Part 3 - The EvilGood-Guy: the Character of Jack Bauer

3. The Evil Good-Guy: The Character of Jack Bauer

A. Is Jack Evil?

Before we get into an analysis of the character of Jack Bauer, the question must be asked, “Is Jack really evil? What sort of evil are we talking about?” After all, Jack does good things (as well as evil things).  He loves and strives to protect his family and his country (in fact, these seem to be the only moral imperatives that Jack obeys consistently). So let me assure you: Jack is no Hannibal Lechter.13  He does not sadistically relish the evil he does. But the evil he does is almost worse in its pragmatic, matter-of-factness. 

A scene from the first episode of season two is, to my mind, paradigmatic of the type of evil I’m talking about - this is the scene that really started me thinking about Jack as evil. The only connection the Counter-Terrorism Unit has to the terrorists is a criminal organization which Jack had previously infiltrated undercover. Jack calls in a witness the FBI has in custody that has agreed to testify against the head of this organization. Jack asks a question or two, then pulls out a gun and shoots the handcuffed witness in the chest at point-blank range. Jack’s superior is beside himself, but Jack retorts, “You want results, George, but you don’t want to get your hands dirty! Now get me a hacksaw.” Jack then takes the severed head to the leader of the criminal organization as a display of his loyalty. Note the attitude that typifies Jack’s evil: “You want results, but you don’t want to get your hands dirty.” Jack’s evil is of the type that is somehow considered to be a sort of practical virtue - like “rolling up your sleeves” to fill the wheelbarrow with compost. It stinks, but it’s what’s best for the garden, and somebody’s got to do the dirty, hard work around here. It’s just part of the job, something that has to be done (and the job must be done).  It is evil that is pragmatically necessary, unavoidable. 

Let’s look at some of the fictive contours of his character that make it possible for the audience to continue to see him as the hero, the good-guy who occasionally does evil things (but they’re not that bad, because Jack’s the hero).

B. Jack as Normal Superhero

The show tries to pull off a pretty neat trick: to show Jack as simultaneously a normal, everyday kind of guy, and someone with extraordinary powers. Season one begins with Jack trying to heal his broken marriage, a marriage he damaged through sleeping with a co-worker at CTU. He’s not the best father. At the beginning of season two, he is paralyzed with grief, unable to restart his life after the death of his wife. At the beginning of season three, he’s even struggling with a nasty heroin habit that he picked up during his last undercover assignment.  He’s a normal, fallible guy with human vulnerabilities and failings.

But once he is put under stress and given responsibility to save others, his true, mythic nature emerges. He is absolutely omni-competent. He is a skilled marksman, martial arts fighter, helicopter pilot, computer programmer, interrogator, and so on. Whatever the exigencies of the situation, he will rise to the challenge. Not once in the show did I hear the words “I don’t know how to do that” escape his lips. This omni-competence makes him trustworthy. He knows how to get the job done, and therefore (and here’s the intuitive leap) the audience can trust that the job Jack has to get done is the right one, and he’ll do it in the most appropriate manner. Because he’s competent, he’s also assumed to have an infallible moral compass. He is the substitute for a transcendent moral framework.

But the best asset that Jack possesses (in terms of the hostile, edgy world of 24) is being able to think on his feet, to improvise, to react quickly and lethally. In other words, his best character trait undermines the kind of moral reflection needed to recognize evil as evil - it makes such reflection superfluous, ponderous, impractical. Jack hasn’t got that capacity. He’s got something better: lightning quick reflexes, a command of the situation. And so ethical reflection is passed over in preference for technical competence and efficiency.

Another aspect of his character that marks him as a superhero is his amazing tenacity and resilience. Jack doesn’t give up. Ever. He just keeps going and going through this 24-hour period of crisis. And he won’t stop until the job is done. 

Not even death can stop Jack Bauer. He does die in season two, twice actually. Once symbolically - he pilots a plane to take the bomb to the Nevada desert to explode in an unpopulated area, and he must guide the plane to ground zero, sacrificing himself (Christ-like) for the masses. In an amazing twist of fate, Jack’s boss from CTU, who is already dying from radiation-sickness, stows away on the plane and convinces Jack to parachute out early and let him pilot the plane to ground zero. Jack dies and comes back to life (figuratively), and continues to search for the terrorists. The second time Jack dies, it’s literal. Jack is captured by the enemy and tortured to death, only to be “resurrected” via defibrillator. After that, a normal human being would be in an ICU for a week. But not Jack. He’s able to escape his bonds, kill his captors, and return to the hunt for the dangerous men still at large. The only ill-effects he suffers for the rest of season two are a couple of mild heart-attacks (signified by Kiefer grasping his chest, wheezing, and wincing in pain momentarily). But these, too, pass, and he is able to pursue the villains to their untimely demise.  Jack outdoes Jesus - he dies and comes back to life twice! And he kicks butt. He’s sort of a Christ action figure, complete with Uzi. 

If ever there were a man you could trust to get the job done, it is Jack. He’s omni-competent, tenacious, unstoppable, and yet, just a regular guy, like one of us. This interesting combination of the quotidian and the mythical is even reflected in his name: Jack Bauer. Why did the writers choose “Jack Bauer” and not, say, “Haywood Chesterfield III”? The name “Jack Bauer” marks the hero as being middle-class, from German immigrant stock (“Bauer” is German for “farmer,” so perhaps Jack has agrarian class roots). The nickname “Jack,” instead of “John” or “Jonathan,” marks him as being informal, non-aristocratic – that is, one of us, a normal guy. At the same time, “Jack Bauer” (like “Clark Kent”) is short, punchy – a strong name with lots of explosive consonants. (Try saying “Haywood Chesterfield III” with a sense of urgency – it doesn’t work; it’s too long to be taken seriously.) More than that, “Bauer” is about as close as you can come phonetically to the English word “power” (the difference being an initial voiced labial versus an unvoiced labial). It suggests the superhero power Jack has without stating it obviously. “Jack Power” would be ridiculous. “Jack Bauer” is understated, yet brims with a hidden potency (like the character himself).

For all of these reasons, then, Jack is coded within this world as a trustworthy moral guide - we don’t have to consider his actions too closely. He is at once gifted with amazing resilience and competence, and he is identified with us, a normal, everyday kind of guy - a sort of god-man, if you will.  He does what we’d do, if we were as able and cool as he is. The evil he does is eminently excusable.

C. Jack as Post-9/11 America

But perhaps the trump card that allows us to excuse Jack’s evil is that he, like the world of 24, is an image of us (or of U.S.). In Jack Bauer, we find a certain image of post-9/11 America staged for us, and it’s hard not to root for yourself when you see it in another.

How does Jack embody a post-9/11 America? First, and perhaps most importantly, he is wounded. Season one ends with the violent death of his wife, Teri Bauer. Jack, like us, has lost something precious, irreplaceable. We find Jack at the beginning of season two estranged from his daughter (because of grief over the loss of her mother). He is devastated, emotionally exhausted, numb. He has retired from CTU and wants nothing more to do with it. Jack feels what Americans felt after the towers fell - he’s been personally wounded.

So naturally a situation arises that only Jack can handle, something that calls him out of retirement. The only lead CTU has on the terrorists is a criminal organization that Jack had contact with as an undercover agent. The situation is urgent, and there isn’t time (remember how time is configured in this world) for anyone else. It’s got to be Jack or no one. And naturally, Jack rises to the challenge, wounded though he be. I would argue that Americans (at least many of them) have a similar view of America’s mission in the world. There is a grave terrorist threat out there, and though we’re wounded, it’s up to the U.S. of A. to handle it. Who else can give the kind of leadership so urgently demanded? Europe? They’re effete and self-conflicted. Africa? It’s too mired in its own problems. Asia? They’re either part of the problem or not interested in helping. Nope. It’s either us, or no one, wounded though we are. And if we do some evil along the way, just remember that we didn’t come looking for this job; it came looking for us. In this way, Jack’s character has a peculiar resonance with a popular American self-perception. And this resonance has the effect of short-circuiting any overriding moral considerations other than protecting one’s own (say, human rights, for example).15  We, like Jack, have a job to do, and we may have to get our hands dirty doing it.

Notes from this page

13  Hannibal Lechter is a recurring character in Thomas Harris’ books (each of which have been made into movies). The character became a household name after the release of the movie adaptation of Harris’ book The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

14  Any lasting effects of his temporary death or the heart-attacks are completely forgotten by the beginning of season three. Jack’s good as new, and ready for action.

15  In another plot twist, it is revealed mid-season (after the nuclear bomb has exploded) that the terrorists behind the bomb-plot were financed by wealthy oil tycoons who want to start a war in the Middle East to drive oil prices up. Jack spends the second half of season two trying desperately to procure evidence to clear the Arab nations accused of any involvement in order to avoid a war. One could argue that Jack is, in this case, pursuing a noble, moral goal. But my argument still stands. I am not arguing that Jack’s ends (saving downtown L.A. from a nuclear blast, stopping a war) are evil, only that there is no reflection on the evil that he does to accomplish those ends.