My parents always called hospitality a two-way street. They opened door and home to individuals and families, Christ-followers and unbelievers alike, and sought to engage in meaningful ways with those who crossed our doorstep. My parents’ hospitality extended beyond our home and into the streets, effectively utilizing hospitality and its tenets everywhere they went.
At the risk of sounding clichéd, I’d confidently say that hospitality holds a great deal of weight in the hearts and minds of many, Christ-follower or not. Hospitality speaks to an individual’s inherent value and, through self-sacrifice, exudes love. It’s often seen as a product of morality and a virtue in many cultures. In the context of an honor or shame-based culture, it lifts the guest up and bestows upon them an almost tangible value. And in the context of Amazon Prime’s hit series, Jack Ryan, hospitality screams of weightiness.
The sixth episode of Jack Ryan’s first season is somewhat of a departure from the preceding episodes. It follows the devastating realization and subsequent coping methods of a drone pilot, the role of a guest and what makes a bad one, and the weight of an inability to accept hospitality in the name of principle.
The episode, titled “Sources and Methods,” deals with themes of guilt, shame, and radical (or the lack thereof) grace. Jack Ryan struggles with the utilitarianism that his comrade and superior, James Greer, employs through enlisting the help of a brothel owner (one of my favorite characters, the sleazy Tony Ahmet Demir) while American drone pilot Victor Polizzi struggles with the weight of shame after killing an innocent father.
Both men have within themselves a deep-seated virtue that presents itself differently in response to their unique circumstances. Ryan can’t seem to climb down from his seat of justice while Polizzi makes an arguably asinine decision to visit the family of the man whom he killed in an effort to clear his conscience. Their twin weights play out in unique and unexpected ways, with one culminating in even more shame while the other ends in forgiveness.
The episode begins with a main plot point as brothers Ali and Mousa bin Souleiman dig up graves where Ebola victims have been buried. After a quick pivot to Mousa’s fleeing wife and children, we watch Greer lead Ryan to a brothel where they enlist the services of the ever-charismatic Tony. Upon entering, they wade through a waiting room filled with scantily clad courtesans and make their way to a luxurious office where Tony graciously invites them in.
Ryan is uncomfortable from the beginning, which, from a Christian standpoint, is easily understood. Greer, experienced in the art of engaging with those different from himself, readily negotiates terms of employment with Tony while Ryan remains silent. He refuses to engage in any pleasantries out of principle even as Tony continually attempts to meet him in the middle, his hospitality unrequited.
Meanwhile, Polizzi arrives in al-Bab, Syria, a country he has never visited before, with an Adidas duffel bag full of cash. Wide-eyed but determined, he asks around for directions to the home he’s only ever seen from a drone. He walks to the door, hesitates, and knocks.
“I killed your son,” he says when the door is opened.
The first thing Polizzi’s host, the dead man’s father, does upon his arrival is prepare his foreign guest a cup of tea. Polizzi seems unsure of what to say; more than a language barrier exists between them. The father’s green tunic and placid presence evoke hospitality. It fills the space between the two men. The grandson enters the room and Polizzi is faced with both of his consequences: an orphaned child and a man who lived long enough to see his son buried in the earth.
The boy leaves and comes back with three trays of eggs and makes a rubbing motion with his fingers, indicating that he wants Polizzi to buy them. Overjoyed at the opportunity to bless his hosts, Polizzi eagerly gives them the entire sum of cash he recently won at a gambling parlor. He stands and nods at a picture of the grandson and son. With weary eyes and a heavy heart, he says “Your son… I’m sorry.”
The beauty of hospitality, the simplicity of grace, and the weight of a heavy conscience all caught me by surprise in this episode. Earlier episodes had established Jack Ryan as a moralist who stuck to his guns and struggled with the ramifications of his actions even as he watched his coworkers navigate a gray world with ease. They had all died small deaths, killing parts of themselves in order to live.
Ryan’s moralism doesn’t go unnoticed, though. Greer calls him a narcissist for his inability to both let go of his desire for control and relate to others whom he deems beneath him in terms of uprightness. Ryan struggles with stepping down from his high seat as Greer tries to lead (or, perhaps, drag) him down in a manner that enables him to take a realistic, albeit compromising, approach.
James Greer does this openly, though occasionally with a more subtle approach. He prompts Jack to pay the brothel owner as they leave, effectively forcing him to deal with his self-righteousness. Tony, suave and easy-going, graciously accepts the money and sleazily wishes Jack “good luck with the woman” that they’re trying to save with his help.
In a moment of vulnerability at the episode’s end, Greer reveals that he once killed a father in self-defense, but not because he was in any immediate danger. Rather, he acted out of fear, just as Ryan has been doing. Greer tells Ryan that “there is [no] version of this job that does not require compromise,” to which Ryan retorts, “I don’t believe that. I believe that you can make a difference without making those kinds of compromises.”
“I know you do. ‘Cause once upon a time, I used to believe the same f*****g thing.”
Compromise kills. But so does self-righteousness.
Jumping ahead to season three, Ryan is on the run from his own government. In the course of evading authorities, Ryan is given directions to a car mechanic… who happens to be Tony.
“You’ve got to be f*****g kidding me.” Ryan now finds himself in a position where he has no other choice but to accept help from a man he legitimately despised. And as they discuss escape options and current affairs, Tony makes Ryan tea.
What a beautifully ironic picture of hospitality.
Taking the high road is easy if you’re a pharisee. It’s harder if you’re a utilitarian. Jack Ryan is (un)lucky in that he’s both. He engages with a cacophony of voices that encourages him to occupy a seat of justice while at the same time, taking the easier albeit morally ambiguous (and somewhat more “gracious”) path of compromise.
Mike, one of Ryan’s greatest allies and friends, sees his growing propensity for pushing boundaries that need not be pushed, and tells him that he’s “about to cross a line, and there may be no going back.”
To which Ryan can only reply, “I’m trying to do the right thing.”
In the season four finale, Jack Ryan hangs from a ceiling, bare-footed and hands spread out towards the sky. The imagery feels similar to an image I see and think of often, especially considering Ryan’s association with morality.
Rescued from his captors by Mike and quintessential fourth-season addition Domingo Chavez, Ryan makes an appearance on a live-streamed court hearing. When asked about his questionable and illegal methods, he says:
I admit to having ulterior motives… My real goal, however naïve, was to prove to those American people that our system of government as a whole could once again be trusted. I failed. That harsh realization came to me the exact moment that I realized my team was risking their lives.
This moment of vulnerability feels like Ryan’s path of self-righteousness, moral astuteness, cautious compromise, and flat out disregard for consequences in the name of results all coming full circle. And cue Ryan outing Senator Henshaw for his own questionable methods and for enabling a possible terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
I found Ryan’s initial vulnerability to be commendable and I appreciated the writing choices made in this episode. Once he weaponized said vulnerability, however, I was able to reflect more clearly on the trajectory of Ryan’s character development. Ryan’s morality shifts throughout all four seasons. He begins as a just, inflexible, stalwart analyst who’s uncompromising in nature. When he dissents, he picks the hard path and does so in the name of choosing what’s true.
Towards the end of season four, however, Ryan dissents in the name of what’s easy, albeit under the disguise of what’s right. Does he still act in the name of ensuring the safety of the American people and what he loves? Absolutely. But his ideology has shifted; he now makes choices in a utilitarian manner, just like Greer did. Like father, like proverbial son.
During seasons two, three, and four, Ryan loses the attractive naïveté that drew me in during season one. Little by little, he morphed into a type of Greer as the weight of moralism chipped away at his resolve. The thread of hospitality woven into the early episodes unravels towards season three, but its meaning and weight reverberated so strongly that I found myself repeatedly reflecting on its more prominent moments in season one. I viewed the rest of the series through the lens that those earlier moments had created, for by them I saw Ryan better and more fully understood his motivation and character.
Morality is a heavy thing to carry, especially if you happen to work in an environment that deals in morally ambiguous decisions. Some learn to acquiesce to the pressure and expectations. Others, like Polizzi, choose to strive against the current in the name of something better, in the name of the truth.
Granted, this approach’s validity depends on what your definition of “truth” is. Mine is based on the Word of God, and if yours is, too, then we can agree that striving towards truth and grace in the hospitality of relationships is a difficult, convoluted, and often confusing endeavor. But it’s worth it, and, thankfully, it’s not an endeavor that we must pursue alone.