Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jack and Renee's undercover soiree continues to be the best thing about 24, with both Sutherland and Werschung acting their little socks off to create something truly captivating. For whatever reason, as soon as the writing staff turn their attention to these characters, they automatically become about ten times better at scripting dialogue (or maybe it's just that the actors are so talented that they can disguise the hokum nature of what they're given). The dynamic between these two, the desperate determination of Jack and the resigned melancholia of Renee, is mesmerising and creates a far greater level of suspense than most of the show's extraneous dramatic events. It helps that they have an excellent foil in Battlestar Galactica's 2 (or Leoben), who plays the duplicitous Vladimir. His quietly methodical portrayal makes for something truly sinister.
It is a slight pity that the writers play the 'madcap' card so early in the day; it would've been nice to see a more tempered progression towards the sort of ruthless masochism and misogyny that is depicted here. Did he really need to threaten Renee so soon after being reunited with her? Was it necessary for him to lapse immediately back to his aggressive ways? Some build would have been nice, as this suddenness gives the story a slightly artificial after taste. Plus, the two make the beast with two backs in the space of about five minutes. We cut to commercial and... bang! That's it. All over. While it's tempting to suggest that this says rather a lot about Vladimir, it's likelier that it as such for convenience's sake. Still, for the most part, this is all very good stuff, and it only improves when Jack shows up dressed like Great Uncle Hans, complete with ludicrous glasses, and starts speaking in plain English with an American accent. If they'd gone the 'cod German' route, this would have fallen flat on its face. Thankfully, we are spared Sutherland's attempts to pronounce his 'w's as 'v's and consequently, we are able to invest in the dramatic tension of the narrative without any niggling distractions.
Elsewhere, President Hassan's predicament proves to be somewhat interesting as the writers continue to layer his character. His knee jerk reaction to the assassination attempt counters our previous impressions but helps to give a more rounded and believable political viewpoint. This works in conjunction with the problems facing Taylor to manufacture some intriguing political manoeuvring, and the inclusion of the European representatives only magnifies this, lifting the urgency and significance of the plot by incorporating a macrocosmic element. Kensei's attempts to save his desperately ill brother are also rather entertaining, even if the boy's murder at episode's end is completely predicable. The only truly problematic storyline belongs to poor old Katee Sackhoff, who must, by now, be thoroughly sick to the back teeth of the pointlessness of what she's been given. No longer is this a passable deviation with some nice acting (well, from Sackhoff anyway). Now it just irritates. The story completely obliterates the narrative's forward momentum and is made even worse by the fact that it's woefully obvious that Agent Ortiz is just going to find everything out and 'bury' (or some such euphemism) Evil Kevin. Couple that with Arlo's frustratingly smarmy attitude to the whole thing and the terrible, terrible combination of 'please, won't you stare at my ass as I walk past?' with an actual shot of Chloe's ass and you've got a cringeworthy load of gumf that the show would be infinitely better without.
Generally, '9pm - 10pm' is a fairly solid episode with some interesting plot developments, a number of excellently written and executed scenes (usually involving Sutherland and Werschung) and a great deal of forward momentum. It's just a shame that a horribly redundant storyline and a handful of minor niggles prevent it from being truly great.