After chasing a terrorist in its debut season, “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” returns for another round and a new mission, this time fighting a corrupt Latin American government, its ruthless dictator and the many slippery characters connected to him. But trudging into such murky political waters — as spy thrillers are wont to do — feels a bit queasy given our current state of affairs.
In the Season 2 opener, Ryan (John Krasinski) and his old war commander, Sen. Moreno (Benito Martinez), embark on a diplomatic mission to investigate a mysterious shipping vessel and find out what cargo it’s carrying. They swing by Venezuela to ask President Nicolás Reyes (Jordi Mollà), a thinly veiled riff on real-life Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, about the matter. After an unsuccessful meeting at the presidential palace, Ryan and Moreno convoy is led into an ambush — a trap that effectively kills Moreno.
Though Moreno’s death becomes the action’s inciting “Archduke Ferdinand” incident — after which the season delivers plenty of gun battles and thrilling chase sequences — it’s unfortunate that the senator’s killed off so quickly: He faced an unexplored dilemma as a Venezuelan American caught between the two countries he loves, but which hate each other. Instead, his death becomes Ryan’s excuse for defying his chain of command and continuing to look into Reyes’ connection to the shipping mystery.
What happens next — especially given that so much of “Jack Ryan” is based on real events in Venezuela — takes an uncomfortable turn toward right-wing talking points.
Aside from a few moments in the environs of Washington, D.C., and a tangential jaunt to England, the majority of Season 2, now streaming, is set in a Venezuela that shares many problems with its real-life counterpart, which is in the grip of a crippling recession. Last year, Venezuela was embroiled in a hotly contested election, of which Maduro declared himself the winner — holding on to the presidency against claims of fraud. One of his opponents who wasn’t jailed or scared off the campaign trail, Juan Guaidó, also declared himself the leader of the country, and the two are still jockeying for power as Venezuelans flee the ailing country, joining the four million refugees that have left since 2014.
But in “Jack Ryan,” what was once Latin America’s richest country is reduced to a colorful backdrop for Ryan and semi-reluctant partner Jim Greer’s (Wendall Pierce) next mission — and tap into reserves of misplaced Cold War paranoia, as if its ties to Russia and China are evidence enough of malicious intent. (Et tu, Trump?) The portrayal goes beyond condescension — Ryan gives a presentation on Venezuela’s economic crisis, citing its vulnerability to exploitation by other countries — to outright stereotype: Reyes is portrayed almost like a gangster, down to a “Godfather”-esque scene in which he celebrates his daughter’s quinceañera while his enemies, our heroes, are under attack. Even Reyes’ opponent, Gloria Bonalde (Cristina Umaña), is left to play the token “good” Venezuelan, becoming an ally to Ryan and Greer, who, in turn, offer support and training for her guards.
It’s a strangely positive spin on U.S. assistance to right-wing forces in Nicaragua and El Salvador, or the invasions of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s and early 1990s. Though the series has the wherewithal to reference those failed interventions — including the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba — Ryan himself, avatar of American exceptionalism, comes and goes as he pleases; his “good guy” cred ultimately gives him the security clearance to storm the presidential palace on a rescue mission in the final episode and almost execute Reyes in a fit of revenge. That he doesn’t is thanks only to the installation of a U.S.-backed administration (Bonalde’s) and Venezuela’s ostensible return to democracy.
In September, Venezuela’s cultural minister Ernesto Villegas called the trailer for Season 2 of “Jack Ryan” “crass war propaganda disguised as entertainment.” Weeks later, Francisco Denis, who plays Reyes’ right-hand man, Gen. Ubarri, and is the only Venezuelan actor in the cast, refuted the minister’s claim and insisted the show was a work of fiction. In this muddy adaptation of current events, though, not enough creative liberties are taken to separate fact from fiction, and to distance the series from the very real unrest in the country and its affected community in diaspora. The writing lacks the nuance — and perhaps the knowledge — to contextualize why Venezuelan protesters would charge a U.S. embassy with signs declaring “Yanquis Go Home” or explain its baffling assertion that a political prison full of dissenters would be a surprise in a communist country under the rule of an authoritative leader.
As President Trump has tightened sanctions against the country and rallied support to potentially invade Venezuela instead of trying to alleviate its humanitarian crisis, it’s disturbing that one Amazon’s self-proclaimed “most binged shows” offers its own white savior wish-fulfillment. An American’s ham-handed meddling in Caracas isn’t worthy of the hero treatment.