24 8.5: "Day 8: 8PM - 9PM"

Ever since abandoning the scattershot writing style that demolished earlier seasons of the series, the writers have been much more focused. They still cover tons of plot threads over the course of the season, but they seem to have a better grasp of how much complexity is enough or too much. Three or four concurrent plot threads are a good target, and this episode falls right in line with that thought process.

The downside to this streamlined process is that the success or failure of an episode depends on the quality of those plot threads, particularly within the context of the overall season arc. Since the season arc is still relatively unclear, that makes the quality of each of the plot threads all the more important.

It’s a good thing that the main story is Jack’s mission with Renee. It is, by far, the most interesting thing about this season. The writers could have glossed over the depth of Renee’s nihilism and self-hatred, but they are not stepping away from the abyss. If anything, they are dragging the audience right to the edge and forcing them to take a good, hard look. This is easily some of the darkest material on the series in quite some time.

Perhaps more importantly, this is a direct reflection of Jack. Jack knew what the personal consequences of his choices would be, but that wasn’t a perfect defense against the accumulated remorse and regret. It took years, and the elimination of his support system again and again, for Jack to succumb to his personal demons. The difference is that the producers chose to skip that portion of Jack’s life. The sixth season ended with Jack at that dark crossroads, and the seventh season began at the end of his self-imposed exile.

Perhaps the writers decided, in planning the eighth season, that bringing Jack to a full sense of redemption and restoration would require something more. In this case, Jack doesn’t just have to pull out of the downward spiral; he has to help someone else out of the abyss himself. In this way, the writers get to have the best of both worlds. They only had to rush Renee’s collapse into instability to make it happen, and that is a fair enough tradeoff.

The truly daunting aspect of this character turn is the knowledge, by the end of the hour, that this is just the beginning. The depth of Renee’s psychological damage has yet to be seen. On most other shows, one might have some assurance that Renee would survive to find some peace of mind. But this is “24”, and that means any outcome is possible. And unlike other characters in other seasons, a negative outcome would seem very much earned.

Unfortunately, the main plot thread is saddled with a subplot that couldn’t be more different. It was already apparent from the premiere that Dana Walsh’s character issues would be a serious problem, and Katee Sackhoff fans were almost universally disappointed with the stupidity of the writers. Already on thin ice by having Dana be an assumed identity, the writers deepened the wound by having her be an ex-felon. Minor or not, that sort of thing should have been easily discovered by the typical intelligence community background check.

It’s even more grating to see “Dana” letting some ridiculous hick toss her around. If she had been smart enough to change and protect her identity long enough to get a job in a counter-terrorism unit, then she should have been smart enough to keep tabs on anyone that could have presented a threat to her new life. And accordingly, she should have been smart enough to ensure that such a threat was neutralized.

While politics on “24” tend to be simplified and modified as per the needs of the plot, the writers have been more and more willing to explore different aspects of counter-terrorism and how different political atmospheres can affect the nature of such efforts. The seventh season was dominated by a long-term exploration of extreme methods. The writers, within the context of “24”, made the case that such methods can be necessary.

This season is playing out some of the caveats to that conclusion, along with the ongoing theme of “lessons from history”. Not only is Jack going to be forced to apply lessons from his own descent to Renee’s situation, but President Hassan is going to have to consider whether the ways of the past serve his present. Is his violent reaction to his brother’s attempted coup a reasonable response, or is it a sign that his claims to reform are exaggerated?

President Taylor’s reaction is not out of character, but it is annoying. Taylor seemed to come to the conclusion that extreme methods must sometimes be taken, as evidenced by her restoration of CTU and her faith in Jack Bauer in the seventh season. Are Hassan’s methods particularly different? Perhaps the difference is the overt nature of it all. Whatever the case, it’s too soon to tell where the writers intend to go with this, and which side will ultimately turn out to have the strongest case by the end of the season.

So, in terms of the three major plot threads in this episode, it’s something of a draw. One is already working very well, another is getting progressively more ridiculous by the minute, and the last could go either way. Considering that this was something of a transitional episode, that’s not a bad balance.

Overall, this episode was designed to transition the characters out of the premiere into the longer stretch of the narrative, and for the most part, it worked. There is one major weakness to be addressed, but that doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. Still, this is an improvement on the premiere, which is a very good sign.


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