Jack Bauer of ’24’ finally gets the villain he deserves

Stephen L. Carter (c) 2014, Bloomberg News. I don’t know how to express the delight I felt when Cheng Zhi showed up just before the 48-minute mark of last night’s episode of “24: Live Another Day.” There we were, getting toward the end of the “8 to 9 p.m.” hour, only two episodes left in a down-and-up season, and, at last, an actual villain emerged. My joy in seeing Cheng stemmed from the fact that he is neither an insane schemer (see: Margot Al-Harazi, who died last week) nor a craven mumbler (see: Adrian Cross, who died this week). Cheng, instead, is implacably evil.

The kind of villain who makes Jack Bauer’s struggle against bad guys seem — well, worthwhile.

Veteran “24” fans will remember Cheng from the old days. Newer fans have no doubt ferreted out his back story on the web. (If you haven’t, try here.) For present purposes, suffice to say that Jack and Cheng have a long history. This includes a period during which Jack was tortured by Cheng’s people in a Chinese prison for almost two years, as well as the abduction of Audrey Raines, last seen before this season in a catatonic state as a result of abuse at Cheng’s hands. At the end of Day 6, Cheng was in custody, and was subsequently turned over to his government.

Now he’s back — and acting on his own, seeking vengeance against both China and the U.S. And as I watched him ruthlessly shoot Adrian in the leg to force Chloe to work for him, then kill Adrian anyway (who’d have guessed?), I found myself wondering whether the current reboot of the series might have been stronger had they introduced Cheng around episode four. (Then maybe this wouldn’t have happened.)

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Part of what has plagued the show this season, for all its madcap fun, is that the villains, and their threats, have simply seemed a little small for Jack Bauer. Margot threatened to attack London with missiles fired from hijacked drones. Yawn. In the old days, Jack used to battle the sort of terrorists who wanted to set off nuclear warheads in U.S. cities — and occasionally succeeded. Adrian wanted to give every country in the world access to every other country’s military technology, a nutty sort of nihilism, and hardly the sort of danger that one needs a Bauer to defeat.

And now, suddenly, here’s Cheng, gaining control of the override device (aka, the MacGuffin), and sending fake instructions to a U.S. submarine to sink a Chinese aircraft carrier. (And China has only one carrier to its name.) At last — a potentially world-shattering threat of the sort that Jack Bauer is supposed to be combating. A third world war might easily result.

In “24” terms, that’s great stuff.

Meanwhile, in a less important subplot: CIA Station Chief Steve Navarro wound up being double-crossed by Adrian, and didn’t get out of the country, but wound up arrested instead. With a gun to his head, he told Kate Morgan how to track the override device that he gave to Adrian, and Adrian — although nobody knows it yet — then lost to Cheng. (Side note: Navarro used to be involved in covert operations, and it never occurred to him to take precautions against being double crossed? Maybe he should have been dismissed for incompetence a while back, in which case the worst could have been avoided.)

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And in an even less-important subplot: Poor Mark Boudreau, the president’s hapless chief of staff, jealous of his wife Audrey’s feelings for her ex-lover, sics the Russians on Jack — again — then changes his mind — again — and then it’s too late. Oops.

Then there’s this little curiosity: The U.S. learns that the override device has been stolen, and even knows that Adrian and Chloe have it, but rather than, say, alerting the British government, decides to send out yet another tactical team from the CIA itself. One wonders whether the British might at some point tire of U.S. intelligence agents getting into firefights all over London and never cluing in their hosts until after the damage is done.

Oh, and this: Kate now knows her husband is innocent, and we’re told that he committed suicide in prison after being framed by Adrian and Steve. But, wait a minute. Her husband was framed — and arrested — and tried — and convicted — and hanged himself one month into his sentence — and the agency is just today calling her home? How long ago did these tragic events happen?

Never mind. We have the possibility of World War III to contend with, and only two more episodes to stop it from happening. I only wish the writers had given us Cheng earlier, and that Jack had spent these last few episodes chasing not the madwoman or the mumbler, but the implacable evil.

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Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of law at Yale University.