Devoted "24" fans have probably heard the story (I know I've heard the producers tell it a half-dozen times): One possible ending to the show's sixth season involved Jack Bauer, physically and psychically beaten after the fourth or fifth most difficult day of his life, standing on a cliff staring into existential limbo, uncertain what to do next. A car pulls up. A stranger's inside. It's TONY ALMEIDA! He's ALIVE and he asks Jack to come with him. The jaws of the collective "24" fanbase drop. Credits roll.

For various reasons, that ending was discarded and viewers were left mostly with Jack's ever-increasing ennui and a Southern California dawn.

Monday (Feb. 23) night's episode showed exactly how much the "24" writers and producers still loved that ending. 

[More on how Jack Bauer spent the hour between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. after the bump, complete with spoilers...]

Although last week's episode was the season's first hour shot post-strike hiatus, it seemingly took a little bit of extra time for producers to perform a fully extrication. FOX has been promising for days that "This will be the hour that changes everything" and, go figure, the promotional hyperbole was accurate. Monday night's "24" did, indeed, change everything insofar as the producers seemingly looked around nervously, shrugged and said, "OK. Let's start again."

And they did it with an note-perfect parody of a "24" season finale. Jack Bauer has completed his mission. The terrorist threat is over, the moles in the government outed, disaster adverted. He sits on the steps looking out at the sunset, at the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument as he thinks of all he had to go through to save the world, all the innocent people who had to die, all the compromises he had to make. Can he live with himself? Will he be able to go on? A man walks up behind him in shadows. It's TONY ALMEIDA. He's BACK from doing whatever it was that he said he was going off to do several episodes ago and he tells Jack that the day isn't over, that there's another terrorist threat a-comin'.

What? Were we supposed to be surprised? It was strange the way Tony went off on his own and didn't allow the cameras to join him for a split-screen or two, but that didn't mean that we didn't expect his return. And what did Jack think was happening? This was way too early for him to have his usual end-of-season let-down, a fact that he should have known himself, since he was really only on-the-clock for 10 hours, which isn't a full day at HitFix and certainly isn't a full day for Jack Bauer.

Monday's episode was a faux finale, a total reboot and, in the end, the "24" producers paid homage to themselves by referencing a story-point that had only previously occurred in rumors. Media Studies grad students will be able to write lengthy essays on this piece of pseudo-meta self-cannibalism. 

Character elements will carry over from Day Seven-A. Agent Walker will still be blubbering and contemplating a new job as a barista or a Maytag repairman. President Taylor will still be concerned about her husband and picking a tense time to reconcile with her daughter. Bill Buchanan still won't have shaved. Chloe will still be hiding behind monitors and never standing up in the frame at least until Mary Lynn Rajskub can take a maternity leave. 

Otherwise? It's a whole new ballgame for Day Seven-B, except for the ways in which it's exactly the same. Once again, Sangala's General Juma is behind a plot to wreak havoc at an undeclared location. If he'd decided to target Chicago, he'd have been unstoppable. Fortunately, he's keeping his focus on Washington, since that's where Jack Bauer is and that's where Jack and the FBI have already acquired a list of 100 Powerful People In Cahoots With the Juma Regime (that's the banner headline from "Washington" magazine). So at least they aren't starting from scratch!

Seriously, Monday's episode may have been the show's clumsiest piece of mid-season course correction since the very first season when Jack stopped the plot to assassinate President Palmer only to discover that since he was already on the job, he might as well stop another assassination attempt.

Don't get me wrong. There were several tremendous scenes in episode.

I liked the chase where Jack sped through a public park after Dubaku's car and then appeared to trail him through the exact same backlot city street over and over (in the same way the climax of "Transformers" was just a loop around a block of downtown Los Angeles.) The flipping car was impressive because given how tight the corners were that everybody kept navigating, I can't fathom how it could have achieved sufficient velocity to fly so high. And that still wasn't as good as Jack literally ripping a key piece of information from Dubaku's chest. Or as good as Agent Walker pulling a gun on Jack to get him to help her dislodge Marika from the wreckage.

Pity Marika had to die, but she was doomed the minute Agent Walker vouchsafed for her life. Only Jack Bauer has the power of life-and-death, Agent Walker.

The episode's clear emotional standout came minutes later at the hospital between Agent Walker and Jack. I'll even ignore that Walker's tipping point came as a result of a surprise appearance by Marika's wheelchair-bound sister Rosa, whose presence at the hospital just moments after the accident had to be a miracle.

"I trusted you with her life and you let her die? You killed my sister," Rosa accused.

This led Agent Walker to become the third or fourth character this season to play the Teri Bauer card, asking Jack how he can do what he does without feeling anything. 

"I want to know that you feel the same kind of pain that I do. Do you feel that? Do you feel that??!?!?"

And she slapped him. Twice, right? I was too busy laughing with maniacal glee to keep track.

After they hugged it out -- Jack Bauer's arms have healing properties -- he assured her, "You will learn to live with it."

She responded, "What if I don't want to learn to live with it."

And for the second time this day, he replied, "Then quit."

But the fun wasn't over...

Jack: "That stunt you pulled by the car, if you ever pull your weapon on my again, you'd better intend to use it."

Agent Walker: "I did."

Nice.

There was a blending of classic scenes with classically silly scenes.

At the end of last week's episode, for example, we learned that Billy Walsh... errr... Sean was the mole in the FBI, but within moments on Monday, we learned his personality-free mistress Erica was also involved somehow. We learned this because Sean and Erica had a conversation about their treachery right in the middle of the FBI offices. They later had a highly sensitive conversation in the middle of a very small, but presumably public, ladies room. Sean then shot, killed and framed Erica in the middle of the FBI server room, an act that was cold-blooded, but pointless.

The Sean/Erica mole anti-climax made more sense than Jack Bauer, in the middle of a day's adventures hinging on a Vast Government Conspiracy of undetermined size, taking a highly sensitive piece of data -- the storage device he took from Dubaku's chest -- and just handing it off to a stranger in a uniform for transport.

And that made more sense than Chloe announcing that the storage device (luckily delivered without incident by the stranger) was a magical device allowing only a single download -- just before Erica tried erasing the entire FBI's memory -- only to find a way to recover her erased data within seconds. 

Yup. Lots of highs and lows in this week's "24." 

Other thoughts on this week's episode:

*** The storage device rigamarole was a trite way to get information from Dubaku. I'd have preferred a "Fringe" crossover where Jack and Walter Bishop had to figure out how to learn things from Dubaku's corpse.

*** No Agent Pierce this week? Boo.

*** I feel sorry for Kurtwood Smith's Senator Mayer. It's not like he was wrong to ask Jack Bauer to answer for his actions, but Bill Buchanan sure made him sound like a monster. Bill Buchanan also had the mistaken impression that after you testify before a Senate subcommittee, they have the power to sentence you to prison time. So that was all bad for Sen. Mayer, but his chief-of-staff is also a conspirator? Talk about "Worst Week"!

What'd y'all think of this week's reboot?

 

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