This feature contains spoilers.
It’s hard to believe that the first season of 24 aired some eleven years ago and has been absent from our screens for over two. Arguably, no show has since come close to capturing the consistently high quality of acting mixed with true, heart-pounding action. It was a master of the cliffhanger (so much so, if I was Jack, I wouldn’t do anything for the last ten minutes of any hour) and it soon became clear that no character, no matter how major, was excused a shocking and sometimes tragic death.
Like many long-running shows, the quality ebbed in the final couple of seasons as the adherence to structure and the requirement to best previous seasons’ twists and shocks proved too challenging. As such, you’ll notice that the majority of my top ten episodes are from the earlier seasons – that’s not to say that there weren’t outstanding examples of television later in the show’s history, just that the ones that I feel really shine and encapsulate the character of the show were from its formative years. For those of you yet to see the show – quite simply, do not read this article. It spoils some of the best endings and plot twists in television history – instead catch up on this seminal series as best you can!
It seems fruitless to pit 24‘s ten greatest episodes against one another, so here they are in unranked, chronological order…
Season one, ep. 24 11:00pm – 12:00am
The first season introduced many of the show’s enduring idiosyncrasies – the beeping clock, the split screen and of course, the tension ratcheting device of, “events occur in real time…”. Acclaim grew quickly and Jack Bauer was recognised as a new action hero who could stand tall alongside the other JB’s (Bond and Bourne). Despite the popularity, the show’s producers were strong enough to end the first season on a dark note. The final episode not only perfectly surmised the action and drama that preceded it, but also heralded the ‘no holds barred’ attitude that would be such a hook in future seasons. For those that require a refresh – Jack, after the ‘longest day in his life’ (if he only knew…), saves Senator Palmer and rushes to capture Nina once it’s revealed that she’s betrayed CTU. Instead of killing her, he releases her into custody – a scene that becomes a real emotional bludgeon when Jack finds his wife, killed, by the very same Nina he accosted moments ago. Jack’s desolation, the B&W split screen, the fade to black and a now-silent clock stepping up to midnight were the final images of an outstanding first season.
Season two, ep.2 08:00am – 09:00am
It was always going to be tough to pick up from the end of such an explosive first season. Although this episode starts what would become a continual set of weak Kim Bauer subplots – it becomes a stand out through one classic act. Jack, looking more tramp than hero, gets to interrogate a potential lead, although as we quickly find out interrogation wasn’t on his mind. Shooting him point blank, Jack admonishes Mason for not wanting to get his hands dirty and asks him for a hacksaw. That’s right, a hacksaw. Although we don’t get to see why he needs such a tool until the next episode, it’s pretty obvious what Jack’s going to saw off. Why is the episode so good? Not only does it have real world value in throwing its hat in the ring on the ‘how far would you go’ debate but it also has as the main character a ‘hero’ that shoots a person in cold blood and chops off his head all whilst criticising his boss. Were we horrified? No, just very excited to see Jack back.
Season two, ep. 15 10:00pm – 11:00pm
The series had already established that it was possible to kill major characters. However this episode saw Jack sitting in a light aircraft, carrying a nuclear bomb out to the desert to explode. The audience knew the bomb couldn’t go off – they couldn’t kill Jack. They were right – to a point. That the unlikeable Mason stepped into save Jack’s life was a small shock, and a character that many would like to see the back of. However, the fact that the bomb did go off was a shock and was another excellent example of the producers re-writing the so-called unwritten rules of TV – that the hero always gets there in time. This was a theme often repeated in this series, but it was this episode that really proved that anything was possible.
Season two, ep. 21 04:00am – 05:00am
The series was at its finest when it reflected contemporary issues, and perhaps the clearest example was when President Palmer is removed from office. Not only did it echo similar tensions during President Clinton’s tenure but it also heralded the problems that President Bush would have when defending the evidence that launched the war in Iraq. It was also a stand-out moment for Dennis Haysbert, the scenes of him defending himself before the cabinet and resolutely sticking to his principles were a reminder that despite the action and twists, 24 could handle straight-up drama as well as any of its contemporaries.
Season three, ep. 18 06:00am – 07:00am
It’s hard to compile a top ten episode list of 24 and not allow it to transform into the top ten most shocking deaths. I have already exposed 24’s penchant for killing major characters, but unlike Lost, that shocked its audience by killing major characters quickly rather than building tension and drama; 24 allowed its audience to live through every minute of the heart-wrenching decisions that Jack has to make. CTU director, Ryan Chappelle must die. Terrorists have demanded it, and President Palmer has no choice. At this point everyone expects Jack to think of something, anything that could turn this around. That doesn’t happen and Jack has to watch Chappelle plead to take his own life. Relenting, Jack steps back, but Chappelle can’t go through with it and Jack once more conducts his duty. Yes it might be another surprise death, but this would make the list for the drama alone, (the season went on to win a Golden Globe for best Drama series).
Season four, ep. 19 01:00am – 02:00am
Who’s your favourite character on 24? Most would probably say Jack, but those that didn’t would likely say Chloe. The obnoxious, socially inept but excellent analyst quickly grew to become a fan favourite. She was great in front of a computer, but out in the field – not a chance. However, when Bill Buchanan informs her she must retrieve some information, she finally clocks up some field-time. The agents protecting her might as well be called red shirts No. 1 & 2 as they are quickly killed by terrorists. Chloe runs away and finds herself in a bullet-proof car which gets repeatedly rammed by the bad guy. After finally getting access to a rifle, Chloe fires a salvo of shots killing the terrorist, and for a few moments a nerd with a gun steals the spotlight from her action brethren. There are many episodes where Chloe shines, but arguably this is the most memorable.
Season four, ep. 20 02:00am – 03:00am
Jack’s certainly had to cope with a lot – pain, torture and tremendous grief. The producers have always seen fit to put Jack in situations in which it’s impossibly difficult for him to do the right thing, and this episode is a perfect example of how much personal sacrifice Jack has to suffer. Having established Audrey Raines as Jack’s lover, it was with the introduction of her ex-husband that events started to go awry for poor Jack. Paul Raines is suspected of associating with terrorists and is tortured by Jack, but when Paul locates the evidence he ends up getting shot, and saving Jack. Fast-forward to the CTU clinic where Paul is being attended to by doctors, when Jack rushes in with a wounded suspect. The doctor refuses to help the suspect, so Jack pulls a gun and makes them leave Paul, and all while Audrey looks on. Despite Jack’s efforts, Paul dies and Audrey – rightly – blames Jack. This episode makes the list because, albeit contrived, Jack’s torment of conducting his duty regardless of personal loss is never clearer than it is here. Its also another prime example of how 24 is superior to its peers in demonstrating that sacrifice is rarely fleeting – his actions have dire consequences and significant ramifications for those that he loved.
Season five, ep. 16 10:00-11:00pm
Season five had the most shocking start to any season of 24 – the assassination of David Palmer, a character whose charisma and virtue struck many to be the ideal to which his real-life counterparts could never emulate. His death was at once unexpected (even by 24 standards) and shockingly quick. However, that episode in all its shocking glory paled to the reveal at the end of ep.16. For every David Palmer, there’s a Charles Logan. Equally despised as Palmer was loved, it was still a huge shock that Logan was behind pretty much every plot in season five, including the assassination of his predecessor. For all its moral ambiguity and controversial plotting, 24 had rarely attacked the nature of the presidency in such a direct manner. The reveal that the villain was the President not only created a great character in Logan but also put into question the very system to which Jack had dedicated his life. All in all, great TV and a reason why season five continues to be viewed by the fans as the best of what 24 had to offer.
Season seven, ep. 12/13 07:00-09:00pm
Ok – so I cheated, but in essence 07:00 – 09:00am has to be taken together because it’s about one thing – terrorists getting into the White House. 24 has seen a lot of great action set-pieces, and one of its prime attractions has been its ability to meld both high-quality drama and action. These two episodes are therefore some of the best the show has to offer, especially in a season that was otherwise lacklustre. What better then, instead of Jack running around on the periphery and shooting terrorists in warehouses, apartment buildings, and any number of commercial/industrial complexes, it was time to bring him to the place he’s sworn unrelenting loyalty. Featuring great Jack showdowns with old friends and the President herself, tension-inducing set pieces and shocking sacrifice (come on – there had to be one!) it even allowed Aaron Pierce (the great Glenn Morshower) moments to shine.
Season eight, ep. 24 03:00-04:00pm
The last episode of 24 is on the list because not only is it a good episode in its own right, but it did what so few of its peers managed to do – retain the prime themes and messages of the show without lowering itself for a ‘wrapped-up-in-a-bow’ ending. The fact that doing right came at a cost not just for Jack, but for just about every major character was a significant theme for the closing of not just a season but an entire show. To end any other way would have betrayed the spirit of 24, be it victory through sacrifice, the morality of a ‘shades of grey’ contemporary world,or just that the world’s a better place for Jack being around. Wanted by pretty much everyone, Jack made his escape – just, but the episode’s true success was in making it clear that Jack won’t be forgotten. The clock may have counted down to zero (the first and only time) but we all hope Jack can come back.
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