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.


24, Jack Bauer, and Backstory


I recently rewatched the first season of the nail-biting real-time show 24. And with the exception of a few brick cellphones and ancient computer monitors, the show really hasn’t aged a bit. It is still holds up against the heavily serialized action-oriented programming we see today. However what intrigues me the most about this early season is not just Jack’s flowing blond hair (which would soon disappear in later seasons) but rather the dedicated effort the writers put in to fleshing out Jack as a character. Specifically Jack comes into the show with a strongly defined backstory.

While 24 is pointedly about stopping terrorist threats, the show consistently lays the groundwork for creating memorable characters and establishing genuine conflict between them. Some of the most exciting elements of the show are not shootouts or car chases but instead quieter character moments between two people each with very different motivations and point-of-views. Sometimes it ends with reconciliation but other times with bitter finality and standing animosity. It could be Jack apologizing for being a distant father or it could be the President firing his top aide. Either way because we are rooted in the characters and their hours of development and set up, these conversations tend to be just as thrilling if not more so than the actual conflict with the terrorists.

Season One hinges around two main storylines: Jack’s attempt to rescue his family and Senator David Palmer’s handling of an impending news story concerning his son. Both these stories are connected by an impending assassination attempt on Palmer, one which Jack is assigned to prevent. While the narrative takes on different modes, switching between discovering moles, locating kidnapped family members, discovering startling new information, and Jack repeatedly breaking protocol, the show always stays grounded in the history of these characters.

In the opening episode we meet Jack Bauer in a state that we will rarely ever see him in: a family man managing mundane family issues at his home. We find out right away that things are not all well at home. Jack and his wife Teri have been separated and only recently Jack has decided to move back in. Caught in the cross-fire is their daughter Kim who plays the classic rebellious teenager. Right off the bat we know that Jack is not a perfect guy. He is trying to make things work but clearly his work often takes priority over his family. As we will see quite vividly throughout the rest of the season, Jack will pretty much do anything necessary to protect his family regardless of whether it jeopardizes his career or breaks the law. His motivation is simple. He wants to make up for his past mistakes. As it turns out, he is the very reason why they are in danger at all.

Only a few minutes into the first episode, Jack is called into the office, the Los Angeles branch of the fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit where he just so happens to be the director. For about one and only one episode in the entire nine season run, Jack is the head of CTU. While he won’t spend much time in his glass office upstairs, the location is an important reminder that Jack is (or used to be) in charge around here. Even when he is in custody or facing serious accusations, that office always hangs overhead as a reminder that in someways Jack is more qualified and more experienced to handle the current threats than anyone else in the room.

At CTU things are also a bit complicated. We find out more very quickly about Jack. During his separation from Teri, Jack had an affair with his second-in-command, Nina Meyers. The drama at the office is compounded by the fact that Nina is now in a relationship with another high-ranking CTU agent, Tony Almeida. To add another layer to the drama, Jack is less-than-popular around CTU these days for exposing several agents who took bribes and putting them in jail. This plot point will pop up later in the season when Jack’s tactical support team is headed by the vengeful partner of one of these disgraced agents.

What do all these things have in common? They all refer to events that took place before the show’s central conflict started. Jack is not some nameless faceless expendable agent. He is a struggling family man, a romantically entangled boss, and a controversial figure within his own agency. It doesn’t hurt that in the very first episode Jack demonstrates his peculiar methods by shooting his boss George Mason with a tranquilizer gun and blackmailing him to get information.

From the outset this show had a clear vision for Jack Bauer as an intensely Machiavellian hero, one who is willing to get the results that no one else can through extreme measures. If Jack often operates in a morally gray area where ends justify the means, he generally seems reluctant to hurt people and always accepts the consequences of his actions. To keep Jack from being defined by these traits, the first season is built around his family dynamics and pays close attention to his relationships with his co-workers at CTU. Jack quickly emerges as a well-rounded character who is good at his job and relatable on a personal level.

This personal touch extends even to seemingly minor characters like CTU district manager Richard Walsh. A potentially forgettable figure, Walsh doesn’t last more than a few episodes. Yet before he dies, we find out that he saved Jack’s life once. Walsh is one of Jack’s mentors. Regardless of the many revolving doors and plot points on the show, the writers take special care to add a sense of history to the characters. It may feel more earned in some places than others, but it’s character focus like this that elevates 24 above many other spy shows in this genre.

Just as Jack begins the show in media res, so does his counterpart Senator Palmer. At the forefront of everything going on is the reality that David Palmer is first serious African American presidential candidate in American history. He has a shot at the White House. So whether it’s assassination by bullets or character assassination by the media, the success of Palmer’s campaign always carries a greater symbolic weight than just the career of one man. And as it turns out, Palmer’s greatest challenge is not so much winning an election but rather managing his family. We find out early on that there is indeed much backstory that effect this day’s events.

It begins with a seemingly baseless accusation against Palmer’s son Keith, a rumor that turns out to be true. When Palmer looks into it he discovers that his son, daughter, wife, and sleazy adviser Carl have been covering it up for seven years. Things only escalate when some of Palmer’s largest financial backers find out about it and take matters into their own hands. The inciting incident is buried long in the past but only now has emerged to exact vengeance.

Underlying all of this is story of rapidly deteriorating trust between Palmer and his ambitious wife Sherry who continuously takes matters into her own hands. She has been undermining her husband for years but always because she believes it to be in his best interest. Sherry will go to any lengths, right or wrong, to protect her husband’s political career. It’s been happening long before the day’s events but it is only now being fully revealed to Palmer.

Great backstory results in great characters and ultimately great drama. It gives texture and flavor to what might otherwise be the routine proceedings of intelligence reports, political scandals, and computer technobabble. 24 is widely praised for its inventive format, its relentless action, and its endless dramatic thrills, but I think much of its greatness comes from its willingness to develop its protagonists through events that precede much of the main narrative.