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Jack Ryan, American Imperialist

The Amazon show is a plea to set democracy aside and let national security experts run the world.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Tom Clancy was the poet of modern American empire. Starting with The Hunt for Red October, published in 1984, at the height of Ronald Reagan’s bombastic nuclear threats against the already-waning Soviet Union, Clancy’s charismatic spy Jack Ryan has swashbuckled his way across the planet, uncovering plots and neutralizing threats to American hegemony. In dozens of novels, movies, and video games over the 35 years since, Clancy and his adapters have used Jack and his black-ops buddies to paint a portrait of benevolent American military supremacy and economic exploitation for an American audience desperate to see itself as a pack of Boy Scouts descending from its city on a hill to save an ungrateful world. The second season of Amazon’s Jack Ryan TV series, which arrived earlier this month, carries Clancy’s imperial imagination forward into our own multipolar age of resurgent nationalism, wars on terrorism, and global finance capitalism. Amazon, in short, is teaching its audience to think and see like a twenty-first-century empire.

The threats have changed since 1984, but Jack Ryan stays the same. He sits, as ever, at the center of a global web of information drawn into the U.S. intelligence community in Washington, D.C., analyzing the latest economic and political trends from a God’s-eye view in order to monitor the telltale twitches of danger at the peripheries of American power. And when things inevitably go sideways, Jack leaps into action—with, of course, a suitably self-deprecating imperial reluctance.

In the first season of Amazon’s Jack Ryan, Jack tracked a series of unusual financial transactions in the Middle East that eventually led him to unravel a plot by a Yemeni terrorist to launch a biological weapons attack in D.C. The story arc was basically a cover-band mashup of some of the greatest beats from twenty-first-century politics and fiction, from the Iraq War to the refugee crisis and Homeland to 24. Along the way, Amazon threw in a bizarre and incongruous subplot about drone strikes that vacillated between a searing critique of the video-game consoles at military bases in Nevada, where drone pilots kill terrorism suspects half a world away, and a painfully mawkish redemption arc, in which a drone pilot travels to Syria to donate money and apologize in person to the son of an innocent civilian he bombed. The United States, the show assures its viewers, uses covert operations informed by brilliant analysts like Jack Ryan to keep us all safe, and when the country makes a mistake, all we have to do is ask for forgiveness and donate to charity.


Now, in the second season of the show, Jack heads to South America to project American power. He’s following a well-trodden path, from U.S. interventions in the Haitian Revolution to the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary, the Spanish-American War, the Bay of Pigs, the Chilean coup, the invasion of Grenada, and Jack’s own fictional South American adventurism in Clear and Present Danger and its Harrison Ford–headlined film adaptation. Amazon’s latest version of Jack’s South American meddling channels contemporary anxieties with a stunning lack of subtlety: The bad guy is a kleptocratic pseudo-populist leader in Venezuela who is using multinational financial back channels to control rare earth resources that are critical to electronics manufacturing. Jack has to stop him from destabilizing the international economy. American military intervention and global supply chain logistics blend together as Jack Ryan struggles to impose order on an unruly world.

The show, it should be said, is not very good. But it is somehow clumsily entertaining. And that, too, tells us something important about twenty-first-century American empire. John Krasinski plays Jack Ryan with an earnest, unsexy American Everymanness that pales in comparison with Ford’s magnetic performances in the role, but Krasinski’s Jack is a reasonable enough facsimile of countless other American action heroes for the show to help fill up a bored half-hour before bed. The plot, similarly, stumbles every once in a while onto an interesting twist—largely through its own jumbled sense of cause and effect—but it is, in the main, eminently predictable. Like Chekhov’s gun, if Jack’s old friend gives him a Boy Scout pocketknife in the first episode, by God he will use it to save the world before the season is out. The whole thing is a shiny, expensive pastiche of globe-trotting spy thrillers and action scenes set in the jungle culled from a host of post-Vietnam American films trying to recover some national swagger. But the repetitive, easy banality of the story is precisely the point: It desensitizes us. It tells us that this is just what we do.

Ostensibly, Jack Ryan says that democracy matters. A key plotline throughout the second season is a looming presidential election in Venezuela and the question of whether a progressive reform candidate running on an anti-corruption platform can beat the oligarchic dictator in charge. But the show is missing a pair of salient questions about democracy: Where’s the democratic control in the U.S. over the use of force abroad, and why is it the CIA’s job to meddle in South America to ensure local populations make the “right” democratic decisions? Politics, the show implies, especially democracy, is best kept safely offstage. Instead, we should cede decisions about the distribution of resources to the technocratic control of national security experts and global finance gurus like Jack Ryan, with his economics Ph.D. Leave the commercial logistics and the global policing to the specialists, Amazon tells us. You just stream some mildly entertaining TV.

Logistics, of course, is Amazon’s own specialty. If the show teaches us to see the world like an empire, it also teaches us to see the world the way Amazon does. The second season centers on a secret cargo carried by a global shipping firm and an American black-ops team on a swift boat infiltrating the Orinoco River. The parallels to Amazon, a shipping giant named for the vastness of the Amazon River, are conspicuous. It doesn’t take a particularly paranoid reading to dig up the Freudian echoes between the TV show’s plot about U.S. hegemony in South America and its parent company’s dreams of global corporate empire.

The film critic Jerome Christensen has argued that a number of Hollywood films from the 1990s can be read as thinly veiled corporate allegories. You’ve Got Mail, Christensen slyly suggests, was a parable about the benefits of corporate mergers written as a love letter from Warner Bros. to AOL. The same thing is happening in Jack Ryan: Amazon is allegorically representing itself to the public as a bland, benevolent overlord. Out in the real world, the company is busy trying to monitor and control the planet with its tentacular algorithms, not unlike Jack Ryan watching from his perch at the CIA. Jack, in fact, would be the perfect Amazon employee. CIA agents euphemistically say they work for “the company.” Jack Ryan, produced and distributed by Amazon Studios, is the ultimate company man, and his eponymous TV show is Amazon’s plea to us all to set democracy aside and let it just run the world.