I just finished watching the first three seasons of 24, with an eye toward how it presented women. What I found was interesting: it started out sucky, and ended on a bit of a high note.
The first season was very old-school. Every plot, every nuance, every moment was completely predictable to someone who’s watched a lot of cop/spy shows in the past. And the women were trite as usual. There’s Nina, the office slut who of course turns out to be a selfish traitor. There’s Kim and Teri, the daughter and wife of Jack Bauer, who exist mainly to be captured by bad guys – over and over again – in order to make Jack’s work more difficult. There’s Sherry Palmer, the presidential candidate’s wife, who turns out to be a scheming conniving sociopath (although, to be fair, the model for Sherry could just as easily be Nancy Regan as some vamp from Dynasty).
And, um, that’s about it. Teri does kill a guy, which I’m sure the producers – still living in the 1950’s – thought was very progressive. But she also has to be raped and killed by the end of the season, because you know, that’s what happens to women when nasty guys hold them prisoner. (And, of course, it never, ever happens to men in real life. Goodness, no!) And Kim falls for one of her kidnappers, because that’s what vapid teenage girls do.
The second season gave a glimmer of hope. Kim got a totally stupid and pointless storyling that detracted from the main story, but there was some indication that maybe she’d sort of learned a few things from her experience in Season 1. More intriguingly, a character named Michelle Dessler was introduced back at CTU headquarters.
Michelle was competent at her job. She and one of the guys at CTU (Tony, one of the notches on Nina’s belt from Season 1) were romantically interested in each other, but instead of seeking out the nearest broom closet for a quickie, they had this amazing thing called a mature conversation in which they agreed not to pursue a relationship until this thing called a more appropriate time, which is apparently the opposite of the better known instant-gratification time. It was, like, totally freaky!
But then we had to deal with this vapid blond named Kate Warner. Kate Warner had exactly one facial expression for all occasions (the All-Purpose Frowny-Face, sold by Michael Vaughn Enterprises), so it was kind of hard to tell if she was being brave or clever at any point in the story. Maybe that was all the actress had to give, but the fault still lies with the folks who cast her. The show is filmed in Los Angeles. It’s not like there’s a shortage of good actors about the town.
And this leads us to Season 3, where things really fell together (and one can’t help wondering if Keifer Sutherland’s continuing rise up the production team chain of command might have contributed). In Season 3, apparently they realized the Perils of Kim Bauer don’t make a good B-story, so they incorporated her into CTU as a skilled techie. She’s young and makes mistakes, but she’s come a long way from Season 1. But that’s nothing compared to what happened with Michelle, and another new character named Chloe.
Chloe was an undersocialized tech nerd who had a tendency to tell people the truth without much finesse or sympathy. And when she did try to be social, the results were kind of whacked: “I’m sorry Tony got shot in the neck.” Can I just say I love this girl? You’re in the middle of a huge nuclear crisis and you’ve got personal problems: Chloe doesn’t care, and neither do I.
Michelle Dessler, however, ruled. In Season 3, she and Tony have now been married for three years. Tony now runs CTU – until he gets shot. Michelle takes over CTU, even while he’s in surgery, because she’s the best person they have right now. Later, he comes back, and she ends up leading a team into a hotel where a very deadly virus has been released. Michelle and everyone else in the hotel are exposed, which means 90% of them will die in a few hours. It’s her job to keep them from leaving the hotel and spreading the virus. It’s also her job to find any suspects and interrogate them, and learn what she can. She also has to stay calm, knowing she’s probably got the virus and will be dead in a few hours.
Michelle’s first order of business is to find the terrorist who released the virus. She does that, and handcuffs him into an area where it’s been released, just to make sure he’s exposed. She threatens to do worse than kill him, and he agrees to give her information in exchange for her shooting him as soon as his symptoms start, so he won’t have to suffer.
When the hotel guests start freaking, she takes command by simply telling them what they have to do with a tone of voice that is completely authoritative. (It’s worth noting that vocal tones have serious impact on negotiations, and generally speaking women are trained to use questioning, supplicating tones while men are taught more authoritative tones, and this is, in my personal experience of being the boss and/or negotiating, the only thing that prevents some women from being as authoritative and influential as any man). When one man decides to leave anyway, despite Michelle’s threat to shoot him, she shoots him. We’re shown how much this bothers her – and we relate – but she doesn’t let the guests see her remorse. They have to know she’s in charge.
A medical team arrives to separate the symptomatic guests from the asymptomatic ones – more to prevent panic than anything else, because there’s not a damn thing they can do for them. Again, we see how affected Michelle is by the dying guests – as well as one of her own agents. But when the hotel security staff manager – who’s been really helpful to her throughout – develops symptoms and wants desperately to call his wife, Michelle refuses him. He offers to let her listen to the conversation and several other compromises, but Michelle refuses to allow it. This is pretty rare in TV – normally, they would tend to go for the phone call and the drippy, sappy, teary moment between Dead Meat Guy and his Wife. Instead we’re presented a woman acting like, you know, a cop or something – not even really apologizing to the guy, or tearing up or anything. She just tells him no.
Gosh, can women who aren’t your mom do that? Wow!
At no point in any of this does Michelle shed a tear. Producers who think tears are the only way for actors to show feelings need to watch the scene where she calls Tony to ask him to send suicide pills for the infected, so they can choose a quick way out instead of suffering. During this conversation, they don’t know whether or not Michelle is infected, so what they’re discussing could apply to her as well. It’s completely against regulations – basically, government-assisted suicide – but Michelle insists that because there is absolutely no chance of recovery once you’re infected, offering people the only form of comfort they can is the right thing to do. It’s an intense scene, underwritten by subtext, and it nearly made me cry (I’m carved out of ice). At no point does either actor shed a tear. They don’t need to. It’s called “good acting”.
Later, after the hotel is contained and Michelle is found not to be infected, she’s captured by the bad guys who use her to manipulate Tony into doing their bidding. Tony does it, too. Michelle cleverly engineers her own escape – by making her guard think she’s infected, and therefore contagious – and gets away safely.
With Michelle, we’re seeing a woman who takes complete command of a situation without being a cold hard bitch – kind of like Jack Bauer and a hundred other male heroes. We’re seeing a woman who can refuse dying people their last wishes and hate doing it, but still maintain her control. What we’re really seeing a hero and a commander whose gender is irrelevant to her ability to handle a situation.