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Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan: Season One

Despite humanizing its characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a broad battle between good and evil.

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan: Season One
Photo: Amazon Studios

Amazon’s Jack Ryan is, much like Tom Clancy’s source novels, riddled with bewildering jargon. What exactly is T.F.A.D., the C.I.A. department where Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) works as an analyst? And what does it mean that Ryan’s boss, Jim Grier (Wendell Pierce), was “PNG’d” back to headquarters after his time as station chief in Karachi? Acronyms like these litter conversations without context and provide a façade of authenticity to an otherwise archetypical story of America’s patriots triumphing over her enemies.

Jack Ryan breezes past seemingly important details, never clarifying what a “swift transaction” is, even as a trail of one such financial dealing leads Jack to Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman), an Osama bin Laden-like figure emerging in Syria. The series prefers an uncomplicated view of the war on terror: Jack and the C.I.A. are forces of good, while bin Suleiman and his militia are evil. There are times when Jack resorts to extreme measures and bin Suleiman’s motivations are compassionately illuminated via flashback. But while it hints at similarities between the two men, specifically regarding their shared tenacity and competence, the series remains uncurious about the possibility that Jack and Suleiman might be equally dogmatic, or that Jack is morally deteriorating in his desperate bid to catch bin Suleiman. Jack Ryan instead commits to deriving espionage thrills from its simple, binary framework.

Jack Ryan is a like slightly less frenetic 24, with every new gambit in the global cat-and-mouse game between Jack and bin Suleiman coming at a cost. Jack’s hunt for bin Suleiman is a race against time, as the latter is planning an attack, and while Jack is less inclined to torture than 24’s Jack Bauer was, Jack Ryan often suggests that other extralegal measures are necessary for the C.I.A. to succeed. Inasmuch as the series considers complex concepts such as ethics, Jack Ryan endorses American foreign policy, including the kind of morally dubious measures the C.I.A. employs to track bin Suleiman.

Jack himself is portrayed as unimpeachably moral—at one point, he’s referred to by an old boss as a boy scout—and the series doesn’t reveal much about its protagonist beyond his rigid ethics and professional commitment. Flashbacks reveal that his experience as a marine in Afghanistan left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Jack Ryan is too often content to largely define the man by his condition. The usually tense Jack only loosens up on dates, allowing Krasinski to flex his charm, though the character remains as underdeveloped as the series itself. His story is overshadowed by his nemesis’s more thoroughly explicated origin and motivations.

Jack Ryan attempts to give bin Suleiman a sympathetic backstory: His parents were killed in a raid in Lebanon, he was discriminated against as a twentysomething in Paris, and he was radicalized in a French jail after committing assault to protect his younger brother (Haaz Sleiman). But while he’s educated and sophisticated, prone to wearing fashionable clothes outdoors and elegant robes at his tastefully adorned home, he’s so barbaric in his actions as to lend credence to Jack’s belief that he’s stumbled upon “a brand-new bin Laden.” No matter how hard Jack Ryan works to make Suleiman more than merely an extremist, the show’s thrills ultimately hinge on him being demonstrably evil, from employing Sarin nerve gas on French civilians to ordering the death of more than one person in his inner circle.

Both Krasinski and his character are cut from the mold of the everyman, and the show’s writers seem to relish the moments that find Jack having to shoot, punch, and wrestle his way from danger, as in a thrilling raid on a U.S. Yemeni outpost and stand-off on a Syrian beach. There’s a believability to this underdog action hero that’s so gripping that you might wish for it to rub off on the show’s intricate but often sensationalistic plotting. Indeed, much of what occurs in Jack Ryan is convenient or downright dubious. Take the revelation that Ebola is part of bin Suleiman’s master plan. How lucky it is, then, that Jack is dating one of the world’s foremost experts on the virus.

If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes.

Cast: John Krasinski, Abbie Cornish, Dina Shihabi, Wendell Pierce, Ali Suliman, Haaz Sleiman, John Hoogenakker, Dina Shihabi Network: Amazon

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