Is Jack Bauer going to die?
How else will the haggard, yet ever-inventive producers of 24, one of TV history's most original and groundbreaking series, get him out of his current predicament before the show closes for good Monday after eight seasons, in a two-hour hail of breakneck action?
His latest lover - what is she, No. 4, including an assassinated wife? - is already dead, and the super-agent is on a rampage of revenge, in so deep this time that there seems no way out.
He wiped out half the Russian Embassy, finishing with a lance to the guts of the foreign minister. He used tear gas and a combination Terminator/Ironman suit to kidnap a former president (one of the great villains in TV history). Assisted by a cleverly placed bug on the nitwit (just as he was the last time he kidnapped the man in the show's fifth season), Bauer is continuing on his mission of doom.
Now he's going to kill the Russian president, who, by the way, is played by former Philadelphia guitar hero Nick Jameson from the late-'60s band American Dream.
Jack can't go and hide behind a rock, as he did in the Mojave Desert to avoid being killed by a nearby nuclear bomb a few years back. In New York City, there are no cougars to eat his adversaries, like the one who almost gobbled up his foxy daughter Kim before she wound up in the cave with the crazy survivalist. He's going against not only the Russian president, but also the American one (who seems to have lost her moral compass), as well as the FBI. His own Counter Terrorist Unit is hunting him down.
The only people seemingly left on his side are the guy who played Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs (or, if you prefer, Deadly Viper Budd from Kill Bill) and Jack's trusty super-geek sidekick, Chloe O'Brian.
With death such a strong possibility, how will Jack go? That deep knife wound in his side? It's not significant. He has recovered - over and over and over and over again - from worse, usually in 20 minutes or so. Drugs won't do it. He's kicked that heroin habit he acquired so he'd seem genuine when he was undercover with those Latin drug kingpins, and, though nerve gas and bioweapons have been common on 24 - some mean microbes sent Jack to death's door last season - there hasn't been a molecule of either one in the plot this time around.
Maybe he'll choke on a sandwich, grabbing his first bite to eat after eight days and 194 hours, or doze off and crash, falling asleep for the first time behind the wheel of the current product-placement monster car - Pontiac, Cadillac, GMC - that can cover miles and miles of America's most traffic-clogged roads in mere minutes. Maybe he'll drown in the toilet when he finally stops to go to the bathroom.
Oh, you say, a movie's on the way, so there's no possibility Jack will die? Don't forget that one key government operative, Tony Almeida, came back from the dead, all bitter and crazed, to confuse us all for another season.
The stories of 24 are ludicrous, but millions of Americans - the figure has dwindled to about 10 million per episode in this final season from a high of about 14 million in 2006, when the show won the Emmy for best drama - have willingly suspended disbelief to go along for the nerve-racking, bloody, convoluted ride, as the clock tick-tocks from one incredibly terrible day to the next.
The format was inventive: 24 episodes, one for each hour in the day. The staging was new, frequently borrowing from the panels of comic books, including multiple scenes playing out in a crescendo of suspense simultaneously in different segments of the TV screen. The subject, fighting terrorism, was up-to-the-minute, and the timing was perfect. The show's premiere was postponed from October to November 2001, because Fox programmers wanted to put a little space between their fiction and the reality of 9/11.
The pilot, obviously, was shot before the attack. "The fact that it actually aligned with things that were happening in the news and made it relevant . . . caught us completely off guard," Kiefer Sutherland, who has won an Emmy for playing Bauer, has said.
Though 24 had its share of Muslim terrorists, it was an equal-opportunity crook-a-thon, featuring power-mad, amoral dregs of humanity from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and, especially, the sinister corners of Eastern Europe. China and Russia, presumably because they can stand up for themselves, were the only real antagonistic countries, though Serbians and Mexicans and other "foreign nationals" from real places were involved. Otherwise, the governments cultivating terror hotbeds were called names like Sangala and, this season, the Islamic Republic of Kamistan.
Some of the greatest villains on the show came from the good old U.S.A., including President Charles Logan, played by Gregory Itzin, who seemed to have more fun than anybody with the show's crazy characterizations, and private security CEO Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight), who sought to take over the country with his personal army.
Public hand-wringing so accompanied the violence and torture on this comic-book show (the World Socialist Web Site calls it "insidious propaganda") that the producers started the seventh season with the disbanding of CTU and Bauer being subpoenaed by a Senate committee to explain his illegal behavior. But there was a cyber-attack on the nation's air-traffic control system, and we were off to the races again.
24 never glorified torture. Bauer never has taken pleasure in screaming at prisoners - "Tell me where the (bomb, killer, incriminating flash drive, secret document, nerve gas canister, nuclear fuel rod, kidnapped dignitary) is now!" - as he abused them. Most everybody in his governmental world has become appalled at his behavior. Many viewers themselves have grown tired of the increasing volume and predictability of the yelling threats, even as they still embrace the show's cuckoo twists and unlikely characters.
Executive producer Howard Gordon - you trust him after eight years and scores of red herrings? - has said Jack will live on as the show finishes: "We considered several very different endings. We tried 'happily ever after,' and it didn't work. This show is a tragedy. To give Jack a happy ending wouldn't have felt authentic."
Maybe Jack will wind up with a permanent case of laryngitis.
Jonathan Storm: '24': Its number is up, but is Jack Bauer's, too?
8 p.m. Monday on Fox29