Despite the silly move Mark made last episode, calling Anatol Stolnavich to give him Jack's com link code, as a way of getting back at Audrey after a tiff over whether she'd changed since seeing Jack again, Mark took on a central role in this episode. Over halfway through the episode, Mark must confess his collusion with Stolnavich, because the CIA found a tablet the Russian agents had been using to track Jack. Jack confronts Mark in a private room with President Heller as the other witness. We knew this was coming.
Since we have seen Mark only waffling on this one issue, it is not surprising either to see the writers give him a chance to cooperate with Jack. Although Mark has compromised in forging Heller's signature, he is not as resistant as Steve Navarro.
Still Heller does not believe Mark's rationalization: "Mr. President, don't be so naive. My job is to keep your hands clean. That means mine get dirty." Mark, as other presidential aids in 24 have done, argues that the presidential staff is to keep the morally questionable acts away from the president, who as the figurehead of the nation must be above reproach. Since Mark identified Jack as a "political liability," he felt like he was "doing his job" in handing him over to the Russians.
Jack pronounces judgment first, declaring Mark is an "idiot" for working with Stolnavich anyway, since the Russian is not a high-ranking politician, but a covert intelligence operative, manipulating Mark for the benefit of his own government.
Although incredulous at first, Heller passes judgment next, declaring Mark a traitor. It is at this moment Jack steps in, only because he feels Mark is the best lead to Cheng. When President Heller approves Jack's mission, to find Stonalvich's residence, Mark tries to justify himself some more, but Heller shuts him down and leaves the room.
Mark then finds himself in Jack Bauer's hands. While Kate drives them to Stolnavich's home, Jack outfits Mark to infiltrate the residence, giving him an earpiece and a camera hidden in a lapel pin. When Mark starts to think about the potential threat, when the bullets will start flying, he asks Jack what he is supposed to do, and Jack tells him "to stay low" and do whatever he can to keep Stolnavich from getting away.
Admitting he understands Jack's hatred for what he was about to do to him, Mark tries one more time to justify his actions; he feels like what he did was best not only for the President, but for their country. Yet we all know his betrayal kept Jack and Kate from catching up to Cheng before he used the override to launch U.S. missiles at the Chinese carrier Shenyang. Perhaps Mark has put the pieces together now, for he tells Jack, "I'll do whatever it takes to make it right."
Mark puts his life on the line, much as Kate did earlier in the season, and as President Heller almost did. With the dangling to the old romance between Audrey and Jack, it would have been easy for the writers to take Mark out here, but that may be more of a final episode thing. The preview for next week seems to show Mark tied up in a chair, as Cheng's hostage?
Mark admirably does his job, giving the team the necessary intel, allowing Jack and Kate to perform the infiltration killings in mindless precision. Mark, though, is left to messy wrestling with Anatol, and it ends in a piece of glass in Anatol's neck. In typical 24 fashion, Anatol dies cursing Jack, who displays distraught eyes at seemingly losing his chance to torture Anatol into revealing Cheng's location.
The tying together of the Russians and Cheng seemed a bit convenient. Earlier in the episode it seemed Jack was reaching at the connection, simply because he was ambushed by the Russians outside Adrian Cross's hideout, but later when Cheng calls Anatol, viewers see the partnership is real. The bow was too neat, but it introduced Cheng's understatement about his relationship with Jack Bauer--"We have history."
The connection, though, seems to justify how Cheng could have fooled Chinese and American sources, both who believed Cheng dies in an attempt to escape a Chinese prison. In fact, the crucial conversation between President Heller and the Chinese President hinges on whether Cheng is alive. The Chinese President refuses to believe Heller's explanation because it is tied to the claim that Cheng still lives. The Chinese President then declares the sinking of the Shenyang cannot go unanswered, China will do what the United States has forced them to do. He declares whatever happens that day will be on President Heller's head.
While the military leaders track China's movements toward the U. S. base in Okinawa (until two missiles take out their surveillance satellites) and put pressure on President Heller to increase his response, particularly taking the DEFCON level up to 3, Audrey decides she is going to try to followup on a connection she has at the Chinese embassy, the daughter of a member of the Chinese Politburo. Audrey knows this lead will not avert war, but she hopes it will give Jack and her dad more time to work out the true solution.
Thus, with only two secret-service agents, Audrey goes out to meet with her Chinese friend. Once she was out on her own, we knew there was the chance for a kidnapping plot, but here Cheng's sniper takes out not only the Chinese diplomat, but also the two agents, leaving Audrey alone alive, to sit back down on the park bench, becoming Cheng's bargaining chip.
I wondered how Cheng would have learned of Audrey's secret meeting and could have moved from looking for an escaped Chloe in the woods to setting up a sniper across the street from the park where Audrey was within the span of twelve minutes. This time the ticking clock hurt the credibility of the scene.
But the cliffhanger sets up the showdown for the finale. There is a poetic circularity to another showdown between Cheng and Jack with Audrey in-between. So since this penultimate episode was primarily about Mark and the Russians, the next will most likely be Jack, Cheng, and Audrey, but since it is the finale, there is much ground to cover with the other plot lines as well.
In the episode there is also one phone conversation between Jack and Audrey. He calls her presumably to spill the beans about Mark, but she hijacks the conversation, asking him to kill Cheng. Voicing he only came out of hiding to protect her dad, Jack tells her things have gotten too complicated and he hopes she won't hate him for what is going to happen. Audrey returns, "I could never hate you. I never have." She pauses a moment and tells him, "Do what has to be done. Do you hear me, Jack?" Jack replies, "I hear you. Thanks. I gotta go."
Although the dialogue is weak, Kiefer Sutherland and Kim Raver infuse the scene with pauses, sighs, and forced breathing to add weight to their simple words. The scene helps set up the finale, but it is haunting for Audrey to be saying words that Margot Al-Harazi used earlier in the season: "what has to be done" or "what must be done."
The preview for next week shows Kate rescuing Audrey while Jack and Belcheck (who returns) come after Cheng in a freighter on the dock. Heller falls down, from the pressures of trying to hold war at bay. Then we get scenes of a sunlit morning (the writers finally jump toward the end of the 24-hour period), a casket, and Jack telling Chloe it's time for her to go home.
So how is it all going to end? Good question. If this were a Jack-Ryan plot, he'd take out Cheng, Mark would give himself up in a sacrificial act, and Jack would go home to the United States with the chance to reunite with Audrey. The preview puts the image of the casket next to a clip of Heller falling down (perhaps from a heart attack), so his death would be too easy (not much of a twist). If this were 24 Season One, Audrey would die, adding more fuel to Jack's revenge, Mark would go off to prison, and Jack (despite the pardon) would send Chloe home to the U. S. while he continued to drift as a man without a country.
I think Jack has been adrift long enough, but we'll see what the writers decide. So many believe that a "happy ending" is impossible for Jack Bauer.