24’s Howard Gordon – Final Countdown

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland, center) faces his final conflict this season on 24. Photo by Kelsey McNeal and copyright of Fox

Now in its eighth season with Kiefer Sutherland starring as the heroic Jack Bauer, the inventive and suspenseful 24 has been nominated for a total of 68 Emmy Awards – winning for Outstanding Drama Series in 2006. Over the course of seven seasons, Sutherland garnered seven Emmy nominations and a win for Outstanding Lead Actor – Drama Series. While the series gained global recognition, Sutherland’s portrayal of the legendary character penetrated the American psyche like no other dramatic television character to become part of the English lexicon. 

Premiering on November 6th, 2001, 24 employed a pioneering, split-screen, fast-paced format with complex interweaving storylines as viewers followed anti-terrorism agent Jack Bauer through pulse-pounding episodes, each covering one hour and presented in real time. On Monday, May 24th, the show’s eighth and last season will conclude with a two-hour finale airing on Fox from 8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. EST/PST. Last Friday, 24 showrunner and executive producer Howard Gordon chatted with myself and other journalists about the series and his work on it. The following is an edited version of that Q & A – enjoy! 

There is a huge online and Twitter fan base for this show that has been upset about the death of Annie Wersching’s character, Renee. Was there another choice you had been pondering, or was killing the character off the idea from the beginning? 

HOWARD GORDON – Typically we come upon these things as more of improvisations, but this was one that we had come up with at the very beginning of the season and stuck with for reasons that I think everybody is seeing right now, which is obviously motivating Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) to this very final, climactic confrontation and taking him to a place he has never been before. I have to say that I’m taking peoples’ outrage as a measure of interest, and their indifference would have been far more hurtful than their outrage. But we have a history of doing that. I remember when that happened with Edgar (Louis Lombardi) we got a fair bit of angry e-mail, but, yes, this is something that we’ve thought about and thought about very carefully, and hopefully did it well. 

I was wondering if the decision that this would be 24‘s last season came early enough that you could do any adjustments in the show, or is this the way you were going to end this no matter what? 

HG – It’s a good question, and it was one that the network asked as well. To me, the show was always going to end the way it was going to end, whether there was a ninth season or a movie because the story has been told. What I think changed, though, was the context of it all. In other words, it really took on a different meaning. I’ve said this in the past that I think any number of seasons in years past – season four, season five, I think even last year – could have been a really cool series finale.  Only the fact that this was our series finale did it really have the kind of context that, wow, we’re really saying goodbye to this character. And there is a final moment that is very specific to the series finale.  It’s not so much a plot moment, but it’s a punctuation mark that I think is unique to the series finale. But the answer is really no. We told the story the way it was going to be told and would have no matter what. 

Are there any hints you can give about what people might expect in the series finale?  Also, was there an emotional place you wanted to leave Jack as you wrapped up the show? 

HG – We tried on a couple of very different endings for size and the one we came to at the end is the one that felt just right. So it was not for lack of trying a couple of different ways. But we knew it when we saw it, that this was the right way to do it. One thing we tried and didn’t work was happily ever after for Jack. Forgetting for a moment about the last eight seasons, what he does in these last few episodes, which you haven’t seen yet, leaves him once again in a very compromised place morally, ethically and emotionally. This show is a tragedy, so to give Jack a happy ending just didn’t feel authentic. We gave him a happy beginning, and I really am very pleased with the way we started and, of course, gave him something to care about with Annie Wersching (Renee Walker) and his own family. And of course, circumstances and the story dictated a kind of very complex confrontation. 

As far as what can expect in the finale has to do with the things that were aligning, which were basically Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) versus Jack versus President Taylor (Cherry Jones). We’re taking all these characters to places that we’ve never seen them before. We knew it constituted a risk and one that was frankly challenging to write and, among the actors, pretty challenging to play. But it was one really we think was worth taking and I think it pays off really well in the end. In the spirit of trying to take the series to a place where it hasn’t been before, we’ve done this thing. It’s certainly not playing it safe, but it is very emotionally climactic and, we think, we’re pretty excited by it. 

A lot of fans absolutely hated the whole Dana Walsh (Katee Sackhoff) character and sub-plot; I wanted to sort of get your defense of how that whole thing played out. 

HG – Every season there is something that people seem to fixate on. You know, I got it and I guess all I kept telling people was to please wait until the story had been told before they commented. To me, I think episode 20 answered that question. I’m really, really proud of that episode and what I liked about it, too, was that for the first time, this very complex and admittedly very confused and crazy character, this onion of a character, got peeled down to the nub and you finally really understand a little bit, anyway, who she is. Now, of course, she is a sociopath and it’s kind of an insane story. But we also saw that Dana really cared about Cole (Freddie Prinze, Jr.); that she really had done this all to get out of a situation she got herself into. 

Look, it’s crazy, the fact that  there is a girl from Rock Springs who somehow manages to get in to CTU as an analyst under an alias. And the fact that the Russians had sponsored her and put her in there made it make some sense.  I think it was a pretty wild roller coaster of a character which Katee pulled off, I think, beautifully. What I liked about it was that what felt unnatural or weird and maybe what didn’t resonate with people at the beginning was that very fact that Dana wasn’t authentic, that she was this counterfeit personality in the midst of our heroes. 

I’m happy with the way it resolved. I really haven’t gone online to see how people reacted or whether they are even more upset. But I think in the end, Dana acquitted herself pretty well and her story turned out to be very interesting. 

About a month or two ago there was some talk on the business side of whether the show might be shopped around elsewhere (another network). Was there ever really anything to that? Would that have been something you wanted to do? 

HG – You know, it wasn’t something I wanted to do. It was something that I was willing to entertain as a loyal Fox employee – to help Fox find new personnel to run the show, and maybe even recruit some of the guys who had been with me. But when we really looked at each other, Kiefer included, I think we all felt  that we were really telling our final season. We kind of knew that at the beginning of the year, and we always kept the door open. Fox may have had different conversations that didn’t share entirely the same concerns we had in terms of that fact that we had really come to the creative conclusion of the story and wanted to end as close to the top as we can. But we did have some real conversations, and I certainly was insinuated into them. However, when we really sat down and considered it, it was something that just never caught fire. 

I guess you’re taking Jack to a place he’s never been before, but he’s been pretty far down already in the episodes. Can he get so low, though, that he can’t come back? And can he come back? 

HG – That’s a great question; that was really the question we asked ourselves and certainly the studio asked us. The answer is no. The good part about Jack’s character, and I really believe what has been a good part of the show, is that we never press reset. In other words, Jack is a character and you feel the accumulated scars of his experience and the weight of his actions for eight years. Jack has never been able to sort of snap back, even when he is happy, even when we introduced Audrey (Kim Raver) in season five.  It wasn’t like that didn’t discount all the tragedy that had preceded it.  Like in the beginning of this year, Jack allowed himself a moment of joy or possibility of human contact with his own daughter and her husband and his granddaughter, but it doesn’t discount what has happened before. 

So I don’t think Jack is ever going to recover from what has gone on. It just adds to the weight as well as the complexity and darkness of his character. Jack has never gone happily-ever-after; that’s just not in his wheel house.  The show is ultimately a tragedy and you have to really play that and you have to honor that. 

When you cast Katee Sackhoff, what exactly in her past body of work did you see as potential for the Dana character and how you wanted to develop it? 

HG – Honestly, when we cast her, all the writers were just all fans of hers from Battlestar Galactica. We met Katee, sat down with her and just liked her as a person. We knew that Dana was a character with a past and we knew that she was a really interesting actor. But in all honesty, we weren’t sure where the character was going to go and were just sort of willing to proceed in good faith that we’d find something. It really, really was a challenging part and Katee was completely game for everything we threw at her. And again, particularly in episode 20, I think that was her greatest moment.  She gave a phenomenal and nuanced performance. 

this season, what moment are you most proud of, most satisfied with?  And conversely, is there anything you wish you had done differently but just couldn’t because of time, resources or budget? 

HG – I’ll start with the first question. The moment I’m most proud of, frankly, is the very last one, which obviously you haven’t seen yet. I’d kind of been obsessing for a while about what was going to be the last image or the last second on a real-time show, and I think that maybe it has a little more weight than any other moment of any other season finale.  So for me, that was really something I was very, very happy with. Otherwise, I think we had some phenomenally exciting moments, one being when Renee took off Ziya’s thumb. I loved that moment and the way she played it. It was just a beautiful performance and one that wasn’t necessarily in the script. The way she sort of sexualized the character was a great moment. I loved Hassan’s death, too. I thought that was really moving as well as surprising and sad.  I’d say those are my two favorite moments except for the last one. 

As far as regrets, I have remarkably few regrets, or none. I’d say the only thing was that the budget was rolled back a bit this year as it was across the board for all Fox shows. Hopefully it was invisible to the audience, but we didn’t have what in years past was a real ability to re-shoot or enhance some of the production. So we had to do a little bit of belt-tightening. 

When you look back at the legacy of 24, I know that everybody is going to remember the innovative concept.  I’m just curious, are you happy with that being the legacy of the show, or would you prefer it to be something else? 

HG – I think you’re right. One of the legacies of the show, and perhaps the most important one, is the revolutionary concept. But I think the legacy of the show is also, having been here from the beginning, is the fact that we just never let go of the reins and truly never let down our guard. I’m just proud of the effort that everybody put into the show from our end creating the show. The audience stayed with us by and large, and I think that is a measure of the fact that we kept the story interesting to us to create it. Consequently, it was interesting to write it. 

The legacy of the show, too, we certainly seemed to have an interesting dance with the culture and with our society and with the world after 9/11. So I think we very much were part of the first decade of this century; we played a role in it somehow and I think that legacy is a significant one as well. But hopefully we just put on a really good TV show that people will continue to watch on DVD and in reruns. 

What have you enjoyed most, would you say, about your 24 experience and what has been perhaps the most creatively fulfilling for you, working on the show? 

HG – Getting to work with such talented people is a privilege, and you have to have been doing it for long enough and be of a certain age to really appreciate it. First of all, starting with my colleagues, my fellow writers were just brilliant.  I got to work with, I think, some of the best writers and producers in the business. The entire crew, because of the culture we created, everybody really was a stakeholder in the show so whether it was hair and make-up or wardrobe or props, people all were involved. And our editors, our editors are some of the best storytellers I’ve ever met.  Not that it was a democracy, but it certainly was a collective effort. It was a team, and a lot of these people have been on this team now for nine years, so getting to work with people – I’ll never have the chance to work with this many talented people ever again. I can’t really describe any great moment, but it was just a great nine years and an amazing privilege. 

As noted above, photo by Kelsey McNeal and copyright of Fox Television, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!

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