A Hotter Cold War

Jack Ryan: Season 3

The Ryanverse is a series of books, shows, and films that is seemingly designed to appeal to the dads in America. The various products are, generally, "rah rah, America" products cranked out to challenge absolutely no one on the greatness of the U.S., all while delivering dad-powered levels of action. Guys running around with guns, shooting people, driving, running, and doing just about everything a middle American dad could do (or at least thinks they could do) without pulling any death defying stunts that would really pull them out of their illusion (and delusion). It's middle America fare, through and through.

Would your standard 30-something male be able to speak multiple languages, study a bunch of intel and understand what was going on, and then cogently remember all of it, under pressure, when called upon? Oh, probably not, but they're better able to pretend they could than, say, being able to pull off anything that John WickStarted as a tale of redemption and then revenge (in that order), the John Wick series has grown to be a adynamic, reliable action series that doesn't skimp on the hard hits and gun-toting thrills, elevating Keanu Reeves as one of the greatest action stars ever. could accomplish. One of them is reasonable, in the "if I just played enough Brain Age I could be like Jack Ryan" way, and the other is not. John Wick is cooler than you, Jack Ryan is nebbish and can hold a gun. You can see the appeal, especially if you are also already inclined towards American exceptionalism as your world view.

The biggest issue with Jack Ryan, both in this third season of the series and the show in general, is that it doesn't challenge it's audience at all. The hero, once again played by a returning John Krasinski as the titular Dr. Jack Ryan, is always right. He always knows better than everyone else. He's always able to see the big picture, to collate all the facts, to come to the right decision. He's always the most trustworthy voice in the room (even when everyone disagrees with him). He is, in short, the perfect human being when it comes to CIA work, and without him, clearly, the entire country would fall apart. And if Jack Ryan is out there, fighting the good fight in the name of America, always being right and saving every other country, then clearly we should trust all the CIA operatives out there.

I had this thought more than once watching this third season because the show never once questions this view at all. Yes, there are people in the U.S. Government of this show that disagree with Ryan's conclusions. They all end up with egg on their face. They are people that chase him, but Ryan just finds other allies and always outsmarts everyone else. Never, not once, does anyone ever say to Jack Ryan, "sure, this is a bad situation, but would we be in this mess without 150 years of American Imperialism?" No, because Jack Ryan is always right which means, deep down, America is always right. It's perfect, patriotic, middle American chow, if that's all you want. That's how it was designed in the books, and in the movies, and that's who it plays out here, in the Amazon PrimeWhile Netflix might be the largest streaming seervice right now, other major contenders have come into the game. One of the biggest, and best funded, is Amazon Prime, the streaming-service add-on packing with free delivery and all kinds of other perks Amazon gives its members. And, with the backing of its corporate parent, this streaming service very well could become the market leader. extension of the brand.

I will concede that it can, at times, be quite watchable. As much as I have to question the world view of the series, and there are some major failings with the show in that department, Krasinski is an amiable lead (even when the show forces him to put on his dour, serious face) and there are enough fun moments in the show, both good action and good one-liners, to keep the series entertaining. Amazon has proven it can make a dour and utterly unwatchable version of this material (it's called Without Remorse and, seriously, don't watch it), so it's nice that the studio can at least crank out a version that manages a certain level of popcorn viewing entertainment. But that doesn't make it good; it's just watchable.

The issue stems from the fact that Jack Ryan is never wrong. There are moments where he doesn't see all the pieces in motion but once he understand the bigger picture he's able to adapt and change and continue being right. Still, nothing he does ever leads to true disaster, not long term. There's never a point where he truly has to face consequences for a poor decision. He ends up on the run from the authorities due to an operation gone wrong this time and still manages to be in the right the whole time. Talk about twisting your morality into a pretzel to make your lead the untarnished hero. Even as he's on the run, people are going, "that's Jack, always one step ahead," with a smile and a laugh. The show can never challenge Jack or his perspective.

This season focuses on a plot by Russian separatists (call them treasonists anarchists or whatever else you feel). Decades back Russia had a plan in place for some kind of super weapon but then level-headed people within the Soviet government came to their senses and decided, "hey, this is a terrible idea." So they killed the program, and everyone attached, and moved on. But the separatists (who view themselves as true patriots to the Soviet cause) continue working behind the scenes, ready to start the plan all over again. And the only one that sees it coming, and can stop it somehow, is Jack Ryan. So he goes trekking off around Europe, including into the Russia, to prove that the only one that can save the world is an American CIA agent. Because, sure, that's what would happen.

There are any number of flaws with this plot. The first is that this is very much a Cold War story for a post-Cold War era. Sure, we're seeing Putin cause havoc in Ukraine right now, but that isn't exactly well for him, and you have to bet if there was some secret cabal backing him to plunge the whole world into ruin so the Soviets could rise again, they'd be upset at the progress he's made in a year. Suffice it to say this season of television came out a little too late to make Russia feel like that kind of threat

Beyond that, it's only separatists and not the Russian government (the properly elected one) that is leading this anti-American charge. And believe it to be anti-American. Their big plan is to provoke America into war (again, Cold War thinking). But because the show can't really take sides on global politics (it has to pretend everyone thing is nice and good and only terrorists are bad guys so the heroes can blow them away), we then get awkward scenes of the Russian president thanking Jack Ryan for invading Moscow and forcing his help upon the Russian government. Seriously, that is not how American-Russian relations would play in a fictional world, let alone our current, real one.

Make no mistake, actual relations in Eastern Europe are strained, and a season of television that could tackle that geopolitical quagmire with deftness and intrigue would be worth watching. Jack Ryan is not that kind of show. Over three seasons it's proven that it really doesn't have a deft hand in its entire writer's room. It's a blunt instrument, designed to bash its pro-American story over the heads of people primed for it Anything like actual intrigue, anything that wold take our pure white boy scout and get even a little dirt on him, has to be sanitized away. I'd love to see a series that could actually present the current American and Russian situation in an interesting light, looping in NATO and other countries and really making for a true, on the brink of war level of espionage. Jack Ryan is now that show.

Season three is watchable in the same way a decent filmed action movie can be entertaining to watch. It's popcorn, through and through, designed to make you feel happy without considering how awful it is. But the show is stupid. Jack Ryan is a dumb show that can't commit to being more than the simplest of entertainment forms. It's fine in the moment, and you aren't dumb for watching it, but this is not a show that will do anything other than make those inclined go, "yay, America!" while the rest of us search for something more interesting to watch.