'Jack Ryan' Season 2 Will Focus on the Decline of Democracy

Showrunners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland talk with THR about the events of the first season of their Amazon drama and what to expect from the previously announced sophomore run.
Amazon Studios

[The following story contains full spoilers for the first season of Jack Ryan, the Tom Clancy adaptation currently streaming on Amazon.]

"I booked you a flight to Moscow." 

With those seven words, showrunners and co-creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland brought their first season of Amazon's Jack Ryan to a close. But it's far from the end of the road regarding their work on the Amazon spy thriller. Indeed, Cuse and Roland are well and fully in the trenches of the streaming service's second season, currently filming in South America, based on a story first devised as far back as October 2017.

How will the second season of Jack Ryan differ from the first season of the drama? For one thing, there's the change in locale. For another, there's a full change in focus, as season one wrapped up the conflict between Jack (John Krasinski), his mentor James Greer (Wendell Pierce) and the terrorist at the heart of the drama: Mouse Bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman), who engineered a multi-tiered attack in order to assassinate the President of the United States and other members of his cabinet. Suleiman and his plan both eventually died, thanks to a shot in the back courtesy of Jack. Following the end of the mission, a previously disgraced Greer was promoted to a new post in Russia, while Jack was offered Greer's recently vacated post — only for Greer to offer Jack a trip to Moscow in the closing moments of the season.

Here, Cuse and Roland speak with The Hollywood Reporter for a detailed look back at the first season of their Tom Clancy adaptation, the inspiration behind several different plot twists featured in the first eight episodes, what to expect from season two, and why viewers shouldn't count on seeing the Amazon series take on a page-for-page adaptation of one of Clancy's novels any time soon.

With the first season now available, what did you feel you needed to accomplish with your opening run on Jack Ryan?

Graham Roland: The big thing for us was to establish our Jack Ryan and how people really gravitate toward John and accept John in this role, which it seems like they have. The other thing was to put forth the relationship between Jack and Greer as one that is ongoing, and hopefully people will be curious after they've watched the first eight hours to see how it grows and unfolds in the next couple of seasons.

Carlton Cuse: I think a lot of people who make television think about it in terms of trying to make movies for television. But we were really given the resources from Amazon in terms of both money and time to make something that I think truly was cinematic. There's this idea that Jack Ryan could be viewed as really more of an eight-hour summer blockbuster film that you watch streaming versus in a theater. That's something that we very consciously set out to do. 

Does that speak to your approach to the show moving forward — each season as an extended feature film?

Cuse: We're viewing each of these as an eight-hour feature film. We're trying to make it big and cinematic. We're very conscious in the rhythm of our storytelling to make sure that we are irising in and out from intimate scenes to big, giant [scope-filled] scenes that you would expect in a giant action movie. We really are viewing this as though we are doing an eight-hour feature.

Graham, you mentioned the need to end this season with an appreciation for the relationship between Jack and Greer. Jack gets Greer's job, who has gone off to a higher position in Russia, and then receives a final message from Greer: "I booked you a flight to Moscow." What are you hoping to leave the audience with in that final moment?

Roland: Just that [while] Greer went off and took another job, the partnership will continue. 

Should we take it as Russia being a major component for season two? 

Roland: I don't think so, especially now that I have the benefit of knowing what season two is about. But I think more than that, Russia and Greer's geography is an impediment to how these two guys are going to sync back up in season two. I wouldn't look at it as, "They're going to be going up against Russia next year."

Jack ends the season with a major promotion. Is it important to you that each season advances Jack's career, given his arc in the Clancy books, where he eventually becomes the President of the United States?

Cuse: I think each season needs to advance his level of expertise. I don't think either of us are too interested in telling stories about Jack Ryan as the President. It's much more compelling for us to tell stories about Jack Ryan when he's the guy in the trenches. I think the core of this character is that he's an unsung hero that we all hope exists out there between us and the perils of the world. If he elevates too high, I think it takes away from something that, for us, is fundamentally compelling about this character: that he's more relatable to an audience when he's just a cog in the machinery, rather than some sort of super boss.

The finale pulls the curtain back a bit on Jack's own trauma from his past when he was serving as a Marine: a young boy he saved ended up killing himself and a helicopter filled with people in a suicide bombing. Graham, what was the inspiration behind this twist, and how do you feel it changes the audience's relationship with Jack?

Roland: The story of the helicopter crash and Jack's back injury is very much part of Clancy lore, and it's been in all the movies and all the books. But we wanted to put our own fresh twist on it. In the books, I believe the helicopter crash was during a training exercise. We wanted the crash to have all of the same baggage that it carried in the books and all the same weight, but we wanted to have it take place in something that was more contemporary, that people could relate to in our times. So we came up with Afghanistan, which felt real, where he would have been a Marine post-9/11. Then we came up with the backstory, the idea for the little boy being the culprit behind the crash, which kind of came organically from the present day story of Jack trying to save this little boy Samir (Karim Zein), the son of the season's antagonist Suleiman (Ali Suliman) in the present. We felt like it was a great way to put him in almost the same predicament in the present day, as he's still wrestling with this past event which he feels guilty about.

Cuse: Graham is also being a little modest here. You know, parts of this [season] really come from his experience as a Marine, in combat in Iraq. For instance, the idea of these kids who take your picture and then charge you for it was something he experienced as a Marine. It was a great hook-in, and when he was telling me this among other stories, I was like, "That's great." It really helped catalyze the whole change in how we [told] our version of the helicopter story.

Graham, when we spoke before the premiere, you mentioned how one of the essential elements of a Clancy story is the heavy amount of research. In that regard, your own experience as a marine must have been hugely influential in fine-tuning the details of the season.

Roland: Yes, it really was, especially in this season. Like Carlton said, not only with the backstory and the little boy, but just in terms of dialogue, in terms of anything that adds that extra layer of authenticity to it that really puts you in the space and allows you to go along for the ride and accept some of the bigger plot twists. I feel like having that experience helped a lot. I don't think that I could have gotten it just by researching and doing the reading. It helped a lot to have been there.

How did you develop the stakes of the final conflict between Jack and Suleiman, in which Suleiman manages to infect the President of the United States and other key members of his administration, all as a ploy to get them in the same hospital where he can strike even larger damage?

Cuse: When you tell any story, your hero is only as good as his antagonist that he's facing. We put a lot of time and energy into creating a complex, multi-layered antagonist. For us, it was a way to push out beyond some of the Clancy material. We felt as much as we loved Clancy as a franchise, there was room to make the antagonist in our story more complicated and layered. It took a lot of time and work and thinking to come up with something that we felt was a sophisticated and worthy plan [for Suleiman's final act], the whole idea of this terrorist that had a two-step approach. I had a relative of mind who was actually in the bombings in Paris [in 2015], and along with a bunch of other people had rushed into the subway station to escape from the [Stade de France] stadium after bombs went off. He was telling me the story about how claustrophobic and terrifying it was to be down there. It made me think, "Well, what if the terrorists had actually just done the bombings at the stadium as a distraction, and the real intent was to get people into the subway station?" Graham and I just kept riffing on this as a way to figure out this guy's plan. — that this seemingly simpler plan, to infect people with Ebola, was just part of a much more complicated plan to take out the entire leadership of the U.S. government. It felt like our character was smart, and we need to come up with a smart plan for him that was his ultimate goal.

In the end, Jack gets the upper hand on Suleiman by announcing: "We have your son!" It stops Suleiman in his tracks, and allows Jack to take the final kill shot …

Roland: The arc of Sulieman was very much about family versus the mission. It felt like in the moment when he leaves his son with the cops, that he had kind of turned his back on family. But even at the very end, we can see that he's still wrestling with that choice. He's still caught between it. The other reason we staged it the way we staged it is we were trying to call back to the end of episode two where Jack has a chance to shoot Ali [Suleiman's brother and accomplice, played by Haaz Sleiman], but he was just at that point in the story where he didn't have the confidence to take the shot. It's coming back full circle again, where he has a similar moment, and this time, he takes the shot.

The season features the story of a drone pilot, Victor (John Magaro), which only briefly ties into the main narrative when he defies orders and strikes against the man attacking Suleiman's wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi). It ends with Victor traveling abroad and apologizing to the father of another man he mistakenly killed via drone strike. Otherwise, it's completely separate from the main Jack Ryan narrative. What was the motivation behind this storyline?

Cuse: When we were really analyzing the DNA of what we liked in Clancy's books, one of the things was the mosaic storytelling, where you suddenly start a chapter and you meet a brand new character and you have no idea how he's going to cross through the main narrative. And in these 800-page books that Clancy wrote, there was time to do that. The movies basically never had time to do that because they were trying to tell this narrative in a two-hour feature film. We wanted to have stories that resonated on different frequencies. It felt like not every story should be one where militaristically everybody's sort of "rah-rah." We wanted to tell a story where there was a character that was troubled by his involvement, particularly in this weird sort of remote war kind of situation, where he's living in Vegas by day and shooting and killing people by drone at night. It felt counter-punctual in a way that helped make sure that not every story in our show had the same flavor.

Episode five, "End of Honor," culminates in a tense text exchange between Jack and Suleiman, speaking over a video game server. It's easy to imagine a scene like this falling flat, but it's one of the most suspenseful moments of the season. What was the key to cracking this idea?

Cuse: We spent a lot of time trying to find an authentic base to our story. David Chasteen, who is our main consultant and is a former CIA officer, we asked him a lot about, "How do bad guys communicate? And what are interesting ways that they would actually talk to one another that would be outside of the norm and protected?" Out of those conversations, this idea evolved.

Roland: I think what was cool to us about it, too, was the use of something so innocent. A lot of these games are violent, but the idea that this is a child's toy, really, and it's being used for this nefarious purpose, I think was really interesting to us. But also, we just hadn't seen it [on film], and it felt like something cool that we could introduce the audience to.

Carlton, what motivated you to direct the sixth episode of the season, in which Jack and Greer search for Hanin?

Cuse: I felt very deeply connected to the material. Annie Jacobsen and Patrick Aison were the writers for this episode, and there was just something about it that spoke to me. I think one of the things that most excited Graham and I in the storytelling process was the Hanin story. Dina Shihabi is fantastic [as the character]. There's this whole idea that refugees [are demonized], and there's people who label them as being opportunistic — when in reality, nobody wants to be a refugee. We wanted through this story to show the idea that this woman had no other choice in order to save her children — and even so, was only able to save two of the three of them. The struggles and hardships of that journey… I was just very engaged by it, and really felt like I wanted to direct. For me, really, the whole process of Jack Ryan, and being really immersed in this project, doing all the day-to-day showrunning with Graham and being boots on the ground in Morocco for four months last year… it was very creatively inspiring to really drop in on a micro level and tell the story and get a chance to direct this one episode. I just felt a really particularly strong creative affinity for it.

Do you have designs on directing in season two? Same question for you, Graham.

Cuse: I am not directing in season two. A lot of that has to do with everything else that's going on in my life and the way things just worked out. I love directing, but I still love showrunning more.

Roland: I would love to direct one day, it's definitely a goal of mine. On this show, it's a little tricky, because we cross-board all eight hours. When you're signing on to direct an episode of Jack Ryan, you're really not signing on to come and do two weeks of prep and two weeks of shoot. You're coming on for the duration, for six months, because we film everything so spread out. It's not conducive to doing other things, so I don't know that it would work out necessarily on this show, just because I feel like it would take away from the other duties I have to perform in terms of the rewriting of scripts and the overseeing of the production and everything with Carlton while it's going on.

What's the status of the second season, currently under way? How does it differ from season one?

Cuse: We're two months into shooting the second season already. We're really thankful for Amazon's belief and support of the show. They greenlit season two way out in front of [the first season premiere]. We started working on scripts for season two how long ago, Graham?

Roland: I think we opened up the writers room for season two on Oct. 4, 2017.

Cuse: So, it's almost a year we've been working on season two already. We see each one of these seasons like a different book in the series. In the same way that Hunt for Red October is very different than Clear and Present Danger, we're taking these two characters of Jack Ryan and Jim Greer and putting them in a wholly different story — in this case, a political thriller in South America that's kind of an allegory for the decline of democracy. As Graham said, part of the fun of the story is unwinding out of the end of season one, when we know Greer is off to Russia. How do these two characters get back together? What are their relative roles, and how are they involved in this? There's a little bit of carryover where you benefit from seeing season one, but really, you could watch season two and it will be its own narrative.

Is that a goal for you, that each season should feel self-contained, without needing to watch the previous season first?

Roland: Absolutely. I think one of the things that we both talked about when we started coming up with the architecture of the show was that you should be able to watch it in the same way that you can go to an airport bookstore and grab a Tom Clancy Jack Ryan book and never have read the previous one, and still enjoy it. In that same way, you should be able to enjoy our show. It shouldn't be so serialized that you can't jump in at any moment.

In the spirit of grabbing a Tom Clancy book, this process began as an attempt to adapt Clear and Present Danger. Do you have designs on trying that process again — either with that same book, or another one of Clancy's works? 

Roland: I think we're more focused on coming up with our own stories at this point. Not to say that we wouldn't take a little piece here or there [from a specific novel], or even a character from some of the other books that might come into our universe. But I don't ever see us fully adapting a novel.

Cuse: One of the things is… the books were great, but they were very much geo-political thrillers of the time. They were written 30-plus years ago. I think the challenge for us is to come up with our own geo-political thrillers in the hope that in the two years or more that it takes from the inception of writing until they actually drop on Amazon, that they're still relevant. That's the roll of the dice that we have to make.

Respectfully, it's my sincere hope that "the decline of democracy" is less relevant when season two arrives.

Roland: Yeah. (Laughs.) For the good of the world.

Cuse: I think we agree with you!

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