Jack Ryan, the Series and the Character, Are Not One-Note Portraits
So, I went to visit my parents recently. It was a short visit, facilitated by a business trip to the Pacific Northwest, but since my clients were paying for it I took advantage of the holiday weekend and spent three days with my parents…my Catholic, politically conservative, ex-military parents.
Without much of a planned agenda or a houseful of nieces and nephews to keep us busy, at some point we naturally moved to the television. There, we set about locating a movie or show that none of us had seen, but all had at least a nominal interest in. After lobbing a few titles back and forth, we finally settled on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the new Amazon Prime series based on characters from Clancy’s novels, starring John Krasinski in the title role.
If I’m honest, had I not been sitting in my parents living room, outvoted, I probably would never have turned to Jack Ryan as my next binge. A series about CIA agents tracking radical Islamist terrorists isn’t really my standard oeuvre, and as I settled in to watch, I steeled myself for a barrage of explosions, ooh-rahs, toxic masculinity, and anti-Muslim stereotypes.
What I got, to my great surprise, was a much more nuanced portrait of the characters than I’d expected. Yes, Jack is a tall, white man who is something of a boy scout—a bit too good to be true in terms of moral compass, courage, detective work, and abdominal muscles. His primary antagonist, Sheikh Suleiman (Ali Suliman), is a Syrian terrorist who hates the West and willingly kills hundreds of innocent people to achieve political ends. That’s pretty much what I expected, and it’s all there.
And yet, there also was more. One of the most compelling characters in the series is Hanin Abdullah Suleiman (Dina Shihabi), who flees in the night with her two daughters from the Sheikh, her abusive husband—and only then learns the extent of his evil. As a woman, she clearly possesses less power than her husband—but as a character in the narrative, she’s just as compelling, if not more so. She doesn’t have strong political leanings; rather, is motivated primarily by maternal love and a fierce desire to protect her children.
Hanin’s story reflects the reality of women’s disempowerment, living in a particular part of the world, with a particular kind of man who practices a very particular kind of Islam. At the same time, it also creates a compelling character study; she knows that her life has been marked by injustice and that her children—particularly her two daughters—will be similarly unsafe if she doesn’t make a heroic effort to escape.
And then there is Sheikh Suleiman himself. Yes, he’s a mass murderer. He’s also a charismatic one, who smiles easily and treats his followers with respect and care. Additionally, the show takes great pains to let you know that he wasn’t born a monstrous sociopath. The opening moments of the very first episode depict a pair of Lebanese boys diligently doing their chores, who notice a formation of fighter jets above them. Moments later, they are suddenly and violently the victims of a bombing, presumably at the hands of Americans. One of those boys grows up to be Sheikh Suleiman.
Later in the show, flashbacks depict a much younger Suleiman attempting to find work at a high-end bank in Paris. The interview is a disaster, and the white Frenchmen who condescend to him throughout are portrayed as despicable bigots. Of course, none of this excuses his actions as an adult, but the show does note that his anger at the West isn’t entirely unfounded—and might, in fact, be something that the West itself created.
And still, Muslims, all 1.8 billion of them, are roughly a quarter of the world’s population, and the show, being what it is, portrays a murderous religious fervor that is entirely foreign to most of those people. Luckily (or more accurately, by design), the show also features an American Muslim: Jack’s boss at the CIA, James Greer (Wendell Pierce). He’s not especially devout as the story begins, but there is a terrific scene between Greer and a blatantly Islamophobic French spy, wherein Greer quietly shuts down a bigoted rant simply by removing his prayer beads from his pocket.
If you’re into spy thrillers, Jack Ryan is a fun ride. As I’ve noted, it’s not my preferred genre, but I’m likely to finish Season 1, if only to spend a little more time mooning at John Krasinski’s handsome face. And secure in the knowledge that the creators of this show took great pains to avoid furthering blind hatred of “the other,” and opted instead for a subtler—and therefore richer and more rewarding—story. ▼
Eric C. Peterson is a diversity and inclusion educator living in Washington D.C. and co-host of a weekly podcast about pop culture.