There’s a comforting lack of ambiguity in the world of Dad Media, at least from the perspective of their protagonists.
Dadtagonists (as they will henceforth be named) often represent our idealized way of engaging with the world. As children, we are inundated with the idea of dichotomy. There is good and evil. Right and wrong. Innocence and guilt. Learning about and understanding the complexities of the world is an important part of growing up and establishing a personal code of ethics and morals, which can often lead to a more ambiguous way of viewing and interacting with our society.
But for Dadtagonists like Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher, and Jack Bauer, the world is not so ambiguous. In their worlds, all of which are reflections of our own, the Jacks all have firm moral codes that they adhere to and follow in their jobs and their lives. They have belief systems that transcend the excuses and justifying that government bodies and employees implement when morals are brought into the equation. This comes across as American Manifest Destiny writ into the DNA of the country; The act of “doing good” is never enough, it has to be for some higher purpose or cause. The Jacks have a strict code of ethics that is more akin to a child’s than to an adults. To them, there is right and wrong. Good and bad. Innocent and guilty.
Jack Ryan. The CIA Boy Scout. This nom de guerre is sneered at him often in the books, movies, and now TV show that portray his life. But he’s never taken it personally. Diane described Jack as a man akin to Steve Rogers, of late so fully realized onscreen by Chris Evans, and it’s an apt comparison. Ryan might come across as a little naive compared to his more world-weary colleagues, but the truth is, he just believes in what he’s doing. He’s a humanist. He wants the greatest good for the greatest many. He’s not out for himself or his career, he wants to help people, and he does everything in his power to do so, no matter who or what gets in his way. That, if anything, is his greatest fault, since his desire to help and protect often allows him to be lead around or influenced by those more cynical.
But Jack has an ace up his sleeve: more than even his intelligence, his empathy is his greatest asset. It helps him connect with and understand people. It helps him build allies with other worthwhile members of his community like James Greer and John Clark. This empathy is showcased constantly throughout Ryan’s portrayals onscreen. In The Hunt for Red October, when the Joint Chiefs want to sink the titular submarine if they find it, Ryan is the one who is convinced that it’s captain wants to defect. But even moreso than his belief in that, he simply does not want to see anyone be needlessly killed. Similarly in Clear and Present Danger, the most important thing for Jack becomes saving the soldiers he unwittingly had a hand in putting into danger, even beyond his own safety or the ramifications to his career. Often times in the history of Jack Ryan, he is confronted by a corrupt system propped up by self-righteous, cynical men who attempt to bluff Ryan into joining their ranks, and Ryan calls them on it. He stares down corruption and cynicism with a steely assurance that comes from his absolute certainty in doing what is right.
Ryan’s values and moral certainty are constantly tested by a system put in place and operated by flawed people. Through it all, Ryan holds fast. James Earl Jones’ James Greer gives a speech to Jack during Clear and Present Danger that gives Ryan the perspective to remember that he answers not to the President or any number of officials telling him to what to do, but to the American people. Ryan’s morality comes from a clear sense of wanting to do good, not based on the actual implementation of the flawed American system, but on the ideals it purports to uphold. Like Steve Rogers, Jack Ryan actually embodies those ideals. He’s an aspirational figure, the person we all would want to be in his position, but so often are not.
The dark reflection of Jack Ryan is 24’s Jack Bauer. Bauer’s dark and tortured counter-terrorism agent is all the angst, fury, and confusion of post 9/11 Americans rolled into neck-snapping human form. Like America’s misguided and illegal war on Iraq in 2003, this Jack is a missile crashing through whatever obstacles are in front of him, with little regard for the collateral damage as long as the mission is completed. It’s notable how often Bauer goes off-mission or standard operating procedure to finish the job, shouting to his ever-present handler “Dammit Chloe, there’s no TIME” as he undertakes yet another mission of torture that he takes into his own hands. The show purported to have an unflinching look at “what it took” to stop terrorism and get things done. Jack was our dark angel, a man with a gun and neck-breaking thighs whose moral certainty in his path didn’t let anyone or anything get in his way. Unlike Ryan’s desire to negotiate a flawed system for the purpose of helping people, Bauer’s steadfastness instead would usually just raise the body count.
Both Jack’s operate with a level of moral certainty that belies their government affiliation. While Ryan trusts in the system (to a certain extent) and only when pressed takes matters into his own hands, Bauer operates almost entirely outside of a system, despite being enabled by it. Both men are confident that they are doing what is right, and this rightness comes not from any government body, but from their will to do what they view as the correct course of action. Saving lives is their paramount ideal. But Bauer knows the cost that those ideals can accrue along the way.
Bauer isn’t like Ryan, or Steve Rogers. He doesn’t find a way to save everyone. In Season 6, Bauer is confronted with one of his staunch allies and agents, Curtis Manning, who is about to kill their only lead on a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. Bauer fails to talk Curtis down, and with the clock ticking, he shoots Curtis and saves the terrorists life. Bauer long ago left his desire for normalcy or humanity behind. He is a function of the state, but more than that, he is a function of himself. An anti-terrorist weapon birthed by the American consciousness from our collective pain.
Ryan has rage, like Bauer, but it’s tempered by a family and by a commitment to a system that he works in despite it doing everything to destroy or corrupt him along the way. Ryan doesn’t always win (and Bauer almost never wins…that nuclear bomb ended up going off anyway) but when he does lose, he has his family and friends to back him up. Bauer has no one.
It’s notable that both Jack Ryan and Jack Bauer have stand-offs with Presidents. Ryan confronts his Reagan stand-in in the Oval Office. They parse words and veiled threats, but nothing physical takes place. It’s a heady and gripping scene, with Harrison Ford playing his barely checked rage to a T as he confronts one of the most powerful men in the world with the knowledge that he did something corrupt that cost innocent lives. Ryan knows he might lose by taking a shot, but by god, he’s going to do it anyway. Jack Bauer skips all of that by kidnapping his President from the Secret Service and electrocuting him until he admits his crimes on tape.
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is the most morally ambiguous of the Three Jacks. A product of the US military in basically every respect, he is the son of a U.S. Marine who spent his life on military bases all around the world before joining the Army and being an elite Military Police for 13 years. Following that, he’s since traveled the United States, walking or hitching rides or taking buses, wherever his desire took him. And along the way, trouble always finds him.
Reacher’s morality is both fascinating and simple. He can be both hands off (if you don’t bother him, he won’t bother you) but if he is irked, or if what he distinguishes as something wrong being perpetuated by someone, then he will wipe you from the face of the earth. A colleague once asked Reacher how he felt about killing, and he shrugged it off. When he makes the decision to kill someone, they’ve earned it. He compares them to cockroaches, the world being better off with them dead and gone. Reacher himself is often compared to a wild, feral animal. His hand-to-hand combat instructor in the service referred to fighting Reacher the equivalent of ‘having a running chainsaw thrown at you’. Reacher knows the effect he has on people, and he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on it. It is what it is. In Reacher’s world, there are things you can change, and things you can’t. Black and white. Up and down. Right and wrong.
Jack’s morality is a sort of in-between Ryan and Bauer. Unlike those two, he no longer works for a government body, and mostly exists to serve himself. But when he ends up helping someone through desire or happenstance, he makes it his mission to do everything in his power to save or take lives as is necessary. Very few times will Reacher leave things in the hands of the law. Despite being a former policeman, he finds little comfort in the criminal justice system, instead preferring his own brand of justice which invariably involves removing the offending persons from the Earth.
Reacher is practically an ego-less creature. Utterly at peace with himself, the only time he lets pride get involved in his behavior is when someone has been killed in front of him and he wasn’t able to prevent it. Reacher is a brilliant man, with an analytical, economic mind. He knows casualties in the types of small warfare he finds himself embroiled in are inevitable, but he never forgives himself for it. That is, until he takes out the people responsible.
Reacher is an ultimate example of the Dadtagonist. Due to his lack of connection and accountability to a higher body, he is beholden to no one but his own morality. Without a government institution or bureaucratic oversight, he behaves as he sees fit and best, a freedom that many might find appealing.
The Three Jacks
People like to think the best of themselves. The Three Jacks show us idealized visions of how we perceive different levels of morality implemented on our world, and while they aren’t exactly blueprints for living, they do point us in a direction to behave for the betterment of one another. Well, except maybe not Jack Bauer.
It’s easy to imagine the three Jacks as real people. Ryan using his privilege to help people and work within the system for the betterment of as many people as he can, Bauer using his violence and amorality to try to save even while harming, Reacher using his intelligence and ferocity as a tool to solve problems and help people in need. They are all people we wish we would be, or could be, in their circumstances. The moral certainty at the core of each of the characters is one of the key components that makes Dad Media so popular and endearing.
Be sure to check out the rest of our Dad Media Month articles and reviews as we dive more into this fascinating genre all month long.