies and pretend he just convinced them to fly to Bermuda for an extended vacation? Actually, maybe that's wishful thinking. That would only take the story to an additional three episodes. We're gonna spend at least half the season on this gumf, for sure.
Aside from the regrettably lengthy and thoroughly uninteresting nature of poor Katie Sackhoff's plot, '8pm - 9pm' is a considerably solid episode of 24. The script is mostly taut and occasionally unpredictable, and has a great deal of forward momentum that bodes well for the direction that the central narrative looks set to take in the next few episodes. Kiefer Sutherland and Annie Wershung continue to steal the show with a series of absolutely stellar scenes between Jack and Renee, and the writing staff's decision to intricately explore the tortured nature of Walker's character pays off exceptionally well. All that and very little Brian Hastings to boot. Win!