This is the first in a series of posts on characterization, in which I reverse-engineer a psychological profile for an established fictional character.
Four years ago, the clock ran out on 24, the groundbreaking “real-time” television drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as indefatigable counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer. A writer on Lost once told me how much he loved 24 for being such an immersive entertainment experience: It made him completely forget, as he watched it, that he was both a television scribe and a liberal! Indeed, the series remained so reliably entertaining throughout its initial eight-season run that its often outlandish plot twists never seemed to irrevocably strain the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief, nor did its occasionally controversial depictions of both Muslims and the use of torture overshadow its legacy as an evolutionary pioneer in serialized television.
A TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY SUPERHERO
From the outset, 24 was a bit of an anomaly: a high-concept television series in a medium predicated far less on concept than on character. Speaking broadly, feature films exploit a premise to elicit our interest; there’s an implicit What would you do? embedded in a movie’s central conceit that compels us to engage in its finite dilemma and vicariously explore the ramifications. Television, by design, isn’t finite—it’s open-ended; a foundational premise needs to be built to last—across multiple seasons, ideally—rather than burn through all of its permutations over the course of two hours. In TV, concept supports character: We come back week after week to Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital to check in with Meredith and McDreamy, to Downton Abbey for a visit with the Crawleys. 24 is no exception. And the only character to have appeared in every episode—or even, more generally, every season—is Jack Bauer: He’s the common denominator—the reason we keep coming back. The innovative real-time format is why we came to 24 back in 2001; Jack is why we’ve stayed with it through 2014.
More than even its nonelliptical narrative, Jack is the show’s key component, as 24 fits firmly in the Superhero mold. For the uninitiated, a Superhero story need not be strictly about a costumed crime-fighter; Blake Snyder defines it as any tale about a character with a special power (Jack is the country’s foremost counterterrorism expert), a nemesis (in the case of 24, the literal villain du jour), and a curse (on account of the reliable efficacy of his superpower, Jack is solely and repeatedly called upon to do the dirty jobs and make the personal sacrifices to save the day, day after day). Jack is what Snyder defines as a “People’s Superhero,” like James Bond and Olivia Pope.
“Jack, simply getting your life back isn’t gonna change who you are… and you can’t walk away from it. You know that. You’ve tried it. Sooner or later, you’re gonna get back in the game.”—Secretary of Defense James Heller in “Day 6: 5:00 a.m.–6:00 a.m.”
Superheroes are routinely called back into service for the greater good—such is their calling and their curse—and Jack isn’t immune: He’s blazed back into action in this summer’s limited-run revival series 24: Live Another Day. Though the threats he faces have changed with the times—it’s drones and hacktivism now—all the time-honored tropes that made 24 such crackerjack entertainment are present and accounted for: Infiltrations! Exfiltrations! Mass-casualty detonations! Botched undercover operations! Presidential assassinations! Traitorous machinations! Everything we loved, just as before.
Also exactly as before: Jack Bauer. He has been one of the most consistent protagonists of any contemporary long-running series. Not predictable, mind you—an analysis of his five governing characteristics shows him to be a deceptively unconventional hero—but consistent. Let’s deconstruct him, a trait at a time.
1. JACK IS PATRIOTIC
“Because you’re worse than a traitor, Nina. You don’t have a cause. You don’t believe in anything.”—Jack to his former colleague and lover Nina Myers in “Day 2: 1:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m.”
Like a good superhero, Jack has an almost single-minded devotion to an ideal that’s bigger than he is: the interests of his country and the lives of its citizenry. His tireless pursuit of those who threaten the American way of life—he is quite literally on call twenty-four hours a day—is reflected in his résumé (U.S. Army, LAPD, CIA, CTU) and his repeated thwarting of terrorist attacks against the United States (see: pretty much any season of the show). In 24: Live Another Day, we find Jack on foreign soil, working from the shadows to foil an assassination attempt against the visiting American president, despite Jack’s active status as a federal fugitive. Jack has no ulterior motive in Live Another Day—his interests are purely to serve his president and prevent a world war.
Sometimes his resolute patriotism presents a no-win dilemma: When President Heller commits to sacrificing himself in “Day 9: 6:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.” to secure the surrender of hijacked predator drones from international terrorist Margot Al-Harazi, he enlists Jack’s help to carry out the plan—Jack is ordered by his president to help facilitate the president’s own death! When assured of amnesty by Heller for his cooperation, Jack responds, “Mr. President, I’m not looking for a pardon—especially not for this. I think what you’re doing is wrong.” Despite his reservations, though, he executes his president’s orders—like a true patriot.
And his patriotism is reflected in small gestures as well as grand deeds: Notice how respectfully he addresses heads of state, even when he doesn’t agree with them or share their agenda. But, Jack is loyal to his country, not, ultimately, to any one elected or appointed official, and if his orders conflict with the greater good as he deems it, Jack exhibits a trait that acts as an effective “check and balance” to his patriotism…
2. JACK IS DEFIANT
“I am more than willing to be judged by the people you claim to represent. I will let them decide what price I should pay. But please do not sit there with that smug look on your face and expect me to regret the decisions I have made. Because, sir, the truth is… I don’t.”—Jack addresses Senator Blaine Mayer at a hearing over his illegal use of torture in “Day 7: 8:00 a.m.–9:00 a.m.”
Here we are, two traits into this deconstruction, and already Jack is proving to be a richly layered character. “Defiance” is hardly an atypical attribute with respect to American heroes; we’re a country founded on revolution, after all, and that spirit of contumacy has been reflected and celebrated in our fictional protagonists: Philip Marlowe; Snake Plissken; Harry Callahan; Raylan Givens. (Though why our antiheroes are so overwhelmingly male is a sociocultural discussion for another day.)
And, hey—as much as we love our antiheroes, we cherish our Boy Scouts, too: Take Jack Ryan. Or your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Better still, when paired, antiheroes and Boy Scouts provide conflicting points of view, like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Wolverine and Cyclops. Superman and Batman have always made a psychologically fertile twosome in the funny pages (and soon on the silver screen): The Man of Steel is an unmistakable Boy Scout, after all—openly fighting for truth, justice, and the American way—whereas the Dark Knight is an avowed outlaw, operating ethically and literally in the shadows. Antiheroes and Boy Scouts are often thrown together in the same story to clash, compete, and complement… but seldom are they combined in the same character. So, what makes defiance so curious—and dramatically effective—as one of Jack’s characteristics is its incongruous juxtaposition with his patriotism.
When Jack disobeys explicit orders, refuses cooperation unless his terms are met, trespasses on sovereign territory (like the Chinese consulate in Season Four, a relatively minor transgression that had major repercussions), resists torture and even death, that’s defiance—that’s the aspect of his character that evokes the classic American antihero. But, the reason it doesn’t feel clichéd is on account of its unconventional pairing with his patriotism. In addition to serving as a built-in checks-and-balances mechanism, these counterparts often war with one another, creating a rich and conflicted hero indeed:
“I see fifteen people held hostage on a bus, and everything else goes out the window. And I will do whatever it takes to save them, and I mean whatever it takes…. Laws were written by much smarter men than me. And, in the end, I know that these laws have to be more important than the fifteen people on the bus. I know that’s right. In my mind, I know that’s right. I just don’t think my heart could ever have lived with it.”—From “Day 7: 7:00 a.m.–8:00 a.m.”
3. JACK IS TACTICAL AND COMBAT PROFICIENT
Are those traits or, more appropriately, skills? “Traits,” as we understand them of actual flesh-and-blood people, typically refer to personality facets, either congenital or cultivated; however, in the case of fictional characters, acquired skills—especially as they pertain to profession—can serve as de facto traits if they consistently influence the character’s worldview/dialogue/decisions. Indiana Jones’ “expertise in biblical archaeology” and Fox Mulder’s “authority on paranormal matters,” for instance, are so much more than vocational idiosyncrasies—they are, in many respects, the raisons d’être for their respective protagonists. Since so much of Jack’s action and dialogue can be attributed to his skillful use of tactics and proficiency in combat, those facets of his character can safely be categorized as a trait.
And, to be sure, they are only a single attribute: They are subsets of the same skill set, used interchangeably and in tandem as needed. So, every time Jack breaks into or out of a secured facility, puts a security guard in a sleeper hold, pursues a bad guy, assumes an alias, flies a helicopter, shoots a suspect, practices “enhanced interrogation,” orders Chloe to send him building schematics, you’re seeing the tactical and combat proficient aspect of his character in action. And given how much of the aforementioned goes on in your average episode of 24, make no mistake: It’s a trait.
“That’s the problem with people like you, George: You want results, but you never want to get your hands dirty. I’d start rolling up your sleeves. I’m gonna need a hacksaw.”—Jack to CTU director George Mason in “Day 2: 8:00 a.m.–9:00 a.m.”
I would add a conditional characteristic to this grouping: Jack’s tactical/combat proficiency includes an ease with the use of violence. In Jack’s case, “violent” isn’t its own attribute, because unlike, say, Tony Soprano, he doesn’t deploy violence capriciously—it is utilized strictly as a tactical or combative tool. He may use it comfortably, but never carelessly.
4. JACK HAS A DEATH WISH
You were with me up till this one, right? I mean, Jack’s patriotism, defiance, and combat proficiency are amply self-evident, but to say he has a death wish seems a bit of an extreme speculative leap, no?
Jack’s death wish is what is commonly referred to, in informal screenwriting parlance, as a “fatal flaw.” In a feature film, we meet a protagonist with a so-called fatal flaw—in The King’s Speech, Prince Albert is acutely hampered by feelings of inadequacy as a result of being treated like “second-best son” by his father—and, by the end, the events of the plot have facilitated a psychological transformation known as a character arc—i.e., the hero goes from “broken” to “healed,” very generally speaking.
Serialized characters—of which Jack is one—don’t enjoy the benefit of such accelerated catharsis. They, like the rest of us, are condemned to live with their emotional baggage for prolonged periods of time—perhaps forever—as their personal shortcomings fuel the series’ ongoing conflict (certainly in comedy) or add depth and pathos (in drama).
The thing about a “fatal flaw” is that, unlike the other traits, it’s not always readily evident. This is by design. Fictional characters don’t want their weak spots exposed anymore than you or I do, and they take great pains, consciously and unconsciously, to keep it out of sight—even from themselves. But, every so often—usually in moments of profound vulnerability—the truth slips out:
“Do you understand the difference between dying for something and dying for nothing? The only reason I fought so hard to stay alive in China was because I didn’t want to die for nothing. Today, I can die for something. My way, my choice. To be honest with you, it’ll be a relief.”—Before being turned over, by presidential order, to a terrorist, Jack confides in his former colleague Bill Buchanan in “Day 6: 6:00 a.m.–7:00 a.m.”
That is a telling passage. First, Jack invokes his sense of patriotism: “Do you understand the difference between dying for something and dying for nothing?” Then a glimpse at his defiance: “The only reason I fought so hard to stay alive in China was because I didn’t want to die for nothing.” He hides behind his final trait in the two sentences that follow—which we’ll get to next—and then finally the deep, dark, hidden truth comes out: “To be honest with you, it’ll be a relief.”
That’s the death wish—death would be a relief for Jack. He isn’t suicidal—his death would have to mean something, to be in service to his cause (patriotism)—but, when rushing into harm’s way, survival is never, ever prioritized above success. He goes so far as to refuse life-saving stem-cell treatment after exposure to a lethal pathogen on Day 7 (but sees out his mission, nonetheless, to the point of physical collapse), and casually acknowledges the likelihood of death in Live Another Day as the outcome of an operation he’s proposed and insisted, against presidential objection, on personally carrying out (“Day 9: 4:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m.”): “Mr. Boudreau, if I live through the day—which, by the way, is highly unlikely—I’m going straight to prison.” So long as his objective is achieved, Jack accepts—even welcomes—the possibility of death.
Why does Jack feel this way? I mentioned that Jack’s character has remained so impressively consistent throughout the run of this series, yet you won’t find any trace of the death wish in Season One—because it hadn’t yet taken root. On that first day, Jack Bauer may’ve had more in common with Jack Ryan: He was ex-military; a deeply devoted patriot; a loving father and husband. But, a key traumatic event at the end of that first season altered Jack’s psychology:
“Of course I have regret, Senator. I regret losing my family. My wife was murdered because I was responsible for protecting David Palmer during the assassination attempt. My daughter can’t even look at me. Every day I regret looking into the eyes of men, women, and children knowing that any moment their lives may be deemed expendable in an effort to protect the greater good. I regret every decision and mistake I might have made that resulted in the loss of an innocent life. But you know what I regret the most? That this world even needs people like me.”—Jack, during a follow-up conversation with Senator Blaine Mayer, in “Day 7: 9:00 p.m.–10:00 p.m.”
Despite his repeated use of the word, Jack’s fatal flaw goes beyond mere regret; in Jack’s mind, if he were gone, it would be a twofold victory: He’d finally be relieved of that crippling regret, and maybe, just maybe, the world would’ve evolved to the point where men like him were blessedly obsolete. And so he works actively toward that endgame through…
5. ACTS OF SELF-SACRIFICING HEROISM
At the beginning of Day 6, before Jack admits to Bill Buchanan that death would be “a relief,” he says: “Today, I can die for something. My way, my choice.” Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon isn’t necessarily looking to die for something; he’s got a special hollow-point bullet earmarked to end his misery. On Rescue Me, firefighter Tommy’s Gavin’s survivor guilt manifests in extremely self-destructive behavior. In First Blood, Rambo’s PTSD comes out in bouts of violence when he’s provoked. Jack is notably different than most damaged heroes, though—and this is what really makes him fascinating: He channels his pain, quite unconventionally, into an (ostensibly) positive trait—his self-sacrificing heroism.
Jack doesn’t wallow in booze or wander the face of the earth aimlessly until drawn into action by external forces, as we’ve come to expect from our antiheroes—he is proactive. And he isn’t motivated by a payday or a pardon or even personal redemption; he is a man with the courage of his convictions.
- It’s not merely that Jack is patriotic; he is ready and willing to die for his country, if necessary.
- His defiance isn’t an empty show of bravado; he’s displayed a willingness to risk both his life and freedom to exercise it.
- And he isn’t just tactical and combat proficient; there’s knowing how to fight, and then there’s putting oneself in the line of fire, something Jack does with alarming (if vicariously thrilling) regularity.
- And, yes, perhaps all of that’s easier when you have a death wish, but Jack embraces the possibility of death only on his terms—in service to a cause.
- That cause? The lives and freedom of his fellow Americans—the “fifteen people held hostage” on that bus. That’s self-sacrificing heroism.
That’s Jack Bauer—in five consistent traits.
LIVE ANOTHER DAY
It’s the incongruity of patriotism and defiance, as well as the uncommonly positive manifestation (self-sacrificing heroism) of an exceptionally negative “fatal flaw” (death wish), that make Jack such a morally complex hero reflective of his morally complex times. It’s his stubborn refusal (his defiance again!) to be labeled as black (antihero) or white (Boy Scout) that keeps us debating—and watching—24 thirteen years after the series innovated real-time storytelling. It’s not the gimmick that’s compelling—it’s the protagonist. Though he would surely disagree with me on this, I say long live Jack Bauer.