Annie Wersching, who died yesterday at the age of 45, belonged in the very best strata of the acting industry. Not quite a household name, Wersching was nevertheless a safe pair of hands who was able to drift into almost any show for an unspecified amount of time – sometimes just one episode, sometimes as a main character – and elevate it without even seeming to try.
In fact, so broad was Wersching’s filmography that almost everyone will remember her best for something different. Fans of The Vampire Diaries will know her as Lily Salvatore, the evil vampire who blew in during the later stages of the show in a flurry of stabbings, slapping and biting. She had a brief but important role in the Halle Berry sci-fi series Extant, as a woman committed to ridding the world of advanced technology.
This sort of thing was Wersching’s bread and butter. Give her a big, mainstream, relentlessly American show – usually a procedural so serious that it verged on self-parody – and she could be relied upon to commit herself totally to the part. It was a skill that served her well on any number of series. An episode of CSI. An episode of NCIS. Blue Bloods. Major Crimes. Cold Case. Rizzoli & Isles. The Dallas reboot. The Hawaii Five-0 reboot. In the Amazon Prime series Bosch, Wersching was able to exploit this talent for several episodes, playing a Hollywood cop who makes up the rules as she goes along and Harry Bosch’s love interest. Although her character’s arc burned out almost completely within the space of the first season, Wersching made such an impression that she kept popping up for the rest of the series.
There’s a lovely symmetry in the fact that Wersching’s screen career was bookended with Star Trek projects. Her first role, in a 2002 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, was nothing to write home about; in the season one episode Oasis, she played a small but pivotal function as a Kantare woman who maintains a holographic reality to protect the feelings of her grieving father. But her most recent role, in Star Trek: Picard last year, was a lot meatier. Wersching played the Borg Queen and, under an impressive set of prostheses, threw the show’s entire narrative into new and ambitious territory.
But despite all this, there is only really one role that will come to define Wersching’s legacy: as 24’s Renee Walker.
To understand the importance of Renee Walker is to have to place 24 in some sort of historical context. Wersching didn’t appear until season seven, by which time 24 had expanded and mutated into a genuinely grotesque facsimile of itself. The previous season landed with an ugly thump both in terms of storytelling – witness the nuclear bomb that went off in a large California city in the morning, only to be completely forgotten about by lunchtime – and its politics. Torture had become such a go-to way to expedite the narrative that it was used relentlessly and gratuitously, and a backlash had formed.
Renee Walker was created as the antidote to that, a way of bringing 24 back down to a more human level. The season starts with Jack Bauer being hauled into a Senate hearing about the frequency of his torture, and Walker is the agent tasked with keeping him on a short leash. Jack Bauer being Jack Bauer, though, it isn’t long before he starts torturing people again, and it’s Walker’s job to look as conflicted and appalled about this as the viewers.
Eventually, though, she finds herself seduced by it, and starts torturing people herself. Again, however, this comes at a cost. Unlike Jack, she is unable to live with the consequences of her actions and becomes a fragile shell of her former self. In the following season she stabs Jack, then has sex with him and is murdered by a sniper. In the world of 24, that’s about as poetic a send-off as you get.
Wersching’s death came as a shock not only because she was so young, but because she was the sort of actor you can easily take for granted. In reality, not every performer can slot into the machinery of a big show while still making an impact, but she was able to do it seamlessly. Her career could have stretched on for decades to come.