Maybe he just wants to be Kiefer Sutherland. Photographer: Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Maybe he just wants to be Kiefer Sutherland. Photographer: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

What can you say about a 40-something girl who died? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved her father and her country. And her job. And Jack Bauer.

Well, something like that. The thought that "24: Live Another Day" was yet again channeling “Love Story” came to me when Cheng Zhi’s sniper took aim at Audrey Boudreau, the president’s daughter, toward the end of last week’s penultimate episode,. After all, rule No. 3 of the “24” universe is that if Jack cares about you, the chances are you’re not long for this world.

Audrey’s death occurred just over half an hour into last night’s gripping season finale. Kate Morgan and her Central Intelligence Agency team had just taken out the sniper. And did Kate rush the victim away from the scene in case of danger, in the way of police forces everywhere? She did not. The team stood around gabbing until Audrey was killed by an unexpected “second shooter,” as Kate explained in an apologetic telephone call to Jack.

This sequence highlighted the second-biggest problem of the season, one I have mentioned before: the bizarre refusal to keep the British in the loop. It evidently occurred to nobody (at least not to Jack and Kate) that with a sniper taking aim at the daughter of the U.S. president in the middle of London, they might call the British, who could deploy a hostage rescue team. These teams are trained in stealth, and in addition to killing the sniper, would at least have tried to protect the victim afterward.

(The season’s biggest problem was that the tale of Margot Al-Harazi and her threatened drone attacks went on too long, and the reappearance of Cheng Zhi came much later in the season than it should have. Potential war between the U.S. and China is a bigger story.)

Anyway, back to Jack. Kate breaks the news as Jack is fighting his way through a Dutch freighter that’s supposed to spirit his nemesis, Cheng Zhi, out of London. I wait for Jack to do the full Oliver Barrett IV and respond, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Instead, he considers blowing his brains out.

Only he doesn’t. He goes into a killing frenzy, slaughtering Cheng’s henchmen (with help from his pal Belcheck, whose appearances this season were oddly intermittent), and reaching Cheng himself just in time to stop World War III. This Jack accomplishes by beating his old adversary within an inch of his life, holding a sword to his neck, and forcing him to confess on camera that he is indeed Cheng Zhi. The point is that the Chinese government thought Cheng was dead, and therefore disbelieved the U.S. claim that the sinking of a Chinese aircraft carrier by an American submarine was the result of Cheng’s manipulations.

With proof that Cheng is alive, the Chinese back down from the brink. I’m not entirely sure why. Cheng didn’t confess to his actions. The evidence the U.S. provided was enough to show that “someone” had broken into the command-and-control systems. That evidence is the same whether or not the someone was Cheng.

One might suppose that the Chinese would stay their hand only long enough to undertake their own interrogation of Cheng. But this wouldn’t fit the narrative, given that by the time President James Heller (unaware that his daughter is dead on Cheng’s orders) has finished negotiating with China, Jack has cut off Cheng’s head in revenge.

World War III has been averted, Cheng Zhi is dead, we can all go home and prepare for yet another season -- except that it’s just a quarter of the hour, meaning that something else has to happen. And something else does: Chloe O’Brian, whose hacking skills helped Jack shoot his way onto the ship, has vanished. Belcheck spots blood. Jack’s phone rings, and he’s told to be somewhere at a particular time. (Contrary to the usual “24” practice, we hear only Jack’s side of the conversation. Much more suspenseful.)

Cut to commercial. Cut to 12 hours later -- an eternity in “24” time. Loose ends are being wrapped up everywhere. Kate quits the CIA. Audrey’s husband, Mark the weasel, is under arrest for treason. The writers try one last trick, hinting that Heller died, too (he collapsed the previous night upon learning of his daughter’s death), but instead he watches tight-lipped as his daughter’s casket is loaded onto Air Force One. When the U.K. prime minister, who doesn’t seem to mind that the CIA shot up half of London yesterday, offers condolences, Heller shrugs them off. He won’t remember any of this anyway, he says, reminding viewers that he suffers from Alzheimer’s, a clever plot device introduced in the first episode of the season that wound up playing essentially no role.

Finally, we catch up with Jack. Belcheck drives him to a deserted area outside London, where Jack surrenders himself to the Russians in exchange for Chloe’s freedom. (Yes, you saw this in “Man on Fire.”) The Russians want him for killing their diplomatic personnel. Chloe and Jack grip hands briefly -- each, as Chloe mentioned earlier in the episode, the other’s only friend. Jack boards the Russian helicopter. As we fade to black, the “24” clock that always ticks so loudly suddenly ticks in silence toward the end of the hour. This is surely bad news for Jack.

But Jack has a lot on his conscience. All those years of torturing suspects, for instance. (And suspects’ wives -- remember Miriam Henderson during Day 5?) Perhaps the writers intended some deeper message here: the U.S. burying its post-Sept. 11 past, say, as tolerance fades for those who admit no limits in their efforts to keep the nation safe. But the ending doesn’t come off that way. It isn’t the U.S. that’s on trial here. It’s just Jack. (The writers considered killing him off.)

So is this a pause for some stock-taking, or the end of the franchise? The showrunners coyly insist that there while is no plan to bring “24” back, they haven’t ruled it out either. As a long-time fan, I find myself happy with either result. Despite its unevenness, Day 9 of “24” was great fun. It was true escapist pleasure, however briefly, to have Jack back.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net