(Note: This review covers the first half of the Monday night mid-season event. The second half will be covered under a subsequent review.)
This episode is essentially the culmination of all the discussion on the use of torture and other unusual interrogation tactics since the season premiere, and for some, that is something to be celebrated. Others will grind their teeth at the very thought that the debate is even taking place. Reactions fall along general political lines, which only seems to heighten the tension.
Setting aside the simplicities of the "24" universe, where every tortured individual is the right person with the right answers at the right time, pragmatism dictates that the ideals of reasonable coercion will sometimes fail. The choice, then, is to have a select few ready to take matters further behind closed doors, or accept the consequences of the moral high ground.
Senator Mayer is portrayed as a bit more arrogant and holier-than-thou than is necessary, because it undermines the strength of his argument. He's also making this a personal vendetta for some reason, based on his desire to turn Jack into the poster boy for excessive force. Holding that kind of moral stance does not have to be a sign of weakness or the result of a personal agenda. Lawmakers and citizens object to actions on religious moral grounds all the time, and they are often equally unwilling to entertain exceptions to the rules.
It doesn't help that Jack has chosen a rather extreme measure in this case, and that he's doing it right in the White House. It's fairly ridiculous, actually, though it does manage to place Jack right in the middle of the impending action. But under the circumstances, his tactics completely undermined his message. It's almost as if the writers felt that Jack had to do something really off the wall to balance out the stridency of Senator Mayer's anti-torture rhetoric.
Jack is stopped on the brink of success, and Senator Mayer is convinced that Jack has proven his point. Worse, President Taylor has just been told that she's in for a major fight if she continues to champion Jack. Jack is sure that his methods were about to yield results, and for a moment, it appears that Taylor is going to make the difficult but pragmatic call. This being the mid-point of the season, of course, it's not that easy.
The problem is that it completely undermines the character of President Taylor. No one would mistake her for David Palmer or, as referenced in a previous review, President Roslin of "Battlestar Galactica", but she began the day with a strict "no tolerance" policy with terrorists. It's not much of a leap from there to "by any means necessary". In fact, given the knowledge that Senator Mayer would rip her to shreds for it, backing Jack would have been the more courageous option.
Instead, for reasons that are purely plot-driven, Taylor chooses to place Jack under arrest and attempt an immunity deal in exchange for information from the suspect (Burnett). This is necessary to allow Juma's attack to take place, of course, and for Jack to be proven right over the course of the rest of the season. After everything that has happened, it shouldn't be that hard for Taylor to err on the side of anti-terrorist caution.
But it all adds up to this: the terrorist attack must take place so that Jack's instincts can be proven right in the long run. The endgame still feels like the restoration of CTU as a necessary evil and Jack as a heroic (if damaged) figure.