First Episode of ‘Jack Ryan’ Looks Like a Much-Needed Subversion of Its Source Material

San Diego Comic-Con 2018: Screening of Amazon series based on Tom Clancy novels ended showcase of the streamer’s upcoming shows in Ballroom 20

Jack Ryan John Krasinski

The first episode of Amazon’s Tom Clancy adaptation “Jack Ryan” saw its U.S. public debut Friday afternoon in Ballroom 20 at San Diego Comic-Con. And as it happens, the show works pretty well, not only as decent counter-programming for the convention, but if the episode is any guide, for the source material too.

Star John Krasinski turns out to be a very credible fit to play the lode-bearing Clancy-verse character. And co-star Wendell Pierce’s beleaguered, on-his-last-second-chance CIA official James Greer, is a good counterweight to Krasinski’s anxious yet mild-mannered approach to playing Jack Ryan.

On the other hand, given the show’s setting, legitimate concerns can surely be raised about the kind of roles actors of West Asian descent are offered, and how people from those cultures are portrayed. However, a last-minute reveal that felt askance of the worldview Tom Clancy expressed in his dozens of novels suggests the show has deeper things to say than just “fighting terror good, foreign terrorist people bad.”

The episode begins with a flashback to 1983 as an American child is juxtaposed to similar-aged children in Lebanon. By contrast to the American child’s happy life, the impoverished Lebanese children fall victim to a stray bomb dropped on their home during an American airstrike — presumably this during the aftermath of the Beirut Marine barracks bombing.

Skip ahead to present day where we meet adult Jack Ryan (Krasinski), a seemingly chill D.C. bro who rides his bike to work (which happens to be at the CIA.) Fans of Clancy’s novels will immediately recognize the usual premise beats: Ryan is a well-educated, thoughtful former Marine and former stockbroker who left Wall Street to join the CIA; he goes from desk jockey analyst to field agent after he figures out something nefarious is going down; and as it turns out he’s still kind of a badass, albeit a mild-mannered one.

The Amazon show updates Clancy’s Cold War setting to the war on terror, making the incident that gets Jack out into the field his realization that a series of shady transactions suggests the rise of a new global terrorism mastermind. After some butting of heads with his new boss Greer (Pierce), it turns out Jack is correct. In short order he’s dragged to a military base somewhere in western Asia and asked to help interrogate a recently-captured banker and his pretending-to-be-regular bodyguard.

In the middle of this comes an attack on the base by insurgents that is actually not what it seems — we won’t spoil it — and Jack comes face to face with the new Bin Laden who, clearly, is this season’s major antagonist.

You’ve seen this before, but what in our opinion keeps “Jack Ryan” from being just another “Homeland” or “24”-style hour of national security porn is a crucial moment at the end that seems to contradict the more reactionary elements of Clancy’s oeuvre. It’s revealed that the two children we saw at the beginning of the episode, who survived that airstrike but with terrible injuries, are the modern-day terrorist leader and his brother. In other words, the serious problem Jack is trying to stop is a direct result of previous U.S. foreign policy decision-making. A far cry from the rather Manichean patriotism of the source material.

There are some weaker points — there are a lot of jokes that feel like overdone bits better suited for broadcast procedurals or sitcoms, for example — but it’s a solid hour of geopolitical thrills,. with one hell of an excellent fight scene near the end, that might also have some ambition to be more. At minimum, we’ll be looking forward to see if the first season lives up to that promising twist.

The Amazon panel included “Jack Ryan” showrunner Carlton Cuse, “The Tick” creator Ben Edlund, “Homecoming” director Sam Esmail, “Good Omens” creator/writer/showrunner Neil Gaiman, “Lore” producer Gale Anne Hurd and Naren Shankar, showrunner of the recently saved-from-cancellation “The Expanse.”