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The Terminal List

‘The Terminal List’ and the Wildfire of Revenge

April 13, 2023


(This article contains spoilers for the show)

From Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars to Mel Gibson’s Payback to Liam Neeson’s Taken to Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, anger and vengeance are often explored and displayed in cinema. Recently, Chris Pratt’s wildly popular series The Terminal List, based on Jack Carr’s novel, adds another notable notch in the genre’s legacy. 

In the show, Pratt plays the part of Navy SEAL Commander James Reece, whose entire platoon dies at the show’s outset in a high stakes underground mission—Operation Odin’s Sword—with Reece as the only survivor. After returning stateside and horrifically experiencing the murder of his wife and daughter (which he concludes correlates with the mysterious ambush of his platoon), the unspeakably wounded and enraged commander uses his extensive experience to investigate and hunt down those responsible.

Throughout the course of the show, Reece develops “the terminal list”—the list of persons he learns are responsible for the deaths of those he loved. Notably, James’ “terminal list” is written on the back of a crayon drawing of his family that was given to him by his daughter, Lucy. 

As he discovers the magnitude and complexity of the plans that led to their deaths with the help of Katie Buranek (Constance Wu), a seasoned war correspondent for Voltstreem News who is sympathetic to the wounded commander, James begins to add names to—and cross names off of—the list. He is helped further by Ben Edwards (Taylor Kitsch), a CIA operative who, as a former Navy SEAL, was Reece’s teammate for a time.

While, without question, murder is never the acceptable answer, James’ initial interior reaction to the deaths of those closest to him is, if we are truly honest, understandable. Placing oneself in James’ shoes would carry an unimaginable mental and psychological weight, certainly not considering the uninvited and forceful power of the hallucinogenic PTSD, paranoia, and memory confusion that haunted him due to all of the trauma and loss.

Acknowledging our emotions doesn’t mean that we give them the driver’s seat. 

Yet as James chooses to feed vengeance and act upon his twisted interior desires, the list lengthens. As Reece ceaselessly fixates on the list’s completion—likely due further to the complication of a progressing brain tumor—the weight of his anger, unforgiveness, and revenge take on a consuming nature. This situation is undoubtedly complex. 

Sadly though, with each person he crosses off the list, James seems to become more and more dead inside, with the end of the show culminating in a real spiritual death. It’s almost as if the end of the terminal list denotes not just the deaths of those involved, but also of James’ own interior psychological/spiritual death.

While the murders of those James adds to his list are quite gruesome (as, truthfully, is the diabolic nature of sin in our hearts), there were two scenes that really struck me as revealing of how radically the anger, resentment, and, ultimately, unforgiveness transform him.

Near the end of the completion of his list, Reece seeks to eliminate Lorraine Hartley (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the Defense Secretary who, he believes, was ultimately most responsible for the situation. Upon entering Hartley’s safe room, he finds Katie—the reporter who was, in fact, gathering information to expose Hartley’s crimes—standing in between Reece and his last name to be crossed off. 

While Reece staggers for a moment due to his wounds, Katie pulls out the list from his pocket and flips the page to the side of his daughter’s drawing, which reveals Lucy, James, and her mom. Katie pleads, “Look at this. Look. [Lucy] looked at you, and this is what she saw. You can still be this.” In this intense moment, Katie reminds him and calls him back to his fatherhood. Katie knows that fatherhood is not about revenge, destruction, and death—it’s about protection, care, and life. At this point, however, James is so emotionally stone cold that he appears to not even hear her plea. Certainly, while Reece endured great psychological weight that affected him and his decision-making, the enraged Navy SEAL commander so allowed anger and the desire for revenge to consume him that in this moment, he appears to be a shell of a man.

This transformation manifests fully at the end of the show, when James learns that the final name to be added and crossed off of the list was, in fact, his CIA brother in arms, Ben. Throughout the show, Ben had helped him to seek the vengeance of his enemies, but he was also a part of the initial scheme of subverting Odin’s Sword for financial benefit. At this point, anger and revenge have taken root so deeply in Reece’s heart that he coldly and unquestionably finished the list by taking Ben’s life—a brother who indeed had betrayed him, but a brother nonetheless. (My mind jumps here to Jordan Peterson and his reflections on Cain and Abel.) While James’ platoon and family died regrettable yet innocent deaths, Jame’s personal, psychological/spiritual death feels like a loss immeasurably more grave.

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In the Gospels, Jesus shows that the path of forgiveness is a primary mission of the Christian. Jesus’ Crucifixion was his ultimate embodiment of forgiveness; of choosing not to retaliate out of anger against those who savagely abused him, both physically and psychologically. What was an impossible response for man was not impossible for the God-man.

Regardless, for us imperfect human beings, forgiveness is a process and, most definitely, will never be easy. Jesus said that we must forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times (Matt. 18:22). As he lived for thirty-three years before his offering of his life upon the cross, Jesus certainly had many opportunities himself to offer forgiveness to individuals repeatedly.

Ultimately, forgiveness requires us not to dismiss but to acknowledge our pain, grief, and sadness. (Think here of Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out.) Undoubtedly, it would have been not only impossible but also wrong for Reece to simply move on from what had happened. The innocent loss of life needed grieving—and facing the anger that comes with that. Yet acknowledging our emotions doesn’t mean that we give them the driver’s seat. 

In the cleansing of the temple, Jesus shows that emotions can and must be felt and acknowledged, not repressed. Yet he also shows that a holy/righteous anger needs a trajectory not at the persons but at the issues at hand. Jesus’ anger is also in relation to justice and true charity. He reprimands James and John, the “sons of thunder,” as their angry zeal toward the inhospitable Samaritans was rooted in resentment, not true justice or charity, hence, having a bent toward vengeance (Luke 9:51–56).

Knowing that the human person and the process of forgiveness are both unfathomably complex, a person will never be able to forgive if they continually feed the resentment and anger that come from certain memories and wounds, no matter how traumatic or deep. Ultimately, these places of woundedness and hurt need to be given away—for us Christians, given to Jesus. (For some help with this, check out Sr. Miriam’s Forgiveness Meditation.) Even if there only seems to be a small amount of anger, resentment, and unforgiveness in the heart about a situation, much caution should be taken. If unacknowledged, unhealed, and undirected, resentment, anger, and unforgiveness can quickly turn into a wildfire of vengeful destruction.

The Terminal List is a powerful, real, yet heartbreaking depiction of a complexly traumatic situation. I think that the show also portrays what anger, resentment, and unforgiveness can do in the human heart. Indeed, trauma and its immeasurable pain are complex, and experiencing healing and embracing forgiveness is a painful and messy process. Yet our faith tells us that, through Christ and the consistent commitment to the journey, both are possible and can be known. 

May we all pray for those who have been deeply wounded and carry the weight of immense trauma, for those who serve in our military, and for those who struggle or find it impossible to forgive. These are brothers and sisters desperately in need of help.