‘24’ Finale Doesn’t Pull Its Punches (SPOILERS)

Jack Bauer was birthed in the shadow of terrorism, but in this latest revival — titled “24: Live Another Day” — he wound up re-fighting the Cold War. Although I was initially cool to the idea of dragging the character out of retirement — even in a truncated, 12-hour format — the final episodes gradually won me over, or like a good enhanced interrogation, wore down my defenses. Chalk that up in part to the shortened run, but primarily to the performance by William Devane, who returned to the series promoted to President of the United States.

Historically, past seasons of “24″ began to follow a familiar pattern: Starting out like gangbusters, drifting into Silly-ville in the middle and then rallying, at least somewhat, in the closing flourish. Halving the show’s episodic order didn’t completely trump the storytelling challenges, but it did bring crispness to the home stretch, since the series had to be getting somewhere without as much dawdling. (The 13-hour passage of time in the finale was a nice touch, establishing this season as a full “day,” even if it lacked the actual number of episodes.)

The final July 14 installment (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) also ratcheted up the sense of sacrifice that has come to surround Bauer, the one-time government operative played with even more gravel in his voice than usual by Kiefer Sutherland. Bauer has experienced no shortage of losses through the years — indeed, at times he became an almost messianic figure in his level of suffering — but the final blow involving one-time flame Audrey (Kim Raver) carried an extra emotional wallop. (Or at least, it did until Jack decided to get all medieval on the culprit and behead him with a samurai sword.)

Similarly, the device with Devane’s Commander in Chief being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease felt forced at first, but was brought home poignantly as he grappled with the loss of his daughter, realizing that his fading mind meant at some point he wouldn’t remember her, or how she died.

Finally, Jack’s delivery into the hands of the Russians (who haven’t been this evil on screen since Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons) in order to spare Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) felt like an appropriate nod to the show’s fans, given how fundamental that relationship had become. In screen history, few pairings have been able to so economically inject warmth into exchanges about the infrared heat footprint of dozens of armed men who must be neutralized.

At some point, the producers of “24″ decided peace and quiet didn’t figure in Bauer’s future, and various horrors presumably await him in Russia. Still, he remains alive, and as spy fans might remember from James Bond’s experience in the similarly titled “Die Another Day,” prisoner exchanges can happen.

With all the changes being made and uncertainty surrounding Fox’s schedule, one suspects there still might be a future for “24″ as a utility player based on its summer results, assuming the parties are agreeable. In that respect, Jack might take some comfort in the words of Scarlett O’Hara, another protagonist bad luck appeared to follow around: “Tomorrow is another day.”

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