*Disclaimer: This feature contains spoilers for seasons 7 and 8 of 24*
24 is mostly known for its intense by-the-minute storyline that followed the theme of imminent terrorist threats. The show typically was framed as having its protagonist, Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland), being the sole force that could to stop tremendous terrorist attacks on American soil, while also hindering various villains from ever committing such acts again. 24 is also known for each of its individual seasons taking place in the span of a single day, with each episode functioning as a single hour that was filmed in “real-time.” For that, and regardless if one agrees with the content of the show or not, 24 was revolutionary for television. It changed the context of what television could offer to its viewers with plot and character development. It concocted the idea that a single season of television could function as an extended film opposed to the traditional form of television in which each season contained “episodic” episodes each week. Such “episodic” episodes were only linked together by broad themes that helped what minimal development was being offered to its characters. The idea of television before 24 was in that shows were supposed to entertain its viewers and remain as that. 24 merely elaborated on that idea by formulating a sharp script, specific direction, and acting excellence around a theme that could still entertain viewers. Added to the mix was viewers enhanced national patriotism after the 9/11 attacks, which only further guaranteed to the success of 24. For such reasons, the show won appeal and critical acclaim and still remains popular after the conclusion of its 8th season in 2010.
Most shows can survive on the shoulders of its lead actor, but while Kiefer Sutherland was the lead actor of this show, 24 was more of an ensemble cast that allowed for multiple actors to shine in particular seasons. In some instances, the supporting cast outshined Sutherland and the show shifted to put more focus upon them. This was the scenario with the show’s fifth season where the political subplot concerning the corrupt President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) and his mentally unstable wife (Jean Smart) were given more, if not the same amount of focus, as Sutherland received. This especially occurred with the political plotlines of the show, which featured in the course of the show, six Presidents. This too was often a shortcoming with the show, with particular actors, such as Powers Boothe in the show’s sixth season, being almost a caricature and lacking any believability. However, whenever such performances were done correctly, they arguably became some of the most iconic performances television has ever seen. In this category, 24 gave audiences Gregory Itzin, Jean Smart, and of course, Cherry Jones.
Cherry Jones, who was the only 24 actor outside of Kiefer Sutherland to win an Emmy, was introduced into the 24 universe in the show’s 7th season as President Allison Taylor. What made her character profound went beyond the simplistic fact that she was represented as the first female President. The show, and Cherry Jones, never made an issue or reference to her sex when it came to the conception of her character. Instead, she was introduced as a strong political leader who sought to end enhanced interrogation techniques while also being on the brink of deciding whether to send troops to an African nation where genocide has been occurring. Her character was further introduced to viewers as someone who has vehemently stood by her beliefs her entire political career, yet is finding the pressures of the office challenging those very beliefs. Despite her reservations about military force, Jones framed President Taylor as someone who cannot stand by idly as innocent people are slaughtered. It is within this foundation that Jones was able to craft her President Taylor as a strong and effective political leader.
Jones crafted her President Taylor as a savior for those who do not have a voice. She understands that those in smaller repressed countries do not have the ability to speak out, especially if such countries are controlled by brutal regimes. She further understands that even negotiating with such regimes would be considered a form of defeat because she cannot fathom allowing such brutality to exist in the world. This makes President Taylor a noble person, which also allows for others to perceive her as a ineffectual leader. In the show’s 7th season, which occurs in Washington D.C., Taylor’s Secretary of State is strongly against action against the genocidal regime in Africa, emphasizing that the better stance is to impose sanctions. This mentality is an idea President Taylor does contemplate, but its chances shift to zero once American lives are put at risk on American soil. Jones shows momentary hesitancy in her portrayal of President Taylor whenever she is in private, yet she allows for the character’s resolve for peace and to end genocide as her motivation to proceed onwards. Jones placed subtle emphasis that her character is privately conflicted by wavering in her speech to her Chief-of-Staff (Bob Gunton) whenever she confides to him, visibly repressing her emotions, and also fidgeting her hands in a nervous manner. However, whenever she speaks publicly to her administration, she does do with clarity and a decisive tone in her voice. She doesn’t allow for others to see her as weak, even if they dare to defy her publicly. In such instances, she refuses to give into tyranny and allow dictators to influence the decision of her government. When she gets dissent from her own administration, calling her foreign policy “reckless,” her response is to have them hand over a letter of resignation. She makes it a point that her decision is not only her individual decision as President, but also as a leader for all those who value freedom. She further explains this reasoning to her staff by saying, “When I took the oath of office, I swore to myself and the American people that this country would continue to be a force for good in this world.”
Yet what also makes Jones’ President Taylor an extraordinary character extends beyond being a strong leader, but also a selfless one. In season 7’s most pivotal terrorist attack, the White House is the target and President Taylor is confined to a panic room with Jack Bauer. Previously in the season, Taylor’s husband was injured in an attack and this prompted President Taylor to reconcile with her estranged daughter who had engaged in some questionable ethics during Taylor’s campaign in the past. Therefore, it is her daughter who is placed in immediate danger when the White House is stormed by terrorists. Placing her in front of video stream for President Taylor to see in the panic room, she immediately becomes frantic and demands for Jack to open the door and release her to those who will undoubtedly have her assassinated. In this moment, Jones does something truly spectacular with her performance by having her character both identify as a leader and a mother. “I am the President and I am ordering you to open the door,” she boldly tells Bauer, emphasizing her maternal instincts to protect her daughter, while also understanding that she will become a martyr once the door is opened. Rather than letting her emotions publicly define her, once the door opens she walks out strong and as a true leader. Even after she is slapped across the face, she holds her bloodied face back up and gives direct eye contact to the terrorist leader. She remains collected and fearless as a leader. Jones doesn’t do this scene in a defiant manner, but rather as someone who has long accepted this outcome was a possibility when she took the oath of office. She stands knowing that if she were to be assassinated, it would be, to her, in the name of freedom.
However the most notable trait about President Taylor, that is firmly established in the 7th season’s finale, is how she ultimately puts the job of the Presidency as her first priority. By the conclusion of the 7th season, her daughter regresses back to her underhanded tactics to gain power and clout in her mother’s administration. However, her actions lead to tremendous criminal activity that she isn’t able to run from. In a moment of honesty, she confesses her actions to her mother and father, who is now recovering from his injuries in the White House. In this instance, President Taylor’s husband demands that she bury the evidence against their daughter to protect her from criminal wrongdoing. After some contemplation, President Taylor apologizes to both her daughter and her husband for the toll her job has placed upon them before hesitantly saying, “But I have a sworn duty to enforce the Constitution and failing to honor that oath would be the worst kind of hypocrisy.” Jones’ acting in this scene goes beyond putting the job of the Presidency first, but also representing the emotional sacrifice she must endure to continue her job as President. Jones’ demeanor in how she presents herself in this scene emphasizes that she is conveying the character as someone who already knows she will lose her entire family as a result of this decision. Her wording is hesitant, but she knows she must stand by her morals, even if it is at the expense of her family. The hurt and quivering eyes Jones offers in this scene shows an emotionally defeated individual, but not a defeated leader. This rare moment in Jones’ performance shows her character’s ultimate sacrifice, in which she officially makes the transition from being a mother and wife to now being a product of the Presidency.
Despite 24 typically offering new storylines and developments for its returning characters, as they do with President Taylor in season 8, Jones does something unusual in contrast with the other supporting cast members of the show. While previous seasons have influenced the scope of characters, Jones uses her character’s backstory on a subconscious level. Knowing her daughter is in prison and her husband having divorced her, she is now a President who doesn’t want to believe her sacrifices weren’t all for nothing. Jones uses the events of season 7 as a subconscious motivation for her character’s actions, which is to have a peace treaty signed between Russia and the Middle East. Such a treaty would establish her Presidential legacy while also internally telling President Taylor that everything she lost was worth this end goal. The sentiment towards her Presidency is subtly implied when she speaks with President Omar Hassan, the reformer who will bring peace to the Middle East, when he says to her “Madame President, you are no stranger to making personal sacrifices for your beliefs,” which insinuates she is only known for the events of season 7 and the repercussions that occurred as a result of them. For that, Jones treats President Taylor as a broken woman in her second season who is more vulnerable. Her sights are entirely on finalizing the peace treaty, which unfortunately causes her to lose sight on details she would have noticed in her previous season in the show.
Jones is tremendous in showing a new dimension to President Taylor in the show’s 8th season by still representing her as strong, but now having to deal with a circumstance that she has never anticipated before; failure. The failure falls in that President Hassan is assassinated on American soil and now President Taylor must remedy a peace treaty that is stained with blood. Jones’ acting takes a complete shift as she now begins to show a descent with her character, an instance where motivation clouds judgment. Jones represents her character as someone so desperate to achieve peace that she is now ignoring her morals and reality is what she perceives it to be. The most glaring evidence of her rewriting reality is her immediate trust of disgraced former President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) and allowing for him to integrate himself into her inner circle. By trusting him to get her goals met, she willfully allows a cancer to be inserted into her administration, thereby corrupting its credibility. This syncs with what she tells President Hassan near the beginning of the season, “We can only be betrayed by those we trust,” which inadvertently is the theme that will ultimately define Jones’ President Taylor. While she is a effective and strong leader, her flaw falls in that she places too much trust in those around her. She made the same mistake in season 8 with Charles Logan as she did with her own daughter in the previous season, with the difference being that Logan knows how to hold President Taylor hostage once he was able to manipulate her shortcomings as a leader.
Jones never allows for her character to become a villain despite her character giving into tactics that contradict everything she had once stood for. Instead, Jones crafts her performance as someone who is proverbially captive and answerable to Charles Logan. It is Logan’s tactics, that he threatens to publicly expose what he did in her name, that holds her captive and willing to give into his demands. While Jones’ President Taylor engages in criminal activity, she goes out of her way to show humanity and conflict on her character’s face. She frames President Taylor as someone who has already dug herself so deep in the political trenches and she believes the only escape is to keep digging deeper. With Jones crafting her character in such a manner, President Taylor becomes a unintentional villain, but she also becomes a tragic character. The tragedy stems in that Jones had long established President Taylor’s conviction of being a fair and honest leader, but Charles Logan was able to tarnish that very conviction from her. Therefore, through Jones’ acting, she crafts her character as isolated and alone. Her initial trust in Logan is no longer there, and while she no longer has any trust for him, her goals are now intertwined with his actions. She inadvertently formulated a dependency on Charles Logan, which Jones emphasizes in her acting by showing a gradual hatred for the man she allowed to infect her administration. Yet again, Jones frames her character as believing that while the road to peace may be corrupt, the ultimate signing of the treaty will benefit millions of people. By that rationale, President Taylor is ignoring the reality that the treaty is a falsity. Even though it complies with the same conviction she had in season 7 of being a leader who represents freedom, she has defied the very morality she has always stood by, especially when paralleling her actions against her actions in the previous season of holding her daughter accountable for her actions. Using her words to her daughter in the previous season, President Taylor no longer is upholding the integrity of the Constitution.
Yet those very words are what Jones uses to influence the conflict within her character throughout the second half of season 8, which allows for her character to not be crafted as a villain. It is also through those very words that Jones is able to remind viewers that President Taylor is a leader of integrity and despite her flaws, she is still a good woman. This sentiment Jones provides for her character almost seems to suggest that a inherently good person could never be President because the demands and corruptibility of the job will consume anyone who occupies the position. These is the scenario for all the Presidents in the 24 universe, but the ramifications of what occurs to President Taylor are the most glaring. Yet, through Jones’ acting, she is able to make this sentiment tragic and heartbreaking to observe. While her character remembers her morals and is the one to end the peace treaty process in the 8th season (and series) finale, there is a double finality to her actions; one being the end of the treaty and the other being the understanding that her Presidency is over. This is especially what makes Jones’ two-season performance on 24 so profound, in that she ultimately stands by her own morals, even if that means she will leave the office of the Presidency in disgrace.
However it is the subtle body language Jones portrays in her performance that sells this new demeanor she has established for her character. Just like her character’s internal conflict in season 7, Jones flipped the body language and showed President Taylor no longer being able to maintain her composure. She is clearly shaking and her eyes give away the guilt she internally feels. Therefore when she confesses to her Secretary of State, “I have made a terrible mistake, one that I can never undo,” Jones’ acting conveys that President Taylor’s actions are indeed remorseful to the day’s events, but also is a admission of her abandoning her ideals. By making the viewers aware of her character’s undeniable guilt for her actions, it further makes her character tragic with her final conversation with Jack Bauer.”I wanted this peace so badly, Jack, and for that I have betrayed every principle that I have ever stood for. And I betrayed you. If I had listened to you, none of this would have happened,” she tells him regretfully. Added to the tragedy of this scenario falls in that while Jack Bauer acknowledges his own shortcomings, he never forgives President Taylor for her own grave mistakes. Jones is tremendous in her final scene as President Taylor by having her character brace for some sort of abolition from Jack Bauer as a result of her apology. It is when she doesn’t receive forgiveness from him that her body language reveals her devastation. Her devastation goes beyond her realization that she truly is a disgraced President, but also stems from the reality that her betrayal is unforgivable no matter what she does to remedy her actions. No matter what she does to answer for her actions, she will forever be a disgrace to the very country she fought for. In that, Jones’ President Taylor becomes a tragic character.
Jones’ acting frames President Taylor as a casualty of the show. She may not have physically died, but she is effectively destroyed. Jones’ final scene as President Taylor brings her character full circle, but this final scene also allows for Jones to be able to frame a narrative unlike any of the other characters on 24. She is able to establish how her character was worthy of the Presidency, yet still able to vacate the position in disgrace, while also maintaining the compassion and sympathy for the character from the viewer. This is an acting feat that is rarely seen on television and ought to be commended. Cherry Jones was awarded with a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her stellar first season on 24 and took her name out of consideration for the potential to win a second Emmy for her season 8 work. However, most pundits and critics do agree had Cherry Jones allowed herself to be nominated a second time, she undoubtedly would have won.
*This feature is now on seroword.com*