Acting Spotlight: Cherry Jones in 24 (Part 2)

Despite 24 typically offering new storylines and developments for its returning characters, as they do with President Taylor in season 8, Jones does something unusual in contrast with the other supporting cast of the show. While previous seasons have influenced the scope of characters, Jones uses her character’s backstory on a subconscious level. Knowing her daughter is in prison and her husband having divorced her, she is now a President who doesn’t want to believe her sacrifices weren’t all for nothing. Jones uses the events of season 7 as a subconscious motivation for her character’s actions, which is to have a peace treaty signed between Russia and the Middle East. Such a treaty would establish her Presidential legacy while also internally telling President Taylor that everything she lost was worth this end goal. The sentiment towards her Presidency is subtly implied when she speaks with President Omar Hassan, the reformer who will bring peace to the Middle East, when he says to her, “Madame President, you are no stranger to making personal sacrifices for your beliefs,” which insinuates she is only known for the events of season 7 and the repercussions that occurred as a result of them. For that, Jones treats President Taylor as a broken woman in her second season who is more vulnerable. Her sights are entirely on finalizing the peace treaty, which unfortunately causes her to lose sight on details she would have noticed in her previous season in the show.

Jones is tremendous in showing a new dimension to President Taylor in the show’s 8th season by still representing her as strong, but now having to deal with a circumstance that she has never anticipated before: failure. The failure in that President Hassan is assassinated on American soil and now President Taylor must remedy a peace treaty that is stained with blood. Jones’ acting takes a complete shift as she now begins to show a descent with her character, an instance where motivation clouds judgment. Jones represents her character as someone so desperate to achieve peace that she is now ignoring her morals and reality is what she perceives it to be. The most glaring evidence of her rewriting reality is her immediate trust of disgraced former President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) and allowing for him to integrate himself into her inner circle. By trusting him to get her goals met, she willfully allows a cancer to be inserted into her administration, thereby corrupting its credibility. This syncs with what she tells President Hassan near the beginning of the season, “We can only be betrayed by those we trust,” which inadvertently is the theme that will ultimately define Jones’ President Taylor. While she is an effective and strong leader, her flaw is that she places too much trust in those around her. She made the same mistake in season 8 with Charles Logan as she did with her own daughter in the previous season, with the difference being that Logan knows how to hold President Taylor hostage once he was able to manipulate her shortcomings as a leader.

Jones never allows for her character to become a villain despite her character giving into tactics that contradict everything she had once stood for. Instead, Jones crafts her performance as someone who is proverbially captive and answerable to Charles Logan. It is Logan’s tactics, that he threatens to publicly expose what he did in her name, that holds her captive and willing to give into his demands. While Jones’ President Taylor engages in criminal activity, she goes out of her way to show humanity and conflict on her character’s face. She frames President Taylor as someone who has already dug herself so deep in the political trenches that she believes the only escape is to keep digging deeper. With Jones crafting her character in such a manner, President Taylor becomes an unintentional villain, but she also becomes a tragic character. The tragedy stems in that Jones had long established President Taylor’s conviction of being a fair and honest leader, but Charles Logan was able to tarnish that very conviction from her.

Therefore through Jones’ acting she crafts her character as isolated and alone. Her initial trust in Logan is no longer there, and while she no longer has any trust for him, her goals are now intertwined with his actions. She inadvertently formulated a dependency on Charles Logan, which Jones emphasizes in her acting by showing a gradual hatred for the man she allowed to infect her administration. Yet again, Jones frames her character as believing that, while the road to peace may be corrupt, the ultimate signing of the treaty will benefit millions of people. By that rationale, President Taylor is ignoring that the treaty is a falsity. Even though it complies with the same conviction she had in season 7 of being a leader who represents freedom, she has defied the very morality she has always stood by, especially her decision in the previous season of holding her daughter accountable for her actions. Using her words to her daughter in the previous season, President Taylor no longer is upholding the integrity of the Constitution.

Yet those very words are what Jones uses to influence the conflict within her character throughout the second half of season 8, which allows for her character to not be crafted as a villain. It is also through those words that Jones is able to remind viewers that President Taylor is a leader of integrity and despite her flaws, is still a good woman. This sentiment that Jones provides for her character almost seems to suggest that an inherently good person could never be President because the demands and corruptibility of the job will consume anyone who occupies the position. This is the scenario for all the Presidents in the 24 universe, but the ramifications of what occurs to President Taylor are the most glaring. Yet, through Jones’ acting, she is able to make this sentiment tragic and heartbreaking to observe. While her character remembers her morals and is the one to end the peace treaty process in the 8th season (and series) finale, there is a double finality to her actions; one being the end of the treaty and the other being the understanding that her Presidency is over. This is what makes Jones’ two-season performance on 24 so profound: that she ultimately stands by her morals, even if that means she will leave the office of the Presidency in disgrace.

However it is the subtle body language Jones portrays in her performance that sells this new demeanor she has established for her character. Just like her character’s internal conflict in season 7, Jones flipped the body language and showed President Taylor no longer being able to maintain her composure. She is clearly shaking and her eyes give away the guilt she internally feels. Therefore when she confesses to her Secretary of State, “I have made a terrible mistake, one that I can never undo,” Jones’ acting conveys that President Taylor’s actions are indeed remorseful to the day’s events, but also is an admission of her abandoning her ideals. By making the viewers aware of her character’s undeniable guilt for her actions, it further makes her character tragic with her final conversation with Jack Bauer.”I wanted this peace so badly, Jack, and for that I have betrayed every principle that I have ever stood for. And I betrayed you. If I had listened to you, none of this would have happened,” she tells him regretfully. Added to the tragedy of this scenario is that while Jack Bauer acknowledges his own shortcomings, he never forgives President Taylor for her own grave mistakes.

Jones is tremendous in her final scene by having her character brace for some sort of abolition from Jack Bauer as a result of her apology. It is when she doesn’t receive forgiveness from him that her body language reveals her devastation. Her devastation goes beyond her realization that she is a truly disgraced President, but also stems from the reality that her betrayal is unforgiveable no matter what she does to remedy her actions. No matter what she does to answer for her actions, she will forever be a disgrace to the very country she fought for. In that, Jones’ President Taylor becomes a tragic character.

Jones’ acting frames President Taylor as a casualty of the show. She may not have physically died, but she is effectively destroyed. Jones’ final scene as President Taylor brings her character full circle, but this final scene also allows for Jones to be able to frame a narrative unlike any of the other characters in 24. She is able to establish how her character was worthy of the Presidency, yet still able to vacate the position in disgrace while also maintaining the compassion and sympathy for the character from the viewer. This is an acting feat that is rarely seen on television and ought to be commended. Cherry Jones was awarded with a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her stellar first season on 24 and took her name out of consideration for the potential to win a second Emmy for her season 8 work. However, most pundits and critics do agree, had Cherry Jones allowed herself to be nominated a second time, she undoubtedly would have won.

Daniel Sirignano, Film writer at Seroword

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  1. I have never seen this show. The picture confused me into thinking you were talking about West Wing, which I have also never seen. Not really into TV obviously 😉

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