A thrillingly reckless "24"

And on the third day mayhem ensued, and it was good: Jack swings a mean ax, loses the suspect for the umpteenth time and then weeps -- along, surely, with countless fans at home.

By Heather Havrilesky

Published May 27, 2004 1:35PM (EDT)

The third disastrous day of "24" drew to a calamitous close last night as Jack Bauer saved the world yet again, and then paused for about two minutes to weep openly.

You could hardly blame him. In the past 24 hours, Jack had endured a breakup, heroin withdrawal, the death of a former lover, a prison riot, a gunfight, the outbreak of a virus, the kidnapping of his daughter, a car chase, an impromptu amputation and the relentless badgering of Chloe, the office whiner.

But then, Jack's relations with his co-workers have been just a wee bit strained over the last few hours. In just one day, he was forced to assassinate one co-worker, rat out another co-worker who will likely spend the balance of his days in prison, and chop a third co-worker's arm off.

Feverish fans of the suspense series let out a simultaneous gasp of horror -- or, in some cases, delight -- when Chase Edmunds (James Badge Dale) strapped the last remaining virus-bomb to his arm to save the Southland from certain peril. Luckily, Chase and Jack were in a biology classroom, and there was a big ax hanging nearby. As the virus-bomb display ticked down, Jack imagined Chase's hand groping his daughter's ample bread baskets, and was thereby able to swing the ax over his head with a resounding chop. Chase: "Oww!"

Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), upon hearing that her boyfriend's life was in peril, stared blankly into the middle distance. Poor dear, she's holding it all in again! No woman is an island, even if she looks like one in that oversize blazer they make her wear at CTU.

After convincing himself that Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald) wasn't, in fact, going to rise up and judge the living and the dead, President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) called Jack on his cellphone to thank him for saving the world not once, not twice, but thrice. Jack told the president that he'd relay the president's gratitude to the staff of CTU. "CTU?" Palmer's face seemed to say. "What the hell is that? Some kind of a branch or department? Oh, and Jack? Are there vending machines at CTU, and do they have those banana moon pies I love so much?"

After bringing the president his moon pies, Jack met daughter Kim at the hospital. Upon reuniting with her dad and hearing that her boyfriend was going to be OK, Kim stared blankly into the middle distance. Poor dear, she's holding it all in again! You could tell, though, by the slant of her eyebrows that she felt overwhelmed, even more so than when she had to dress in Jane Saunders' frumpy bohemian clothes, or when she was ruthlessly interrogated by FHM.

Meanwhile, Tony "Tiny" Almeida (Carlos Bernard) was carted off to the big house for selling the population of the free world up the river, just so Saunders wouldn't cut his wife Michelle's (Reiko Aylesworth) eye out. Nice job, Tiny! Michelle was devastated by Tiny's impending incarceration, but something in her eyes told us that she would never have sold the free world up the river just to keep the terrorists' long knives away from Tiny. She was crushed, yes, but not so crushed that she could resist whispering "I told you so!" into Tiny's ear as he was dragged away to some dark, damp prison cell. That's our Michelle! Playing the blame game up until the buzzer sounds, just like a good wife should!

In short, the third season finale may not have matched the intensity of Jack discovering that his lover killed his wife during the first season's finale, or the raw shock value of President Palmer being struck down from a biological attack during the second season's finale, but it did wrap things up adequately without too many gratuitous surprises.

OK, OK, there was that murderous outburst by Gael's wife. She was being debriefed at CTU when she spotted Saunders, the terrorist nimrod who killed her husband with his icky virus. Luckily for her, in addition to the Star Wars Action Figures and half-eaten banana moon pies she found in Gael's box of things, there was a nifty little gun, perfect for shooting evil terrorist guys in the chest!

But "24" wouldn't be the same without its fair share of silly surprises. And the biggest, silliest surprise of the season had to be the fact that viewers were forced to wait so long for the suspense to begin. The first half of the day, if you'll recall, was pretty much a wash. From 1 p.m. until 6 p.m., we were monkeying around with some punk named Kyle in Canoga Park whose only real draw was that he hung out with hot girls. From 6 p.m. until 2 a.m., we were stuck in Mexico with the Salazar brothers, a major detour that blurred into a sepia-toned mess of growled threats and lines drawn in the dust.

But then, just as many viewers were declaring the entire season a disaster, the writers came to their senses and everything changed for the better. The virus was released, panic set in, Michelle looked doomed, Gael bled from his orifices and Kim finally got dragged away by one of Saunders' henchmen. Ah, yes. This was the dark, sleazy entertainment we'd come to expect from Kiefer and Company! Even though Kim quickly shot her captor and Michelle escaped from both the virus and Saunders unscathed, the creators of "24" have always thrived on ruthlessness, whether they were killing off thousands of innocent bystanders, executing a friendless Ryan Chappelle, mercilessly slaying Sherry Palmer, lopping off half of Chase's arm, or sending Tiny away to rot in prison.

Questions still remain, of course. What will become of President Palmer, now that he's no longer running for reelection? What will Palmer do, aside from appearing in ads for Allstate? Will he and Jack really become bestest friends like he promised? Will Kim and Chase's love go sour when they're changing diapers instead of sneakily instant messaging each other all day long? And most important, why has Kim spent the entire season in a pantsuit?

Perhaps sensing the futility of another 24 hours of a blank-faced, blazer-clad Kim, producers of "24" announced last week that her character wouldn't be a regular next season, nor would Chase, Michelle or Tiny.

So what form will "24" take, without most of its regular cast, when it returns to our TVs next January?

We'll worry about that later. For now, let's take a minute to reflect -- and weep openly, if so moved -- over the most haphazard, thrillingly reckless season of any drama in recent memory. What can we make of this strange parable? Were Bauer's tears caused by exhaustion, dread or relief that it's all finally over? After an uneven season that ranged from brilliant to laughable, he may have been feeling all of the above -- we certainly are.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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