Carlos Bernard has had quite a journey as Tony Almeida on FOX’s Monday-night thriller 24, from soul-patched tech geek at the Los Angeles Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) to running-and-gunning field agent to family man to hopeless drunk to grieving husband to apparent corpse.

Now in the show’s seventh season, he’s back from the not-quite-dead and walking on the dark side.

“I want to tell you,” he says, “it’s my favorite season, but that’s for selfish reasons. But I think it’s also been a cool year, because it’s much more personal than it’s been over the last couple of years.

“The show can get large, get plot-ty, explosions and bombs and whatnot, but this year reminds me a lot of the first year. The story’s very personal, and that’s when I think the show’s at its best.”

In the middle of season five, Tony apparently died in the arms of top CTU operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). But as we learned at the beginning of this season, Tony was only a little bit dead and had been revived a few minutes later.

Having lost his wife (Reiko Aylesworth) in the explosion that seemed to kill him, and feeling betrayed by his government, Tony fell in with bad men being paid to do bad things. But he had a change of heart, and Jack eventually found out that Tony had become an undercover agent among the bad guys, working with former CTU-ers Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) and Chloe O’Brian.

Together, along with the FBI, they helped to derail a technological terrorist strike.

In the last episode, Tony tipped Jack off to a fresh terrorist attack on Washington, D.C. — which unfolds in a two-hour block, airing Monday, March 2 — and no doubt Jack will have to do some more terrible things to save the nation once again.

“I’d always felt,” Bernard says, “that Tony’s downfall was that he let his emotions get in the way. His emotions got the better of him. Jack was able to cauterize his emotions. And that still holds true this year.”

After initially being an antagonist this season, Tony has now morphed into Jack’s troubled sidekick, which has meant lots of scenes together.

“More than ever,” Bernard says. “We’ve both had a really good time. We have a lot of fun working together. We always challenge each other, always push each other to move to places. It’s been wild this year.”

This year’s storyline focuses on the fictional African nation of Sangala and how its internal struggles have resulted in trouble for America both abroad, with a military invasion, and at home, with corrupted U.S. government officials and fatal assaults on American civilians.

With a female president (Cherry Jones) in the White House and African terrorists on the loose, 24 isn’t exactly ripped from current headlines — but then it never is, not exactly, anyway.

“Why do people enjoy watching the show?” Bernard says. “It’s sort of a release, right? I releases that pent-up energy. It’s a catharsis. it raises questions, and it taps into reality and allows you to maybe release some of that pent-up anxiety about what’s going on in the world.”

Asked what it was like to play Tony in this scruffy, dark, aggressive mode, Bernard says, “It didn’t feel that different. That element was always in him, was always there. To me, the character always had a level of darkness and anger that was in him, and this season was a straight tap into it.

“At the same time, all the other qualities of him — the emotion, the sensitivity — are still there this year. it’s just that predominate emotion, the predominate state that he’s in, is this dark place. It’s almost like a scab that’s chewed off.”

Also, having been blown up, Tony must have had a near-death experience.

“Well, yeah, he did,” says Bernard. “He had a couple of those. Every day I go into makeup and have all these different scars from different seasons put on there. He starts amassing these scars from being shot, burned … as I’m getting made up, I’m actually getting all that baggage put back on.

“He was shot in the neck, burned on the side of his face, scarred up during the whole explosion thing, hurt his ankle, but I think it’s a lot of emotional baggage. That’s why I say it felt very organic, this whole place that he’s come to.”

Posted by:Kate O'Hare