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''24'': Civilian deaths

On ”24,” after the bad guys release nerve gas in a food court, Jack saves hundreds of lives but loses the trail

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Kiefer Sutherland: Anthony Mandler


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In Season

”24”: Civilian deaths

For a series that is, on the surface, all about the action that takes place over the space of a single day, this season’s 24 has been doing a remarkably good, detailed job of exploring long-term moral and political decision making. This episode was a primo example. Jack, hostage to two terrorists heading for a shopping mall to release nerve gas, was in communication with CTU headquarters via a tiny ear microphone. The dilemma: Should Jack allow the baddies to release the gas and kill hundreds of shoppers because the killers could ultimately lead him to the evil Ivan Erwich, a crucial link to the source of this entire dire plot? Or should he try to neutralize the two terrorists before they polluted the mall and thus lose Erwich’s trail?

CTU wanted to weigh in on this decision from its headquarters. There, Sean Astin’s Lynn was all for allowing collateral damage — i.e., gassing innocent mall consumers — if he could, as he rationalized it, let one canister of nerve gas be opened so that the other 19 might be found. On the other side of the debate was Kim Raver’s Audrey, who found this repugnant and unacceptable. Who ya gonna call? Why, President Logan, of course. In another great series of scenes involving the rubbery spine of 24‘s current president, Lynn got the leader of the free world on the phone. At first, Logan tried to — what does he do best? — pass the buck: ”This is a field operation,” he croaked. ”It’s up to you.” Nope, said Bill Buchanan. With all due respect, Mr. Prez, the gas is in your court. It didn’t take long for Logan to buckle: ”You’re forcing me to make a terrible decision….Release the Sentox!” For this president, political expediency is all.

Audrey’s plea played into cultural stereotypes that women are softer, more sentimental, more emotional than men, but in this case, her point is undeniably valid, and the 24 writers put the alternative argument in the mealy mouths of Lynn and the president. Plus, who got the most ”sentimental” scene of this hour? Jack, when he doffed his gas mask to save a little girl. I’m not ridiculing this scene — it was an effective moment of heroic pathos. I point it out as an example of how artful and adroit the writers are; they keep not only Jack but all of us on our mental toes. (”Mental toes” — sheesh, sorry; I’ll work on better metaphors.)

In any case, Jack did his own thing anyway. I mean, do these characters always forget that the president gave Jack ”full autonomy”? He doesn’t need any lousy orders from Lynn or even the president: Logan gave Jack permission to assess a given situation and act as he sees fit. Which meant throwing CTU headquarters into chaos when he went ballistic on the two terrorists, got knocked out and handcuffed before a commercial break, came to after the break, donned a gas mark, and launched himself into the mall to both turn off the ventilation system and get the bad guys.

What resulted was one of the best all-time 24 action scenes: Jack, his face covered with a big mask that made him look like a nasty bug in human form, tore across a mall food court. People scattered, screaming as much at the sight of Jack as at the mall’s announcement that they needed to evacuate. I love action scenes that take place in environments that are usually calm, even boring — placing Jack in a food court, dodging plastic tables and wobbly shoppers, was inspired staging on the part of the producers.

In the end, the little girl lived, and we were told that ”fatalities will be limited to 10 to 20 people.” And, oh yeah — boy, is Jean Smart’s First Lady angry that her hubby again made a major decision she thought was cynical and wrong. The only flaw in the construction of last night’s episode is that it repeated an action we’d seen too recently: Once again, at the last minute, a bad guy was shot before Jack could pump him for information, just like last week’s closing-moments killing of Rossler. But that’s a small quibble for a stand-out edition, and just think: We still haven’t seen daughter Kim’s return, or the introduction of guest star Peter ”Robocop” Weller’s new character. Things can only get better as Jack’s life gets worse.

What do you think? Should Jack have obeyed the president’s order, losing more lives but upping the moral and dramatic stakes? Do you think they’re having this of knotty philosophical debate over at the Grey’s Anatomy TV Watch?