In last night's fifth season finale of "24," agent Jack Bauer was at his brutal best. Having seen some of his closest friends murdered that day, Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) was anxious to take matters into his own hands, from murdering terrorist collaborator and former CTU agent Christopher Henderson in cold blood to personally interrogating President Logan on his role in the deaths of former President David Palmer and a big chunk of the staff of CTU.
In a gripping season in which a conspiracy and coverup by the White House played as much of a role in the action as the usual catastrophic terrorist threats, the finale needed to match the non-stop action of the last few months while resolving a big pile of loose ends. Would President Logan (Gregory Itzin), a flinchy Nixon look-alike with no ethics and a deeply repugnant manner, finally be brought to justice? Would Secret Service agent Aaron Pierce (Glenn Morshower), memorable for his loyalty to David Palmer, escape without being cut down by Logan's henchmen? Would Jack manage to thwart the terrorist plot to aim a Russian submarine's missiles at Los Angeles and San Francisco? If Jack failed and San Francisco were hit by a missile, would Truly Mediterranean, home of the best falafel in the known universe, remain standing?
These questions and more loomed as the two-hour season finale began, and within minutes, it became clear that Jack was destined to kill a few dozen men -- with his bare hands if possible -- along the way. But first, he needed to get onto that Russian submarine, and that meant that the last living Naval petty officer on board would need a quick instruction, by phone, in the art of killing.
Jack: I want you to approach him from behind. I want you to take your right hand and slit his throat. You need to cut deep to sever the vocal cords and the carotid artery.
Petty officer: I-I don't know if ... I don't know if I can do this.
Jack: You don't have a choice, son. You need to focus on the objective. You cannot afford to think about this, son! You need to do it.
Ah, so that's how it's done! Remember that you don't have a choice, focus on the objective, and no thinking allowed! Words to live by.
After doing a little casual carotid-artery-dicing of his own, Jack found himself face to face with Bierko, the bad guy responsible for a big slice of Jack's headache that day. Naturally, this standoff would have to come down to fisticuffs. But Jack cut the punching session short by jumping up and hanging by a pipe, swinging his legs up and wrapping his thighs around Bierko's head, and then breaking his neck. That's right, Jack broke Bierko's neck between his thighs. Talk about being focused on the objective!
After the missiles were disarmed, Jack climbed out of the submarine, only to find his sworn enemy Christopher Henderson (Peter Weller) pointing a gun at his back. Knowing Jack would never have let him flee the country and would likely want him dead to avenge the death of his friends, Henderson figured it would be safer to kill Jack on the spot. Luckily, the gun Jack had given Henderson wasn't loaded.
Jack: You are responsible for the deaths of David Palmer, Tony Almeida and Michelle Dressler. They were friends of mine.
Henderson: (unconcerned) That's the way it works.
Jack raises gun. Blam blam! Henderson hits the ground.
Apparently Jack was in no mood to observe protocol. But this murder will probably come back to haunt him next year, since the fresh-faced, nervous Naval officer he just instructed in the art of cutting throats witnessed the whole thing.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, the first lady, Martha Logan (Jean Smart), has teamed up with Secret Service agent Aaron Pierce to convince Mike Novick that President Logan is behind all of the nefarious deeds of the day. Novick has been suspicious for at least the last few hours, so in a matter of minutes, he's helping Pierce and the first lady dispose of the body of a Secret Service agent who was determined to kill Pierce, fielding calls from Jack, and setting a trap for the president.
Best of all, the trap has a "Charlie's Angels" twist: Martha Logan must somehow delay the president from boarding his helicopter. Those of us with an encyclopedic knowledge of '70s prime time know exactly what "somehow delay" means: She's going to have to seduce her man, Farrah-style! And let's give the first lady props on this front, because even though it's clear that the man makes her skin crawl (just like the greasy villains Farrah always had to unbutton her blouse for), she's willing to do her part for her country.
But the real sparks fly when, after a harrowing helicopter ride, we get Jack and President Logan alone in yet another empty industrial space together. Would Jack use his favorite, time-honored torture techniques on the most powerful man in the Western world? Would he let his rage get the best of him and blow Logan's head off point-blank, turning Season 6 into a high-stakes, one-day version of "Prison Break"? No. Jack raises his gun to Logan's forehead, but appears to lose hold of his murderous nature at that very moment. "Focus on the objective!" we scream at the TV screen. "You cannot afford to think about this, Jack!"
But it's too late. Agents are storming the building, and soon Jack is on his knees with his hands behind his head as Logan smugly looks on.
Cut to Martha Logan, stricken, watching her husband emerge from his helicopter, waving. (Welcome back, Nixon!) As David Palmer's flag-covered casket comes into view, Martha begins her best wailing and weeping and tearing of hair, shouting at her husband that he's a murderer. The president signals to his men to have her dragged away into a nearby hanger, which can't look too pretty to the assembled crowd. Logan follows them into the hanger, then signals for the agents to leave.
Suddenly aware that his wife pulled a Farrah on him, he rips at her clothes to see if she's wearing a wire. There's nothing there. But we're hoping that maybe she made a quick call to CTU headquarters as they were dragging her off... ? Logan doesn't seem worried, and soon explains, passionately, that the nerve gas and the death of Palmer were all his doing, yes, but he did it for the good of the country. Then he tells Martha that if she ever opens her mouth again, he'll pump her so full of drugs "that you won't know your own name." Nice guy. This is a great scene, though, since we're sure by now that somehow, some way, Jack is recording this conversation. Didn't he pull out Logan's cellphone before he interrogated him?
Sweet relief comes halfway through Logan's eulogy for President Palmer. Chloe, who risked her ass all season for Jack without so much as a sincere thank you or a loving embrace to show for it, rings up the attorney general in order to play him the recording of Logan and his wife, bickering about whether Logan is or is not a major league asshole. The attorney general, along with Bill Buchanan and Karen Hayes, the head of Homeland (who suddenly seem to want each other badly, for no reason whatsoever), agree that Logan is most definitely an asshole, and soon the Secret Service guys are gathering around the stage, signaling to the president that the jig is up. After showing Logan the pen in his pocket with the recording device on it, Logan is led away. The best moment of the finale comes when he glances back at his wife and Mike Novick, both of whom are sporting priceless grimaces of hatred and satisfaction.
Now we have a minute or so for Jack and Audrey to stare into each other's eyes, kiss passionately and pledge to love each other through the next dark turn in the road, which we know from experience will likely begin in a few seconds. "Jack, there's a telephone call for you. It's your daughter." Uh-oh.
You'd think after a lifetime of being wanted dead by countless evil forces, Jack would at least be paranoid enough to respond, "What? Why didn't she just call me on my cell?" Instead, Jack goes to retrieve a pay phone in a dark hallway, and is summarily dragged off and thrown, quite literally, on a slow boat to China. Apparently those Chinese still hold a serious grudge against him for storming their consulate and killing someone. Damn them! Why can't they learn to let go of the past, and forgive?
But even as Jack begs for them to kill him, we know that a little torture cruise is just what the doctor ordered. Jack can't exactly start the next season without looking beaten down, haunted and desperate, after all. Remember how he started out Season 4, all manicured and well rested and in love with Audrey, going soft at a government desk job? That's no kind of life for TV's most violent, ruthless hero.
But as the fifth season draws to a close, many questions remain unanswered. Will Logan be impeached and imprisoned for his evil doings? Why did he make all of those very tense cellphone calls to Ron Howard throughout the day? And how did Opie grow up to become an international criminal mastermind anyway? Most hauntingly of all, will Bill Buchanan and Karen Hayes become the Tony 'n' Michelle of Season 6? No matter how these mysteries unfold, let's give some sincere thanks and a big bear hug to the writers of "24" for making this the best season in recent memory.