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''24'': When one plot closes, another opens

On ”24,” the terrorist’s plot ends when Jack hangs him, but then the Chinese-government bad guys threaten to kill Audrey

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”24”: When one plot closes, another opens

Let’s give hour 17 of 24 its due — it was the most twisty, provocative edition since this season’s premiere, even if the strain was showing and many of the season-long blunders couldn’t be papered over by this week’s risk-taking script. I got the feeling that writer David Fury, who’s done fine work for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Lost, was multitasking like crazy: He had to convince us that President Palmer was capable of pulling a switcheroo on Fayed’s countrymen, he had to get Jack back into the center of his own show, and he had to pull off the surprise ending showing us that Audrey is still alive.

A lot of you guessed at the end of last week’s TV Watch that the president was bluffing in launching a nuclear strike, and you were correct. But it was interesting to me that Palmer gave Vice President Daniels credit for ”initiating” the ”gambit” that allowed Palmer to engineer such a bluff. In other words, he was admitting that there was some wisdom in Daniels’ belief that the hostile foreign nation had to be threatened with nothing less than a nuclear attack to compel an admission of its complicity with terrorism. Since Daniels was previously shown to be barking orders in a manner that suggested zealotry rather than levelheaded policy making, this still seems a misguided strategy on the part of Palmer, but I guess we’re supposed to say, what the heck, it worked, right? The ambassador got his country to admit that a General Habib working inside its government was indeed collaborating with the terrorists, thus at least partially justifying Daniels’ let’s-bomb-them-to-smithereens philosophy. The message: Dr. Strangelove Daniels isn’t a kook after all! Is that what 24 really wants us to think? If so: Ick.

Being the credulous type, I usually fall for fake-outs like the one that involved getting Jack’s car sideswiped and Fayed transferred to a truck containing terrorist-cell members, but not this time (and I’ll bet you figured it out before I did). TV heroes simply never take their eyes off the road long enough for something this major to occur, and so I found that whole ruse something of a time waster — a long setup to ultimately get Jack riding under a different vehicle, a fast-moving sanitation truck, for the kind of action that’s as old, yet still as dramatically effective, as when they used to have cowboy heroes hide under moving stagecoaches.

By far the lamest moments this week were those CTU scenes where Milo was glowering at Nadia for her mild expression of concern for Doyle. (”The guy’s a creep and a sadist!” Yeah, yeah, Milo — so you’ve said before.) Was this lover-boy jealousy? Who knows? Do you care?

Back to Jack: He got the president to try some of Jack’s patented torture techniques (”Have you threatened to kill him?”) and so a beaten Habib, seeing what I assume was his family being threatened as well, gave up some valuable intel. Pretty soon after, we saw Palmer collapse. (How much longer is this swooning-and-rising act going to go on? Is it inevitable that Daniels, his threats-are-cool-and-I-will-rule attitude triumphant, will yet take over as Commander-in-Chief, even though next week’s coming attractions show the prez asking for his resignation?)

Oh, yeah, right: I said back to Jack, didn’t I? It was mighty convenient of Fayed to speak English to his underlings so Jack (and we) could hear the meanie say, ”We’re going to take out downtown Los Angeles.” This provided, by 24 standards, the motivation Jack needed to shoot it out with the nearby terrorists, apparently killing them all, and the justification for the strangling and hanging of Fayed, with Jack’s bloodlusty parting words: ”Say hello to your brother.”

When Doyle and some CTU reinforcements burst in, saw the carnage, and were assured by Jack that the bombs were secure, Doyle let out with an approving ”Damn, Jack!” But looking at the time, we knew there had to be another stinger on this ol’ scorpion, and sure enough — ring, ring! — it was Audrey, calling from captivity, held by Jack’s familiar Chinese tormentors. Jack was told to call an L.A. number on a secure line if he wanted to see her alive. (Yeah, I called that area-code 310 number the villain recited, too — all I got was a recorded message saying 24 had use of that number. Did you get anything different?)

Bottom line: I’m intrigued. I wanna see how Jack gets to Audrey. (Though the coming attractions, which show him growling, ”Mr. President, you owe me” — as if getting a CTU ”field operation” up and running has ever turned out well for Jack before — don’t bode well for great moments in either action or dialogue.) Still, we’ve been waiting for the Audrey shoe to drop, haven’t we? And here it is. That’s progress, I guess. It’s just that we’re also waiting for the Jack’s-dad shoe, and the Logan shoe, and enough other shoes to open up a Nike store….

Oh, well, I’m putting aside a lot of complaints this week. It was more fun than most hours this season and, from a policy-wonk angle, gave us quite a bit to chew over as far as the Palmer-Daniels administration is concerned.

So what do you think of Audrey’s return? Is the nuke story line really over, just like that? And what odds are you giving Palmer on completing his term?