Inevitably, much of the debate among the fans will focus on criticism or defense of the final third of the season, when the writers chose a deliberately controversial direction to close out the series. And there are many who believe that my own assertion that this was the worst season of the series as a whole is based solely on my dislike of the direction chosen. But that assessment ignores the many flaws that plagued the season from the very beginning.
The seventh season was something of a return to fundamentals for "24". After the disastrous sixth season, which saw many fans fleeing the bizarre and illogical Bauer family politics, the writers' strike of 2008 provided the producers with the time and opportunity to plan out a season-along arc with plenty of room to adjust along the way. And the results, while far from explosive, were consistently strong.
The key to the seventh season was the ongoing, layered examination of what makes an effective counter-terrorism agent. And, as such, what makes an effective counter-terrorism organization. With so much criticism of Jack Bauer's methods and ethics over the course of the series, concurrent with the national public re-examination of real-world counter-terrorism methodology in the post-9/11 real politik, it was the right topic at the right time. And the writers carried that message through the entire season with surprising subtlety. (So much so, that some fans missed the point entirely, and felt the series was becoming "too liberal".)
So it was shocking to discover, very early in this eighth and final season, that the writers had little or no success in replicating the strengths of the seventh season. While there was a general premise ("lessons learned"), it was ephemeral compared to the depth of philosophical discussion in the previous season.
Also, the array of characters in the eighth season was remarkably poor. From the new characters at CTU NY to the Hassan family to the Russian crime syndicate, the vast majority of the new additions were either bland as cardboard or irritating. By comparison, Jack, Chloe, and Renee were positively dynamic.
It wasn't just the basic personalities or composition of the characters that disappointed. It was also the sloppy thinking that went into their background stories. The writers have openly admitted that they had only the most general notions of Dana Walsh's past activities. The decision to make her a mole within CTU for the Russian component of the terrorist plot was a last-minute suggestion, and one that ultimately made no logical sense, especially in light of her trials and tribulations in the first half of the season.
It is within this context that the writers made an abrupt direction change for the plot when the series was canceled. The final eight episodes did not drag the season down, so much as add fuel to an already roaring fire. And the crux of the debate over the end of the series is whether or not the character turns for Jack Bauer and President Taylor made sense.
Ironically, even the most passionate defenders of the writers admit that it's hard to reconcile what happened within the context of the series as a whole. Unfortunately, when one's argument begins with such an admission, it is a sign that the defense to follow is that person's attempt to justify why they liked something in spite of the fact it doesn't make sense! (And if it's just that it's fun to see Jack Bauer go ballistic on an enemy, regardless of motive, why bother with the justification? Just say so!)
But the fact is, I've always attempted to look at "24" and the character arc of Jack Bauer from the point of view of his mythic status within popular culture. Jack Bauer was always going to have a tragic path to follow, but the course of the series was following a classical path. Seasons 1-3 were the opening act, in which Jack lost his immediate support system. Seasons 4-6 were his darkest days, when he was stripped of almost everything that remained. Season 7 began the process of rebuilding Jack, and Season 8 began with the continuation of that process.
Let me be clear: this overall arc was never going to end in flowers and sunshine. That's not how it usually goes. The hero, having sacrificed everything in the name of saving the world, rarely gets to have a happy ending. More often than not, even if they get some measure of happiness, they must accept a price for their actions.
The "lessons learned" theme early in the eighth season was all about demonstrating how Jack had come to terms with himself and his role in the world. As early as the third season, Jack made it clear that he felt the duties of a true counter-terrorist agent, particular one dealing in his brand of black ops, would have to give up the notions of family and similar attachments. Throughout the earliest parts of the eighth season, that seemed to be the choice presented to Jack: duty or family. This is why all the signs pointed to Jack accepting that he was the one person with the experience, ethics, and vision to take the reins at CTU, bringing his story full circle. (Not only that, but it would have been the perfect platform to initiate a series of "24" films!)
Instead, the writers chose a path that was, to say the least, far more destructive. First, Renee Walker was killed, just as she and Jack were about to explore the possibility of a life together. This set Jack on a desire to see justice served to those responsible. When President Taylor uncharacteristically chose to bury the truth, Jack decided the best way to avenge the woman he loved (despite not even checking on her well-being for about a year before this particular day) was to kill her assassins by the most brutal means possible. (Never mind that the decision to kill Renee and Jack was, in and of itself, poorly justified within the logic of the plot.)
The writers took Jack far beyond his ethical boundaries over the course of a handful of episodes, to the point where his eventual return to sanity was too little, too late. This was acknowledged by the characters themselves, and ultimately, Jack was forced to run as a fugitive, with both US and Russian law enforcement hunting him down. Not only is that as far from a solid ending as it gets, but it's also a pale repetition of the fourth season finale!
Had this been a mere season finale, leading into a ninth season (in which, perhaps, the damage could be repaired), then it would be easier to forgive. But this was the series finale, and it didn't bring the series to a resolution. One could argue that the oft-mentioned film franchise could be the intended vehicle for resolving this series-ending cliffhanger, but the producers have gone on record saying that the films and the series will be two different entities. If true, the series (and Jack's journey) is left unfinished. If not true, then how can anything provided by the producers be trusted?
One could argue that this shouldn't be held against the season itself; after all, the season arc regarding the peace summit was resolved rather definitively. But the fact remains that a season is the sum of its parts, and when the parts don't quite work, the whole suffers. Had the first two-thirds of the season been stronger, the questionable choices at the end of the season would have had less of an effect. But the season overall was simply uninspired and lacking, and the end was simply icing on a very bitter cake.
The eighth and final season of "24" earned a Critical Myth rating of 6.5, which is well below average and the lowest rated season of the entire series. It also represents a 0.9 point plunge from the seventh season, which is the sharpest drop between seasons for any series reviewed over the past nine years. Somehow, I don't think that was the kind of distinction that "24" was hoping to achieve for its swan song.