Two Guys, a Girl and a TV Set

Three college friends out in the world, filling the void with television…and loving it.

Jack Bauer: Tragic Hero?

Posted by Mr. Feeny on April 13, 2010

Yes, it’s another 24 post. So sue me. It’s my second-favorite show on television, there are only 6 episodes left of the whole series, and last night was another fantastic episode.

But, today, I’m actually going to unite television with one of its mortal enemies: teachers. In general, I’ve found most educators look down upon television as a waste of time and brain cells. I agree…when you watch stupid, mindless drivel. But not Lost. And not 24. And not many others.

If any of our MANY English teacher readers are scoffing at that, here’s proof. I’m about to consider whether or not Jack Bauer is a tragic hero, one of the single most discussed elements of literary analysis.


What prompted this investigation was last night’s stupendous episode of 24. As I mentioned last week, Season 8 has been much better than anticipated. Excellent, even. And Hour 18 was no exception. Actually, Hour 18 is traditionally one of the biggest hours of each season. Last night had Chloe taking charge of CTU (long awaited by fans), President Charles Logan’s slimy return, Jack getting it on, and……LAST WARNING……Renee getting killed. Shocking.

I should have seen it coming. I’m an experienced 24 viewer. The threat seems eliminated, but there’s 7 hours left. Jack experiences happiness. Things seem to be winding down. The savvy 24 fan would have known it’s too good to be true.

And maybe any other season I wouldn’t have been surprised. Last year, when Bill Buchanan died. Expected. Season 6 when Jack killed Curtis. Idiotic, but whatever. It’s all part of 24.

But this is the last season. Seven hours from now, it will all be over. So it just made sense the writers would be gearing up for an ending. Sure, every other person Jack’s slept with has met a terrible end (Teri, Nina, Audrey, the Mexican from Season 3). [Kate Warner didn’t, but she didn’t matter] But this was different. There’s no other chance for Jack to find happiness, at least not for the viewers to see. He’s had his heart broken so many times, isn’t enough enough? I was willing to believe it. Renee was the one. The one who would last.

And 20 minutes later she’s dead. Jack Bauer can not have it both ways. He has to choose. Love or Country. No matter how far away he tries to get, he will always be faced with that ultimatum. And as last week showed, he values service to country above all else. He’s made his choice. And the Renees and Audreys of the world will pay the price.

See, that’s what non-24 watchers might not realize. This show has a lot of deep meaning. It’s not just about guns and explosions. There’s some great dilemmas and themes. Chief among them is Jack’s destiny.

So, is he a tragic hero? A literal breakdown of the phrase would imply he is. Jack’s certainly an American hero. And his life has been tragic. But a literary definition holds a higher burden of proof.

Dating back to Aristotle, a tragic hero has been a character whose downfall is ultimately because of his own actions. The realization comes that problems are not just happening to him; they have been caused by him. Choices he made.

Well, that doesn’t seem to fit Jack. Jack didn’t cause terrorists to attack America and carry out their evil plans. It’s not his fault.

But…what about his own pain and suffering? What if he hadn’t agreed to re-enter the field? Renee would be alive. What if he had told the Chinese what they wanted to know, or hadn’t broken into their consulate in the first place? Audrey would be fine. What if he had stayed with Teri instead of trying to find Palmer’s attempted assassins. She’d be alive.

Unwittingly, by choosing to dedicate his life to his country, Jack let those he love fall victim to pain, suffering and even death. But that choice is understandable. It’s relatable. Its sympathetic. That’s the other aspect of a tragic hero. While his suffering is caused by himself, it’s not wholly deserved. This shouldn’t have happened to Jack. Not again.

Some other aspects of Tragic Hero include a noble birth (remember Philip Bauer, played by James Cromwell? That’s certainly not the case) and an ultimate death because of his downfall. We have six episodes and a movie to find out if that happens. But after seeing last night’s episode, I think it’s pretty clear that there are only two options.

Jack will either die, or he will keep doing the job his country asks him to. Either way, he will never be happy. That we know for sure.

** As an aside, kudos to Annie Wersching for doing a fabulous job as Renee these past two seasons. She played off of Jack extremely well, showed some real moxie…and her crazy flair earlier this season was highly enjoyable. The Millikin-grad (go Midwest!) will be missed.**


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