The series finale of 24 is nigh, but how will it all play out? Will Jack Bauer finally get unlimited days of rest after eight 24-hour nightmares? Or will his inherent angst finally be his undoing?
Neither, says Howard Gordon, the show's executive producer and showrunner. "One thing we tried and it didn't work was 'happily ever after,'" he says of the series finale. "It just wasn't within Jack's wheelhouse.
"On the other end of the spectrum, Jack would die," he says. "And in its own way, that's equally unsatisfying. Jack has a far more ambiguous, complex and emotional ending this year."
Gordon says that the writers aimed for something somewhere in the middle, a more surprising end to the story of dogged government operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). "It's not as tragic as it could have been. It's not entirely unhappy, but he doesn't walk off into the sunset."
Deviating from the good guy-chases-bad-guy formula, the final episodes will present something more indicative of who Jack has become. "Jack is about as emotionally damaged as he's been now," Gordon says, referring to the character's grief-tinged state of mind after the murder of his girlfriend, Renee Walker (Annie Wersching).
Renee's death shocked fans who longed for Jack to find some semblance of peace. Though Gordon claims that Season 8 had a "happy beginning," with Jack settling into a new life with his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, he says Jack's chosen path has made the idea of domestic bliss ultimately impossible. "Renee had to die because Jack existentially and dramatically can't get away with happiness," he says. "He's had to make too many hard calls."
The May 3 episode put Jack's transformation into sharp relief. Already on the run from his former colleagues at CTU, he exacted unilateral vengeance by killing mole Dana Walsh (guest star Katee Sackhoff), who he suspects had a role in Renee's murder. "This is the episode where Jack's trajectory really gets defined and comes into focus, what we're going to see for the balance of the season," Gordon says. "This is a crystallizing moment."
His actions have put him at odds with two former allies: the slavishly devoted Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who is currently the interim head of CTU, and the fiercely honorable President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), whose singular drive to pass a peace plan has clouded her normally unimpeachable judgment. "We're taking all these characters to places we haven't seen them in before," Gordon says. "It's certainly not playing it safe."
In particular, Gordon says the abrupt promotion of Chloe to CTU head came from a desire to pit Jack's old friend against him. "To put her between Taylor and Jack was just interesting because she has history with him; it's definitely more interesting than the villain of the week," he says. Gordon emphasizes that though he loves the wacky, antisocial Chloe from earlier seasons of 24, he wanted to demonstrate that the wife and mother has fundamentally changed. "I think you have to honor the progression of a character's life," he says. "Let her grow up, even though it's painful. I don't like getting old either."
Looking back at the eight seasons of the show, Gordon declines to name any regrets he might have about the way 24 has unfolded. Instead, he focuses on the positive, recalling fondly a souvenir he took from the 24 set after the show wrapped. It's a very special pen used to — spoiler alert! — sign President Taylor's peace accord.
Nascent plans for a 24 movie notwithstanding, in the end Gordon hopes that the series finale will provoke the intended emotion: loss. "When you watch the finale, you'll miss Jack the moment the last second ticks down," Gordon says. "That's the objective."
The series finale of 24 airs on Monday, May 24 at 9/8c on Fox.