Character Study: 24‘s George Mason

george mason

**Spoilers for 24 seasons 1 and 2**

In the first season of 24, George Mason appears to be one of the show’s many throwaway characters. Like most of the higher ups at District, Mason’s goal is to keep Jack Bauer on a tight leash and usually doesn’t succeed. Jack famously  famously shoots Mason with a tranquilizer in the pilot episode and then blackmails him for information. Mason is our first example of the show’s recurring theme of CTU bosses who prefer to hide behind protocol instead of helping Jack stop terrorist threats.

In the first two seasons alone we see Jack forced to circumvent the orders of higher ups George Mason, Alberta Green, Ryan Chappelle, and Tony Almeida. Of course Jack always find a way around their attempts to shut him out, whether it’s forcefully injecting himself into the investigation or forcefully escaping custody. Pretty much everyone in charge tries to keep Jack from doing his job, leading to the inevitable conclusion that CTU is a terrible to place to work. That’s not even mentioning the moles within the organization like Jamey Farrell and Nina Meyers who are secretly working for the terrorists.

However the show’s creators are consistently aware that they have a great actor at their disposal in Xander Berkeley. As a result, they make a large push to develop Mason into something far more than a minor character to be discarded after a handful of episodes. Increasingly Mason is given more depth and characterization throughout the course of the show.

In the pilot episode we learn that Mason has secretly funneled away several hundred thousand dollars that he stole while working a case. Later on during Day Two he admits that he wanted to become a teacher but took a job at CTU because it paid more. And as we will see, greed is not his only flaw.

Throughout Day One, Mason shows great resistance to Jack’s habit of breaking protocol. After being assaulted and blackmailed, he vigorously tries to shut Jack down and threatens to punish anyone who is caught helping him. Although Jack’s allies usually get away it, Mason appears on the surface willing to put his personal vendetta against Jack above preventing Senator Palmer’s assassination.

As District Director, Mason is the polar opposite of Jack when it comes to following protocol. His actions are portrayed as by the book, leaving Jack and Nina continually stuck working outside of his prerogative. At the end of the Day One, Senator Palmer only manages to convince Mason to help Jack against Ryan Chappelle’s orders in exchange for a promotion once Palmer is elected president. This will mean a temporary demotion for Mason but it gives Jack a chance to rescue Kim from the Drazens.

At the beginning of Day Two we see that indeed Mason has been ungracefully demoted to director of CTU Los Angeles. Palmer has evidently forgotten his promise and the once ambitious Mason is now stuck serving time in Jack’s old job. When an emotionally damaged Jack eventually reappears at CTU at Palmer’s insistence, Mason is reluctant to involve his former nemesis on the case. However the stakes are too high for him not to leave Jack out of it. After much initial resistance, eventually Mason caves in and just lets Jack do whatever he wants (with no small amount of sighing and grumbling). With seemingly no will left to resist Jack, Mason even allows Jack interrogate his wife’s killer Nina perhaps to the astonishment of even himself.

However after realizing that CTU has little chance at preventing a nuclear bomb from going off in Los Angeles, Mason assigns himself a lead in far away Bakersfield in an obvious attempt to excuse himself from danger. Tony confronts him but it doesn’t stop Mason from abandoning his entire team. It’s a blatant act of cowardice, a complete abuse of authority, and an all-time low point for one of the show’s more complex characters.

Even though Mason is often at odds with Jack and sometimes a major obstruction to his progress, he is still technically a good guy. He doesn’t want any bombs or assassinations to happen, he is not working for any terrorists, and he has devoted his life to stopping them. Although prickly, he is clearly not a pushover. And the truth is, when he can be convinced to follow Jack’s lead, Mason serves as a powerful ally.

The major turning point for Mason’s character occurs when he is called on to follow up on a lead at one of the terrorist’s associated locations. By leaving the city he incidentally becomes the closest CTU agent available to assist local law enforcement on the raid. They find a couple of hostiles inside the building but the resulting gunfire inadvertently exposes Mason to a deadly amount of radiation. Suddenly the self-preserving George Mason has only between one day and one week left to live.

It is during this same time that an anarchist group (aided by Jack of course) bombs CTU killing many agents and leaving the building in disarray. As Tony tries to pick up the pieces and somehow restore operations, Mason returns to CTU to devote his final hours to finding the bomb and putting his affairs in order.

As it turns out, being the director of CTU is not the only thing that Mason has failed at. He is divorced and he hasn’t spoken to his son in several years. After a futile attempt to get his son to come visit him, Mason has him arrested and brought to CTU instead. It’s a revealing moment. This dying man has spent his life climbing the organizational ladder and squirreling away funds in an offshore bank account at the expense of everything else. With the clock ticking away Mason offers his money to his son and says goodbye. For a man who has made his share of mistakes, Mason will now spend the last day of his life trying to make amends by doing everything in his power to save the lives of American citizens. It’s a powerful character arc and it’s arguably some of the best character development throughout the show’s entire nine season run.

For as long as he can hold himself together Mason leads CTU with a previously unseen focus and determination. Although Jack, Tony, and Michelle quickly discover his condition, they go along with it. Their cooperation is a tremendous show of support for somewhat morally grey character. It only with their support that he is able to buy time to rehabilitate his legacy.

Mason puts in solid work at the office until he is finally forced to excuse himself after fainting one time too many. Unable to continue his job or aid in the investigation Mason promotes Tony, asks him to tell the team what a great job they did today, and walks out of the office. It seems like Mason is out. But of course he isn’t.

Meeting up with Jack at the airfield where the bomb has been discovered, Mason does the unthinkable and pulls a Jack Bauer on Jack Bauer. Through the many seasons of 24 Jack usually operates in an unofficial capacity, generally on the recommendation of the president or sometimes through sheer force of will. This time though it is Mason who is there in unofficial capacity. While the field agents there are not be aware that Mason is no longer head of CTU, Jack certainly is. And he asks Mason the same question that Jack has been asked by Mason many times before, “What are you doing here?”

While Mason offers to fly the plane carrying the bomb, a decidedly one-way trip, Jack refuses on the grounds that if Mason in his poor health collapses or can’t think clearly there are too many lives at risk. This flight requires precision, something that Mason cannot truthfully guarantee at this point. The always consequence-facing Jack assigns himself the mission, tells his daughter Kim a tearful goodbye, and directs the plane to the Mojave Desert. In a very Jack-like move, Mason has used his clout with the field agents to slip by and sneak aboard the plane. Now that Jack has gotten the plane most of the way there, Mason volunteers to crash the plane so Jack can parachute to safety.

Jack is resistant to this idea, but Mason quickly is able to discern why. Jack wants to die. He wants to go out in a blaze of glory, as a hero. After Teri’s death, Jack has been unable to return to work, connect with his daughter, or deal with the guilt he feels for putting his family in danger. Today’s threat has been the only thing that has been able to snap Jack out of his spiral of pain and remorse. Going down with the plane and saving a lot of lives in the process is his way out.

Mason, imbued with the sense of sincerity that only belongs to the dying, convinces Jack that the brave thing to do is not to die but to keep living. If Jack really wants to be a hero, he must figure out how to get past what happened to Teri and keep serving his country. The irony is palpable. Mason wanted more than anything to keep living. Jack no longer had a reason to live. And due to unpreventable circumstances outside their control, they must now switch places.

Leaving the plane only at the last moment, Jack and Mason part ways. The former makes it to safety and goes back to the special work that only he can do. The latter finally earns that rarest of gifts that can only be attained through great sacrifice: he finds redemption.

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