The clock is ticking down to war between the U.S. and China. Photographer: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images
The clock is ticking down to war between the U.S. and China. Photographer: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Sometimes you can tell when the writers finished an episode of “24: Live Another Day” by double-checking their research. In last night’s well-paced episode, covering the hour between 9 and 10 p.m., China launched a strike force toward the U.S. bases on Okinawa, planning to retaliate for the sinking of a Chinese aircraft carrier by a U.S. submarine. President James Heller pleaded with the president of China to give him time to prove that the U.S. attack wasn’t authorized, to no avail. Thus the setup for next week’s finale, in which Jack Bauer has to deliver the Chinese renegade Cheng Zhi, along with proof that he was responsible, before World War III begins.

Now comes the research point. The president’s military advisers inform him that the strike force consists of several destroyers along with a number of J-16 fighter-bombers. That’s some nifty writing, given that the J-16, although unveiled years ago, only began serious test flights in January. Quite properly, the writers wanted their show to be up to date.

I’m betting the writers finished their work in January or February.

Why? Because in early March, the Chinese air force unveiled its J-20 stealth fighter, and the plane is already being lauded by Western experts for its advanced design. True, the first J-20s won’t be in the air for another four or five years, but thrillers are allowed to play with the timeline. Imagine how much cooler might it have been -- and how much more ominous -- had Heller been told, “The Chinese have their J-20 stealth fighters in the air. Mr. President, we can’t track them. We don’t know where they’re headed.”

Especially if we hypothesize a second Chinese aircraft carrier -- as I mentioned last week, the People’s Navy actually possesses only one -- and have the stealthy J-20s launched toward not Okinawa but, say, London. (Where this season of “24” is set.)

Anyway, so much for what might have been. On the larger issue -- this is a review as well as a recap, after all -- last night’s episode was solid and well-paced, up to the standards of some of the best past seasons of “24.” I pointed out last week that in reintroducing Jack’s old adversary Cheng Zhi, the writers have at last given our hero a worthy adversary. Cheng wants war between the U.S. and China as revenge for how both sides treated him -- and Russian intelligence, officially or unofficially, is on board, figuring that with its enemies distracted, Russia will have a free hand to act as it likes in Eastern Europe. (Speaking of research.)

In “24” terms, this is a perfect setup. The clock ticking down to war between the U.S. and China conjures memories of the show’s glory years, in a way that the possibility of drone attacks on London, however horrific the prospect, never quite did. One wishes that the show had introduced this plot earlier in the season.

At least the writers have discarded most of the burdensome subplots -- I never quite was able to care what happened to either Jordan Reed or Steve Navarro, or to Margot Al-Harazi’s children -- and pulled together the remaining skeins into a single thread.

For example: In full view of his military advisers, the president spills the pills he is secretly taking to help with his Alzheimer’s. With only one episode to go, it would be nice if the scene turns out to be a portent, considering that the disease from which the leader of the free world suffers has yet to play any significant role in the story. Maybe some staffers will question his orders to the military. (And maybe a man in his condition shouldn’t be giving orders to the military.)

For example: Mark Boudreau, the president’s chief of staff, is finally caught in his effort to turn Jack over to the Russians. Mark says his negotiations with Anatol Stolnavich were for the good of the country. Jack: “He’s a covert intelligence operative, you idiot.” (Actually, it’s sort of hard to believe that Mark didn’t know Stolnavich was part of Russian intelligence. Who exactly did he think he was turning Jack over to?) The larger point is that Jack figures out, from very few clues, that Stolnavich is working with Cheng. And how does Jack know Cheng is involved? Because of a clever trick involving Chloe O’Brian and a smartphone set on “record.”

Anyway, Mark gets the chance to make amends by helping Jack and Kate Morgan (suspended twice today by the Central Intelligence Agency) break into Stolnavich’s house. They kill all the guards -- presumably Russian diplomatic personnel, so that’s a problem -- but, alas, Mark kills Stolnavich himself in a struggle, so he isn’t around to be interrogated about Cheng’s whereabouts. (My guess that Mark would die in the operation was incorrect.)

Which leaves us poor Audrey. Trying to help, she meets a contact from the Chinese embassy and gives her evidence she hopes will show that the U.S. is telling the truth. Oops. The contact is shot and killed by a sniper. So are the two (only two?!) Secret Service guards accompanying the president’s daughter. Her phone rings, and Cheng tells her to sit on the bench and wait and maybe he won’t kill her.

True, there were a few clunkers. CIA tactical teams continue to shoot up London without interference from the British police or complaints from the British government. Chloe’s escape from Cheng was ridiculously easy, although the deus ex machina military truck that helped was nicely set up by Stolnavich’s warning that there’s extra security around the docks. But overall, the show has hit a marvelous stride. Too bad it took so long.

Next week: Well, it’s the final episode, so we know what happens.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.