Jennifer Clasen

What’s the appeal of Jack Ryan, the Tom Clancy character/brand? “Other than a predilection for glaring at submarines,” Ned Lannamann wrote last year, “does Jack Ryan even have a personality?”

He doesn’t, really, but what Ryan does have is an uncanny, impressively malleable ability to serve as an avatar to let readers and audiences—who are, yes, okay, generally middle-aged dudes—pretend they’re cool/handsome spies, and, depending on the story, cool/handsome spies who are either vaguely right wing or exceedingly right wing. For as much as Clancy’s plots rely on governmental secrecy, conspiracies, and corrupt higher-ups—no matter their nationality—their end result is generally one in which America’s might makes right, and one where America’s enemies, whoever they are at the time, inevitably have governments that are even more secretive, conspiratorial, and corrupt than ours. Thankfully, those horrific foes are always either obliterated or improved after being out-espionaged and out-shot by Ryan & Co.

But like a lot of retrograde action heroes who maintain an appeal that crosses ideology—James Bond, Jack Reacher, John Wick, Captain America—Ryan endures. And, like those other dudes, the quality of the stories varies to a pretty remarkable degree. In terms of Amazon’s relatively new Jack Ryan series, the quality even varies between seasons.

The first season of Amazon’s Jack Ryan—with John Krasinski taking over the role from Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine—was significantly better than it needed to be. Jack Ryan movies at their best (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games) have been solid espionage thrillers, and even the crummier entries (Clear and Present Danger, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and that insane one with Affleck where a nuke vaporizes Baltimore) have at least a few more smarts than the average action flick. Thankfully, that first season of Jack Ryan leaned hard into Ryan’s skills for sleuthing and dot-connecting, with Ryan, at least to start with, using his brains more than his guns to fight a terror threat that—for a Tom Clancy-branded tale, anyway—came with a welcome amount of nuance.

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Jack Ryan’s second season, however, loses much of that that appeal—Krasinski’s still good, as is the great Wendell Pierce as Ryan’s cranky mentor, but the grounding influence of Dr. Cathy Mueller, adeptly played last season by Abbie Cornish, is sorely missed, and the plot falls back on boilerplate airport paperback stuff: Ryan has to fight Evil Assassin (Tom Wlaschiha), wrestle with Femme Fatale (Noomi Rapace), and exact revenge on Brutal South American Dictator (Jordi Mollà). It’s enjoyable but boiled-down; the usual dose of Clancy’s hoo-rah American exceptionalism goes down a lot less easy when it feels unearned.

The second season of Jack Ryan streams Friday, November 1 on Amazon Prime Video.