This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
This article includes some spoilers.
There’s been an obscene number of guilt-ridden white men making the rounds lately.
Substantially more than usual—feeling bad, acting contrite, and being white.
In the latest installment of the wildly overrated and yet four-decades-in Jack Ryan saga, now an Amazon series called… Jack Ryan, guilt is the burden every white male character is tasked with the honor of carrying. If I was easily swayed by unassuming, Ivy League-bred white fellows, I would think the purpose of this guilt is to make me feel… sorry for them? And dare I say “sympathetic” to their woes?
The series starts off in 1983 Lebanon, in a bedroom where two young boys are enjoying American music; one of them is singing into a comb while the other plays appropriately excited audience. The camera pans to a sizable vintage toy car collection and it’s a blissfully mundane but intimate scene between family which you know is going to experience some kind of unbelievable trauma. This comes at the two-minute mark when the boys’ home is blown to pieces. The last thing we the audience hear, is their terrified cries as they run for cover before our eyes are immediately directed to the land of the free and the home of the brave. We are introduced to one of their brave ones rowing with intense determination. Well, I’m guessing determination is what the audience is expected to glean out of the moments when John Krasinski (Jim from The Office and now Jack Ryan) is staring into the camera between strokes. There is probably a hint of guilt because somewhere down the line the tortured connection between this white man and the blown up brown family will be revealed.
Jack Ryan was created by American novelist Tom Clancy, a staunch Republican and fan of former President Ronald Reagan. This to say that a character such as Ryan will have qualities befitting someone whose creator believes in a specific kind of American patriotism; one rooted in military service, an unshakable obeisance to the American constitution and the anthem, with an instantaneous mistrust of anyone whose religion does not start with a Genesis and end with a Revelation. The show exists in a time where the very concept of American patriotism is being eviscerated daily; from the continued investigations into Russian collusion in the last presidential election, the reticence of the Democratic party to hold Trump accountable for his crimes, and the current crisis with Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh who has been accused of sexually assaulting several women, and yet continues to be backed by a White House led by a man also accused of sexually assaulting multiple women.
None of this mess exists in Jack Ryan as there is a high-level of competency and righteousness possessed by most of the characters (Jack Ryan is repeatedly called a “boy scout,” which is largely how he was originally written by Clancy), who have a seemingly Republican state of mind which involves politics of state before self, unparalleled international and national surveillance paired with a no holds barred, invasive foreign policy. It’s a competency that is at odds with the fractured Republican party of today. One which has largely relied on the legacy of solid but respectable conservatives such as the likes of Senator John McCain, Former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which now has to contend with a Trumpism that has dragged much of the Republican mainstream to the extreme right. By refusing to take into account the current administration, this series misses an opportunity to properly analyze both the social and political institutions represented by their characters. One of their leads (The Wire’s Wendell Pierce) plays a black Muslim man, who as Ryan’s boss, has a high position in the CIA. The politics of not only visibility, but power and race in this instance are incredibly complicated. If the series was as trenchant and nuanced as its creators would like to believe, they would have gone deeper into trying to understand what these intersections of identity mean. Not only in the series but in the series as it exists in a country where Muslims are being banned from entering the US, and black people are one of the most heavily surveilled and targeted racial groups in the country by law enforcement. That would have required not only the audience but the creators themselves to reckon with the society we are living in. But maybe they just felt too guilty to do the work.
From the onset, Jack Ryan is a man with a burden. Constant flashbacks of his former life in a hot desert, Middle Eastern country, dressed in fatigues, remind us he has been through some shit. He is his own Atlas holding up the the world, and it makes you wonder what emotional load he is carrying. Well he lost all of his friends in a helicopter crash caused by a young boy who befriended Ryan with his innocence, ignited the white savior in him, and got the last spot on a flight heading back to the land of opportunity. They never made it because once the boy got on the helicopter he looked Ryan in the eye, held up a grenade and set it off. Everyone died except Ryan so big guilt is felt here. Guilt for being a part of a structure that profits of war. Guilt for killing God knows how many people. Guilt for trusting the boy. Guilt for surviving. Guilt for also being slightly happy that he made it out. Guilt for not feeling guilty enough. As the last man standing, Ryan is his own Last Samurai a la Tom Cruise. Another white man burdened by an inordinate amount of time spent killing other brown people in their own country. It’s a vicious white man cycle.
Ryan is not the only red-blooded American struggling to cope. Victor Polizzi played by John Magaro is drone pilot based in Nevada who spends his days playing the digital Reaper. From thousands of miles away with the help of modern technology, Victor can set off an explosion in Syria with a press of a button. His own version of Call of Duty sees him killing people as he is ordered, based off a person of interest sliding scale where someone is either to be surveilled or terminated. For every kill he makes, Victor’s colleague hands him a one dollar bill. He has 107 which he has pasted on a wall to remind him of the dark cloud that hangs over his head. Unable to deal with the weight, he goes to the casino in the hope of gambling the money away, but as white luck would have it he ends up winning almost $30,000.
White man’s guilt is a lazy, irresponsible but clearly lucrative trope because what's more appealing than a white guy who wants to do good because he just feels so bad about what he's done? An intentional caveat of this guilt is the avoidance of culpability because it’s never truly just their fault. Orders were followed, lives were lost, and normalcy resumed. White heroes are not required to question their role in a violent event but simply ponder it with a healthy degree of detachment, cynicism, and self-righteousness. Jack Ryan ends on guilt, courtesy of another brown child whom after the death of his father (who happened to be a terrorist) at the hands of Ryan, appears set to have vengeful terrorism in his future. You see it in his eyes. You see it in Ryan’s as he now has to contend with the guilt that comes from presuming that the boy he saved is going to ultimately go down the same horrid path. All because of Ryan’s heroism.
It’s garbage and yet as America and the world prepares to possibly have not one, but two men accused of sexual assault sitting in an office making laws regarding the rights of women, white man’s guilt is going to be haunting all of us for years to come. They’ll feel it, we’ll hear about it, and nothing will change. Because when you’re a guilty white man, all you have to do is say you feel bad and then everything will be fine. Guilt will be constant but fleeting, their actions unchanging, and their lives unbothered though slightly inconvenienced.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Tari Ngangura on Twitter.