“There are things in this world that are just out of our control. Sometimes we like to blame ourselves for them so we can try to make sense out of them.”
The second season of 24 fails to reach the heights of the first season, but is nonetheless a competent and consistent effort that consolidates the template that season one introduced. It solidifies the focus on counter-terrorism and reaffirms its commitment to Jack Bauer as the protagonist. Although the formula is occasionally altered hereafter, the fundamental premise remains unchanged for the duration of the series.
In doing so, the show essentially forfeits the opportunity to tell an entirely different story. 24 could easily have been an anthology series, presenting days in the life of various protagonists who deal with different environments, situations and circumstances. Instead, the show maintains the ‘race against time’ and ‘ticking time bomb’ approach that is anchored by the turbulent journey of its magnetic lead character.
This is not a criticism, but an interesting observation. Whether due to a lack of ideas or a reluctance to change the series too drastically after a successful debut, the writers and producers responsible for creating 24 made a conscious decision to keep the status quo intact. They made a decision to keep telling a thriller story about terrorism and political conspiracies, including the myriad physical challenges and emotional hardships therein.
A Prescient Threat
The first hour of season two quickly establishes that an Islamic terrorist organisation known as Second Wave plans to detonate a nuclear device somewhere in Los Angeles at some point in the next 24 hours. The magnitude of the threat is a noticeable shift from the relatively small-scale assassination plot of season one. Millions of lives are now at risk as opposed to a handful of specific individuals.
This is an important benchmark for the series – every season hereafter features weapons of mass destruction in some way or another. In hindsight, the show may have raised the stakes too high too early. This may have hampered its ability to tell compelling stories in later seasons where the trend of escalation started crossing into absurdity. On the other hand, it was arguably a natural stepping stone given the state of the real world at the time.
Season two was the first to be conceived after 9/11, allowing it to more closely reflect the fears and anxieties sweeping American society. When the season premiered in late-2002, the most prevalent fear was the possibility that terrorists could acquire a nuclear device and detonate it on American soil. The show responded by presenting a hypothetical situation where that fear becomes a reality.
Season two also demonstrated a remarkable prescience, anticipating real-world events before or as they happened. For example, the story arc involving the Cyprus recording that falsely implicates three Middle Eastern countries in the detonation of the nuclear device in Los Angeles began just days after the United States invaded Iraq based on faulty intelligence pertaining to weapons of mass destruction.
This was almost certainly an unintentional coincidence, given that the scripts for those episodes would have been written weeks or months in advance. This was neither the first nor the last time that 24 seemed to predict and influence the future. Indeed, the successful election of Barack Obama in 2008 has been partially attributed to David Palmer, a character whose integrity made people enamoured with the idea of an African-American president.
The Curious Case of Season Two
Like season one, season two focuses on a single issue that generates a 24-hour response. The first fifteen hours focus on locating and securing the bomb while the remaining nine hours deal with the consequences of its detonation. A number of antagonists attempt to complicate the process for the heroes, including obstructionist bureaucrats, warmongering politicians, militant Islamic fundamentalists, and opportunistic oil tycoons.
Season two is well plotted, avoiding the issues that plagued the second half of season one. The plot develops unpredictably yet naturally, fluidly transitioning from one crisis to the next without losing sight of the central threat. This is an improvement over season one, which was forced to revitalise story arcs after the thirteenth episode. Generally, season two is less clumsy and contrived with its developments than other seasons.
The Kim storyline is an exception. Her melodramatic trials and tribulations grow tiresome, but they are a necessary evil that places the nuclear threat in a more human context. While other characters deal with the threat directly, Kim is an ordinary person whose escape from the city emphasises the urgency of the situation. Her interaction with other ordinary people, including Lonnie and Ramon, also highlights the volatile nature of the situation.
Fortunately, the weakest moments of the season are almost exclusively contained to this storyline. This one weak thread allows the rest of the story to maintain focus and intensity without wandering off and getting distracted by dozens of smaller things. It also fills out time, sustains the more important storylines, and gives Jack something personal to worry about without necessitating his involvement.
However, despite the strength of its plotting, season two is strangely unmemorable and uninteresting. The reasons for this are not easily discernible. Aside from Kim Bauer and her antics, there are few obvious low points and the rest of the story is remarkably consistent in quality. This requires us to deepen our understanding of what constitutes a strong and memorable season of 24.
A Deficiency of Interesting Characters
I consider the first season to be the benchmark which every other season of the show should be measured against. Three major components working in tandem contributed to its success; focused storytelling, clear themes, and interesting characters. Season two is deficient in one of these; characters. Their backstories are less weaved into the story, their relationships have less importance, and their motivations are explored less extensively.
Season two seems less concerned with three dimensional characters and more with how they service the machinations of the plot. This is especially true for the villains who are mostly poorly drawn caricatures. Syed Ali wants to kill Americans but his beliefs and ideologies are barely examined. Marie Warner is an extremist whose radicalisation is waved away. Peter Kingsley and his fellow conspirators seek profit simply for the sake of profit.
These antagonists are not fighting for anything the audience can even remotely identify with. They also have no personal connection to the protagonist or any of the supporting characters. The one exception is Nina, and it is no coincidence that her episodes are some of the most memorable of the season. The Drazens, though entirely unsympathetic and reprehensible, were at least humanised and motivated by the deaths of family members.
Not even the main characters are immune to this shift away from character-driven storytelling. For example, an initially reluctant Jack Bauer is eventually compelled to save lives because he could never live with himself if something happened that he may have had the power to stop. This is a selfless and noble reason to get involved, but that is the extent of his motivations throughout the season and they are not particularly interesting.
The problem is exacerbated by villains with superficial or non-existent connections to Jack. Eddie Grant and Jonathan Wallace appear in only a handful of episodes, preventing any meaningful development or interplay. Furthermore, they have only met him on brief occasions or worked with him in limited capacities. Neither of these characters elicit strong feelings or pose a significant challenge – they are shallow and forgettable.
Jack versus Nina was a highlight of the season.
Conversely, the episodes with Nina feature fantastic tension and drama. These episodes engage and resonate precisely because of the rich and deeply personal history between them. Jack is forced to bury his feelings and cooperate with Nina while she manipulates the situation to guarantee her freedom and survival. This culminates in an incredibly tense hour where Nina takes Jack hostage, offering the location of the bomb in exchange for immunity.
When Jack has a personal reason for being involved and has personal connections with the villains, the show can be irresistibly compelling. Everyone remembers when Jack rescues his family from Ira Gaines or saves Audrey and her father from execution. Everyone remembers when Jack slaughters the Drazens to avenge his daughter, apprehends Stephen Saunders, executes Christopher Henderson, interrogates Charles Logan, and beheads Cheng Zhi.
These are characters that have threatened people Jack loves. These are characters that have betrayed him and taken something important away from him. These are characters that he has developed feuds with over multiple episodes and seasons. Season two is mostly devoid of these characters, removing the personal dimensions that explore different aspects of his character as well as the substance that helps establish a truly memorable season of 24.
In fairness, season two is a lot better than this analysis makes it seem. The political storyline is probably the best in the series. The intrigue and sense of paranoia that sweeps through the Palmer administration as layers of the conspiracy are unravelled is exceptional. This culminates in Palmer being stripped of his presidency due to perceived inaction in the face of aggression, further heightening the tensions surrounding an impending world war.
Sherry returns and her Machiavellian compulsions are even more entertaining than the first season. Alongside Nina, she is the only other antagonist of the season with any impact. Her bitterness at being shut out of the White House creates an interesting dynamic with her ex-husband as the crisis unfolds. Novick also has an opportunity to shine, becoming another example of the dangers of compromise when he betrays David and endangers Lynne Kresge.
George Mason is, unexpectedly, one of the highlights of the season. His transition from untrustworthy bureaucrat to tragic hero is a surprising yet natural development catalysed by his lethal exposure to radiation, culminating in one of the most affecting moments in the history of the show. The brief reunion with his son and his silent clock again showcases 24’s ability to offer genuine character moments against a backdrop of high-octane action.
George Mason takes the plane down in Mojave Desert, saving thousands of lives. This episode received four Emmy nominations.
This illustrates another important aspect of the show. Character development is compressed, occurring in hours instead of weeks or months. 24 does not have the luxury of jumping ahead in time, so it subjects characters to extreme situations and circumstances that propel their growth more rapidly. George Mason becomes a barely recognisable character in the space of fifteen hours, but it makes sense given what he has experienced.
The fifteenth episode is the best of the season and, arguably, one of the very best of the series. Jack jumps at the opportunity to transport the bomb outside of Los Angeles, preferring to sacrifice himself for the good of others than continue living an empty life without his family. The emotional farewell to his daughter is especially heartbreaking, emphasising the gravity of his sacrifice and the importance of their relationship.
Of course, Jack is a consummate survivor. Whether through his own strength of will or the intervention of external forces, Jack has been able to cheat death on countless occasions and survive another day. In this case, Mason reveals himself after having sneaked onto the plane using his CTU credentials. He manages to talk Jack down from sacrificing himself, sparking enough courage for him to continue living and make things right with his daughter.
It is a touching scene that highlights how much George has developed in a relatively short space of time. He offers Jack a parachute and takes control of the plane, sending it into a dive at the right moment and saving millions of lives. A once cowardly and corrupt character ends his life as one of the greatest heroes the series has ever known. The detonation of the bomb is a haunting moment that caps off one of the most memorable episodes of 24.
The Rise of Tony Almeida
Tony Almeida is elevated to the main cast in the second season, signalling the start of a journey that will see him become the second most important character in the show. Initially an unlikeable and relatively inexperienced senior analyst, Tony develops into a deeply complicated and damaged individual who embodies many of the themes that permeate the show. Few other characters experience as much change or endure as much suffering.
The seeds for his development were planted almost immediately. Tony is someone whose feelings often get the better of him – his relationship with Nina as well as his distrust of Jack negatively affects his objectivity and his judgement on numerous occasions throughout the first season. This continues in season two, when his personal feelings for Michelle Dessler again affect his judgement and hampers the mission.
When George Mason steps down, Tony becomes director of the Counter Terrorist Unit while Michelle assumes the role of second-in-command. These promotions not only place them in positions of importance, but also develop the fledgling romantic relationship between them. This is a pivotal moment in the overarching story of 24, kick-starting their respective journeys and sending them down a path from which they can never turn back.
The first and second seasons serve as a prologue for Tony. The shared betrayal that he and Jack experience after Nina is revealed as the mole ignites a connection that binds them together in ways they cannot yet imagine. Their disagreements in season two further strengthen rather than weaken the camaraderie they end up sharing. This sets the stage for season three, when Tony has the longest day of his life and becomes a mirror image of Jack.
The Response to Trauma
Thematically, season two is about how people deal with physical and emotional trauma. Jack sinks into depression after the death of his wife, Kim avoids her father to bury the pain of losing her mother, Sherry becomes complicit in a conspiracy to sabotage David and his presidency after their divorce, Tony struggles to trust his colleagues after Nina’s betrayal, and Marie Warner is radicalised after the death of her mother.
These are wildly different reactions and responses, but they each demonstrate a failure or refusal to cope with trauma. This can have dire ramifications in the world of 24, where thousands or millions of lives are routinely at risk. For example, a radicalised Marie secretly funnels money to Second Wave and facilitates a nuclear detonation. Meanwhile, an embittered Sherry jeopardises national security by conspiring with Roger Stanton.
George Mason is a notable exception. He quickly accepts the inevitability of his death rather than denies it. He decides to remain at CTU for as long as possible rather than run away. He also attempts to make amends with his estranged son, offers heartfelt advice for Michelle, and successfully appeals to Jack on the plane before the bomb explodes. Mason chooses to respond to trauma in noble and honourable ways that ultimately saves lives.
Jack does not waste the opportunity that Mason gives him. In the process of averting a third world war, he re-establishes a connection with his daughter and discovers a renewed enthusiasm for life. It will take several more years and another long day before the pain of losing Teri numbs entirely, but season two lays the necessary groundwork for his emotional recovery which is at the heart of his journey throughout the first trilogy.
Jack repairs his relationship with his daughter
Season two also ends with the unusual distinction of Jack gaining rather than losing something. The day has no shortage of physically challenging and morally questionable conundrums for him to surmount, but Jack finishes the day without having to make personal sacrifices. Instead, he restores the damaged relationship with his daughter and forges a genuine, if short-lived, connection with Kate Warner.
As the second entry in the first trilogy of the series, season two develops existing characters and conflicts that sets the stage for their resolution in season three. Despite its myriad strengths, season two lacks the peaks or valleys that distinguish other seasons and is less memorable as a result. 🔶
About the Author
Bradley Hinds is a professional copywriter and 24 enthusiast. He has a passion for various storytelling mediums, an unhealthy obsession with Pink Floyd, and enjoys writing accessible long-form analysis when he isn’t spending half the day playing a Mass Effect game.