Character: Bill Buchanan
Spoilers: Through Day 6, 5:00 am to 6:00 am
A/N: I felt inspired to write this essay after reading puirtybrown’s wonderful post on Jack Bauer.
Bill Buchanan is a nice guy. Nice guys usually don’t draw attention to themselves. In the world of 24 fanfiction and criticism, Jack Bauer has been the focus of an enormous amount of analysis and hand-wringing. Bill, being an important but secondary character, is often given a free pass. In this essay, I would like examine the personality and motivations of Bill and explore how his actions fit into the unique morality of the 24 universe.
Bill has an air of natural authority, and looks like he’s man who should be in charge. Actor James Morrison offers the viewer an elegant physical presence: He is tall and trim, with chiseled features and silver hair. He is almost always impeccably dressed in dark suits and ties that exactly match his blue eyes.
As the director of the Los Angeles branch of the Counter Terrorism Agency (CTU) During Day 5 and much of Day 6, Bill is liked and respected by his staff for several good reasons. He obviously cares about his employees and is sensitive to their feelings. He is always willing to talk. He doesn’t micromanage but lets the petty squabbles of CTU’ers like Milo and Chloe * work themselves out. (Petty squabbles are an inevitable part of any workplace.) He expresses his emotions without losing control or becoming histrionic. The CTU personnel, from the field agents to the core of computer geeks, are superbly trained and able to instantly react to any new situation, which indicates that Bill is a very skilled manager. Bill is a rarity in both the land of television and the real world: A likable and competent bureaucrat. We bask in his beneficent presence.
However, his tenure as director of CTU could stand some scrutiny: He has allowed moles and suspected moles to infiltrate CTU. CTU has been invaded, and the invasion resulted in fatalities (remember Edgar?) He allows Chloe and Morris to keep their jobs despite blatant insubordination since he “can’t afford to lose the manpower.” He allows his employees to torture each other. He asks a shaken Nadia -nicely-to return to work after she has been interrogated by the supremely annoying Mike Doyle. (I must admit that this scene bothered me. Bill is using one of his most admirable qualities – his empathy-in order to get what he wants). His marriage to National Security Advisor Karen Hayes (a relationship intriguing enough to inspire a respectable body of fan fiction) can-and does- put him in conflicts of interest.
The list goes on: At the beginning of Day Six, Los Angelos has endured weeks of terrorist attacks. Protecting LA from terrorists is Bill’s job. Bill plans an air strike based on incorrect intelligence: as we will discover, it is Abu Fayed and not Hamril Al-Assad who is behind the attacks. Most seriously, Bill negotiates with a terrorist (namely Fayed), agreeing to exchange Jack (Bill uses the euphamism ‘sacrifice’) for intel on Assad’s location. More on that in a moment.
Perhaps I am being too hard on poor Bill. He has to do an impossible job with limited resources and against overwhelming odds. He has had to contend with two ineffectual presidents, namely Charles Logan and Wayne Palmer. He is doing the best he can with what he has, and it still isn’t enough.
I recently re-watched the first four hours of Day 6. Seen in isolation from the rest of the shark-jumping Day 6, those four episodes are devastating. After a repeat viewing of the season opener (6:00 am to 7:00 am) I felt as if my heart had been ripped out, stomped on a few times, and shoved back in. The first Day 6 episode serves as a powerful reminder that, at it’s best, 24 succeeds as drama as well as it does at action. It is also in this episode that Bill is tasked with an extremely distasteful duty: He has to deliver Jack to Fayed so that Fayed can kill him. To Bill’s great credit, he does not order any of his staff to do this, this is something he has to do himself. He brings along only Curtis to assist.
Jack, fresh out of twenty months in a Chinese Prison and somewhat worse for wear, agrees to the exchange in a rare moment of passivity. The scene where Bill handcuffs a traumatized Jack to a sewer grate and walks away with Curtis is wrenching. I actually feel worse for Bill than I do for Jack. Bill knows that he has just done something obscene. He knows that he has traded part of his soul along with Jack. Morrison is terrific in this episode. Jack ultimately survives. In hindsight, the trade was necessary because it is only through being traded that Jack can learn the true identity of the terrorist responsible for the attacks. But Bill still has to live with what he’s done. (Curtis I wasn’t worried about as I knew he would be dead in a few hours!)
The scene also raises an important question: Does Bill always carry a pair of handcuffs in his pocket?
Jack escapes from Fayed and quickly regains his Mojo. As the day wears on, Bill soon abandons his attempts to bring Jack back to the relative safety of CTU and instead gives the skittish agent a very long leash. Latter that evening, Bill allows Jack to go back into the field despite broken ribs and possible internal bleeding. Bill may care about Jack as an employee and as a friend, but Jack is an extremely valuable resource and Bill needs all of his resources to resolve the day’s crisis. And, to be fair, Jack usually does what he wants anyway, with or without the boss’s permission.
It is interesting that Bill only gains a chance for redemption late in the day (or early the next morning) after he has been relived of his CTU duties by his own wife. Bill is now free to go ‘rouge’ and teams up with Jack in order fly to an oil rig to rescue Josh Bauer and retrieve an important circuit board. His need for absolution is evident when he tells Jack “I don’t want to live with what’s happened today…” In a particularly satisfying moment, Bill and Jack commandeer a CTU helicopter. It doesn’t occur to either of them to enlist the pilot’s help. It turns out they don’t need to, as Bill is, amongst all his other talents, an expert helicopter pilot. “I’ll fly, you prep the weapons,” he instructs Jack. It’s a line that makes make Bill fans sequel with delight.
In the space of a few hours, Bill has gone from disgraced former CTU director to Man of Action. He returns to CTU a partially redeemed man, delivering Josh to his screeching mother and the villainous Cheng into custody. Jack, however, has jumped from the helicopter, swam to shore (how he did this with broken ribs remains a mystery) where he waves Bill off.
“We’ll never find Jack if he doesn’t want to be found. Let him go.” Bill gravely tells Nadia, now the director of CTU.
What!!?? This is a Bill moment I genuinely don’t get. Granted, Jack is extremely high maintanance and chasing after him can be a full time job. He has clearly had enough of CTU and fighting terrorists. Perhaps Bill feels that only by severing all his ties to CTU does Jack have the chance at a normal, happy life.
But does that relieve Bill of his obligations? In one memorable scene, the captured Cheng taunts “My people will not abandon me the way you abandoned Jack Bauer,” and Bill looks suitable chastened. We are not told whether Bill or his staff made any attempts to rescue Jack from Cheng’s clutches, either through negotiations or black-op extractions. (The only thing we do know is that Audrey was trying to get Jack released through ‘back channels.’ I suspect she was getting some help from Chloe.)
Bill’s concern for Jack, his feelings of respect and friendship, and his guilt have been evident throughout the day. So he should try to find Jack and help him now. Doesn’t Jack need money? Medical attention? A place where he can finally get some sleep? His few remaining friends?
I have been avoiding Day 7 spoilers, so as of this writing I don’t know how or if these questions will be resolved. I do hope that next season finds Bill in a job which is a good use of his talents but which causes him less psychic angst. I hope his marriage to Karen is not amongst Day 6’s casualties.
But I doubt it. The 24 writers seldom allow their characters happy endings, peril and torment make for more interesting drama. The writers also have a tendency to kill off important and/or popular characters.
Bill has made a few bad calls and some important mistakes. Like almost everyone else in the series, his hands and his soul are no longer clean. But he is essentially a good guy. He provides a stabilizing presence in a world gone mad. Bill shows us that it is possible to make a meaningful contribution to a world even as violent and dark as the one portrayed in 24 and still remain decent. And still remain nice. I wish him well.
* For an analysis of Chloe O’Brien, I refer the reader to Paul Delany’s excellent essay “She may be a little weird: Chloe O’Brian” which appears in the critical anthology Reading 24: TV Against the Clock, edited by Stephen Peacock and published by I.B. Tauris