'24' season finale: There are only beheadings and ceaseless sorrows

In Monday night's season finale of "24", everyone who mattered saw their lives ended or ruined, and Jack Bauer may really have meant it when he said goodbye.

A standard television program treats its cast of characters as opportunities to develop personalities, forward plots, and establish a relationship with its viewers. If one of them dies, it's likely either a landmark event or a desperate plea for viewership.

Every season, 24 devours its characters alive with the smacking, breathless imperative of a right tackle at the Golden Corral. If ever there is character development, it's only with the intent on fattening up that character with delicious, rendered grief. The season ends when the gnaw-marked chicken bones clank against the beige, economy-grade faux-porcelain. These bones are the characters the show couldn't, or wouldn't, completely digest; they live on only as sad, undignified remnants.

For 206 episodes, 24 has gnawed away at the dignity, humanity, and physical health of Jack Bauer. At some point it became clear that Jack's perpetual ruination wasn't a mere byproduct of saving the world. His destruction is the purpose of the show, and the millions of lives he has saved are meaningful only in that they underscore how unfair the universe is to Jack, and explore how profoundly sad one man's life can become.

These are the 10 characters who were deemed, at the season's outset, to be significant enough to slap on the show's promotional art. At the beginning of Monday night's season finale, three were either dead or as good as dead.

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24 had one hour left to destroy seven people. Here is how it did.

1. Erik Ritter, a.k.a. Field Agent Chris Partlow.

STATUS: Alive and personally well, but surrounded by dead and/or ruined people.

Of the 10 characters in that image, Ritter is the only one who wasn't physically or spiritually destroyed. In my write-ups of other episodes from this season, I don't think I even mentioned him. He was an actual good-guy CIA agent who never messed up or betrayed his country.

He was boring, wall-to-wall, and casting Gbenga Akinnagbe -- who played Chris Partlow in The Wire -- was a completely appropriate move. In terms of demeanor, Ritter is basically the same guy as Partlow. This guy emoted exactly one time, when he took Michael's dad to a back alley and performed one of the most violent murders in the history of television. He got it all out in that moment, so completely that it carried over to his role in 24. In both shows, he existed largely in order to a) debrief more interesting characters on various happenings, and b) occasionally kill a guy.

2. Audrey Boudreau.

STATUS: Dead (gunshot).

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The writers of 24 made Audrey a major character in four different seasons. They called her Audrey Heller, Audrey Raines, and Audrey Boudreau. They made her Jack Bauer's primary love interest across the show's run. They made her dad the President. They sent her to be tortured in China, and she came back so traumatized that she couldn't speak. They did everything they could think of to make Audrey interesting in any way, and they just could not do it.

She existed only as a generator, and mirror, of Jack's miseries and tragedies. 24 gave us many strong, interesting female characters, but Audrey was not one of them. Her manner of death was perfectly appropriate: she was ordered to sit on a bench, or else a sniper would take her out. So she spends half the episode just sittin' there on the bench and doing basically nothing. The good guys eliminate the sniper, so she gets up, stands around for a couple minutes, and waits around long enough for a lucky bullet from a second shooter to catch her in the chest.

We all caught up? She doesn't really say anything. She sits around, stands up, gets shot, falls down. She has no last words. Her death carries repercussions for other, actually-interesting characters, but even her death is intrinsically worthless. R.I.P., Audrey. Heaven needed somebody who doesn't really do jack shit.

3. Kate Morgan.

STATUS: Alive, but jobless and wracked with guilt.

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Kate was a top-rate character, y'all. She was a complex, interesting CIA operative who did interesting things. She outsmarted people, beat the Hell out of people, and treated directives and protocols like they were instructions on a microwaveable popcorn bag. In other words, she was a lot like a younger Jack Bauer.

And like Jack, this show was not shy to dump a truckload of cruel injustices on her head. Her career fell into limbo after her co-worker and husband was found guilty of leaking state secrets. He swore to her he was innocent, she didn't believe him, and he hung himself. In the most heartbreaking plot turn possible, it's revealed that he was innocent, and that Kate's close friend had set him up, thereby establishing the "my best bud killed my spouse!" parallel between her and Jack.

In this season finale, Kate saves Audrey from the sniper -- first via some brilliant, covert field work, and then via walking into his scope and blasting him to Hell -- only to watch her die immediately thereafter.

At the end of the episode, Kate quits the CIA. There's some speculation that producers could make her the next Jack Bauer, either in 24 or a spinoff. DO THAT. Kate Morgan is honestly the only character, across the show's entire nine-season run, who could pull it off.

4. Mark Boudreau, a.k.a. Shithead Mark.

STATUS: Alive, but with a charge of treason that will earn him lifetime imprisonment or the death penalty. Also, he knows his wife loves another man. Also, his wife is dead.

And hey, as long as I'm asking for things, could we have a spinoff for our friend Shithead Mark? As I discussed last week, Mark Boudreau is a colossal idiot and an enormous jerk with horrible ideas who is vastly unlikable. He's the worst, and should star in a one-camera sitcom in which he tries to cook an omelet. It would take him 150 episodes.

When we last saw Mark, he had just finished accidentally murdering the one man with the intel necessary to prevent a Sino-American war.

Whatcha doin', Shithead Mark? Whatcha up to, pal?

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Just standing around, gawking at shit, pretending to read some random folder of documents, and trying to look busy while Jack actually cleans up his mess and gets things accomplished.

As I said last week: Mark Boudreau doesn't quite have it in him to be evil, because he's too god-dang stupid to be capable of evil. He really is trying to help. It's like watching a kid hammer plastic nails into a wooden board with a Fisher-Price hammer while his emotionally negligent divorcee dad builds a bookshelf next to him: God, just let him think he's helping. Just give him something to do.

This is the sadness of Mark Boudreau: in terms of getting other people to react to him or care about him, the only currency he has left is to say, "hey, my wife doesn't love me anymore, she loves you." That's all he's got. Thank you, Jack Bauer, for saying what every character should have been saying to him for the entire day:

At the start of the season, the first second Mark Boudreau wandered onscreen, I guaranteed to y'all that he would die. I was wrong, technically, although I believe he is guilty of treason and has a shot at the death penalty.

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We see him one last time, in a dank CIA interrogation room, handcuffed and crying. They didn't even bother to bandage his wounds, they just chucked him in there. He's crying because he bad idea'd his way out of an awesome job, and he's going to prison, and his wife is dead, and his wife loved another man when she was alive.

Good job, writers of 24. You're right, death would have been too merciful and too simple. It's possible that Mark Boudreau is so much of a colossal fuck-up that he can't not fuck up, and it's not possible for him to die, because that would mean he couldn't fuck up anymore.

Gonna miss this old ding-dong.

5. James Heller, a.k.a. President Dipshit.

STATUS: Alive, but diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and grieving a dead daughter.

I've referred to the President as President Dipshit all season, and I want to make it clear that it has absolutely nothing to do with his diagnosis. Ever since he first appeared in 24 a decade ago, he's always been a dipshit. He's always been an old-guard neocon who advocates disastrous foreign policy, holds weird grudges, ordered his own stepson to be tortured, and later scolded said stepson for not coming out as gay to his torturing neocon stepdad.

All that aside, he's an old guy, and I cannot bear to see old people cry, however fictional or unlikable. I'd like to thank 24 for sparing us that, as well: upon learning of Audrey's death, he simply faints.

In this episode, 24 finally allowed itself to jump forward a bit in time. The last few minutes take place the following morning. Heller stands and watches with the British prime minister as his daughter's body is carried into Air Force One.

PRIME MINISTER. If there's anything I can do. Anything at all.

HELLER. No, there's nothing you can do. There's nothing anyone can do. The day before we left for London, I was sitting in my office, looking at a picture on my desk of a beautiful woman. I kept staring at it. It's been on my desk since my first day in office. And I knew that I knew that woman. I couldn't think of her name. Ten seconds, fifteen seconds go by, and then, poof. It pops into my head. It was Audrey.

PRIME MINISTER. I'm so sorry.

HELLER. I won't remember anything that happens today. I won't remember anything that happens, period. I won't remember that I had a daughter that died in such a horrible fashion.

24 has explored the terrors of guns and knives and biochemical weapons and nuclear warheads and assassinations and plane crashes. Now, in its last minutes, it finally dwells on the terror of growing old. I did not see that one coming.

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6. Chloe O'Brian.

STATUS: Alive, but beaten up, with a dead, deceptive ex-lover, a dead husband and son, and a best friend who might also be dead in short order.

Chloe's final act of heroism, in which she helped to prevent a war between the United States and China, resulted in her kidnapping by Russian operatives. She was then used by the Russians as a bargaining chip to apprehend Jack.

And now she's free to live in a world in which everyone she loves is gone. She was in London in the first place to work with a Julian Assange-esque dude who convinced her that her husband and son were killed in an attempt to kill her; she later learns that it was a simple traffic accident. There is nobody for her to avenge, nobody to exact it upon, and nobody to help her exact it.

She and Jack have one brief chance to say goodbye. "You were right about what you said earlier," he tells her. "About being my best friend."

They've told each other goodbye before. I think this is actually goodbye.

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7. Jack Bauer.

STATUS: Perhaps dead. Maybe wants to be dead.

A major theme of 24 is this: that if you're part of Jack's life, you die. That Jack is a walking catastrophe, and when terrible things happen to the people around him, it's all his fault. By my count, Audrey is the fourth person to die just for being Jack's romantic partner.

It's as though this, the 5,001st kiloton of suffering, is finally too much for Jack. He sits down, and with his assault rifle on his lap, he pulls out his pistol. He's going to end it.

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He hears the footsteps of the men responsible for Audrey's death. He stands up, and he

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fucking

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kills

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them

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ALL.

Jack Bauer, the MacGyver of killing people, made sure his final action sequence included creative, resourceful ways to make people dead. A pistol, an automatic weapon, a jackknife, a meat cleaver.

And a sword.

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That's Cheng, the man who kidnapped and tortured Jack for over a year, and then kidnapped and tortured Audrey for about a year, and then ordered Audrey's death. Jack Bauer has killed hundreds of people in dozens of ways. You really gotta foul up bad to get the katana.

At the end, Jack exchanges himself for Chloe, enters Russian custody, and is flown away on a chopper. He gets the "silent clock" -- the LED time display, minus the beeps -- which is generally reserved for a character's death, or when they want you to think a character's dead.

Now his fate rests in the Nielsen ratings. Ratings for this season of 24 have been somewhere between "mediocre" and "kinda good," depending on what you read. At least one producer has said another season is a possibility. Maybe it does come back in a year or two, or in 15 years, when a sixtysomething Bauer is laser-gunning Russians on Time Warner Cable Presents Fox.

For now, I have to accept that this really was the end: Jack Bauer saves one final life and flies away to his end, receiving the silent clock and spared the indignity of actually being killed on-screen.

And that is how 24 ruined, or ended, six of the seven lives it had left. It's always been a show fraught with catastrophe and death, but it had never quite achieved the despair and sorrow it gave us tonight. Jack saved the 24 world, over and over and over, and it was not a world worth saving.

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