Sunday, August 10, 2003 by

As far as the extras who stood by knew, the President would collapse, then recover, get back in the car and drive off. So they would have been somewhat surprised when they watched the actual episode on television as Palmer lay on the ground gasping for breath, his heartbeat ticking out the final moments of this season of 24.

The subterfuge is revealed on the excellent documentary that appears on the DVD release of the series. The producers had lied to the crowd to protect the fidelity of this, arguably the most shocking of endings, from anyone who might want to post it on the internet – how could they trust them again?

Trust. It’s about an expectation from the viewer that the programme will take them on a particular journey from start to finish. In a cop show, the standard will be that a crime with be solved during the time we spend with the characters; in a sitcom something happens and hilarity ensues. 24 doesn’t care about any of that; it doesn’t have a genre exactly; it’s impossible even to tell what is going to happen from one episode to the next.

Events will occur in real time, but that’s all they’re promising. In the past there have been a number of artistic attempts to capture the real time events of a person or character or group of characters over an extended unbroken period, usually a day. German performance artists The Gob Squad recorded their vocal meanderings over a extended drive around Germany and presented it unedited in 18 half hour slices; on television the E4 feed of Big Brother captured much the same effect over a longer period. In TimeCode, Mike Figgis actually recorded an ensemble drama with overlapping plotlines in real time and presented the results in shots at four corners of the viewing screen. The John Badham film, Nick of Time offered a plot in which Johnny Depp’s daughter is kidnapped and he’s told he must kill a US Governer within 75 minutes or his child will die instead. The last two are the clearest influence on 24, at least in the first year; but it encompasses all of them to some extent, twisting them to offer a much richer experience. Real time is only part of the issue.

In the first five minutes of far too many shows to count it’s possible to clock the ending. In this series of 24 that has never been the case. By the end of the first hour the viewer knew that a bomb would be going off somewhere and that Jack Bauer needed to find out where. At this stage our assumption could only be that come hour 24 we’d be watching Jack’s last minute attempt to America the nuclear threat. At no point could we guess that instead he would be at a stadium trying to prove that a recording had been falsified in order to implicate three innocent countries in the bombing. And convince a new president that the retaliatory war, which could begin within moments, was illegal. Heck, the “baaamb” (as Jack insisted on calling it) was exploded mid-season.

The potential death of Palmer was another example of the sheer unpredictability of the series; that he may have been assassinated by Mandy, who had lit the fuse of the first series, simply could not have been foreseen. It was an utterly audacious move and offered the possibility that the hoods who had been buzzing about both series were at the behest of an even larger organization to be revealed in the following season. And we thought they were making it up as they went along.

This final episode was breathtaking entertainment, which wore its filmic influences in its sleeve. The aforementioned stadium scene looked like it had been cut in from a 1970s political thriller directed by Alan Pakula. You almost expected Warren Beatty or Robert Redford to turn up in a corduroy suit with some other piece of evidence. After all the scrabbling about in the dark at the end of the first series, they were making the most of the sunlight with this massive location. For some reason, though, it felt slightly wrong that after all the corridors, rooms and basements the final scenes should take place here. It created angles and vantage points, and places for Bauer to pick people off, but overall it was a vastness which didn’t seem true to the rest of the series. It could be mostly excused though because of the entertainment value of seeing Sherry Palmer legging it across the stalls, running away from having to have a confrontation which didn’t involve her silver tongue.

The most important aspect of the episode was that, before the cliffhanger, all the loose ends which might have been forgotten in lesser series were tied up. Having been proven right Tony and Michelle (whose brother was still knocking about the holding cells) got their old jobs back, the former glaring down his boss Chappelle: “Either fire me or get out of my chair.” They had their moment in which potential romance continued to blossom.

The Warner family so disliked in the early episodes because of their interminable wedding day were reunited. Silence of the Lambs was referenced as the now utterly psychotic Marie Warner simply sat chillingly as her father wanted answers and while sister Kate advised him that they wouldn’t get any. “You think you’ll be safe out there.” Marie whispered. “You won’t.”

Meanwhile Calamity Kim Bauer was finally re-united with her father after 24 hours and didn’t manage to trip over anything. Kim has been a real weakness this year taking part in storylines without any real connection to the main thrust. Her role just seemed to be something to cut to when everyone one else was driving their car or searching for something on a computer. The most shocking example of this kind of shoehorning appeared in hour 22 two when her father’s plot effectively paused while he talked her into defending herself.

Some have written that to end this series with a cliffhanger was an unsatisfying move. Personally I would have been disappointed if it hadn’t. For me the end of the first series hadn’t worked because the death of Teri Bauer had felt like an after thought and an appalling pay off considering what she’d been through that day (including the amnesia). The wait for the next series was more about what else can be done with the format rather than what is going to happen with the characters. In this series the opposite is true. We want to know what Jack whispered to former lover turned enemy agent Nina Myers all those hours ago; who were the men in the cafĂ© and on the boat, how do they fit into all of this; will the president survive? If the viewer is wondering from week to week, why not month to month?

Will Palmer die? I hope so. What I mean to say is, the governmental shenanigans have now been played out and its difficult to see what else can be done. The next series needs to be even tighter, even more about the characters and their lives, about the small emergencies rather than those on a global scale. Interestingly we know it’s happening three years hence (therefore in the future) which will be plenty of time for Palmer to recover (or not) and to give Kim Bauer a plotline which isn’t completely irrelevant to the main story, and for the status quo to change utterly (fingers crossed for Tony and Michelle). But whatever happens during those next 24 hours, I think we can be confident it’s going to be something very special indeed.


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