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24 for 24: The Best Cliffhangers

24 will bow out on UK and Irish television screens next week. I figured I’ll review the final season of the hit show, but I also thought I should do something a bit more special for the occasion. So, I decided I’d count down the top 24 cliffhangers. As those familiar with the show will know, each episode ends with a massive cliffhanger designed to reel the audience back in the following week. A major character is killed, someone is a mole, Jack does something almost unforgivable. Anyway, the best ones leave us hungry for more. So, over the eight years of the show, what are my personal best 24 moments?

The only reason you’re still conscious is because Jack Bauer doesn’t want to carry you…

Note: By its very nature, this article contains spoilers for all eight seasons. Don’t read it if you haven’t watched them yet, but still plan to. Even if you’re a casual fan of the show, some of these may shock you and ruin a good twist or two.

#24: Day #5: “China Has a Very Long Memory”

Strangely enough, given the nature of the show, things tend to come back to bite Jack in the ass surprisingly regularly. Still, this cliffhanger conclusion to the fifth season came out left field and left everybody reeling. After saving the country (again), Jack is abducted by Chinese agents for his actions in an episode that aired the previous season. He then finds himself on a boat. To China. Though the follow-up wasn’t handled particularly well, with Jack being returned to the US and then the issue never really being brought up again, we did at least get a bit of closure on this one.

#23: Day #3 – 4:00pm: A Pain (and Shot) In The Neck

24 had a bit of a taste for killing off major characters, so when a character gets wounded, there’s always a legitimate chance it’s fatal. Except for Jack. He’ll never die – and not just because I like the nickname “the Jack Bauer power hour”. Anyway, here we have a very conventional foot chase going on. It looks like the cliffhanger will involve the suspect – a young lad infected with a biological weapon – will get away, and somehow slip past Tony, effectively the show’s second banana to Jack in its first three years. And then… bam! One of the bad guys chasing the living, breathing weapon, steps out of nowhere and shoots Tony – in the neck. Tony would go on to make a full recovery, but even the fake-outs can send an audience reeling on this show.

#22: Day #1 – 1:00am: It’s Gonna Be a Long Day

It isn’t the most explosive finale, nor the most suspenseful, but it’s where it all began and it’s a quiet scene which underscores how effective 24 can be when it narrows its focus. Jack gets a phone call from his wife, hoping he can help her find their missing daughter, and he plans to skip out of the office to join in a little family time. Unfortunately, a plane chooses that moment to explode in a wonderful James-Bond-style terrorist plot to kill a journalist (there’s no kill like overkill, I’m afraid), which means Jack must effectively abandon his wife and daughter to face up to his professional responsibilities. That one shot of Jack as he stands there, waiting, is a powerful one.

#21: Day #1 – 6:00am: You’re Not My Real Dad

Janet York had the real misfortune to befriend Kim Bauer. When terrorists decided to kidnap Jack’s daughter to use as leverage against the head of CTU, Janet was brought along for the ride. She endured a whole host of unfortunate situations, landing her in hospital. While this kidnapping plot was on-going, Jack’s wife Teri was searching for her daughter. She’d paired up with Janet’s father, who was similarly concerned about his own daughter. When she came out of surgery, he was afforded a quiet moment with his child as she came back to consciousness. Her first words? “Who are you?” No, she didn’t have amnesia (that came later in the season) – the man who had been accompanying Teri wasn’t her father, he was a plant, another terrorist sent to take care of Jack’s wife. A whole rake of 24 twists have centred around a key character not being who they claimed they were, but this is the original – and best.

#20: Day #4 – 3:00am: Not For All the Leads in China

Sometimes endings are great because they are shocking. Because you never see them coming. Other times, they are great because they push the envelope as to what the show can do and have Jack do while still being the hero of our story. Here, Jack is dating Audrey. They are happy together, until her ex-husband arrives. Her ex-husband is jealous of Jack machismo, and decides to play hero. This promptly gets him shot and sent to hospital in critical condition. Meanwhile, Jack decides (with Presidential blessing) to lay siege to a Chinese consulate in Los Angeles to take a suspect into custody. This does not go well. The head of the consulate is killed in the crossfire and the lead is critically injured. Jack takes the lead back to CTU, but discovers that Audrey’s ex-husband is still in surgery. So Jack hi-jacks the operating room and forces the surgeon to fix up the pseudo-terrorist instead of his girlfriend’s husband. The husband dies, and Audrey is understandably upset. It’s a stunning moment to see Jack effectively kill an innocent human being – especially one connected to someone he loves. That this whole episode was nearly the only one in the entire fourth season which mattered also gives it some weight.

#19: Day #3 – 5:00am: “You Are No Longer in Control of Your Country…”

This was the moment that the rocky third season of the show got well and truly back on track. After a trip to Mexico and a mostly disappointing reunion with the killer of Jack’s wife, Nina, the show got a shot in the arm when the mastermind behind it all reared his head. Following the middleman (and following the conventional “our only lead” format), Jack was hot on the heels of a weapons dealer who had tricked into thinking he’d slipped surveillance. As the lead got into a parked car to meet his employer… it exploded! And Jack’s lead went up in smoke. And then Jack gets  a phonecall. “You were smarter than Amador,” the smooth British accent notes, “but you were never smarter than me.” All of a sudden, it’s personal. Someone out there from Jack’s past is coming at him – someone as smart and angry and resourceful. But there’s more. He wants Jack to phone a friend. As President Palmer picks up the phone, he is informed by that smooth British voice that the United States of America has had a change of leadership – the terrorist will be calling the shots. It’s the first time the big bad and the President came face-to-face, and it’s a stunning moment.

#18: Day #8 – Noon: Dana Dies

Let’s face it: Dana Walsh’s subplot on the show was the biggest waste of time of the final season,a nd the biggest waste of Katee Sackhoff’s talents I have seen. However, this stunning moment almost makes it all worth while. After giving Jack the evidence which implicates the Russians in the death of Renee (for which she bartered her life), she finds herself at his mercy. She begs him for a way to make it right, asking what she could do. He replies with, “Nothing.” He then shoots her in cold-blood. It’s a stunning moment, and one which makes the audience question – for the first time in a while – how far Jack will go to avenge his loved one. It also makes the audience wonder what the end goal of this is – whether Jack will be content to simply expose the conspiracy, or whether he is to become a one-man hit squad. It’s awkward and it’s uncomfortable, but it makes Jack a morally ambiguous central character again and fundamentally undermines our assumption that he’s the good guy in all this.

#17: Day #5 – 8:00pm: Tony Dies (Again, But No More Thoroughly)

Tony had retired. He’d found a woman he loved. He was living the good life. He was happy. Of course, the show decided to punish him. In what might be most aptly described as “the great cast purge” at the start of the wonderful fifth season, his wife was killed and he was injured. He spent half the season in recovery in CTU. While there, he finds himself lying beside the man responsible for his wife’s death (no points for guessing that Jack put him there). Tony decides to kill him with a shot of “piping hot torture juice” (I’m sure that’s not the technical term) straight to the heart. As the audience waits to see Tony become a cold-blooded killer, the impossible happens. His would-be victim wakes up, and plunges the needle into Tony, leaving Tony to die in Jack’s arms. It’s about as poetic as a show about explosions and torture gets. Of course, Tony would come back (to be the subject of even more cruel twists), but the original scene remains powerful and fits thematically with his return… in a way, the real Tony died in Jack’s arms that day.

#16: Day #3 – 1:00pm: Manly, Manly Tears

Jack has had a crap day. He’s found himself haunted by a man he left behind in Bosnia, heard that the President he’s fought so hard for is not going to contest the next election, quit heroin, killed the woman who murdered his wife, chopped of his partner’s hand, arrested his best friend, killed his boss and been all the way to Mexico and back. The third season had several huge faults (most of them listed above), but the final image was perhaps the most powerful image to end a season of 24. Going out to his car after a long day, Jack just breaks down. It’s an incredibly scene and one that just works because it’s so rare we see stuff like that in the show. It was so solid that Sky used it to sell HD several years later.

#15: Day #6 – 1:00pm: Papa Bauer’s Got a Brand New Bag

I love James Cromwell. He’s an actor who can’t get enough praise. However, he was criminally misused in the sixth season of the show as Jack Bauer’s estranged father. There were early signs of trouble when Jack turned out to have an evil brother (who has never been mentioned before or since) who organised the big conspiracy from the previous year. There was one glimmer of hope. After Jack tortures his brother half to death, Papa Bauer shames his eldest into letting him see his terrorist child. There’s a touching scene which follows which quickly warps as the evil Bauer brother lets his dad know he didn’t talk, even under torture. Papa Bauer is impressed, but concedes that he will break. He then smothers his own son. Now that is cold blooded. Of course, the show would later have the character tangle with the Chinese and try to kidnap his grandson (and imply he raped his daughter in law), but here he was at his most menacing and chilling. It’s a shame the rest of the arc couldn’t live up to the promise.

#14: Day #3 – 4:00am: The Biological Weapon Goes Off

Here’s a way to make sure a bomb never goes off – just surround it with regular characters on your show. So when Michelle Dressler, who had been around for nearly two years, and Gael, a heroic triple-agent who had endured torture to protect Jack, swarmed into a hotel with a biological weapon, the audience figured there was no way it would go off. So Gael is tasked with disarming it… and it goes off. It’s a small squirt into the air, but it’s enough. It’s amazing how, despite the anticlimactic ‘explosion’, it’s still a shocking and powerful moment.

#13: Day #7 – 2:00am : Tony is a Bad Guy

This one gets bonus points for double-subverting audience expectations. At the start of the season, the audience was informed that Tony was now a terrorist. And alive. But also a terrorist. Of course, we loyal 24 fans knew that he could never be a bad guy, despite what we were told – just as Jack knew. And we were right. Tony was a deep cover mole, fighting to bring down the real bad guys from the inside. And he does. He gets to be all heroic and stop a chemical weapon from being used. And then – out of nowhere – he shoots and suffocates a leading character, Larry Moss, with his bare hands. It’s a chilling scene, especially juxtaposed with the scene where Tony can’t even bring himself to kill the man who killed his wife two years earlier.

#12: Day #2 – 11:00am: Dead Man Walking

This one is a triple-whammy. Jack helps plant a bomb in CTU to go undercover with terrorists… and it goes off. The staff inside the President’s circle knew about it, but kept it from him, and allowed it to go off to allow Jack to continue his investigation. And George Mason, the new boss of CTU who had used any excuse to get out of Los Angeles as a nuclear bomb ticked down, found himself exposed to a lethal dose of radiation.He’d undertake a wonderful transformation in his last few hours, but it’s just a wonderfully quiet juxtaposition with all the noise and fury happening in the main plot.

#11: Day #6 – 10:00am: Don’t Be Curt(is) With Me

Jack finds himself working with a former terrorist to foil a series of attacks on Los Angeles. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with everyone, especially his old ally Curtis. See, Curtis served in the Gulf. Several members of his platoon were kidnapped by this “reformer” and his cell and brutally beheaded. That tends to leave a few issues. Curtis eventually makes a play for the former terrorist, walking him out to the car and preparing to shoot him. Jack figures out something is wrong and intercepts him. The two stand off. There’s a lot of bromance in the air as both men must make choices. Neither one will stand down. And Jack does it – he shoots one of the few friends he has left to protect a man responsible for hundreds of deaths. It’s a shocking sequence which sucker-punches the audience and actually creates the impression that this season is going to be far better than it eventually ends up. Jack stumbles through the streets, lost and alone. He breaks down.

And then – just as things are crap enough – a nuke goes off in the centre of Los Angeles (complete with mushroom cloud).

#10: Day #2 – 5:00pm: “This Isn’t Over Yet”

Jack is held at gunpoint by Nina, his former lover and the woman who killed his wife, who has information about the nuclear weapon due to explode on United States soil. She offers it to the President in return for a pardon for the execution of Jack. The plot is exploding in a dozen different directions as CTU races to intercept the bomb, knowing it means a death sentence for Jack. Most seasons tend to sag in the middle, but the second season gloriously defies this trend. We close on Nina and Jack, both still out there alone, waiting for her to kill him. She asks him if he thought it would end this way. He replies, “This isn’t over yet.”

#9: Day #8 – 9:00am: Renee Walker Dies

What was remarkable about the third quarter of the final season was that it dared to feel like the show had ended a little bit early. It gave characters a bit of breathing room, and some chance for reflection. Of course, for Jack and Renee, it gave them a chance to consummate their relationship with some passionate love-making. Of course, Renee committed the show’s cardinal sin: she made Jack happy. So, along comes a Russian with a sniper rifle and… bang! Jack’s love interest is dead. And Jack is roaring for revenge, completely forgetting all the previous attempts to come to terms with his violence and darker tendencies. Renee and Jack had more chemistry than all of Jack’s love interests on the show, and both really deserved a shot at happiness – which makes this all the more shocking.

It also became the moment where it seemed that Jack might actually lose it all. All his attempts to be a better man than he is, to reign in all the hurt and pain and rage inside him. The thought that he couldn’t protect someone so dear to him actually managed to send Jack over the edge. Some of his actions following Renee’s death were downright shocking and were brave for the show – a scene of Jack literally tearing a man’s guts out and executing an unarmed woman push the boundaries of what a leading character can get away with. Whereas the above example was about maintaining the show’s arc and momentum into the second half of a season, this cliffhanger is the most successful “mid-season game changer” 24 has ever pulled off.

#8: Day #2 – 9:00am: Jack is Back

After the fantastic first season, we were all more than a bit worried about how a second season would work. Would the magic be gone? Was it just a gimmick? The second season premiere is a contender for one of the best episodes ever, so wonderfully picking up where the original left off, maintaining tension and allowing us to pick up with Jack. Here, he’s a broken man, complete with scruffy beard. We think he may have lost it. And killing a witness in federal custody (and decapitating the corpse) probably doesn’t help. Still, it was the moment the show reminded us that it wasn’t a one-hit wonder. In fact, the exact moment was the moment when – as things seemed darkest – Jack raised his head from the sink and revealed his beard of sorrow was gone. Jack was well and truly back.

#7: Day #3 – 3:00am: “No… you don’t…”

Back at CTU, Jack’s ex-mistress (and the woman who murdered his wife) makes an escape. And then she makes a mistake – she threatens his daughter. Jack wounds her to allow his daughter to escape. And then he approaches her as she bleeds out on the floor. She begs for her life – claims she still has useful information. Jack looks her up and down decides, “No… you don’t.” And he executes her in cold blood. It’s only the second time in the show that Jack kills an unarmed person, and the first time that he kills for his own deeply personal reasons (putting the country itself at risk). It’s a powerful moment which reestablishes Jack as an anti-hero and forces the audience to evaluate whether he is the hero of the piece, and whether he is beyond redemption.

#6: Day #8 – 8:00am: President Hassan is Dead

Islamic world leader President Hassan gave himself up to terrorists to prevent an attack on New York City. Jack and President Taylor promised they would get him back to his family before they can execute him on the web. Hassan stalls for time as CTU tries to find him – first by refusing to make “a confession”, before they decide to execute him anyway. As the video reaches its gruesome climax, CTU finds the den where he’s being held. It’s going to be tight, and the clock is ticking. Jack swoops in and shoots the masked executioners, only to realise the video is still playing. The webstream is delayed by several minutes. President Hassan sits in the corner, his throat slit. He was dead a few minutes ago. The episode ends with his execution going out on the internet, as Jack and President Taylor realise they’ve failed. It’s rare for such a major objective like this to fail on the show – and I was literally flabbergasted when it happened. That’s a powerful ending, right there.

#5: Day #5 – 11:00pm: At What Point Does It Stop Being “Conspiracy” And Actually Become Executive Privilege?

It had to happen eventually. The first four seaons worked by contrasting the attempts by Jack and the President to stop the terrorist threat, so it was only a matter of time before the show turned the premise on its head and turned it into Jack vs. the President. Here more-than-a-little Nixon-like President Charles Logan (played effortlessly by Gregory Itzin), is revealed as the “mastermind” (in the loosest possible sense, given his weasel-like tendancies) behind the assassinations which started the day off. This one little twist led to some of the best plot threads in the entire run of the show, and also turned Logan from a snivelling liar into the man we loved to hate.

#4: Day #1 – 11:00pm: Nina is the Mole

It made no sense, given her character or her motivations earlier in the season, with only one line (“you’re the best liar I’ve ever met”) even hinting at it. However, when Jack’s mistress Nina Myers turned out to be the secret mole at CTU, it was just shocking.

#3: Day #2 – 11:00pm: The Bomb Detonates

The score for this scene is incredible. Sean Callary is some man. Anyway, this poetic little sequence has it all. George, told he was a dead man walking hours earlier, flies the nuclear weapon away from civilisation as it detonates. Jack, Kim and President Palmer all witness the massive mushroom cloud in the distance. Although it would be another four years before the show would allow a nuclear detonation to occur within city limits, it was a brave and bold image for an America just recovering from 9/11. The landscape had changed. Each of the character felt it. Though the remaining eight hours of the season wouldn’t live up to what had come before, the detonation of the nuclear warhead was a beautiful and near-perfect finish to the fascinating sixteen hours which had come before.

#2: Day #3 – 7:00am: Jack kills Chappelle

You’ve probably noticed a trend. Jack killing people tends to be a regular feature on this particular countdown. Here, Jack was ordered to kill his boss or his former colleague would release a biological weapon into Los Angeles. Although it was authorised by the President, it was still Jack who had to pull the trigger. It’s an amazing scene in the middle of an abandoned trainyard, as the two men come to peace. As it becomes clear that CTU will not find the terrorists in time to avoid the deadline, the show’s chief bureaucrat Ryan Chappelle comes to terms with his mortallity. For a moment, it looks like he may pull the trigger himself, sparing Jack, he’s unable to do so. Jack has to do it himself. It’s a sparse, grey and quiet image as Jack pulls the trigger, and Chappelle hits the ground as the timer silently ticks.

#1: Day #1 – Midnight: Teri is Dead

This was the moment the show let us know that it plays for keeps. After all they’ve been through, the Bauers deserve a happy ending. However, ‘deserve’ has got nothing to do with it. The show’s first season ends with Jack cradling his wife’s lifeless body, realising that, despite all he’s done, he couldn’t save her.

Dishonourable Mentions:

And, just to round out our numbers, here are two that could have been epic, but ultimately just went nowhere:

Day #3 – 2:00pm: Jack is a junkie

It was a great reveal. Jack had gone undercover with a Mexican cartel, and was now addicted to heroin, which he had to juggle with absolutely everything that was going on that day. It was a soap opera twist which could have worked (seriously, look at the show), but was ultimately dropped less than three episodes later and only mentioned in fleeting later on in the season. It’s rare that Jack himself finds himself embroiled in the show’s pointless subplots, but this was one such occasion.

Day #2 – 8:00am: Cliffhanger time!

When the show came back for a second season, we were promised that there would be no cliffhangers between seasons – each day would stand on its own. The truth is that most of them, to a greater or lesser extent, do. However, the series ended its second season with an assassination attempt on the President, and a revelation that there was an even bigger mastermind behind it all. Which might have been good, if the cliffhanger was resolved. Instead, the third season begins with President Palmer fully recovered (with just a scar), a fleeting reference to all the conspirators locked up and then goes ahead with its own plot. The missing adventure became a spin-off video game. Seriously? You gave us a huge cliffhanger and couldn’t be arsed solving it, so you shipped it to the video game. This was more than a little disappointing.

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