In its first season, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan portrayed the CIA analyst as something of a mild-mannered superhero in waiting. This secret badass approach to what is arguably the late author’s most enduring character fulfilled more than one of the series’ primary objectives, giving the streamer a successful slice of pre-existing IP and a blockbuster-like television series with which it could better compete against the likes of Netflix and Hulu, and perhaps insulate itself from aggressive upstarts like Disney+ and Apple TV+. As such, it’s no surprise that Jack Ryan season 2 drops the same day as Apple’s streaming service.
It’s a bit of a surprise, then, that season 2 aims to portray John Krasinski’s Jack in less super-human terms, opting instead to deliver a more vulnerable — physically and emotionally — action star, one who has an actual personal stake in the season’s story. Rather than amping up the action and putting Jack in the thick of various firefights, chases, and hand-to-hand brawls, writers and co-creators Graham Roland and Carlton Cuse instead take a more grounded approach to the character. Much of that has to do with the season’s plot, one that revolves around a clandestine attempt to arm Venezuela with nuclear weapons, a rogue German assassin named Max Schenkel, played by Game of Thrones’ Tom Wlaschiha, and the mysterious and alluring German intelligence agent, Harriet “Harry” Bauman played by Noomi Rapace.
The more personal angle is a welcome change of pace from the series’ initial effort, one that was often more interesting and compelling when it wasn’t blowing stuff up. That’s not to say season 2 is devoid of action; it’s not. In fact the series is arguably even more action-packed than before. The difference, however, is that the action feels more significant and carries greater consequences for the characters and for the story as a whole. That’s particularly true when Wlaschiha’s assassin sets his sights on Jack and the U.S. envoy that’s traveled to Venezuela to seek a diplomatic solution to questions of a potential Russian arms shipment being delivered to a country that’s on the verge of becoming a failed state.
It’s no surprise that the attempt at diplomacy doesn’t work, but it’s at least a sign that perhaps Roland and Cuse were aware some of the criticisms of season 1, one where such a gung-ho depiction of hawkish foreign policy felt like an unnecessary relaunch of tired ‘80s action movie contrivances. And when diplomacy doesn’t work, it does so by literally blowing up in the heroes’ faces, nearly recreating the convoy vs. RPG scene from Harrison Ford’s Clear and Present Danger. That results in the death of someone close to Jack, and puts the Venezuelan president on blast, as he earlier refused to cooperate with the U.S. inquiry into the suspected arms shipment.
The new season benefits greatly from the previous season’s efforts to establish (for the fifth time) who Jack Ryan is and what he’s all about. This results in a hasty season opener that trims much of the usual expositional fat by moving its title character into the thick of it by almost the 30-minute mark. As such, there’s little of Jack’s (arguably already non-existent) home life on display — meaning no Abbie Cornish as Dr. Cathy Mueller — which allows the series a chance to not only get the plot moving much more quickly, but also to focus its attention and storytelling efforts on a more streamlined and less contrived premise.
It also affords the series a chance to portray Jack as more, well, human, inasmuch as his actions are determined by his emotions and personal desires, to a far greater degree than in season 1, where he felt much less like an actual human character and more like the militaristic ideal of a wounded warrior who still has so much to give his country. Jack’s much-vaunted sense of duty is still on display, but is toned down to make way for a more satisfying portrayal of the character. Audiences will have likely guessed that Jack’s mission becomes personal in more ways than one, as in addition to his friend’s death, Jack begins a complicated relationship with Harry, who is not only his rival in terms of Rapace's own action-star bonafides, but she is also harboring some potentially dangerous secrets.
Thankfully, Wendell Pierce’s James Greer is dispatched from his Moscow assignment to assist. James and Jack’s relationship is as contentious as ever, but the two have developed a friendly respect for one another, one where governmental policy takes a backseat to the needs of a friend. It’s an interesting step forward for the series, as the show attempts to move its various characters around the board in service of the season’s storyline and the future of the series as a whole. There are also two interesting additions to the cast this time around, with Susan Misner (The Americans) as an American ambassador and Michael Kelly (House of Cards) as Mike November, a CIA agent stationed in Venezuela. The two help move the story forward at important intervals but they also provide some much needed moments of levity or the occasional weird aside, important tonal elements that were largely absent from season 1.
Season 2 of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is an all-around improvement, one that balances character and action to deliver an entertaining and explosive binge-watch that makes the most of its talented cast. That’s particularly true of the imminently likable Krasinski, who makes Jack a more thrilling figure by focusing on his humanity, rather than his super-human exploits.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan season 2 premieres Friday, November 1 exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.