Howard Gordon interview: on the final season of 24

As the eight and final season of 24 arrives on DVD, we caught up with writer and executive producer Howard Gordon to talk Jack Bauer and the end of the series...

Howard Gordon

Howard Gordon started building his geek-friendly CV by co-producing the classic 80s fantasy series Beauty And The Beast, before working a large chunk of the X-Files, and significant bites of Buffy and Angel before overseeing the tortuous life of Jack Bauer as executive producer and writer on 24.

As season 8 comes out on DVD, and the series comes to an end – for now – we sat down to talk to him a few months back about saying goodbye to all that real-time drama…

There are spoilers for the ending of 24 in this articleWe’ll just get down to it, shall we? How does it feel to be doing the last round of press on 24 – for a while anyway?

Well, y’know it’s funny… I did my last day on 24 about a month ago, and I was thinking as I came over to do this in the car that it felt like some kind of amnesia has settled over me. I’d completely forgotten. It had fled my mind… Now that I’m being asked, it’s all flooding back. It’s kinda like a high school reunion. But, getting to the end is a very pleasant feeling – this is like meeting an old friend.How pleased were you with the way you managed to finish off the series eventually?

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I was, frankly, thrilled. I was very, very satisfied with the way we ended it… it, er… how do I describe it…? I almost let myself off the hook I would say. I revised my expectations way early on this – I came to terms with the fact that this is going to be disappointing to some people, pleasing to some people and the best thing to others. I just wanted an ending that had some emotional integrity and honesty to it.

In terms of the drama that plays out at the end of this season, what was the thinking behind pulling it back to rather claustrophobic personal encounters, and, presumably, ignoring the temptation to go for some sort of big set piece finish?

That was very much so. We just needed the characters that we cared the most about. From the moment we started talking about the series finale, the conversation was about deciding who are the characters that we care the most about, how do we get them on stage together and what’s the dynamic amongst them?

It was also about Chloe not just being on the end of the phone doing Jack’s bidding, or for Jack to not to be ‘just’ trying to stop a bomb or President Taylor – but how do you take those characters about whom you’ve learned and who you’ve come to understand, and create a new dynamic amongst them that’s actually interesting?

So the idea of Jack being oppositional to President Taylor, and Chloe being put in a position between them in some sort triangle – and having them work against each other, with Chloe finding a ‘third way’, felt like the right geometry for the end. What was Cherry Jones’ reaction – as an actress – to finding out about President Taylor’s ‘fall’? Did she appreciate it as drama, or was she worried that it was the wrong thing to do?

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No, no. She was concerned, and in a polite and professional way asked me: “are you sure about this?”

I said I was – even though I wasn’t – but Cherry is so terrific, because she is so game. She’s really game for trying stuff and she’ll make it work, that’s what’s so wonderful about her.I think she understood it, and I think the real secret there was defining for the actor why the ‘peace’, or the idea of ‘peace’, was so important to her that she would sacrifice these very long-held beliefs about following the law and not being above the law. She [President Taylor] ended up falling for certain, very human, reasons; she fell into the traps that people with a lot of power fall into. She is, after all, human – as heroic as she is, she’s human.

The secret for Cherry – and I think for us – was that Taylor resurrected herself, that she righted herself. Not before it was too late, but in time to save Jack and in time to stop this corrupt peace from being consummated. So the damage had already occurred in this several-hour lapse, but she righted herself and that saved her character from being just trashed…

Some of the drama that plays out in this series is – for my money – some of the darkest stuff you’ve done in the whole run of 24. How much fun was it to get your teeth in to that side of things?

It was actually a lot of fun! It’s interesting that you should use that word, because it was a lot of fun. I think it was a lot of fun for Keifer as well. Y’know, we were all very aware that, because it was the end of the show, that we wanted to try something new, to take the characters to a place they’d never been before – but what that meant, and what that looked like wasn’t always entirely clear. But I think we found some iconic moments, even though they were tricky to navigate.

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For instance, when Keifer puts on the ‘RoboCop’ suit, which could have been the worst part of the series or the best moment – that to me was like a metaphoric thing, Jack is donning this suit like some kind of Samurai, and becoming The Shadow. Y’know, I hate to sound too affected, but in a way that was kinda what was going on.

Some people saw it as absurd, but we just really decided to go for it and indulge in the operatic aspect of it. I think that once you resign yourself to the fact that not everyone is going to love it – that you’re going to just have to please yourself – you just have to be as sure-footed as you can. So we did it and I was very, very pleased with where we wound up – and ultimately, I think the audience was too. Also, the critics came to appreciate the ending…

They’re very perilous things, endings. They always are. And, by and large, they’re… disappointing, frankly. I think most people are disappointed with endings, but I think that – by and large – ours was appreciated.

So, how heavily has the end of the series skewed any further intentions you had for the character?

I think we have to be rigorous. In whatever iteration it takes, we have to be scrupulously honest with ourselves in terms of placing Jack emotionally. And wherever we take him – and presumably, we’re talking about someone who has cut the umbilical chord with this country that he’s sacrificed everything to protect – the real issue is ‘how do you re-arm Jack with some humanity?’ Because if you don’t he’s just a ghost.

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Over the ebb and flow of the seasons, Jack has lost most of his very human aspirations: I want to be a father, a husband, I want to be in love. Now, Jack is as cut-off, as ghostly, as he’s ever been. He can’t even hang on to the idea of patriotism that he’s clung on to for so long. So whatever the next iteration is, it’s going to be about Jack finding himself again, finding a reason to live in the world.

The final shot of Season 8, the drone shot… When was that idea locked as the final shot of the entire series? Was it the final shooting done on the show, did the schedules fall like that?

It happened about two weeks before we shot it. I’d been in search of an image and, to me, this big screen – which is sort of laying there in front of us for the entire season – was just one of those happy gifts. It’s right there, you just don’t know it.But it was our relationship, the audience’s relationship to Jack, on the screen – in that it was Chloe’s point of view, who really is our point of view on Jack. She’s saying goodbye to him.And I just love the line – in concert with this grainy image of Jack, vulnerable and beaten-up and exiled for good – where Chloe says “Shut it down.” 

That line, in concert with the image on screen, to me… I knew it… I knew it was the cornerstone of the ending. That was the flag, and I think we planted the flag in the right place so the rest really came very, very naturally.

It was not shot in order, and Marilyn [Raskub, who plays Chloe O’Brien] wasn’t shown Jack’s footage, so she didn’t know what she was going to see, so all of that footage is her really just reacting to the image of Jack. And she played that moment so beautifully.  

Of the characters you’ve set against Jack in your time on the show, who have been your favourites?

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I have to say my favourite is Charles Logan…

Then I think it’s fair to say that you’d be in sync with the Den Of Geek team, there… So how did you feel about his ending?

Well, it was high time! It was just a lucky appearance. He became a very interesting character as he came back into the story – very Iago-like. This guy, he’s a snake-in-the-grass and he can’t help himself. He came back into this story at just the right time.

Gregory [Itzin, who plays Logan] is a friend, though I hadn’t seen him in a year or so. I met him again when he and his wife had a 30th wedding anniversary party at a Mexican restaurant in L.A. one Sunday night. The following Monday I was sitting in the writers’ room and, y’know, his character’s reappearance just presented itself. It probably wouldn’t have, had I not seen him the night before.

Logan is a character who, when we had last left him, could very well have been dead. So the fact that he lived to fight another day is in true 24 fashion. He just can’t help himself; you think for a moment that he’s actually trying to do good – but he’s someone who’s a victim of his own will to power.

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I always saw Charles Logan, and maybe you can inform about how true this is, as being the worst parts of us, of anybody. How much did you use him as that kind of character?

That’s 1000% correct. Exactly. That’s exactly who he is… He our most venal, fearful, power-hungry selves; he’s insecure and arrogant at the same time… He definitely represents the worst of us.

It sounds strange, but one of my favourite moments of the series is Logan straightening his tie watching the press conference…

That is just Greg. That moment, it’s kind of like the RoboCop suit… ‘oh jeez, is that really cheesy, or is that really brilliant?’ And, y’know, I think it’s kinda both – which is what makes it so much fun.

If you were ever to come back to 24 again, would you insist on moving away from the real-time aspect and doing it differently?

24 is about the power of real-time; but it’s about the power of Jack Bauer in real-time. I think Jack’s a strong enough character that he could lead something that’s not restricted by the real-time narrative… I think. I don’t know, and I may be wrong but I think Jack’s character is powerful, at least sufficiently strong that you could see him in a narrative that’s not real time.

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How close do you think you’ve come to leaving Jack as a character that you can never pull back to being a hero?

Ahhh, man, that’s such a difficult question… I think his heroism has been much darker, and much more complex because of all that he’s been through. I would guess that if you’d seen 200-odd hours of Jason Bourne – or 200 hours of James Bond for that matter – there’d be such an accretion of tragedy, so much scar tissue, that it would be hard to see the character after a time.

Just by dint of how much the poor guy has been through.Jack is a much more complex character than just a hero, I think he is a much more complex hero than we met in the first couple of years; he’s just done too much, lost too much and had to do too many bad things for us to be able to just naively call him a hero.

I’ve heard the production team for the show toyed with the idea of turning Jack to the ‘Dark Side’, but then transposed those ideas onto Tony for Season 7…

That’s correct, yes…

… So is that a concept you’d consider revisiting? What was the original reasoning for not taking that path?

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I think we did that because the idea created a conundrum: if Jack’s really bad then we don’t want to see it. The flipside of that coin is: if he’s not really bad, then everyone says ‘of course he’s not bad, he’s Jack Bauer!’ It sounded like an attractive idea after a couple of beers, and with enough desperation, but when we actually put the idea down and trotted it out, it fell apart. We tried it; we spent a couple of weeks on a couple of scripts and it felt very counter-intuitive.

Do you have any advanced projects you’re working on outside of the world of 24?

I actually have a novel coming out in January, believe it or not… So I’m just putting some finishing touches to that. I also have a pilot that I’m writing right now, called Homeland – which based on an Israeli series called Prisoners Of War. I’ve revised it considerably, but in the Israeli version it’s about a POW who has returned from Syria, but in ours it’s about a US soldier who has gone missing, but is recovered after a drone strike in Afghanistan and is alive – but who the CIA believe has actually been turned.

And when do you think we’ll see that?

Well, I don’t know – it’s actually being written, so I don’t even know if you will! It’s one of those things; you don’t know how it’s going to come out, until it’s come out.

[It was announced this week that former Dexter director/producer Michael Cuesta would be shooting the show’s pilot for Showtime in the US]

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As a writer and producer, how quickly does your mind just move on to the next project?

I have to say that it was literally within a minute. It was almost like I had used 24 to keep all these other ideas at bay – just because it required pretty much all my focus and energy – and as soon as it was over I had to sit down at a computer and write down the dozen or so other things that had suddenly crowded into my head.

Howard Gordon, thank you very much!

24 Season 8 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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