The final words spoken in the final episode of the series 24 belonged to the endearingly cantankerous Chloe O'Brian, the best friend Jack Bauer ever had.
"Shut it down," she said. And with that Jack did what no one does as well as he. He went dark.
Every Monday night for the past eight television seasons, Jack has been for us what after last night he'll never be again: the ultimate man of the hour.
Jack Bauer is a lot like Santa Claus: both men work only one day per year. And what they each accomplish in their day of work is positively astonishing. Of course, Santa, with his jolly chuckle and big red sack, brings people joy by leaving them presents; Jack, with his menacing growl and satchel of doom, brings people pain by leaving them dented sternums and missing digits. When Santa drops down your chimney, it's best to lie in your bed, close your eyes, and hope he thinks you're asleep. When Jack crashes through your front door, it's best to lie on your floor, break your own arm, and hope he thinks you're dead.
If you've done bad, that is.
And you probably have. If you're in Jack's world, you might not have done wrong yet. But if you live long enough, chances are good you will. And you'll probably do whatever bad you do for reasons that are perfectly good.
And in a nutshell, that's the terrible, intoxicating alchemy of 24: It takes what should be good -- what we know is right, fair, principled and honorable -- and, step by step (or, shockingly, all at once) turns it bad.
Stopping terrorists from killing innocent people? Good. Getting terrorist suspects to talk through means so traumatizing that, in real life, the dean of West Point met with the producers of 24 to ask them if they could have Jack do a little less (and a little less creative) torturing? Bad.
Peace in the Middle East? Good. Heads of state committing and/or covering up murder (as happened in the final season of 24) in order to secure peace in the Middle East?
You tell me.
Most of us believe that morals exists as absolutes, that their qualities aren't subject to variation based on context. We tend to accept as reasonable the paradigm of the purely good and the unquestionably evil: that right is right, wrong is wrong, and never the twain shall meet. The clarity of that model naturally appeals to us. It's the Ten Commandments -- not The Nine Commandments, Plus Maybe One More, Depending. It's not The Eight Commandments, With Two Possible Alternates. It's ten, period. Thou shalt do this; though shalt not do that. No ambiguity. No waffling. We react to a halo over Satan's head as we might to fur on a fish: it doesn't make sense. More than that: it's wrong.
What makes Jack Bauer such a compelling figure isn't that he's brave, canine loyal, makes lightening-quick decisions, is a natural leader, doesn't need sustenance, and is so awesomely resourceful he could probably make a cell phone out of a rock and a coat hanger. What keeps us so engrossed by Jack is that, in the starkest and largest possible terms, he is living out the exact same dynamic that so often keeps us so riveted by the drama of our own lives.
Jack is trying to do good -- he is doing good. And yet, somehow, the results of his efforts continue to transmogrify into something that he can't quite feel proud of.
And though in our puritan heart of hearts we are almost certain to resist admitting it to ourselves, we are each of us nonetheless aware of how readily what we mean to be good becomes, seemingly (but never quite) of its own accord, bad. We know how quickly our strengths become our weaknesses; how often our resolve dissolves. Like Jack, we, too, are forever intending to serve a good higher than ourselves, and yet in so doing coming up against the worst of ourselves.
Meaning to cleave to the high road, we yet find ourselves trudging through the mud and the muck.
In order to get what we want, we too often do what we shouldn't.
We are devils with halos. And (God knows) we know it.
And there is Jack, the everyman's hero, living out for us what that feels and looks like, twenty-four times a year. Jack's life is our own writ large.
What in the end proved most true for Jack is the same thing that in the end we all hope (and many of us trust) will prove most true for us. Yes, our way is difficult. Yes, in our drive to achieve our goals we cause and endure unimaginable amounts of pain. Yes, time and again we find ourselves isolated and helpless, done in by the unceasing intensity of our own fury. But, for all of Chloe's tears, the ending of 24 was a happy one. Ultimately, what saved and redeemed Jack is the only thing that can save and redeem any of us. As we ourselves must be, Jack, our hero, was saved by love.