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The Entire Jack Ryan Timeline Explained

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series has entertained book readers since the character's introduction way back in "The Hunt for Red October" novel released in 1984. Since then, the CIA analyst has appeared in over 21 books and spin-offs, which combine to create a massive universe jam-packed with popular side characters and captivating plots centered around politics and covert missions executed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). 

Naturally, Hollywood took notice of Ryan's popularity and has tried time and again to craft its own extended Ryanverse via films and television. While early entries such as John McTiernan's "The Hunt for Red October" and Philip Noyce's double whammy of "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" proved to be lucrative at the box office, subsequent attempts at adapting Clancy's novels have failed to ignite the box office. As such, Ryan has seen an absurd number of reboots that have all but destroyed any hope of continuity and/or structure within the franchise. How does one view the Jack Ryan timeline? Is it possible to view the series in sequential order? 

Do not fret, dear readers. We're here to set your mind at ease by explaining the entire Jack Ryan timeline. Let's do this.

Without Remorse introduces John Clark

There's no indication as to where Stefano Sollima's "Without Remorse" fits within the Jack Ryan timeline. So, we're going to use Tom Clancy's novels as a template. As written, "Without Remorse" serves as a prequel to the Ryanverse and introduces Navy SEAL John Clark, a prominent figure in the series. In the book, Clark (known as John Kelly early on) incurs a personal tragedy that leads him to exact revenge on street gangs in and around Baltimore. He also engages in a covert military operation, meets a young Jack Ryan, and eventually adopts the name John Clark. It's a solid prequel.

In the 2021 film, Clark (as Kelly) is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, and similarly suffers a personal tragedy — the death of his pregnant wife at the hands of Russian FSB operatives — that leads him down a dark path filled with violence and vengeance. During his journey, we're introduced to Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) and a very young Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) — figures who will play a prominent role in the franchise moving forward. 

While there's no mention of Jack Ryan, Ritter and Clark do discuss "Rainbow," a counter-terrorist team that serves as the backbone Clancy's "Rainbow Six" novels as well as the popular video game series. Confusion abounds, however, as "Without Remorse" the novel was set in the 1970s, sometime before Ryan's series begins, while the film adaptation kicks off in the present day.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit covers Jack's early days

"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" may be nothing more than a hodgepodge of tired action tropes, but there's still excitement to be had in exploring Jack Ryan's early days as an undercover CIA operative. In this outing, the hero is played by Chris Pine and still working his way back from an injury sustained in a helicopter accident. It's here that he meets future Mrs. Ryan, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), a medical student with lofty career ambitions. Romance strikes at the wrong time, however, as Jack is recruited by CIA agent Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) to covertly monitor Wall Street for terrorist activity. The assignment leads Jack to Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed), a Russian businessman who plans to destroy the United States' financial infrastructure. 

With the plot established, Jack ventures into the dangerous world of espionage where he morphs into Jason Bourne — a departure from the books as Tom Clancy's hero was never a field agent. He battles ruthless henchmen and engages in atypical high-speed chases and fist fights, all the while attempting to forge a relationship with Cathy. At the film's end, Jack heads to the White House, presumably to take up a more prominent position in Washington D.C. 

Jack Ryan Season 1 also deals in origins

After the failure of "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" at the box office, Amazon attempted to reboot the Tom Clancy franchise (again) via the television series "Jack Ryan" starring John Krasinski as the titular character. Once again, we see his origins, his first dealings with Cathy Mueller (Abbie Cornish) as well as a young James Greer (Wendell Pierce). We learn about his helicopter accident and witness Jack's ascension from desk analyst to field operative as part of the Terror, Finance, and Arms Division (T-FAD) of the CIA. 

Jack takes on an Islamic terrorist named Mouse bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman) who plans to infect America with the Ebola virus (a plot point lifted from Clancy's "Executive Orders"). Luckily, our boy manages to save the day and make things right with Cathy, who is none too happy to discover that her boyfriend works for the CIA. By the season's end, Jack replaces Greer as head of T-FAD after he rises to deputy station chief in Moscow, setting the stage for further adventures.

While not perfect, "Jack Ryan" does a far better job balancing action with smarts and feels more in line with Clancy's novels, particularly with how it utilizes real-world events and politics to frame its story around. We're still in the early stages of Ryan's storied career, however — a trend that unfortunately continues in the next entry.

The Sum of All Fears features a low-level Jack Ryan

If one were trying to watch this franchise in order, then it makes sense to place "The Sum of All Fears" between the first two seasons of "Jack Ryan." Once again, we get an origin story for our hero, this time played by a young Ben Affleck. We go through the rudimentary procedures — how Jack meets Cathy (this time played by Bridget Moynahan), his days working as a low-level analyst at the CIA, and his introduction to the inner workings of the government via the Greer-like William "Bill" Cabot (Morgan Freeman). Except for this time the filmmakers have the good sense to use one of Tom Clancy's books as a guide, even if director Phil Alden Robinson and writers Paul Attansio and Daniel Pyne change much of the material.

"The Sum of All Fears" follows Jack as he attempts to stop a war from starting between the United States and Russia after a group of neo-Nazis destroys the Super Bowl stadium with a nuclear weapon. Our boy engages in atypical action beats and even goes on a sojourn with a young John Clark (here played by Liev Schreiber) before using his wits to convince the President of the United States (James Cromwell) from attacking Russia in retaliation. He proposes to Cathy and the couple enjoys a romantic picnic whilst witnessing a peaceful union between the U.S. and Russia.

Jack Ryan Season 2 sees Jack come into his own a bit

After a surprisingly thrilling first season, Amazon's "Jack Ryan" fizzled out relatively quickly in its sophomore frame. While John Krasinski and Wendell Pierce are perfectly fine their respective roles as Jack Ryan and James Greer, the series posits them within a generic action plot designed around the CIA's efforts to stabilize Venezuela. Notably absent on this go round is Cathy Mueller, replaced instead by the mysterious Harriet Baumann (Noomi Rapace), who seduces and then uses Jack for her own devices.

Still, after several reboots and prequels, it's nice to see Jack finally come into his own, even if his actions in Season 2 are far too outlandish to take seriously. The character is at his best when he's solving problems in Washington or thrust into combat against his will. Jack Ryan is not an action hero, but a thinking man who leans more on his vast intellect than his physical strengths. 

With "Jack Ryan" Season 3 on the horizon, one can only hope the showrunners learned from their mistakes and will mold the character into something resembling his book counterpart moving forward. Michael Peña joining Krasinski as Domingo "Ding" Chavez certainly demonstrates a step in the right direction.

The Hunt for Red October is an incredible one-off

Just to recap, the order of the films/shows presented above doesn't follow the order in which the Jack Ryan films/show were released. "Without Remorse," for example, hit Amazon Prime in 2021, while "The Sum of All Fears" was released in 2002. To confuse you even further, John McTiernan's "The Hunt for Red October" arrived in 1990 and is technically the first Jack Ryan film produced. Also, "Red October" was Clancy's first Jack Ryan novel, though the acclaimed author would go on to write prequels such as "Without Remorse" and "Red Rabbit." 

Yet, McTiernan's picture doesn't function as an origin story. Actually, the plot mainly focuses on Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), the commanding officer of a submarine called Red October, and his efforts to defect to the United States. Jack Ryan, here played by Alec Baldwin, certainly figures prominently in the story as he attempts to convince Washington of Ramius' intentions, but we don't spend much time on his personal life. Oh sure, we see glimpses of Cathy (played by "Star Trek: The Next Generation" alum Gates McFadden) and Sally and learn about Ryan's helicopter accident and his longtime friendship with Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones), but mostly in passing. 

"The Hunt Red October" isn't interested in establishing a franchise but in telling its own unique story. The results are undeniably thrilling and we only lament that those involved in the production didn't return for more.

Jack retires from the CIA and suddenly turns 50 in Patriot Games

Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan offered something entirely new, for better and for worse. The Indiana Jones star fits the role like a glove, embodying Ryan's casual everyman demeanor to perfection. The problem is, Ford's entries are far too removed from "The Hunt for Red October" to serve as anything more than spiritual sequels. Indeed, "Patriot Games," the second Ryan film released, presents a much older Jack Ryan, long retired from the CIA — except, Sally is only a few years older and now played by Thora Birch, while Anne Archer now inhabits the Cathy Ryan role. Making things even more confusing, James Earl Jones reprises his "Red October" role as Admiral James Greer.

What gives? Why not just bring back Alec Baldwin and make a direct sequel to "The Hunt for Red October?" According to Baldwin, he was basically discarded in favor of Ford, who was seen as more bankable in the early '90s. As such, the series was basically rebooted with Ford assuming Ryan's duties, though one can certainly fill in the gaps by pretending Baldwin's iteration of the character was much older than initially thought ... or just completely forget about age and go with the random time jump because both "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" are solid thrillers. 

Patriot Games finds Jack returning to the CIA

Harrison Ford's journey as Jack Ryan begins with 1992's "Patriot Games," a dark political thriller that eschews much of Tom Clancy's novel for a simplistic, albeit intense, crowd-pleaser. As stated above, the film finds Ryan, now retired from the CIA, enjoying life as a professor at the United States Naval Academy. While giving a lecture in London, Ryan thwarts an attack on the queen's cousin attempted by a renegade faction of the IRA. In the confusion, terrorist Sean Miller (Sean Bean) is captured while his brother is shot and killed by Ryan. Miller vows revenge, escapes prison, and targets Ryan's pregnant wife and daughter.

As a result, Jack is forced to return to the CIA where he enlists the aid of Admiral James Greer to seek out and eliminate Sean Miller and his band of terrorists before their actions cause further harm. Various plots collide in an action-packed climax that sees Miller and Co. attack Ryan's home and again attempt to kidnap members of the royal family. Luckily, Ryan saves the day and manages to kill Miller following a violent hand-to-hand fight atop a speeding boat. 

Months later, the Ryans debate about whether they want the sex of the newest member of their family revealed. The film ends before we hear the gender, necessitating audiences to tune in to "Clear and Present Danger" for the answer.

Jack continues working for the CIA in Clear and Present Danger

"Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" remain the only entries in the Jack Ryan franchise that operate in tandem, even if they remain decidedly standalone vehicles. For example, in "Clear and Present Danger," we learn that Jack and Cathy (Archer, again) had a son in-between films — a plot thread left hanging at the end of "Patriot Games" — who they dub Jack, Jr. The kid is shown briefly in an early scene that brings back Thora Birch as Sally, but the kids don't figure into the plot on this go-round. In fact, the events of "Patriot Games" are never mentioned, not even in passing.

No matter. At the beginning of "Clear and Present Danger," the Ryans are essentially where we left them, albeit in a different home and packing a little more age and wisdom under their belts. At some point, President Bennett (Donald Moffat) takes office and James Greer contracts cancer. Around this time, Felix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida) — drug kingpin Ernesto Escobedo's (Miguel Sandoval) right-hand man — begins dating Moira Wolfson (Ann Magnuson), the executive secretary to the FBI Director, and plots to overthrow his boss. 

The plot in "Danger" kicks off when a friend of President Bennett is murdered (along with his wife and daughter) aboard a yacht by Escobedo's men. Ryan is put in charge of the case and once again finds himself stuck dealing with everything from corrupt politicians to dangerous hitmen.  

Clear and Present Danger puts Jack in the lead

As a result of the crime against his former acquaintance, the president orders a war in the heart of Colombia. He plans to strike back at the cartels on their own turf in the hopes of decreasing the number of drugs pouring into the United States. He instructs National Security Advisor James Cutter (Harris Yulin) and CIA Deputy Director of Operations Robert Ritter (Henry Czerny) to execute the operation and they secretly send John Clark (played here by Willem Dafoe) and a small militia into the South American jungles to sabotage kingpin Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval).

Ryan inadvertently finds himself in the middle of the operation after taking over as deputy director of Intelligence following James Greer's sudden hospitalization for pancreatic cancer. His position places him at the forefront of the President's violent secret war, dubbed Operation Reciprocity, which leads to collateral damage on both sides. At one point, Felix Cortez, seeking to gain control of Escobedo's empire, stages an attack against a U.S. convoy consisting of Ryan, FBI Director Emil Jacobs, and several others. The Americans strike back by wiping out several of Colombia's biggest drug criminals with a laser-guided missile — an action that gains Ryan's attention. 

Later, Cortez meets with Cutter and offers valuable intel on Escobedo in exchange for the location of Clark's unit. As such, Cutter suggests to the president that they shut down the mission, having achieved a modicum of success. Unfortunately, this decision leaves Clark's men stranded in South America.

Jack's cinematic journey ends in Clear and Present Danger

Ryan manages to hack into Ritter's computer and obtains evidence linking the president to Operation Reciprocity and learns that he himself is neck deep in this secret war. In fact, Ryan inadvertently lied to Congress when he requested funds to battle the drug cartels and gave his word that no troops would be used in the exercise. In other words, he's in big trouble.

The next day, James Greer dies, leaving Ryan even more vulnerable to his enemies, notably Cutter and Ritter. Ryan heads to South America and teams up with John Clark to rescue his troops, who have been taken prisoner by Felix Cortez. (Note that this is the first and last time Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan meets John Clark.) After an intense action sequence, Ryan, Clark, and his surviving unit escape Columbia, leaving Cortez and Escobedo dead in their wake.

Ryan confronts the president over his actions and informs the commander in chief that he will not play by their rules. Our hero then prepares to reveal the truth of the president's actions before the Congressional Oversight Committee and Ryan's cinematic journey concludes there.

Where Jack's story goes after the films end

Sadly, "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" marked Harrison Ford's last appearance as the Tom Clancy's famed hero. A shame, really, as the novels take Ryan in some very interesting directions. Initially, the plan was to adapt "The Sum of All Fears" as a vehicle for Ford, which makes sense as the novel takes place immediately after the events of "Clear and Present Danger" and sees Ryan promoted to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence. 

In the ensuing novel, "Debt of Honor," Ryan steps into the role of national security advisor and is forced to become president of the United States following a terrorist attack that wipes out the current office. Many of the later stories detail Ryan's attempts to navigate the treacherous political waters of Washington whilst making his bid for future terms. He incurs several problems but manages to serve in the office for several years before the series shifts its focus to his son, Jack Ryan, Jr. 

Everything was in place for Ford to inhabit the role for quite some time. Since his departure, the Ryan series has had difficulty establishing itself within the modern cinematic landscape, despite a plethora of material to work from. Hopefully, someone will go back to the beginning and give us a proper Jack Ryan series — maybe even "Rainbow Six" — sometime in the near future... Just no more origin stories, please.