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Jack and Tony: Brothers in Arms?

I had the pleasure of rewatching bits and pieces of the seventh season of 24 with my parents (as they are equally avid fans of the show). We recently completed the final double episode and I have to admit that it only really occurred to me how well the writers had constructed Tony as a shadowy counterpart to their lead. I’ve already expressed my thoughts on the season as a whole, but I just thought I’d make a quick note of some of the more interesting parallels and ponder whether Jack is really so much better than Tony.


Clothes colour coded for your convenience... white=good, black=bad....

The path the two share is fairly obvious. Both lost a wife and an unborn son to a larger conspiracy. Both fidn themselves sleeping with a key part of that conspiracy (Jack admittedly slept with Nina before she killed his wife; Tony hooked up afterwards with his plan clear in his head). Both are willing to accept that the rules must be broken in order to ensure the greater good (Jack himself concedes this to Renee, using the example of fifteen people on a bus). Both experienced uncontrollable personal rage at the person they perceived to be responsible for the death of their wife (Jack’s pursuit and hatred of Nina was an underlying theme in her reappearances over the following two seasons; Tony concocted an elaborate plan to infiltrate his target’s organisation and kill him). That’s not withstanding the other obvious overlaps that aren’t related to deceased spouses: both faked their deaths, both are fairly firm believers in ye old torture as an interrogation method, both are crack shots and so on.

So, we know where they overlap. The real question is where they differ. Tony is obviously the bad guy in this scenario – and that makes Jack, by inference, the good guy. So the point where they part is somewhere near the point where Tony strayed from anti-hero to flat-out villain. What was the point of no return? What was the moral event horizon?

Was it Tony’s cold-blooded murder of Larry Moss? That was certainly the turning point for audience sympathy for him. That was the moment where the audience was fairly definitively informed that – despite earlier red herrings – Tony was in fact actually a bad guy. Larry Moss was innocent. Tony shot and suffocated an innocent man – an FBI agent, no less. So that must be where they’d differ. Jack would never kill an innocent?

Arguably that’s true. But Jack has killed in pursuit of the greater good before. The most obvious example is the stark opening of the second season where he unceremoniously puts down a pedophilic gang member who had received immunity in return for giving evidence against a bigger fish. He certainly wasn’t an innocent man – at least not as innocent as Larry – but who is Jack to serve as an arbitrator of whether one life is better than another? Who are we? It’s an acceptable pragmatic distinction because he is a criminal and – even though the law has been brought to bear on him (and the government’s offer of immunity does represent a judicial decision) – he is an acceptable loss. He’s certainly not as pure as an FBI agent.

There’s also a suggestion (and a faint one, admittedly) that Jack has taken another life without consulting due process. In the third season opener, Jack is revealed as a heroin addict – but when he rolls up his sleeve to shoot up, he has a gang tattoo. I was always always fascinated with how little commotion accompanied that little snippet (it was overshadowed in discussions by Jack’s addiction – which disappeared after about six episodes), despite the fact that Kiefer Sutherland himself actually got the tattoo so that make-up wouldn’t worry about having to reapply it for the following seasons. Why am I making such a big deal about it? Most criminal gangs operate a ‘blood in, blood out’ system. We’re interested in the ‘blood in’ part: gangs only admit members who have killed. It’s an effective way to weed out law enforcement. Who did Jack kill to get that tattoo? Admittedly, this is all speculative, but I doubt a Mexican cartel just admitted Jack without a loyalty test like most other enterprises.

And don’t get us started with Jack’s cold-blooded execution of his boss Ryan Chappelle in the third season. It made for one of the show’s most emotionally wrenching moments as Chappelle, who proved unable to take his own life. Sure, it was done to appease a terrorist with a bio-weapon so as to ultimately bring him down – but wasn’t that what Tony was doing? Appeasing a terrorist organisation so as to get close enough to cut off its head?

Okay, so if we accept that Tony and Jack have both killed an innocent person for ‘the greater good’, is the difference drawn at quantity? Does Tony’s attempted attack on Washington Central represent the crossing of a moral event horizon? It was undoubtedly meant to be carried out, costing thousands of lives (that’s Jack Bauer’s estimate). Then again, it’s not a situation with which Jack himself would be unfamiliar with.

In the second season, Jack was part of a crew which planted bombs in CTU – yes, the place that employed him – which ended up killing most of the staff. Yes, he tried to warn Tony of the attack, but he still played along just enough to allow the attack to be carried out. He could have stopped it and blown his investigation, but he didn’t. He just tried (not even necessarily succeeded) to restrict casualties. He’s placed in a similar situation during the fifth season, but this time a more obvious parallel wth Tony’s plot: President Logan instructs him to allow terrorists to conduct an attack on a mall so they can take him to their leader. Jack refuses to allow civilian casualties. So it is fair to say that Jack probably wouldn’t ever consider a loss that large of civilians to be simply ‘collateral damage’. I think that differentiates the two men.


If Tony can come back from the dead, maybe Jack's killing of Chappelle doesn't count... Day 8: Chappelle's Revenge!

But is that really the definitively wrong call in the morally ambiguous 24-verse? The President of the United States – admittedly the least morally conscious of the many leaders the country has had during the run of the show – was willing to accept such large losses on the basis that they would prevent a much larger loss further down the line. There’s at least an academic discussion to be had in defense of that point of view. I’m not saying it’s the right call, just that 24 has never explicitly stated it as the wrong decision. It did state that it was a line Jack would not cross (though he has been involved in incidents with civilian casualties – one such event in Serbia sparked the first year of the show).

Perhaps the difference between the good and the bad in this example is their conception of ‘the greater good’. 24 has always been at least morally ambiguous about actions, adopting a relativist approach – most actions can at least be understood in the right context, most explicitly torture – so perhaps the difference shouldn’t be defined by actions, but by goals. On first glance, Tony’s goal is a selfish one: he wants to avenge Michelle. Jack, on the other hand, wants to defend his country. He wants to do what’s right because it is right, not because he wants it for his own gain. Right?

Not necessarily. Jack has always been drawn to ‘the greater good’ and defending America (that’s practically how every season starts), but there have admittedly been personal concerns from time-to-time. There’s have been wants and needs tat do not stem from the best interests of the country, but from his own desire to avenge his wife. I am talking, of course, about Nina Myers. During her appearance in the second season, there’s a strong suggestion that Jack will kill her if presented with an opportunity. In fairness, the show suggests that he will hold back as long as the country is at risk – patriotic duty trumps personal satisfaction.

It’s during the third season – when he does kill Nina – that we see it might not be so clear or noble. Nina claims to know about a planned attack on the United States, which keeps her alive as she’s escorted back to Los Angeles and brought to CTU. She attempts to escape custody, and takes Jack’s daughter, Kim – the only reminder of his wife left – hostage. Jack manages to non-fatally take her down and get Kim out of the room. As she lies there bleeding and unarmed, she protests that she still has information. What follows is one of the coldest moments in the show’s history as Jack states “No. You. Don’t.” and executes her, lying helpless. There’s no way for Jack to be sure that Nina was unaware of the ‘big bad’ of the second half of the season. Since Stephen Saunders turned out to be a figure from Jack’s past, it was quite possible she would have at least been tangentally aware of him. Or maybe he was right. The point is that he – and we – have no way of knowing. He risked lives to satisfy is taste for revenge.

Just like Tony.

Maybe they aren’t so different after all. The only difference is that Jack went after (and got) the woman who put the plan in place. Tony never got that satisfaction, and went after the much bigger head honcho – the man with the plan, as it were.

Or maybe the difference is that Tony was the man Jack was, not the man he is. In his conversation with Renee, Jack explicitly states that he does not regret any of his actions of the course of the day. He actually ends this particular day on a relatively high note. Yes, he’s dying – but he finds peace. He isn’t captured by the Chinese for invading their embassy or forced to abandon the woman he loves after killing his father or forced to fake his own death to evade the consequences of his actions. Jack has changed.

I don’t think he would execute Ryan Chappelle again. I don’t think he would plant the bomb in CTU again. I actually think he’s grown as a character – as crazy as it sounds on such an action-heavy show. When he was asked if he had any regrets earlier in the season (the first episode), he conceded that he had several in his past:

Of course I have regrets, Senator. I regret losing my family. My wife was murdered because I was responsible for protecting David Palmer during an assassination attempt. My daughter can’t even look at me. Everyday I regret looking into the eyes of men, women and children knowing that any moment their lives might be deemed expendable in an effort to protect the greater good. I regret every decision or mistake that I might have made which resulted in the loss of a single innocent life. But do you know what I regret the most? Is that this world needs people like me.

It’s quite something for Jack to make it through a whole season without adding any new regrets to that list.

Tony is the man Jack was, but carried to an extreme. I don’t believe Jack would have ever killed thousands of people, but I believe he may have allowed for the deaths of innocents to further what he believed was the greater good. Tony remains sympathetic despite his actions because we recognise a similar arc has occurred for Jack. If you remove the subway attack, I could easily see a younger Jack getting lost in a similar plot for revenge. Particularly since Alan Wilson arguably poses a far greater threat to America than Nina Myers ever did – it’s easier for Tony to self-justify his actions when the man has been responsible for two of the worst days in American history (and possibly more). Nina is a threat only as a middle-woman organising deals or passing information back and forth. Wilson is a threat to hundreds and thousands of people at any given moment. Of course, that’s not why Tony is after him, but it allows for some justification, at least to himself.

Anyway, I actually like the Tony angle much better on watching it for the second time. It made much more sense thematically (even if bringing him back from the dead still seems hokey). Next thing you know, zombie David Palmer will lay seige to the White House. As long as they make it as interesting and complex emotionally, I’ll be along for the ride.

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