So many stories in the Jack Ryan franchise hinge upon our eponymous hero stopping bombs from going off. “The Hunt for Red October” is basically about escorting a Soviet submarine safely back to America without anyone blowing it up. In “The Sum of All Fears,” the pivotal crisis is a bomb detonating at the Super Bowl. During the climax of “Shadow Recruit,” Chris Pine’s Jason Bourne-plated Jack Ryan finds a bomb, can’t defuse it, and drives it into the East River to prevent any casualties.
Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” TV series, which is inspired by Tom Clancy’s stories but written anew by Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, starts off with an explosion and ends with one, too. The last one is a nice nod to the films and what’s helped the franchise stand up over so many different iterations. But the ending also reframes the events set in motion by that original bombing, and pushes the series into territory it’s ill-equipped to handle.
Let’s start at the end: During the climactic hunt for a terrorist trying to kill the President of the United States, John Krasinski’s stock action hero realizes that a bomb going off at a pizza parlor is just a distraction for another attack. That, in and of itself, is a clever twist on fan expectations. It’s also established by an even better twist in the previous episode, in which Mousa Bin Suleiman (played by Ali Suliman) tricks the American military into using ground forces to save hostages — after infecting them with ebola.
He knows that will put the president in direct contact with a deadly disease, and he’ll be sent to a hospital for treatment, which means POTUS, his top aides, select congressman, and more high-priority targets will be exposed to an attack — the same attack set up by the pizza parlor bombing. “It’s a multi-step process!” Ryan tells his boss, James Grier (Wendell Pierce), and boy, is he right. The plotting is a pain to recap, let alone turn into action-driven drama, but Cuse, Roland, and their team of directors (notably Daniel Sackheim) pull it off. The final episodes are gripping… up until the series tries to connect back to that initial explosion. Suddenly, the escapist bubble pops, and “Jack Ryan” can’t avoid its own flying shrapnel.
Jon Cournoyer / Amazon
Of course, that implies viewers are able to escape reality in the first place. The opening scene of the series is a stock origin story for terrorism: The American military drops bombs in Lebanon (circa 1983) and two orphaned children grow up to strike back against the country that killed their parents. For a while, Suleiman and his brother are fleshed out with humanity and grace. You get to know the toll taken on their consciouses and watch them develop from a young age up through adulthood. You’re drawn in by Suleiman’s family life, especially his wife Hanin (Dina Shihabi), and his way of life isn’t portrayed as a third-world existence easy to let go of; there’s a connection built between the audience the Syrian family that’s not often done in an action show or even a TV drama where Americans are the primary focus.
But as the series reaches its conclusion, these stories are reduced to deadened depictions of Suleiman carrying out his terrorist objectives. His son is little more than a hostage, and Hanin is little more than a wife who wants her kid back. They’re moved to America, where it’s safe and everything is good, so casual viewers can take solace in their continued lives instead of being frustrated by their cultural loss.
Even though Suleiman’s blunt death isn’t enough for such a complex figure, Ryan’s final reaction to saving his kid is the big issue. Part of the problem stems from Jack’s ill-defined perspective. When he’s just operating in action-hero mode, everything clicks, but when he’s called on to provide personal insight into his motivation, things get confusing. After all, Jack Ryan is a perfect person; he’s not flawed, at all. He’s well-mannered, physically fit, and all-together unimpeachable. His mission is driven by doing what’s right: He wants to save lives, and he’s willing to sacrifice his well-being for the betterment of everyone else. Embodying the ideals of his country, he is Jack Ryan: all-American hero.
Typically, though, all-American heroes don’t suffer from PTSD. Throughout Season 1, Jack wakes up from nightmares fueled by a disaster where all of his fellow soldiers were killed. It’s unclear why they died until Jack explains to Cathy (Abigail Cornish), his girlfriend, that a child he saved brought a grenade on board the chopper and pulled the pin on purpose. Jack blames himself for bringing the kid on board, which implies he wouldn’t do it again — or, at least, he would’ve searched the child for explosives before providing a ride to safety.
Child soldiers are often used in war movies to depict lost innocence, and here, Jack’s fight to save Hanin’s son symbolizes his own desire to preserve a modicum of goodness in the world; instead of believing the son of a terrorist is a lost cause, he’s still trying to save him, even after seeing what the consequences can be first-hand. But when he reunites mother and son, and Grier tells him he did the right thing, all Jack says is, “We’ll see.”
So… what’s his takeaway, exactly? Why did Jack go through all that to save the kid if he’s worried he’ll just grow up to do what his dad did? If it’s that he has to try to do what’s right, even though it might cost him in the end, then why wouldn’t he try to help the kid understand what happened? Why isn’t there some sort of implication that the fate of the father doesn’t have to be the fate of the son? Is “Jack Ryan” pushing the idea that America’s stance as a global police-force creates a cycle of violence the world will never escape? Is he content with perpetuating that continuation as long as he moves up the CIA ranks? Is he — and thus the audience watching from his perspective — really just moving on from a family who’s been put through hell?
The ending of Season 1 invites questions the series isn’t prepared to answer. Instead of showing Jack Ryan, the most heroic of all heroes, believing in humanity’s inherent goodness, he’s shrugging and saying, “If he grows up to be bad, I’ll just take care of him like I did his dad.”
Instead of grappling with hard questions, “Jack Ryan” just moves on to the next mission. Ryan is offered a promotion and a reunion with his boss in Moscow. It’s a pretty clear indication that Season 2 will tell a new story with a new adversary for the analyst-turned-agent. (Sorry, he’s an “officer,” not an agent — don’t want to make the same mistakes as the movies.) Jack killed the bad guy, averted a national tragedy, and even rescued a mother and her children. All seems well, but upon closer examination, the pristine image of a guy just doing his job turns ugly. And that didn’t happen in the movies, even when Jack couldn’t stop the bomb from going off.
“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” Season 1 is streaming now on Amazon Prime. Season 2 has been renewed and is in production.