Story & Characters · Writing Insight

Character Insights – Jack Bauer and The Art of the Antihero

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Most viewers and television critics agree that Jack Bauer is an antihero. But what exactly is an antihero? What makes such characters so compelling? With Bauer as our model, let’s explore the concept of the antihero and how it acts as a mirror to look into ourselves.

What are (Anti)heroes Made Of?
For one thing, it certainly isn’t sugar, spice, and all things nice. Jack Bauer is proof of that! While he has a heart and at times isn’t afraid to show it, Bauer also possesses a tough exterior that makes him seem impervious to pain, both physical and emotional. (After all, rumor has it that Superman wears Jack Bauer pajamas…okay, maybe not.)

I doubt anyone would label Bauer a “white hat” hero. His personal philosophy drives him to do whatever it takes to protect the greatest number of people for the greatest good. And if that means killing, maiming, torturing, bucking the status quo, or defying political bigwigs, then so be it. Under any other guise, Bauer’s actions would be deemed as criminal and, to be fair, he’s received that label from some fellow characters throughout “24”‘s eight season run, including its mini-series “Live Another Day” and two-hour “movie,” “24: Redemption.” Yet Bauer is clearly not a villain since he never seeks to do evil deeds for evil’s sake.

So where does that lead us?

Enter the antihero!

I have to slightly cringe at this generic definition from Webster’s Dictionary, which simply says an antihero is “a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.” Fair enough. But what exactly does that mean? 

As a rule, we tend to view heroes as people who are inherently good and do the right thing most of the time for noble reasons. They may make tough decisions but ultimately choose rightly. Frodo from The Lord of the Ring, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, and even Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games could all be classified as “heroes” since, for the most part, they do the right thing for the right reasons. Thus, a hero acts upon the noble virtues.

But what about antiheroes? The term itself seems to imply that such characters are in stark contrast to traditionally-viewed heroes and, to a degree, that’s a fair assessment. Jack Bauer, by way of example, engages in actions that, on the surface, seem cold-blooded and brutal and, at times, he is even driven out of a sense of revenge, which isn’t a noble virtue. Yet what keeps him from being a villain? His working moral compass. He wants to do what is right for the best of others and sometimes the only way he feels he can carry that out is to take an eye for an eye. (Sometimes literally.) And that can come at a steep price, even to himself.

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Bauer, Meet Byron
According to Lord Byron, an antihero possesses the following general qualities:

He is a Rebel – The typical antihero snubs the powers that be and lives as an individual. Jack Bauer often finds himself at odds with, and even fighting against, those in high positions, including government leaders. Bold and fearless, he takes no issue in breaking the rules if he believes the rules are flawed or if obeying them will result in innocent lives lost. He is his own man and answers to a higher ethical calling, or at least one that isn’t bound by political red tape.

He is a Loner – Often an antihero’s views put him so much at odds with society, he’s forced to carry out his tasks alone and live in seclusion. Bauer has endured self-imposed exile a few times and often carries the weight of a situation’s burdens upon himself. Though Bauer has a few allies (namely as Chloe O’Brian), in the thick of things he stands alone and often feels he is the only one who can shoulder the job. But to him, this is far better than compromising his values. As Bauer once remarked: You can look the other way once and it’s no big deal. Except it makes it easier for you to compromise the next time, and pretty soon that’s all you’re doing is compromising because that’s how you think things are done.

He is Personally Convicted – Probably the worst enemy an antihero faces is not from without but within. While there are powers on the outside that try their best to convict and condemn him, Jack Bauer remains his own judge, jury, and emotional executioner. He lets his past tint his present at times and has a hard time forgiving himself. Thankfully to the “24” writers’ credit, they avoid turning Jack Bauer into a dark, brooding trope. Likewise, Kiefer Sutherland’s portrayal possesses a finely-tuned balance, depicting a man determined to protect his fellow Americans yet he can’t forgive himself for his own sins.

He is Passionately Motivated – What keeps Bauer going is his desire to protect innocent people, whether he knows them or not and whether or not he benefits from his own actions. In many cases, Bauer’s deeds go unnoticed by the public at large as if he was an invisible guardian angel…only with a loaded gun. Bauer is also sometimes punished, either by external forces or his own heart, and, much like The Lord of the Rings‘ own Frodo Baggins, makes the world a better place for others but not for himself. As Frodo said, I tried to save The Shire, and it has been saved but not for me….when things are in danger someone has to give them up, lose them so that others may keep them. In Bauer’s case, his passion is protecting innocent people, hence America is his “Shire.” But he doesn’t do this for any benefit to or reward for himself. Instead, Bauer often loses what he gains so that others may keep their lives.

This last point proves Jack Bauer is more than just a hardened man who undertakes tough tasks chiefly by himself and often without much, if any, reward. Though grossly imperfect, Bauer still puts aside his own comforts for the sake of others; and in order to save others, he himself often must be sacrificed.

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Save the Cat, Jack!
One of the best examples of Bauer’s willingness to risk his life for strangers comes in the fifth season episode, “2:00 pm – 3:00 pm.” It’s a minuscule scene in the grand scope of things but it made a big impact on me when I first saw it.

In the scene, terrorists unleash a canister of nerve gas in a packed shopping mall. Bauer manages to seal off the ventilation system to prevent the gas from spreading but not before some of the gas leaks out. The hardest hit area is the mall’s food court where a few people succumb. In his way out, Bauer pauses beside a little girl propped against a support column. She’s still alive but is quickly being overcome. Bauer assures her he is going to get her to safety, removes his own gas mask, and puts it on her as he rushes her outside. The girl lives and Bauer hunts down the terrorists in classic Jack Bauer style.

But so what? The scene is ten minutes long, at best. The little girl is a total stranger to Bauer and the audience. She’s never given a name and never reappears later on as a plot device. Yet this scene expertly shows us Bauer’s heart.

Screenwriter Blake Snyder would label a scene such as this one as a “save the cat” moment where the main character engages in a small, seemingly unimportant action that speaks volumes about the sort of person the character is. The main character “saves” something or someone, which makes the audience stand by him. In Bauer’s case, he gets a few “save the cat” moments throughout the course of “24”‘s seasons, but this particular moment in season five is one of the best. It may be short and seemingly unimportant but it reveals Bauer’s psyche – beneath his tough, antiheroic exterior, he has a sacrificial heart, which may very well, in the end, be the aspect of his character that appeals to audiences the most.

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While traditional “white hat” heroes resonate with readers and viewers alike, antiheroes can be just as compelling. Their moral dilemmas and tough choices make it easy for us to catch less-than-pretty glimpses of ourselves in a fictional mirror that’s equally grimy. “24”‘s Jack Bauer is a good example of how an imperfect soul can possess a sacrificial spirit and a desire to do what’s right, no matter the cost and however flawed the plan to get there might be.

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