Well I’ve just finished going on about a hero in my list who has no gray area in his psyche whatsoever. Now it’s time to talk about a man who is all gray area. He is television’s answer to a post-9/11 cynical America.
No. 2. Jack Bauer from 24. He became a bit of a caricature of himself near the end, but I’d argue that he’s more representative of our times than any other character. The definition of a hero has changed a lot over the years and if Superman is at one end of the spectrum, Jack Bauer would be at the other end.
Some may recall that the premiere of 24 was delayed because of 9/11. The pilot episode involves a terrorist attack on a plane so FOX felt that it hit a little too close to home (and were also a bit concerned for their pocketbooks I’m sure).
So before this show even premiered, it was associated with terrorism. America had been attacked on her own soil. The enemy was no longer a definable country or entity but instead a pervasive and faceless horror that could be living next door waiting for the go-ahead from an armchair dictator. What sort of person could combat this threat?
Enter Jack Bauer.
Other shows might pose the question: “given the choice between civil rights and security, which is more important?” 24 instead pointed out that nothing would ever be that simple again. Bauer himself summed up his own existence perfectly near the end of season 7 when he told a fellow agent to simply “make choices you can live with.”
So there you go: we’ve gone from heroes who live by a code to one who simply makes choices he can live with. Jack started out quite tame (comparatively) but still tranquilized his boss in the pilot episode and went on to threaten to shove a towel down a man’s throat a few episodes later. Soon he’d be going rogue once a season and torturing people on a regular basis.
But he always saved the day. 8 of them, in fact. And that’s the key factor that makes Jack a sign of the era: time. They say there were people in New York who heard about last summer’s East Coast earthquake on Twitter before they felt it. This could be an exaggeration but I bet it’s not much of one.
Jack lives in a world where his enemies almost always have more information than he does. He’s low on supplies, he’s working off of intel which may or may not be accurate, and if he makes one misstep it could spell certain doom for a lot of people. 30 years ago this would be common Bond villain melodrama, but the real life Hurt Locker people know how real it is.
Over the course of 8 seasons, Jack not only dealt with moral gray area: he had about 2 minutes to decide what the best course of action was. He had to juggle real-time threats with possible political fallout and whatever personal issues the people he came across were dealing with. No one man should have to deal with all of that.
And yet, no one country should have to deal with all of the competing interests that the U.S. repeatedly has to deal with. In the world of social media, everything is visible. In the real world Jack Bauer would be labeled a barbarian. A racial profiler. A sadist. A mass murderer. I know this because that’s how a lot of viewers saw him.
But not me. I saw a man living by Spock’s eternal motto that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” If a villain is someone who wants to be a hero and a hero is someone who has responsibility thrown onto them, then it’s pretty clear which one Jack is. He’s similar to another realistic (well, for one movie) hero: John McClane from Die Hard.
Though it was the most over-the-top in the series (but second-best in my opinion), Live Free or Die Hard summed up heroes like John and Jack pretty well. McClane states that he does what he does because no one else will. He said that being a hero just meant a lot of eating alone, and kids that don’t want anything to do with you.
Jack loses his wife, countless friends, and a whole lot of sleep over the course of the show. And the last we saw of him he was yet again disappearing from civilized human civilization. Is this how we treat our heroes now? Like criminals?
And here we touch on an important point: heroism is more than just what people see. All 4 of my other heroes are worshipped in some way at some point by their peers. Even if they have to wait for the end of the movie, like Sam.
Jack’s government abandons him to the Chinese. They try to have him killed because he knows too much. But then when the Russians are smuggling in a nuke or the corrupt former president is coming around for another power play…
Who ya gonna call?
This is all endlessly fascinating to me because it raises a question: what sort of man would keep going back to such a cruel mistress? A man with VanDamme syndrome who has nothing to lose? It’s not that simple, or desirable.
Jack’s friend Tony Almeida once described it as “some people are just more comfortable in Hell.” Tony knows because after a while he was the same way. Jack is a man who has faced so much hardship and endured so much pain and suffering that he doesn’t know how to live a normal or happy life.
It sounds overly dramatic but it happens to a lot of soldiers, cops, etc. Not to give more free publicity to The Hurt Locker or anything, but that’s pretty much the theme of that movie too. I sincerely think they only cast Kate from Lost in that movie as the main character’s wife so the audience would say “how messed up in the head would you have to be if you’re disarming bombs instead of being with her?”
When 24 did their mini reboot in season 4 they added a steady girlfriend for Jack. In one way or another they endure for 3 total seasons. Then at the end of season 6 her father (former secretary of defense and a badass) tells Jack that he doesn’t want him around Audrey anymore.
Because he’s cursed.
Jack silently agrees and walks out. Another crisis averted and his only reward is the knowledge that if he truly loves Audrey he’ll need to leave her alone. War heroes in the 40s had special housing reserved for them. Revolutionary War heroes were immortalized as Founding Fathers.
Jack’s treatment isn’t quite on First Blood levels of course but it still makes one wonder: what’s happened to our heroes?
Let’s try a different viewpoint: why are these characters so appealing? I’d say we’re addicted to drama. To conflict. To tragedy. You can trace this back as far as Shakespeare. I’d trace it back farther if I could think of a relevant work written before his time.
Nobody would care if Jack Bauer fixed things up all nice and neat. Because we all live through trauma and misery of one kind or another. If Jack’s is greater than ours: it’s cathartic. We start to relate to his struggle even though it’s nothing like our own (hopefully).
In our own lives, we had to remain powerless. But Jack at least had the ability to strike back. That was the best and most unrealistic part of the show: the bad guy always got what was coming to him. No matter how much power they commanded, they went down just the same.
There’s an old-fashioned quality to Jack that I quite like too. The idea that many of his opponents were extremely rich and commanded hordes of cronies was unimportant. Jack silenced them the old-fashioned way.
So after ushering us into the future, Jack also takes us back to our primal days. It’s his friends on the other end of his (usually Sprint) cell phone that do all of the thinking. He just dispenses the justice.
The tagline of the show should’ve been JACK SMASH!
It makes sense that in an age where unlimited knowledge and technology is at our fingertips, we’d gravitate towards a character who solves his problems by punching them in the face. The plots on the show were always wonderfully twisted and complicated. But at the end of the day (literally) most of the problems found their end with a bullet from Jack’s gun.
Jack doesn’t have the time to weigh moral dilemmas and political fallout. Only to follow orders and make decisions he can live with. It might be a bleak vision of a modern hero, but it’s an accurate one.
The writers of the show did push the boundaries a bit unnecessarily at times, but overall I’d say they created a groundbreaking character who managed to be both a golem of destruction and intensely human at the same time.
We dare you to find a television show or movie that Domenic has not seen and most of them he owns. For this reason he has become a walking encyclopedia of anything you would want to know on the topics of TV and movies. When he’s not watching flicks, he’s writing screenplays. Stay tuned for those.