One of my favorite birthday presents I ever received was the book “Spy and Mystery Stories” by Kenneth Allen. Brilliant title, I know. Those were simpler times.
I loved that book. It was just an anthology of stories, some Agatha Christie, some Poe, but there were spy stories as well, and that’s what really hooked me. That and the cover, which, even as a child, I had been vociferously warned not to judge a book by, but it had maps and a compass and passports and…y’know: cool shit.
That book helped launch me into a lifetime of…what? Spy thrillers? International intrigue books? Goodreads doesn’t even have a category for it.
I read every non-fiction book I could find on every spy. By age 12 I was a walking encyclopedia on Mata Hari. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
Then I moved on to all the John le Carré’s and the Robert Ludlums and the Tom Clancys. I read them all. I read Eric Lustbader before he became Van Lustbader. I read enough Ken Follet and Graham Greene and Frederick Forsyth to land me on the FBI’s ‘list of suspicious children’. I’m assuming they have that.
So it isn’t the biggest leap of faith to imagine me giddy with anticipation for any new offering in the genre - no matter the medium.
The Americans was a near-obsession for me during its run. I have also reviewed Homeland several times on Pajiba, not only when it was great in the beginning, but also when it was Alpo in the middle and then surprisingly rebounded in season seven. As a reviewer, I often find myself caught between two parts of my brain. On one side, the more progressive, which notices things like the portrayal of Americans as do-gooders in arenas where we all know that’s not always the case, or the tiresome trope of white savior or the subtle misogyny of certain depictions of women in militarized workplaces as lesser than. On the other side is that child mind part of my brain. The part that fell in love with stories of intrigue and suspense and a spy as a bird on a wire, hiding in plain sight with nowhere to run to and everywhere to fly and perhaps fall.
I could never be a spy. Never.
But I’m always amazed by those who can. People who can seemingly hold it together while they play poker with their lives. It’s staggering.
It was with that excitement that Lady C and I approached Jack Ryan season one on Amazon. As I said, I’d read all Clancy’s books about Ryan and seen all the movies, so I was fired up. Many people, including writers here at Pajiba that I know and love, were either underwhelmed by the first season or outright offended.
I liked it.
It’s simple to look at the show and see the themes I referenced above. American interventionism depicted as heroic rather than intrusive. A white savior who is framed as a good boy but plays the game like a bad boy. The bizarre talent of a white male lead having a knack for stumbling upon sexually available women. Seen in one light, it was easy to deconstruct and tear apart.
But I largely saw it differently. Like any show where you deal with opponents from different backgrounds, it’s dangerous to paint one side as culturally superior. In shows like these, you often see the cookie-cutter Muslim bad guy — bad because he’s Muslim, mind you — facing off against a hero-so-white.
I didn’t come away from Jack Ryan season one feeling that way, though I can see how others might have. If you’ve read any of my work before you’ll know that I really try to see a show for the choices. In season one, once John Krasinski had been chosen to play Ryan, (which was a bit of a head-scratcher out of the gate), I liked many of the character choices they gave him. I liked that they stayed true to Ryan’s book-role as an analyst. I like that what he does, with more tenacity than anyone else, is follow the money. I like that he has a military background and that he has scars from it, both physical and emotional.
Krasinski’s Ryan is not Alec Baldwin or Harrison Ford. And once things got rolling, I found I was really OK with that. The relationship with Wendell Pierce’s Jim Greer is what made the show tick.
Greer’s situational in-theater experience combined with Ryan’s dogged refusal to let go of a lead made for a promising team. But like all good stories, the bad guy was better. I thought Ali Suliman’s character, also called ‘Suleiman’ was well-drawn, nuanced, and superbly acted. Even better was his relationship with his brother. Ibrahim, played brilliantly by Amir El-Masry, was the face of “terrorism” that we rarely get to see. He was highly skilled, every bit the super warrior of his western counterparts, but also just a great brother. Caring, funny, gentle of spirit. He had a million-dollar smile but when the shit was on: look out.
By spending storytime on the human side of these characters, and especially the very understandable reactions they had to the events that put them on their militant trajectory — which were very clearly influenced by American ‘meddling’ — Jack Ryan season one featured a plot that felt considered. Season one took us on a trip into the past, showing how Suleiman, an ordinary man, was changed and radicalized, and it informed the character, the decisions he made, and the depth of his commitment to his cause. It made sense and I enjoyed it.
That’s the spirit I brought to season two.
Sadly, though, the sophomore season didn’t land for me in the same way.
The first four episodes of the eight-episode season were largely setup. This time we’re in South America. Venezuela, to be exact. If you know anything about what’s actually been happening in Venezuela for nigh on twenty years or so, it’s a calamity. Hyperinflation, skyrocketing unemployment, food shortages, blacklisting, brain drain, and one of the worst violent crime rates in the world. And corruption, did I mention that? All-encompassing, institutionalized corruption.
But Jack Ryan is on the case! Our players are more or less the same. No Abbie Cornish love interest (and future Anne Archer wife) in this one. But Jim Greer is back, this time with a bit of a crack in the ol’ ticker. Jim Greer’s heart is New! and Improved! With only 81% less functionality! It basically means that Ol’ Jim can’t jog from the Starbucks on one side of the street to the Pete’s directly across from it. That presents a challenge.
Jack passed on an offer to work in Moscow and chose instead to sign on to a Senator’s staff. Like season one, he’s following bad guy money like flies on a donkey and hot damn, wouldn’t you know it? He’s on to something. Back also is John Hoogenakker’s ‘Matice,’ a shadowy figure who, like Al-Masry’s Ibrahim, stole every scene he was in in season one. You might know Hoogenakker from playing the King on Bud Light commercials. But he’s got chops, baby.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the plot, lest you deign to experience it yourself, but basically the Americans descend on Venezuela to talk to the Maduro-like fictional President, Nicolás Reyes, played by Spanish actor Jordi Mollà, and the shit hits the proverbial fan. Jack Ryan asks politely for the bad guys to confess their bad guy deeds and they refuse! That means Jack Ryan mad!
The very first night in Caracas, Jack gets thrown fuck me eyes by a traveling businesswoman named Harriet Baumann who — shockingly — turns out not to be a businesswoman at all but a member of German intelligence. Holy macaroni! This plot twist doesn’t reveal itself to Ryan until he’s been in flagrante delicto with ‘Harry’ and turned his morning breath politely away from her bedhead. I mean, I’m certain they cover this at spy school. If you’re traveling as part of an official American delegation, there’s a non-zero chance that the supermodel in the hotel lobby offering you the Sardinian bone dance out of the gate miiiiiiight be a foreign agent.
For some terrible reason, I’m now hearing that in Jeff Foxworthy’s voice. If you’re a ‘Murican diplomat abroad, and a lady throws her britches at your face in the lobby of a Howard Johnson’s? You might be a target.
Then again, when you have the torso of John Krasinski, maybe the britch-throwing is an everyday thing. I don’t know.
Anyway, said bone dancer is played by Noomi Rapace, an actress that I was only tangentially aware of before this show, mostly because of her memorable name.
Harry and Jack then shift to colleague mode, and engage in a different dance entirely: one where Harry lies about everything and Jack says “seriously, the truth this time.”
Then, like gravy left out in the sun, the plot really thickens. We get European assassins and South African mercs. We get Benito Martinez playing a senator (though he will always and forever be David Aceveda to me). We get short-haired Jaqen H’ghar actor Tom Wlaschiha. We get Michael Kelly as station chief Mike November. We get the dictator’s second fiddle. We get satellites in the South China Sea and black ops up the Orinoco. We get Floridian McYachts and rare earth minerals and flash lidar. We get missing hubbys and found daughters and silenced weapons.
If it all seems like spy show word salad that because it’s what it ultimately is. The Ryan/Harry relationship is confounding. I had more chemistry with the bag of Quaker oats I tore open this morning than Jack n’ Harry, which is too bad because that whole last sentence could well have been a John Cougar Mellencamp lyric. We never know who/what/or why Rapace’s character is, and that ultimately feels like it affects her performance.
While Ryan’s motivations are crystal clear, and Krasinski is rock solid throughout, it’s tough to see why the hell anyone else is doing what they’re doing. At times in the first four episodes, you just accept a strange edit or a bizarre plot twist because you have faith that the plot will all be ironed out in the end.
But that faith is misplaced, because the only thing episodes 5-8 have in common with Venezuela is that they’re both a complete shitshow. Moments that attempt profundity feel scandalously naive and sophomoric. At one point, ostensibly to manufacture depth, one of our characters prays in Arabic and we get an extreme top-lit closeup of his hands reaching upward to the heavens, bound in handcuffs. We hold on that image long enough for me to snort laugh and Lady C to say “what the hell?” Aaaaand then the episode ends. Yeesh.
And that’s kind of how the whole thing goes. Many plot points are ridiculous and/or comical. On more than one occasion, Lady C or I would just ask “Why?” to the screen or “how did she find them?” or “how does he know where that is?” You can’t just gloss over things like this in a thriller. Every i must be dotted, every t crossed, or the suspension of disbelief Jengas all around you.
Moments of ‘tension’ were predictable and plodding. Character motivations are inky, but not in the cool film noir way, in the “she would never do that” kind of way. One scene where a refugee laments about his fate and the fate of others was so poorly written and shot and edited that I groaned and offered my condolences to the actor aloud. The ‘political’ intrigue, such as it was, might as well have been written in crayon. It was consistently not believable, mired in happenstance, and felt like it was concocted by someone who spent the better part of an afternoon cracking the plot. The bad guy that Jack Ryan insisted from page one was the bad guy turned out to be the bad guy.
Oh, and Chidi Anagonye is in this show. That’s not a joke. William Jackson Harper plays a tech specialist but his mannerisms and speech patterns and everything else are nearly indistinguishable from Chidi. Maybe a bit less anxiety, but it’s a bizarre casting choice because he’s so recognizable and only in two scenes for the eight-episode run.
Krasinski, in the middle of it, is still likable and believable and gives his all, though Jack’s choice to play by his own rules at all times feels more grating than in season one. Back then, as a lower-grade analyst, no one would believe him so he had to take matters into his own hands. After that, in the wake of single-handedly bringing down the world’s biggest terrorist, he has a little street cred. Yet he constantly goes off book on missions when a simple “guys, I have a gut feeling about that room there, watch my six” would suffice.
Wendell Pierce is always great. Hoogenakker is again a scene-stealer. A quick word of praise for Eduar Salas who played Venezuelan security chief Mateo Batsos. He is handsome. And a nod to TV veteran Susan Misner, who played American ambassador to Venezuela Lisa Calabrese. Though her role wasn’t large or particularly impactful, her acting was notable and the most grounded and believable on the show. Take notice, aspiring thespians. No small roles.
For people like me, who adore this genre, it’s a terrible miss. More and more, spy stories are forced to incorporate the advent of tech into the storytelling. Because of that, much of the story is funneled away from the most interesting part of the process: human interaction. If you’re gonna sex up an enemy spy, just know you’re doing it, please. And have an agenda. It’s these little beats that tie the genre to actual stakes and make it more suspenseful and enjoyable.
In the end, that which we love may very well kill us. I don’t relish writing disheartening reviews of things because so much effort goes into every bit of a project like this. The stunt coordinators and caterers and gaffers and riggers and any number of a thousand unseen people working their asses off. You can’t take away the effort it requires to bring about a show on this scale that features so many locations and company moves. One wishes that more attention was paid to the script itself, ironing out character motivations, not building in complexity for complexity’s sake, and growing Jack Ryan from a gritty upstart to more of a seasoned pro. Without those elements, and a throughline that we can both discern and ultimately identify with, the grandeur and intrigue of the genre feels predictably hollow.
Header Image Source: Amazon Prime Video