CIA analyst Dr. Jack Ryan is no Jason Bourne. He follows bank transactions, writes reports, creates custom SQL queries. He has a PhD in economics and left Wall Street for a desk job at the agency. But when a lead he tracks down ends up revealing the next Osama Bin Laden, he gets thrown into field work, bullets and all.
The story of Jack Ryan ought to be a familiar one by now. The novels by Tom Clancy have spanned no less than four films across three main actors, most notably with Hunt for the Red October. But unlike the Alec Baldwin’s turn as the analyst – as well as Harrison Ford’s in his two films – the Amazon Original series shows Ryan early on in his career, facing down the ugly pragmatism of government bureaucrats with the idealism of an armchair political commentator. This is frequently the primary tension of the show. In one particularly tense episode, the agency enlists the help of a known sex trafficker, in order to find a high-value and high-risk witness. While Jack is very angry about this, his boss, Jim Greer, says “There is no version of this job that does not require compromise. Not if you want to make a difference.” Jack replies, “I don’t believe that.”
This idealism exists in spite of his PTSD. The show never explicitly calls out the term, but does portray him as a victim of trauma, the scars on his back and his inability to sleep stemming from his service as a Marine. While the show holds out on this backstory for as long as it can, when the revelation does come, it gives a more meaning to, as one character calls it, his “self-righteous boy scout routine.”
But in spite of these positive elements (broad as they are), the series continually injects mature content into the story, amping up a pretty standard national defense story into the TV-MA range. In a couple instances, sex scenes show just enough to guarantee that upper rating. In one case, an exploitative sex scene, which is disconnected from the main plot, shows explicit nudity and also includes voyeurism. The woman in this case is treated like nothing more than eye candy in a scene that feels particularly troublesome for a post-#metoo series. Sex in general is treated flippantly here, with the notable exception of Jack’s disgust at having to work with a sex trafficker.
This is particularly disappointing because the occasion of one of these scenes – a drone pilot seeking to distract his conscience – had the potential to be an interesting subplot. And aside from that scene being both flippant and exploitative, it feels like it has little purpose in exploring his story. That story in particular, interesting as it could be on its own, never connects to the main plot and is itself little more than filler.
But where these plot elements do connect is thematically. While the series is never on the side of the terrorist Suleiman, it does give a convincing backstory for him, which is tied back to surviving a bombing as a child. While there’s never any serious question that the Americans are the good guys, there is some challenge to interventionist American foreign policy – especially when it comes to who we attack, why, and are we sure we got it right? The responsibility that comes with political power is important here, and Jack pays special attention to lives that would be deemed “acceptable loss.” Not unlike the call of Christians to care for orphans and widows, Jack embraces the opportunity to save everyone he can.
This new iteration of Jack Ryan is no Hunt for the Red October. But neither is it exactly a failure. It’s a mostly by-the-numbers national defense thriller with good character development that also contains some problematic content. It does signal a promising career for John Krasinski in his post-Office action career, and carries passing ideas worth considering, even if caution is warranted.