Friday, August 31, 2018

REVIEW: Amazon's 'Jack Ryan' is a Slick and Solid Espionage Thriller in First Season

Amazon's Jack Ryan debuted its entire 8-episode first season on Friday, August 31. This post will feature brief reviews of each episode of the season.

The drama stars John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, Abbie Cornish, Ali Suliman and Dina Shihabi.

101. "Pilot"
Directed by Morten Tyldum with story by Carlton Cuse & Graham Roland and teleplay by Graham Roland

It can definitely be daunting to look at this premiere's hourlong running time. And yet, the show mostly makes good use of that time. It has a lot that it needs to set up. It needs to establish the dynamic between Jack Ryan and his new boss, Jim Greer. It has to prove that Jack Ryan is a very capable analyst who understands something that no one else in his office is willing to believe. It has to introduce the idea of Jack being a former Marine suffering from PTSD after his entire unit was wiped out. Plus, it has to get Jack and Jim all the way to Yemen so that they can interrogate two individuals the soldiers picked up because of the bank account that Jack was so adamant about freezing. And yes, it's fascinating to see the various operating procedures of the show. It's just as important for Jack to be making maneuvers around the office as it is for him to be on the battlefield during this epic action sequence. It shows that he is crafty. Of course, the show is also highlighting the fish-out-of-water aspect of this story. Sure, Yemen is an environment Jack is comfortable being in due to his previous service. He is able to fight and prevail when required. But it's also terrifying to him because of his past trauma. He isn't comfortable in this specific situation which allows the show to hit a bunch of required beats while still being able to advance its story forward. Jack Ryan can be both an everyday office worker and an action hero with it somehow making sense. That's the seamlessness of this premiere. John Krasinski sells these transitions even though it's also clear that he isn't having as much fun as Wendell Pierce is. Moreover, it's clear that Amazon spared no expense with the effects required for that action sequence. That's stunning and intense in ways that are viscerally and visually exciting. It sets a high bar for the remainder of the series. But it also comes with the twist that Jack was the one interrogating the true terrorist mastermind. And yes, the show gets knocked down a couple of pegs by telling a story about Islamic terrorists in its first season. The story clearly wants to contextualize and understand the motivations for its antagonists. It's putting in the effort when Jim and his superiors simply don't care at all. It should be fascinating to see if the show succeeds in telling a geopolitical story about how these conflicts are brought on because of past actions and the inhumanity involved. B

102. "French Connection"
Written by Carlton Cuse & Graham Roland and directed by Daniel Sackheim

A pattern is already starting to emerge here. It's going to be really unfortunate and lame if the show only truly comes alive during these elaborate action sequences at the very end of each episode. Even though this episode is shorter than the premiere, it drags much more often. It really doesn't come together in an exciting way until the very end. Sure, it's clear that the show is producing specific and defined episodes. It's not a slog that views itself as an eight-hour movie. But it's also a little jarring to be right back behind a desk with Jack Ryan after the explosive events in Yemen. Jack and Jim are no longer on the ground there. Instead, they are back in D.C. explaining to a bunch of suits the urgency of Suleiman as a new target. And the show is already getting very repetitive in the comparisons to Osama bin Laden. It's just an easy way to get the threat level up for the audience. It's so impersonal and lackluster. And then, the show is also trying to tell an intimate story with Suleiman as he disagrees with his wife about the tactics he is willing to use in order to get what he wants. He is basically telling her that she has to trust him no matter what because he is her husband. That blind trust can be so destructive. There is already the sense that Hanin doesn't approve of what her husband is doing and how radicalized he has become. And yet, this can't have been a sudden transition if it all stems back to his village being destroyed in the 1980s. Nor does it justify the amount of time spent on the children and the creepy connotations of the despicable men now in their lives. Yes, it could be the show telling a compelling story about gender dynamics in various cultures around the world. But it mostly feels sensationalized instead of something the audience should feel empathy about. That too can be lame. And yet, the show still ignites a spark when Jack and Jim are butting heads right before they realize just how perfect a team they are. Sure, they are still being pitted against each other by both themselves and their superiors. But they both have skills that are invaluable in the field. Sure, it does no good except showcasing the Paris location work and the stunt team. But that's still pretty beautiful and exciting as well. B-

103. "Black 22"
Written by Graham Roland & Carlton Cuse and directed by Patricia Riggen

Suleiman is really starting to become a one-note antagonist for the season. The series started by establishing a reason to be sympathetic to Suleiman because of the tragedy that happened to him as a child. It showcased the bond between him and his brother, Ali. But now, Suleiman is just so cavalier in telling Ali that he has to kill the man who raised him in Paris and now provides him with medical assistance. That's just blandly despicable. Meanwhile, he's just abusive to his family at home as well. That story at least highlights the cultural differences around the world when it comes to gender. As Suleiman is telling the story of how he met Hanin, the men in the room see it as so romantic that he wanted to marry her instead of rape her while the women are horrified because Hanin was treated as a piece of property that could be bartered. As such, it's much easier to feel empathy for Hanin as she takes her children on the run with her in the hopes to flee to a better world. That is clearly going to be a huge complication later on in the season as Suleiman tries to put his grand plan into motion. And yet, how much time is going to be spent on Hanin and her daughters just wandering the countryside struggling to survive? They are important characters but they aren't all that compelling just yet. Meanwhile, a new set of characters are introduced here at a Nevada air force base where drones are being operated. The story spends all of its time with Victor. It highlights how he feels guilty about what he does for his country. And yet, he's still positioned as the hero who nevertheless defies orders in order to save a woman from being raped. That too feels like a rewarding moment. But again, all of these details are distracting to the true spark of the series which is Jack and Jim. They are at least still on the ground in France picking up the aftermath of the bombing. They are tracking down Ali and finding numerous leads. As such, it presents an opportunity to potentially track him back to the whole operation. That's very exciting. But right now, it's mostly a story about the debate of how does Jack Ryan see himself in this job. He believes he can make a good and noble difference for an agency that does despicable things. However, he's encouraged by Jim to do despicable things in the heat of the moment in order to continue to prove his worth. B-

104. "The Wolf"
Written by Carlton Cuse & Graham Roland and directed by Daniel Sackheim

The season so far has highlighted the importance of the choices the people in government make in regards to national security. The options presented to the characters and the fallout of their choices have moved the story forward. Jack and Jim disagreed about the bank account in the premiere. Matice had to decide whether to grab the two potential targets. Victor made the choice of whether to launch a drone strike or let Hanin be raped. And now, the French intelligence officers have to be okay with just following Ali in the hopes that he leads to the entire terrorist network. That's what makes it so unexpected but delightful when a confrontation happens because vehicles run out of gas. That's never really a concern when it comes to spy thrillers in film and television. And yet, Ali runs out of gas and has to steal another vehicle while Jack just conveniently happens to roll into that station as well. Sure, it leads to a huge and lethal confrontation. But it also puts Jack front and center with the action. He is the one who has to make the split second decision of whether to kill Ali or keep him alive to lead them to the larger operation. He desperately wants to know the target of the upcoming attack. And yet, answers still elude him. Sure, this could seem like plot stalling to ensure that Jack doesn't make too much progress too quickly. And yet, it's also a vital moment for Jack's character arc. He's in the field having to make this decision when he was content with a future behind a desk. He thought his field days were over. He's still dealing with the trauma of previous time spent in combat. And now, Jim is offering him advice about not taking this tragedy home with him. So, that allows him to flourish more of his dynamic with Cathy. Now, I haven't really talked about that coupling so far because it has just been a tangential part of the season. She is only defined as being the sexual object of Jack's fascination. It's hard for the audience to see it as genuine or charming because he is lying to her about the work that he does. She doesn't think it's suspicious at all after seeing the new wounds on his body. She's just interested in dating someone different from her usual type. She's bound to be more involved in the overall story at some point. But the story between them feels fairly more conventional than the rest of the episode which manages to step up in a big way for the show as it fleshes out the way it tells its stories. B+

105. "End of Honor"
Directed by Patricia Riggen with story by Stephen Kronish and teleplay by Stephen Kronish & Daria Polatin

Suleiman has now stepped onto the global stage. He has claimed responsibility for the attack in Paris. He is proving himself to be the next great threat that the Western countries will have to face. All that Jack warned about at the start of the series is coming to fruition. He and Jim were unable to stop Suleiman before he was able to carry out his grand plan. The gas attack may not be all that he was planning either. Jack figures out just how well-crafted the plan was and that Suleiman's organization will continue to operate with precision. They are a very deadly threat. As such, there is importance in trying to lure Suleiman into a trap by posing as Ali. It's such a tense moment at the conclusion of the episode that doesn't rely on explosions in order to lure the audience in. Instead, it's precarious as the team scrambles to answer the various questions Suleiman asks to know if it's really his brother on the other end of the conversation. And then, it's clear immediately how Jack is going to slip up simply because he doesn't know the inside joke that Ali has with his brother. Then, it's a moment of strength. These two forces are coming after each other. Suleiman wants to feel like he belongs in the world. As such, he is willing to destroy all of Western culture that has taken so much away from him. The show probably didn't need to incorporate flashbacks in order to get that point across. But now, it's clear how he became so focused on this mission and brought his family into the cause as well. Meanwhile, Jack is armed with the possible information that Hanin has left and is currently seeking a visa at a Turkey refugee camp. Jack gets confirmation of that the moment that Suleiman has an extreme reaction. That means so much value is immediately placed on who can get to Hanin and her daughters first. Suleiman already has trackers in the area. Jack and Jim are just getting on a plane now. But Hanin is already making her escape. Her destination and fate will be determined in the next episode. Right now, there is the power in the ambiguity as it becomes clear that she will be the key to unlocking everything that Suleiman has planned. Elsewhere, the whole Victor storyline is incredibly removed from everything else. Plus, there's the tease that Victor will be taking leave for the next two weeks. That could take him out of the picture entirely. So, some big twist seems inevitable in this corner of the story as well. B

106. "Sources and Methods"
Directed by Carlton Cuse with story by Patrick Aison and teleplay by Patrick Aison & Annie Jacobsen

This season has highlighted the idea that people born in different areas of the world have different opportunities afforded to them. Suleiman wants death to all of western civilization because of the rampant islamophobia throughout the entire globe. He just wants to believe that he belongs. He's just doing so through a very violent agenda. Meanwhile, it's so meaningful to see two different cultures reaching out and being able to provide comfort and understanding to one another. Jack may not be the hero that Hanin wants him to be. She wants him to promise that her son will be returned to her. She fears that America will just launch a drone strike on the compound she identifies in order to kill everyone in one fell swoop. That would make everything easy on them without having to figure out what Suleiman's master plan is. She doesn't know that. And yet, Jack still is able to comfort her with his promise. He may not be able to succeed but he's willing to try. He still wants to believe in a government that will do the right thing and not compromise their values in order to get results. He hasn't become jaded about his profession like Jim has. But even that allows Jim to open up about his past and the brutality he was willing to exhibit just in order to protect himself. He could easily be seen as the villain of the story. But he struggles with the thoughts and uncertainties of what he could have done differently. He took out a high level asset because he simply aimed too high. That's why he pissed off so many people in his own government and got this demotion. He's jaded about that but learning to trust Jack as well. Plus, it's clear that Jim is still trying to do the right thing. He agrees to only take Hanin while the girls are sent back to their father. But he has no problem killing the man who has been tracking them down as soon as an opportunity presents itself. He is keeping this family together because he understands the value that it has. Elsewhere, it's so strange to see Victor suddenly in Syria. It's a trip he can conveniently make because of his leave and sudden riches. He can make it all the way to the family of the man he killed by mistake. He can extend his grief. That's all he can do in this position as well. There is a significant language barrier. And yet, it's also a moving and emotional experience for all involved because there is the understanding that this massive loss is hitting all of them. There is grief and guilt. That is appreciated while also highlighting the simplicity of just reaching out and trying to empathize with the people of the world. A-

107. "The Boy"
Written by Nazrin Choudhury & Nolan Dunbar and directed by Patricia Riggen

At times, it felt like the only narrative justification for the hostages being held at Suleiman's compound was to ensure that a drone strike wasn't the tactic used to eliminate the threat. It seems like the reasonable thing to do after getting the confirmation that Suleiman is on the ground there. But the loss of American citizens is too high for the President - who makes his debut here and is played by notable character actor Michael Gaston. That could have been all there was with the hostages. And yet, there's the sneaking suspicion throughout this episode that there is more going on. In fact, Suleiman was hoping the compound would be discovered so that the hostages themselves could infect the highest levels of the American government with the weaponized Ebola. Of course, this hour also has to go through the procedural details of learning that this is Suleiman's grand plan that Cathy has discovered and Jack has to immediately take seriously. It puts some strain on their relationship. It would be absolutely understandable if she never wanted to see him again in a romantic context. But they make up by the end of the hour apparently stronger than ever before despite him lying about his identity. That's a little lame and lackluster. But the show is also setting up the groundwork for both of them to be very important during the finale. Jack and Jim discover what Suleiman has been playing while Cathy will have to find a way to combat this infectious disease. Plus, there's all of the uncertainty regarding the packages that have just arrived in Baltimore that could also prove quite damaging to the country. And Suleiman has yet to be found and captured. The raid on the compound may have been a bust in eliminating a terrorist. It was a victory for rescuing these hostages. The pills just indicate something much more sinister has been going on. And Suleiman's operation is not in shambles as the intelligence community would be led to believe after seeing that they fled the compound after getting tipped off that the Americans were coming. That explanation too seemingly comes out of nowhere with the children being able to communicate with one another now. The son should be more distrustful of his father because he lied about his mother dying and his sisters coming home. And yet, he still idolizes Suleiman to the point where he has become radicalized in this fight as well. That's an absolutely horrifying image when he picks up the gun and fires it. B+

108. "Inshallah"
Written by Carlton Cuse & Graham Roland and directed by Daniel Sackheim

Suleiman showed the world how he plans his attacks during the massacre at the church in Paris. As such, it's easy to assume that he will always be planning these multi-pronged attacks. He tricks people into believing one thing is the extent of the damage only to launch an even grander attack based on how people react to the first disaster. That means the weaponized Ebola is just a scare in order to fool everyone. He hasn't actually changed the virus to make it more deadly than it already is. It's just a ruse in order to get the President and other members of the government into the same hospital. From there, he can attack using a form of radiation that would be instantly lethal. That's the substance that was packed into the shipping container. That's where he is focusing all of his attention. Sure, he's incredibly foolish for coming to America with his son in order to see this plan to fruition. He doesn't need to be the man on the ground who presses the button. He could continue to orchestrate these master plans from elsewhere in the world in order to continue to disrupt western society. Instead, the narrative mostly needs him on the ground in America so that Jack can confront him during this attack. It's a moment that mirrors the beginning of the series as Jack isn't afraid to take down Suleiman for who he truly is. Moreover, he fires into an open crowd despite the innocent civilians who could end up as collateral damage. Now, the show is mostly asking the audience to be fine with that because nothing wrong happens. Suleiman dies. Jack is the hero. He's the one who figured all of this out and was able to save the President. That's a huge accomplishment. One that leads to him and Jim getting promotions for their handling of things. Jim is back to being a station chief. This time it's the high-profile position in Moscow. And Jack has been promoted to Jim's job. Sure, it comes with some office turnover. But it's the exact position Jack needs to be in if he is going to make a career at CIA headquarters. Of course, the most exciting moments of the season came when he was out in the field. Sure, it took until the finale for Jack to articulate the tragedy that occurred when he was a marine. He carries responsibility for what happened because he allowed a kid with a grenade onto a helicopter full of people. He shares this story with Cathy. That proves that the two of them are getting even closer as a couple. Moreover, Cathy doesn't just become a casualty to this conflict either. Sure, she doesn't have a whole lot of personal agency in this finale either. She mostly just pops up to validate men and be put in perilous situations. Meanwhile, Hanin is just the loving mother who welcomes her son home. As such, the story is a little bit of a letdown because it never really knew what to do with these supporting characters. And yet, the bond between Jack and Jim shines so brightly during their final interactions in the office with the tease that there are more adventures to come. B