As I often say, my relationship with "24" waxes and wanes and when the show is dull or repetitive -- as it has been much of this season -- I like having the ability to call it on its failings. But when "24" is at its most provocative -- and it was on Monday (Feb. 9) night -- no show is better at making me yell at my TV.

I mentioned last week that, as die-hard "24" fans already know, tonight's episode was a key episode, the final hour completed before the writers strike halted production last year. That means when next week's show begins, we can look to see if Kiefer Sutherland is 15 pounds lighter, if Carlos Bernard's scruff has vanished and if Janeanne Garofalo has suddenly gotten frosted tips.

So maybe next Monday's hour will feel creatively rejuvenated, but this Monday was so packed with badassery that I just hope the writers were able to continue to momentum.

[More, including spoilers, after the bump...]

Yes, Monday night's episode began from an illogical place. As we saw in the closing moments of the previous ep, Colonel Dubaku's forces, led by rogue secret service agent Edward Vossler, took First Gentleman Taylor hostage and, thanks to a conveniently direct line to President Taylor, were able to make demands.

Dubaku's demands? Same as they were before, when he had the CIP device and he was capable of destroying the country one airplane at a time. He wanted Prime Minister Matobo's head on a platter and American forces to slowly step away from Sangala.

He was even willing to cut off First Gentleman Taylor's finger to prove his point, not that there was video evidence or time to send President Taylor proof that the finger had been removed, so really they were just taking his sadism on faith.

Now under what circumstances would people in President Taylor's inner circle possible allow her to continue to make decisions about our national security under these circumstances? Was the theory that withdrawing American forces couldn't possibly cost American lives and therefore the President can just tinker with the military as she sees fit to keep her hubby safe? 

Regardless, President Taylor's reaction was probably appropriate, saying, "How can I ask the American people to make sacrifices that I'm not willing to make myself. I can't give in. I can't."

Oddly, it was Bob Gunton's Ethan and Jack Bauer who tried convincing her that she could make a decision based on her heart and that they could go incognito and rescue the First Gentleman without giving in to Dubaku's demands.

This set up the episode's best line of dialogue, as President Taylor set her jaw and asked Jack how she was possibly supposed to know where his loyalties lie.

"With all do respect, Madam President..." Jack growed. "Ask around!"

Yeah, you cheered. Admit it.

We all know where Jack's loyalties lie, but this was one of series' most pragmatic episodes to date when it comes to Jack's methodology. The first few episodes of the season were a referendum on Jack and his ends-justify-the-means approach, an approach that has occasionally cost lives, but which has mostly been a pretty efficient way of minimizing the damage on the six worst days in American history.

Monday's episode set itself up as another Jack validation, especially when he and Renee met Agent Moss at the reflecting pool. Jack proposed that the best way to get Vossler to talk would be by making him believe that they were going to torture his family, which even the newly cold-hearted Agent Walker thought was going a bit too far.

"When are you people going to stop thinking everybody else is following your rules?" Jack barked. "They're not!"

They caved. Because everybody caves to Jack Bauer. But impotent weenie Moss' got in the parting shot, "Jack... The rules are what make us better."

Jack disregarded it with the kiss-off, "Not today."

Even traffic rules didn't apply, as Jack was only able to catch up with Vossler by going the wrong way on a one-way street and producing a crash that may or may not have involved innocent civilians we never saw.

But from there things didn't go exactly as Jack planned. With Renee holding Vossler's family hostage, baby wailing, Jack got Vossler to talk ("You're a monster," Vossler's wife spat at a conflicted Renee), but with his interrogator distracted, Vossler pulled a knife. Now, he couldn't have succeeded. Just like a low-level stooge, bringing a knife to a Jack Bauer fight. Seeing the bawling new-widow and her equally unhappy child just made Renee question her purpose, though what did she think was going to happen to Vossler's family if Jack merely arrested him and had him sentenced to life in jail for treason? They weren't getting his federal pension either way.

So Jack's moves already created one unexpected corpse and one guilty FBI ally, but things would only get worse.

We blame Bill Buchanan for the idiotic idea of finding the only African-American dude in the White House, giving him a hastily applied fake goatee and sending him out there as a decoy, but wasn't Bill's real mistake in his faith that with only 40 minutes, Jack would be able to find the First Husband's location and liberate him, making the decoy unnecessary? Jack came close, but he failed and Dubaku's men blew up the decoy and his secret service detail.

Yeah, I yelled "Whoa!" as the satellite showed the explosion.

Things just weren't going Jack's way, but Jack Bauer's terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad hour was still going to get worse. The attack on Dubaku's nest seemed like it was going as well as any Jack Bauer raid tends to go. Jack and Renee were taking out the bad guys and facing almost no fire themselves. It was nearly as easy as last week's raid on another Dubaku lair, at least until one foot soldier, unaware that his only job was to die, took a bullet but, in falling, shot the First Gentleman in the chest.

Yeah, I yelled, "Damn!" at my TV.

So the scorecard for the week had Jack Bauer's brilliant planning responsible for several unnecessary casualties and, even if we know that First Gentleman Taylor isn't dead yet, the entire operation went pear-shaped. He can safely assume that he's lost the trust of Agent Moss, President Taylor and maybe Agent Walker as well. Jack's had bad hours where he was being held hostage himself or where he was hooked on smack or even where he misjudged situations, but I'm at a loss to remember an operation that Jack blew quite as badly as this one.

And that kept me entertained for the entire hour, even as we kept having to deal with Excruciating Domestic Subplots. Dubaku's waitress girlfriend and her suspicious wheelchair-bound sister? Ick. Sean Hillinger's inappropriate  office flirtations with his co-worker? That was so bad even Janis called him on it.

I don't quite know where we're going from here, especially with the teasers strongly implying that we'll learn who the FBI mole is next week. Unless he has another hideout somewhere, Dubaku isn't really a threat to anybody other than his girlfriend family, so we suspect he'll get phased out, as the plot refocuses on the American business interests behind the Sangalese unrest, American business interests we already know all about thanks to "24: Redemption." So bring on Jon Voight, I guess.

Other thoughts on Monday's episode:

*** I liked the Valentine's Day theme, with Dubaku asking First Gentleman Taylor, "Does your wife love you enough to call off the invasion of my country?" Forget diamonds or poetry or beer. Is anything a more demonstrable sign of spousal love than calling off an invasion of a fictional African nation?

*** Where was Chloe? What was Tony up to?

*** I loved the cut-away to Dennis Haysbert's All-State commercial at the first break. How would President Palmer have handled things if Dubaku had kidnapped Sherry?

*** Did FOX rush the commercials at the first break? The Obama conference had "24" starting a bit behind the clock, so the ticker was off. But everything was back on target after one break.

*** Very meta of "24" to have all of those references to this whole incident as a one-day thing. There was Jack's "Not today" line to Moss and then later when Jack suggested to Renee that she may want to reconsider her career plans, she replied, "Maybe I will... Tomorrow."

What'd you think of Monday's episode?

 

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