Amazon have finally pulled the plug on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, going out with a smudged inkblot of a final season. In this episode we look at Jack Ryan Season Four, and reflect back on the series as a whole. We examine how Jack Ryan promotes ‘myths’ that the CIA constantly contradicts, while referencing real life CIA operations. We also take a brief look at a new CIA-themed series, Special Ops: Lioness.
It was only a few episodes ago that we looked at Jack Ryan season three, which is all about a rogue Russian faction mounting a coup against the Russian president. While in that story the rogue Ruskies are the bad guys while the president actually works with Jack Ryan and the others to avert disaster, the parallels with the brief Wagner Rebellion are clear and present.
While writing a piece on various government-supported films and TV shows that feature Rogue Ruskies while the Wagner fiasco was going on I predicted that the new season of Jack Ryan would be a live-stream of the revolution in Moscow. I was wrong, and I was also being sarcastic.
The end of Jack Ryan season three saw the old, useless and probably corrupt CIA director ousted in favour of Elizabeth Wright – the new, clean, black, female candidate. She is introduced in season three but doesn’t play much role in the plot besides telling Jack off when he does stupid things, but still helping him in his completely illegal behind enemy lines operation in Russia. We don’t get to know her as a person at all, and that continues in season four – she plays a functionally important role in the plot, but we feel nothing because she exhibits very little emotion and we find out nothing about her outside of her job.
This continues a theme that has run throughout Jack Ryan since season one – where the characters are all workaholic obsessives entirely defined by their jobs. This idea began with mercantilism hundreds of years ago, and that derives from the protestant, Christian notion that idle hands make trouble, and working as much and as long as possible is the true path. It has been slightly reformatted under neoliberalism but the underlying idea is the same – that what you do defines you, and what you do is your job, that life is about grinding, side hustles, finding an edge.
That being said, it is also just bad screenwriting. For example, in season three the Czech president is given some sort of personality and while her character arc reduces her to an unwitting covert agent for the Rogue Ruskies, she is a human being. Elizabeth Wright is a government functionary, and nothing more.
Thus, we’re encountering another example of the problem of symbolic victories for apparently progressive causes being co-opted by the state, particularly the security state. The main new character in season four is Michael Pena’s Domingo Chavez – who appears in the Clancy novels. He’s a special forces covert operative type, you will probably remember him from Clear and Present Danger, and he became the main character in the Rainbow Six novels and video games.
Now, both of these actors – Betty Gabriel as Wright and Michael Pena as Chavez – are talented, but their characters are woefully underwritten. Wright is just a cool-headed bureaucrat and Chavez is a cold-blooded man of action. Indeed, Wright was originally cast using a different actor but she dropped out due to ‘creative differences’ and was replaced, with scenes being re-shot.
Along with the horrible mess that was the latest Clancyverse film, Without Remorse, which celebrated a black woman being a Navy SEAL, this is one of the primary vehicles for this progressive symbolism masking regressive ideology. It is rumoured that season four was partly done to set up a spin off focusing on these other characters, primarily Chavez, presumably based on the Rainbow Six books.
That tracks very clearly, because right at the end of season four Jack says he’s taking a break from the CIA, and we see Jim Greer, Elizabeth Wright, Mike November and Hugo – sorry, Domingo Chavez stood together seeing him off. He even says ‘great team photo’, and we got a nice shot of them together with Congress in the background. That’s not really backdooring a spin off so much as frontdooring it.
Note, of the four characters left, with Jack out of the picture, only one is a white guy, despite this whole franchise being aimed at a predominantly conservative, white, male audience going back to the early novels. Thus, any such spin off will likely meet with a similar response from this audience as that received by Without Remorse – a bunch of complaints about them shoving multiculturalism down their throats, and so on. Meanwhile, for progressive liberals they have to applaud a black female CIA director and all the rest, but that means applauding an absurdly neoconservative TV show.
Thus, either way the establishment wins. Either this polarises people further, entrenching the liberal-conservative cultural divide, or it co-opts even more liberals to become pro-CIA, pro-military, pro-border security and so on. Almost as though it was manufactured to do exactly that. But it’s OK, because John Krasinski keeps assuring us that his work isn’t political.
But why did we get season four just 7 months after season three? It’s partly because they were shot back to back and used some of the same locations – Prague, bits of Slovakia, Dubrovnik in Croatia. I think it’s also because they want to set up this spin off before audience interest wanes, as there are only six episodes to this apparently final season, and the plot has been stretched out to cover six episodes. It’s one of those plots that simultaneously feels rushed but also over-exposed. There’s too much dialogue where people explain stuff to each other so the audiences understands things, but it’s also confusing as to why people are doing what they’re doing.
We will get into all that in the next section but I do want to quickly run through the government support to season four. We have the CIA, naturally, and there are a bunch of nice external shots of the old headquarters building from ground level – genuinely, quite nicely framed. There’s also a little bit where Krasinski comes out of the building and gets into a car, doing a reverse Harrison Ford from Patriot Games. And the usual CIA logos on everything from business cards to flatscreen monitors.
And, of course, the weird disclaimer at the end of every episode about the Agency not endorsing the production. Even though they’ve cooperated with it since day one.
When it came to working the government subsidies, Canada and Ireland are credited, as are Spain and Hungary. I imagine some of this was for post-production, rather than filming in all of these countries, but you still get the money. A lot of Jack Ryan season four was filmed in the US, in New York and California, who also have generous tax credit programs. But the prize goes to the Canary Islands, which I’m assuming doubled for Myanmar because none of the other countries have tropical climate and foliage. There, you get a 50% rebate, the highest of any European territory.
There are a few military vehicles and one helicopter gunship, but they don’t appear to have been provided by any specific military, I’m guessing they were hired privately. There is a beat where Mike November goes to the Royal Thai Air Force to rent a plane from them to help rescue Jack, and a brief bit at what appears to be a Thai Air Force base with a big Royal Thai Air Force cargo plane that Jack walks out of. There are other jets in that scene too – so they got military support from somewhere, but I’ve been unable to source information on exactly whose plane and base that is – Thai or otherwise.
There’s a very similar series of scenes set at Edwards Air Force base, but it doesn’t appear to be Edwards for real so given the seasons were filmed back to back it’s possible all of this was shot at military facilities in Slovakia or the Czech Republic, which were used for season three.
And finally, there’s Customs and Border Protection, who feature in the big climax in the final episode trying to stop the bomb from crossing the border. There’s even a giant, armoured vehicle that shoots the driver of the big truck carrying the car with the bomb inside it, stopping the truck and the bomb. See, all that surplus military hardware going to supposedly civilian security agencies is really paying off.
Thus, they worked both the security state and the subsidies once more, promoting one while getting paid by the other to do so. If this was the Chi-Coms no one would be disputing it was political and that it was government propaganda. They’re literally getting paid by governments to write material promoting governments and their neurotic, often twisted agendas.
The Plot of Jack Ryan Season Four
The storyline in this season is excessively convoluted but it boils down to a blend of thinktank fantasy and Agency PR. At the end of season three, director Miller is kicked out of the CIA but he leaves behind a bunch of black ops that only he knew about. So our story begins with Ryan and Wright and to some extent Greer trying to work through this mess and figure out what’s been going on inside the CIA, at the highest levels, without anyone else knowing.
But wait, weren’t we told that this sort of rogue agent black operation conspiracy is the stuff of fiction, not the reality of the CIA? Isn’t this a constant talking point on the CIA’s podcast?
And yet, the offices inside the CIA in Jack Ryan look exactly like the offices inside the real CIA, right down to the nameplates outside doors and on people’s desks. They helped them recreate the Agency so realistically, in such detail, but were happy for them to incorporate these themes and ideas.
Likewise, in season three Jack goes rogue and is being pursued by the Agency while running his entirely self-directed mission in Russia. But this leads to him being rewarded with a promotion – in season four he’s acting deputy director while Wright is acting director, awaiting confirmation hearings. But then he resigns as acting deputy director and goes off and runs his own self-directed mission again. But sort of isn’t retired, because he’s in touch with Greer and Wright back at Langley. But doesn’t check in with the local CIA station chiefs in any of the countries he visits, writes nothing down, leaves no papertrail of any kind.
Why does the CIA support Jack Ryan? Doing so does portray them in a heroic light, but also perpetuates not only some but almost all of the supposed ‘myths about the Agency’ that they’re always looking to dispel. These myths that are apparently so annoying to them that they’ve put out tweets, blog articles, podcasts, youtube videos trying to convince everyone that this isn’t the truth about the CIA. They even came up with the pun Reel vs Real as a moniker for discussions about this very problem.
Now, you could say the CIA don’t write the scripts so they have to work somewhat within the confines of an existing story, they have to tolerate some of this in order to do business in the entertainment industry. My counterargument is that it’s one thing to tolerate a few deviations from realism, another to help make films whose core storylines directly contradict what you’re saying overtly. That’s not compromise in order to do business, it’s doublespeak.
So, the CIA both is and isn’t a rogue agency, which both is and isn’t accountable to Congress, and both does and doesn’t murder people, kidnap people, torture people and does and doesn’t operate domestically within the US. And both does and doesn’t run off the books black operations in order to deal with the consequences of its previous off the books black operations, which it turns out have actually made the people they’re sworn to protect less safe, not more.
This whole fourth season reminds me of Stansfield Turner’s time at the CIA, who was brought in to clean up after the Church Committee and other revelations of criminal misdeeds on a massive scale. He is the one who established the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs, without which we wouldn’t have Jack Ryan. In this season, it emerges that the previous CIA director was in bed with an international drugs cartel based in Myanmar but with tentacles ranging from Mexico to Nigeria.
So far, so Golden Triangle. But it also emerges that this nefarious drug-smuggling syndicate are moving into terrorism – the nightmare scenario of the convergence of two of the things the CIA loves most, drugs and terrorist attacks. Sorry, I mean two of the things the CIA hates the most. It gets confusing when they give us more mixed messages than a floozy on a dating app.
The problem with this is that it’s already happened. On the one hand, most large terrorist gangs, from Al Qaeda to the IRA, have been involved in the drugs trade. When you deal in the black market, you inevitably end up swapping guns for opium or something similar. It’s just how that part of the economy works. On the other hand, most major drugs gangs deploy terrorist tactics – extortion, kidnapping, assassination, bombings. Again, if you’re a large criminal gang then sooner or later you’re going to have to resort to a little terrorism.
And yet, in Jack Ryan this is portrayed as the worst thing they’ve ever faced. Dialogue about the tiny percentage of drugs that are intercepted on the borders drawing parallels with suicide bombers.
Now, this is partly our old friend bad screenwriting. It makes no sense for suicide bombers to sneak in over the border. It’s not like they arrive wearing suicide vests and then immediately run out and blow themselves up. They can just pretend to be a tourist and come in through an airport or seaport, pick up the suicide vest from a hard-working local explosives entrepreneur and then get to business.
But instead of reality, we’re presented with the implication that there are queues of would-be suicide bombers, all kitted out in the latest vests, desperately trying to get into the United States and blow themselves up. It’s only because they haven’t begun collaborating with the Sinaloa Cartel, or their local South East Asian equivalent, that they aren’t blowing themselves up in the masonry aisle of every Target in the country.
Naturally, this being a Tom Clancy story, there’s a defector, or a wannabe defector, inside the Silver Lotus Triad, the cartel at the centre of the drugs and terrorism scheme. He wants out and wants to take his family with him. Again, the one good South Asian is the one who joins forces with the CIA. All the others are murderous bastards or random goons who get killed by Chavez and Ryan. For some reason there’s a brown lady with a very English accent who masquerades as some sort of humanitarian benefactor, and she’s part of the Triad’s leadership, but it’s never really explained who she is. It’s not at all clear what the hierarchy within the Triad is, who is in charge of which parts of this very complex ‘convergence’ operation.
The motive, though, is made clear – they’re doing it for the money. Not only are there queues of would-be suicide bombers desperately trying to get into the United States, but they’re all rich. A nice fat customer base for a South East Asian Triad who are in league with a Mexican drug cartel who specialise in smuggling things into the US. The market for getting terrorists into the US is so lucrative, so dripping with cash, that they’re changing up their entire business model.
Honestly, the writers would have been better off giving the Triad no motive whatsoever because this makes as much sense as putting ice cream in the oven. I can’t help but think that screenwriting this bad may have come from the CIA themselves – perhaps the Triad had a motive that the CIA didn’t like so it got changed to the notion that smuggling suicide bombers is as profitable as selling cocaine.
Which is also deeply ironic, because people smuggling is a big black market business, a lot of the customers die, a lot of them end up working in awful jobs either in the sex industries or elsewhere, and yet the police, intelligence, military do almost nothing about it. They love putting out propaganda trying to scare people about foreigners who look different and therefore post a threat. But when it comes to shutting down the organisations who smuggle people on a large scale, it just isn’t made a priority.
Why not? If immigration is such an enormous issue, if all these foreigners coming over here with their marginally different appearances and broadening of the gene pool is such a threat or a problem, why aren’t they prosecuting the people in charge of smuggling these people?
You may recall from season one of Jack Ryan that Greer and Jack team up with a people smuggler to help find the wife of the terrorist, the defector in that season’s storyline. He then turns up in season three as a mechanic working in Greece, and he helps Ryan evade the local police. One might ask, is the main reason for the lack of prosecutions of people smugglers because so many of them actually work for the very agencies that could investigate and prosecute them?
Where this starts to get a little weird is that the former director used a complex code to hide the covert operations he was engaging in on behalf of the Triad, and one cryptonym that keeps coming up is Operation Pluto. That’s the name for the operation involving Chavez.
To my knowledge there are two different Operation Plutos. The first was in WW2, when the Allies were trying to solve the conundrum of how to maintain a fuel supply to their troops after re-invading Europe. Using the ports on the French coasts left them vulnerable to air attacks, so they devised PLUTO – Pipelines Under The Ocean. They created giant spools containing miles of pipes, and towed them behind ships to create the first undersea pipelines. They eventually laid 17 such pipelines through the Channel, getting up to a million gallons a day to support the advance across Europe.
The other Pluto was one of the names given to the Bay of Pigs operation. After the maelstrom of fuck ups that was the attempted invasion at the Bay of Pigs, JFK ordered Maxwell Taylor to head a commission looking into what happened. Taylor himself authored an after action report recounting the specifics of the beach landings, the efforts to advance and the rapid failure of the Brigade to make any headway.
This takes us back to season two of Jack Ryan, which promoted CIA attempts to undermine and overthrow the Venezuelan government in real time, as those operations continued. And like the Bay of Pigs, those operations have failed.
Then there’s the Bay of Piglets, a.k.a. Operation Gideon. This was the attempt in May 2020 by Venezuelan dissidents and some former Green Berets working for Silvercorp, a private military contractor, to overthrow the Maduro government. It was very similar to the Bay of Pigs – the CIA, Venezuelan intelligence and even the Associated Press knew about it ahead of time. The whole plot had been infiltrated by the Venezuelan government, and involved an elaborate but impractical plan to land by sea, seize an airport, force Maduro and others to resign and then expel them from the country.
Unlike Brigade 2506, the exile Cubans the CIA landed at the Bay of Pigs, Operation Gideon was scuppered before anyone reached the shore. The boats were intercepted, everyone was arrested.
So season two of Jack Ryan, which came out six months earlier, was a bit of wish fulfilment, or maybe even an attempt to conjure up success in this highly unlikely operation. We see CIA operatives, including Jack, who has no permission to be in the country, influencing an election and getting their candidate elected. In the finale, Jack and Mike November ride Blackhawk helicopters to the Presidential Palace with the intention of finding and assassinating el Presidente.
I bring this up because while the first season of Jack Ryan is a fairly well written but utterly standard war on terror story, since then it has become a replacement for Homeland in how on the nose its storylines are, relative to real events. Jack is Carrie for Republicans. Or maybe Carrie was always Jack Ryan for Democrats.
Season two prefigured a real attempted coup in Venezuela, season three prefigured the war in Ukraine, both things the CIA knew were coming, but perhaps didn’t know exactly when they would happen.
All that being said, I am not predicting that a Triad from Myanmar is going to collaborate with the Sinaloa cartel to smuggle suicide bombers into Texas any time soon. Instead, this felt like a smudged full stop – an attempt to construct an all-encompassing threat but which ended up being vague and implausible.
Let me elaborate: the Triad from Myanmar is simply a reminder that South East Asians are evil, untrustworthy people in general. The only good ones are the ones who let the US occupy their lands with military bases, like South Koreans. This racist trope has been prominent in Western literature for centuries, and in spy novels, films and TV for over a century.
Then there’s the Mexicans, solely depicted through the drug cartel who are smuggling their lovely, lovely drugs into America so hardworking Americans can enjoy them at their leisure. This particular part of the storyline culminates with a shootout on the southern border, good old boy style. It’s practically a Western at that point.
Then there’s the terrorists, though exactly who the terrorists are isn’t clear. As I say, the Triad are getting into terrorism for hire, but they are the ones smuggling the bombs into the US as proof of concept for their customer base. So, are they the terrorists or are they guns for hire?
Thus, we’re given an enemy image that is blurry and confused, but which blends together multiple villains, met by multiple branches of the security state, like an impressionist painting.
Decoding Jack Ryan Season 4
In case you think I’m making all this up, and the show is not as sophisticated as I’m suggesting it is, I want to run through some of the specifics of the plot, hopefully without getting buried by exposition.
The season opens with the assassination of a President of Nigeria, which it later turns out was part of the CIA operations run by ex-director Miller. So, not at all unlike the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro that we looked at in the Robert Maheu episode, run by a handful of top officials without telling anyone running the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Bay of Pigs invasion, which has the same codename as one of the secret operations run by Miller.
Snap to Washington DC, where Jack is being grilled at the White House by our ethnically diverse President. He and Wright are being asked about the assassination in Nigeria, because the CIA are always honest with the President and accountable to the executive branch.
We saw this accountability nonsense frequently in The Recruit, the TV show that came out alongside Jack Ryan season three a few months ago. Just as Wright is brought in to clean up the Agency after the mess created by Miller, Stansfield Turner was the real life equivalent. Especially after the Castro assassination plot became public knowledge thanks to the Church Committee, one of the rare examples of the CIA being held to account.
Thus, these series and their depiction of a responsible, accountable CIA who are terrified of congressional investigations and oversight, or at least compliant, are a substitute for these things in real life. We’re not just being fed a fantasy about real world events involving the CIA, but also a fantasy of responsible and competent oversight. This is particularly acute when Jack actually appears before the Senate committee.
You can really tell that a series was rushed when phrases like ‘former predecessor’ make it into the final cut. Then we get to Chavez, who we first meet working inside the Mexican cartel to help build it up, and build the relationship with the Triad. He earnestly believes that was he’s doing is sanctioned and for the good of the country. Why would he think this, unless it was a fairly normal assignment? Surely he isn’t stupid, and doesn’t think that burrowing inside drugs cartels for years at a time, helping them build their narcotics empire is actually helping win the war on drugs?
Apparently, this highly skilled, seemingly intelligent special operative is stupid enough to just follow orders, but smart enough to instantly realise the problem as soon as Jack points it out. Why? Because plot, and because lucrative spin off.
In order to pursue this conspiracy, Jack resigns from his position as acting deputy director of the CIA, and Jim Greer replaces him. But Jack is still working for the CIA – director Wright helps him, Greer helps him, he teams up with Chavez (who is technically still working for the CIA) and Mike November, who retired from the Agency a couple of seasons back.
Jack even tells the president that if his mission goes wrong and people start blaming Wright, that they should pin the whole thing on him. So this is a joint White House-CIA conspiracy, at the very highest levels, to conduct a black operation against the former CIA director’s black operation. And obviously no one tells the DEA, military intelligence, NSA, FBI or anyone else who might be interested in the convergence of a drugs gang and a terrorist organisation. They just send off this small team – one fake retired, one actually retired, one a black operative who is sort of still on the books.
I imagine you can see the parallels with figures we’ve discussed in recent episodes – such as Howard Hunt, who was involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion and the post-invasion operations, then faked his retirement from the Agency before getting hired by the White House as part of the Plumbers. Ditto Robert Maheu, who worked for the CIA both officially and unofficially, on operations which were often strictly compartmentalised.
So we’re being fed an impressionistic image of an accountable, responsible CIA at the same time as a confused, poorly written image of a totally off book, unaccountable CIA out there doing black operations to deal with the consequences of their previous black operations.
For about three episodes Jack, Chavez and Mike try to rescue the defector and take down the Triad. There’s some stuff about triggers – literally hand held remote controls that supposedly send a signal from anywhere on earth to anywhere on earth, and can set off anything they like – a bomb, a hacking, elevator doors opening, whatever. It’s a deliberately broad threat but the problem is it becomes implausible and vague. Why can’t the NSA detect and intercept or block the signals? Who gives a shit, here’s another chasey shooty sequence.
I will say, a lot of the chasey shooty sequences take place in some good locations. They used a lot of Mediterranean castles in season three, and seem to have shot in similar or possibly the same locations for season four. Naturally, this means for all the gunfire no actual bullets hit any actual walls because you aren’t allowed to plant squibs on historic buildings, but at this point I’m sure no one cares. Nonetheless, for a needlessly globetrotting narrative, they did pick some nice places to look at. A small compensation for an abysmal script, actors phoning it in and a boatload of CIA doublespeak.
I won’t recount much of the plot because, as I say, it’s one of those stories that simultaneously has too much plot and not enough. There’s lot of quick expositional dialogue, go to place, have chasey shooty bit, more expositional dialogue, go to next place, rinse and repeat. Both packed with filler and too much story for only six episodes.
The defector is quite well acted by Louis Ozawa, and for once I found the whole ‘man trying to get out of organisation and get his family to safety’ cliché fairly compelling. However, when you look at photos of the actor and then look at him in this season, it becomes really obvious they’ve browned him up – made his skin darker with make up. It becomes especially obvious when you notice that his neck and the undersides of his hands are vastly different shades to his face and the topside of his hands.
I’m not one to make a big deal out of this sort of thing but it did annoy me because it was poorly done – if you’re going to make up your face, or have someone do that, why not do your neck as well. Especially if you’re going on camera, and the whole point of the make up is to make you look different while on camera. We should note that the star of the other recent CIA-themed series, Zoe Saldana, got a lot of shit for wearing a prosthetic nose and dark make-up while portraying Nina Simone. When the whole point was to make her look more like Nina Simone. And many of the people criticising are no doubt women who use products to change their hair and skin colour. But apparently that isn’t ethnic appropriation or offensive blackface, only when a black woman does it for the purposes of looking more like the subject of a biopic.
Returning to Jack Ryan season 4, the investigation trail involves torturing people, the odd assassination, infiltrating a black market arms fair in Croatia, and Greer illegally detaining an assassin working for the cartel. Or possibly the Triad. Or possibly the now-dead ex-CIA director. Again, for a story with so much dialogue explaining everything, it could offer the audience more clarity on who the fuck works for who the fuck.
There’s also a lot of the CIA operating domestically – Greer even leads a raid on the assassin’s home just in time to see a live feed of Jack being kidnapped halfway round the world. And yet, there are more Langley shots, and shots of Jack walking into and out of the old headquarters building, than in any prior TV show that I’ve seen. The logo is everywhere, on files, on computer monitors, on paperwork stapled to walls in the background. And we know the CIA were still working on Jack Ryan for season three, and these two seasons were written together and shot back to back, so they’re effectively the same product.
My point being that these have, historically and even quite recently, been plot points and story beats that have been changed or removed by the CIA. In particular, taking part in a domestic law enforcement SWAT-style raid is something they removed from Designated Survivor season three, just a few years ago. The CIA constantly denies being involved in law enforcement, denies operating domestically, denies being able to arrest and detain people (outside of terror suspects).
And yet, Jim Greer does exactly this, and makes all sorts of threats to the assassin to try to make him spill the beans on the wider unfolding plot. You could argue this is no different to Jack Bauer in 24, which is now over 20 years old – and you’d be right. Bauer is seen operating domestically, kidnapping people, torturing people without any kind of authorisation to do so. But he isn’t deputy director of the CIA, he’s mostly shown as something of a rogue agent. Greer is a company man, and a mainstay of literary, TV and cinematic portraits of the CIA going back nearly forty years.
Eventually, all this ‘investigative’ work uncovers a plot to smuggle a car into the US containing some sort of bio-hazard bomb. Naturally, they’re smuggling it in over the southern border because Mexican drug cartels. Even though you could stick the bomb on a boat and land it on any number of unguarded beaches, or smuggle it across the relatively unguarded northern border, or just FedEx it to the State Department, they picked this method.
Why? Because it allows for a showdown at the southern border, with Jack, Mike and Chavez crossing into Mexico to stop the truck driving over a literal line in the sand. The fact that they could have stopped it after it crossed the border, because it is just a truck with some cars on it, one of which has a bomb inside, seems to escape the CIA. Or maybe they’re not allowed to operate domestically in order to stop bombs, only to kidnap people and threaten them. It’s really hard to say.
Anyhow, this whole sequence features Customs and Border Protection quite heavily – a return to the series for the Department of Homeland Security. The CIA and CBP are shown working seamlessly, except for some reason they hand command of the entire operation over to Jack, who immediately runs outside and starts looking for the truck with the car bomb. Once they stop the truck, because a CBP armoured vehicle shoots the shit out of it – not the best idea when dealing with a bio hazard bomb, there’s one car full of additional terrorists with guns. Chavez dispatches them pretty quickly, and their deaths play no further role in the plot.
Why, when you’re trying to sneak a bomb across the border would you have a follow car full of heavily armed goons? Wouldn’t that draw attention to you, increase the risk of exposure? And if the truck safely made it across the border, what would the heavily armed goons do? Quickly strip off their body armour and hide their large, automatic weapons? And given that they’re killed off almost instantly, why even bother with them for plot purposes? Is it because stopping the bomb isn’t exciting or bloody enough? They had to kill someone in this scene, and so they wrote in some inappropriate terrorists to add to the body count?
Two phrases from this part of the season stood out to me – first, they use the phrase ‘code black’ to refer to an active bomb threat, which reminds me of the scene in the Boondocks.
I doubt that this is what the screenwriters were thinking of but I am a little surprised they didn’t do a quick search for the term ‘code black’ to see what came up, and whether it had any racist connotations. I mean, they do now have a black female CIA director and a black male deputy director, this show is trying very hard to pretend it isn’t racist. While it’s mostly a story of two white guys stopping a bunch of Mexicans and Asians from destroying white Christian America.
The other phrase comes when they eventually track the bombs from Myanmar through Nigeria and into Mexico, Jack refers to them being ‘right in our backyard’. ‘The Backyard’ is a CIA term for Central and South America, which should give you a sense of how they view those countries and peoples. The philosophy of Pax Americana is alive and well within the CIA – just look at them making a TV show dramatising their attempts to stage a coup in Venezuela and naming fictional covert missions after the real codename for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
So, Code Black, Pluto, the Triad, the Backyard – what does it all add up to? A highly confused plot, for one. But also a blurry melange of messages both asserted and contradicted by the CIA in real life. The denouement is when Jack confronts a senator during one final hearing, who it turns out was also in on the plot. The final word on the issue of CIA accountability to congress is that congress is just as corrupt as the CIA – it’s played as a heroic, stand up to the bastard moment but thematically it reeks of cynicism. As appropriate an ending to this series as we could ask for.
I also want to briefly mention Lioness, a new series from MTV Entertainment. It has a surprisingly stellar cast – Zoe Saldana plays the lead, a CIA station chief in Syria who handles the Lioness program. Her boss is played by Nicole Kidman, and her boss is played by Michael Kelly, who plays Mike November in Jack Ryan. That’s this prat:
Even President Morgan Freeman makes an appearance as the Secretary of State. But the show has been criticised for wasting this talent on a largely unoriginal spy story, and I do agree. It was created by Taylor Sheridan, who is hot property as a writer/producer due to the success of Yellowstone and its spin off series. However, it seems that outside of Westerns he doesn’t really have a clue what he’s doing, and he really isn’t good at writing multi-dimensional female characters. Or multi-dimensional male characters, come to that.
Saldana said in a recent interview that ‘My belief, based on the little that I know from Taylor, is that he does know, and he surrounds himself with people who have either served in militaries or been a part of programs such as the Lioness program, as well as retired Navy SEALS and CIA people. And I do know that he has a great deal of admiration for the real work that gets done when we’re all sleeping, so he takes it upon himself to highlight this world.’
Certainly, this is nationalistic, pro-war on terror bullshit, but it isn’t based on a real CIA program. The Lioness program was a military effort, that I think originated in the Marine Corps circa 2004. During the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan one problem was that it was illegal for a man to search a Muslim woman, so insurgents and others took to using women to smuggle things. To counter this the Marine Corps recruited women for specialist roles, but this had nothing to do with spying on insurgent leaders via their wives and girlfriends.
Our story is that Nicole Kidman plays a cold, strong woman CIA type – another Aryan female CIA officer. Nicole previously starred in The Interpreter, a CIA supported movie. She oversees Zoe Saldana – known only as ‘Joe’, no surname – a cold, strong woman CIA type. Zoe runs handlers who recruit the wives and girlfriends and other women close to the (always male) targets, use those assets to track down the targets, then drone bomb the shit out of them.
In episode one a woman who is either a handler or an asset (it isn’t clear) is uncovered due to having a Christian cross tattoo in memory of her brother. Zoe ends up drone bombing the terrorist headquarters, killing her handler or asset, but also taking out the target in the process. There’s some talk about how much worse it would have been to leave her there for an hour while they attempted a rescue, what the terrorists would have done to her, and so on.
The recurring theme in this show is that women suffer, but women are strong. Some would call this feminist, some would call it sexist, I’d call it both and bad screenwriting on top of that.
So Zoe has to recruit a new handler, and she happens on Laysla De Oliveira’s character, Cruz (another single syllable, masculine name). She is portrayed as escaping from an abusive relationship, but in reality she starts the fight by slut-shaming a stripper she lives with, the stripper hits her, they continue to argue, then a guy hits her. Obviously, the one punch from the man is portrayed as a massively significant moment, whereas her slut-shaming another woman who then hits her in retaliation is trivialised. This is what happens when you feed a conservative writer – which Sheridan undoubtedly is – through the liberal Hollywood filter.
So, the following morning she clobbers the guy with a frying pan – a much more serious assault than he inflicted on her, but which is trivialised because she’s a woman hitting a man – and she then runs off. The guy chases her, and by sheer luck she ends up in a Marine Corps recruitment office. The recruiter stands up to the guy chasing her, protecting Cruz, so she signs up.
If this sounds like a character introduction that is derogatory to both men and women, trivialises women’s violence while overhyping men’s violence, all the while paying lip service to the security state as the ultimate heroes whose violence is always good, that’s because it is.
Anyhow, we see Cruz going through Marine Corps training, she aces all the exams and the physical tests and there’s a bunch of girlboss bullshit about how they’ve never seen a woman do this before. Again, hyping women up while also condescending to them.
Eventually, Zoe Saldana turns up and recruits Cruz – but not before getting her to strip naked and prove she doesn’t have any tattoos, having learned from her previous fatal fuck up.
In the second episode Zoe has Cruz kidnapped, incarcerated in a secret location, and tortured. It’s heavily implied that the captors – presumably military contractors working for the CIA, it’s not really clear – raped her, and that this is something she has experienced before. But because she’s tough, it’s OK. Also, because it’s the CIA doing it. One ordinary guy hitting her in the face is awful domestic abuse by a predator. But a woman working for the CIA having another woman who works for the CIA kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and possibly raped is somehow a good thing.
From what I can tell, the CIA and the US military did not work on Special Ops: Lioness. There is one stock footage shot of Langley that you can get as courtesy support, but no CIA logos. There is a blurry logo in the background of a briefing room scene, but it isn’t the logo of the real CIA Special Activities Division. I’m guessing they had some contact with the Agency, but didn’t qualify for full support.
Likewise, it seems unlikely that the Marine Corps or DOD would have supported this – though the training sequences are filmed at a somewhat realistic-looking military base, possibly a disused one. There’s a motto that the Marines repeat – if you don’t cheat, you’re not trying, which doesn’t seem very Marine Corps to me. Also, the military guys working for the CIA out in Syria are drunken idiots, which isn’t something the DOD or CIA would be likely to approve. The scene removed from Zero Dark Thirty where the CIA officer drunkenly fires off an AK-47, rooftop jihadi style, is quite similar to scenes in Lioness.
However, it did get state support – from the Spanish government, the Mallorca Film Office, the Maryland Film Office and the Kingdom of Morocco, who presumably provided the military hardware – the helicopters and humvees. It seems that producers are increasingly looking to Middle Eastern governments for this sort of hardware – a result of the US military industrial complex exporting its products, and the DOD being so stringent when it comes to script reviews.
At the time of writing, there are only two episodes of Lioness available and I doubt I will watch the full eight episode run. The opener is quite well paced, but that covers for the lack of character depth and relationships. In episode two the pace slows down and all the problems are exposed – it’s just shot after shot of tough women being tough because women can be tough too, especially when they work for the CIA. There is nothing original, exceptional or particularly interesting about Special Ops: Lioness.