Food for the Soul:  I Spy … for America

By Nina Heyn — Your Culture Scout

A few weeks ago, we introduced some new international espionage shows. Two new American spy shows recently got dropped at the streamers, so it’s worth taking a look at those as well.


Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has just premiered its third season of Amazon’s retelling on TV screens of the adventures of CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Tom Clancy initially created this character in the 1980s in his novels brought to screen in a series of feature films which became instant classics of the genre. The 1990 film The Hunt for Red October was the first one to introduce the Jack Ryan character to the screen. In that film Ryan was portrayed by Alec Baldwin, but he was replaced by Harrison Ford in two subsequent adaptations of Clancy’s novels: Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). In 2002, Ben Affleck took over this role for The Sum of All Fears. There was also a 2014 film called Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, but some viewers would prefer to drop a curtain of mercy on that adaptation.

Clancy’s books and the 1990s films, set during the Cold War, were based on the somewhat simplistic premise that the world of right and wrong was clear-cut, with the American side being always right and Ryan representing the modern equivalent of a brave knight. The current TV show seems to be going back to this premise (hence the writer’s name in the show’s title), but with some adjustments for the more complex world of today. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan went into production in 2018; it is being filmed, therefore, a quarter of a century after the original movies. The geopolitics, the audiences, and the way secret agents are shown on-screen have all changed

If Jack Ryan is the American response to James Bond, this iteration of a spy character is decidedly low-key. There are no flashy clothes, fancy casinos, or the fantasy cars and gadgets of the Bond world. Ryan, portrayed in this series by John Krasinski, can be brave and effective in action, but his main strength is his ability to follow the money trail. He uses much more brain than brawn, and he ends up two steps ahead of everybody in figuring out the threat. The first two seasons had Ryan operating in the Middle East and South America, but this third season, being released in the year of the Ukraine war, goes back to the Cold War era in search of the bad guys—they are Russian again. In Jack Ryan’s world, the plot has made an entire circle; in The Hunt for Red October, published by Clancy in 1984, Ryan was facing the threat of a Russian nuclear attack, and so is this new Ryan from the TV show.

Interestingly, there is a supporting character called Mike November (played with great talent by Michael Kelly), introduced in the second season as the CIA station chief in Venezuela. He loses his job for helping Ryan with an unauthorized rescue mission in Caracas. In the 1990s, such a character would have been shown living out his forced retirement from the government job somewhere in a cabin in the woods, perhaps in Maryland or Maine. Times have changed—in Season Three, Ryan looks Mike up and finds him as a “private security contractor” living in a gorgeous villa on Santorini. Not only has Mike replaced Uncle Sam with global corporations as worthwhile employers, but he also has swapped living in the U.S. for a much less stressful life in a seaside villa in Greece, far from any governmental oversight. And while Ryan is still a knight in shining armor with honesty and dedication, the world around him is full of hustlers and traitors on both sides of the spy game and private contractors are now the norm on all sides.

THE RECRUIT (Netflix, 2022-)-)

The second new spy show, produced by Netflix, has just premiered its first season. The Recruit is a completely different type of storytelling. While Jack Ryan sticks to traditional portrayal of the CIA as a well-organized and pretty infallible organization dedicated to the best political and military outcome, The Recruit has a very Millennial vibe of disillusionment. The main character, Owen Hendricks—played by baby-faced Noah Centineo (born in 1996)—is a rookie lawyer in Virginia’s CIA headquarters. Owen’s superiors and especially his colleagues are mostly paranoid about their own job security, and they make sure that no useful information or knowledge of office politics is ever imparted to the new guy. Set adrift, Owen blunders his way through some assignments, but soon he is on his way to score a real op to rescue and then reactivate a double agent against Russia. Because Owen has few contacts and even fewer friends in the world of active operatives, he relies on a network of his friends, as well as his personal empathy toward the asset he is supposed to run.

The storytelling is uneven and wavers between comedic one-liners and hard-charging action—this is probably the reason why some critics’ reviews were lukewarm. But perhaps the reviewers are missing the point. While Jack Ryan is aimed at an audience that expects traditional storytelling about efficient espionage adventures, The Recruit seems to have been created with the Millennial audience in mind. Millennials know that when you start working at an office, you have to learn all the gossip, develop some work friendships, and watch out for those who will throw you under the bus at the first department meeting—and only after you figure out the office politics and the local rules of conduct, only then will you be able to actually get the job done. Owen does not have his life figured out; work is one clusterf___ after another, his love life is messy, he still lives with roommates among dirty socks and oatmeal cups, he probably has student loans greater than the national debt of a small country, and … he is trying not to get killed on the job. Life is messy, the Millennial and Gen Z generations are facing a much harder life than their parents did, and the office politics at the CIA must be the same as at any other large corporation—that is, ignore them at your own peril.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a traditionally filmed and solidly scripted show, whereas The Recruit feels like an Asian-fusion dish—a bit of comedy, a bit of action, and all this served with a dash of uncertainty and a laid-back attitude. The writing could improve, and so should the character development. And yet … it feels fresh.

I enjoyed checking out both shows and, despite The Recruit being a weaker cinematic accomplishment, I was more impressed with that show. It seemed much closer to everyday reality and more attuned to the sensibilities of the younger generations and the current century.