The Terminal List, a new eight-episode series from Prime Video, has been getting surprisingly negative reviews. Slash Film calls it “offensively bad,” and Yahoo! and TV Line labeled it “terminally bad.” While the series hardly breaks any new ground or perfects its genre, it’s a consistently exciting, dark, and twisty action series that isn’t any worse than the average revenge thriller, and is sometimes better. Art is obviously subjective, and there are definitely weak spots and problematic issues in The Terminal List, but it almost seems as if the hostility against the Amazon series is politically motivated.
The Terminal List follows Chris Pratt as James Reece, a Navy SEAL who becomes the only survivor of an ambushed platoon killed over faulty information. Reece begins to suspect foul play, with the military’s claims contradicting his own memories, but is he suffering from war-related PTSD and a brain injury, or actually on the verge of discovering a massive conspiracy? The series, based on the book by former Navy SEAL Jack Carr, is a hybrid of revenge fantasies, political conspiracies, unreliable narrators, and an underused genre in television, the military drama.
The Terminal List Brings the Military to Television
While there are no shortage of war movies, especially movies about World War II, there’s a surprising paucity of military-based shows on television. NCIS and JAG felt less about the military than they were just police procedural and legal drama shows, and M*A*S*H was its own thing (and 50 years old). Other than those, most TV shows about the military don’t last very long; not many people remember The Unit, Valor, The Brave, or Six.
So it’s a bit refreshing to see military themes presented so prominently in a television show like The Terminal List, although they play directly into the possible reason why the military isn’t a popular topic for long-lasting television: politics. There’s a lot of political baggage when portraying the American military, whether one believes it to be justified or not, which prevents some studios from even touching the subject, or from developing projects into something tenable. Both sides of the political aisle can easily criticize media that’s military-based — on the political right, they might find that a television show simplifies, exploits, or unrealistically depicts the experiences of service members; on the political left, they might perceive a series to be glorifying combat or supporting wars they never wanted to wage.
Thus, any reaction to The Terminal List will likely depend on one’s ideologies and beliefs (which is probably applicable to most other media as well, but to a lesser extent). Beyond the politics, however, the series is a rush of adrenaline (and testosterone), filled with compelling action sequences and mostly great performances. Many have commented on Pratt’s performance, again, negatively, but his vacancy and haunted emptiness in much of The Terminal List is actually very appropriate.
Chris Pratt Wants Revenge in The Terminal List
Pratt (who also served as a producer) plays Reece as a man who can only thrive when he’s on a mission; the missions used to come from a trusted and respected source (military command and the U.S. government), but now Reece has been reduced to only one mission: revenge. The first episode, expertly directed by Antoine Fuqua, finds Reece set up in a tragic act that leaves him completely broken and hollow. The only thing he knows to do as a result is to pursue everyone who destroyed his and the men in his platoon’s lives, crossing off perpetrator after perpetrator as he gets closer to the center of the conspiracy.
There’s a reason that revenge thrillers are typically movies — it can get pretty redundant and exceedingly grim watching someone torture and kill people episode after episode. The Terminal List certainly suffers from that redundancy in places, requires some suspension of disbelief, and has also been accused of being overly serious as a result. While it’s true that this series is incredibly gloomy, the darkness works. Pratt completely abandons all the charming comedy seen in his career, developed from Andy Dwyer in Parks and Recreation to Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy, and instead dives deep into the void of suffering. Reece is a man in immense pain, and his only mission left in life is to deal out that pain to those who are responsible for it.
The Terminal List is arguably at its best when the viewer isn’t entirely sure if Reece is a vindicated protagonist or a mentally deteriorating madman with a reality-shattering brain tumor. That kind of gray area is interesting and makes the audience and other characters’ relationship with Reece much more complex, and also sets Reece apart from the typical vengeance-thirsty heroes of John Wick, Kill Bill, and Taken. Having Reece be an unreliable narrator gives an added weight to the action sequences and (many) kill scenes; they become almost queasy with ambivalence, interrogating the murky ethics of revenge thrillers themselves. When the series finally veers into certainty, it loses that fascinating ambiguity.
Nonetheless, The Terminal List remains entertaining (in a morbid and somewhat depressing way) throughout. Taylor Kitsch is phenomenal as one of the few trusted friends Reece has left in the world, and even the bitter reviews that panned the show point out his soulfulness and magnetic appeal. Constance Wu is also excellent as a journalist who alternates between believing Reece’s grand narrative of political conspiracies and fearing him as a mentally disturbed soldier on a killing spree. This very funny actor (from Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians) also sheds all her comedic timing and instead sinks into the darkness of this show. However, it’s fundamentally Pratt’s platform.
The Conservative Politics of The Terminal List
The Terminal List manages to criticize aspects of corruption within the military and the government while also outright honoring and respecting them as American institutions. It almost exhaustively discusses ‘brotherhood’ and ‘doing the right thing,’ and is very concerned with moral values (violence, on the other hand, is treated as a necessity rather than an ethical problem). While its sensibilities may make more politically sensitive, liberal-minded viewers a bit uncomfortable, the series can simply appeal to fans of action and conspiracy thrillers. One doesn’t need to show their party affiliation before watching this series, which is ultimately more about excitement and thrills than ideology.
If The Terminal List is political, though, then it’s resolutely conservative (family values, Second Amendment rights, supporting the troops, taking hunting trips, and so on), and might as well be packaged in camouflage. This might be the reason why The Terminal List has been the recipient of the heavily critical aforementioned reviews. Pratt, the face of the show, seems to be aligned with its themes, and the media has certainly painted him as a hardcore conservative (with many condescendingly labeling him as ‘the worst Chris’ as a result).
Not the Worst Chris
There was social media ‘outrage’ over the fact that Pratt had allegedly attended what many have called a homophobic church, and the actor has been accosted for his (or what is perceived as his) conservative beliefs and spirituality, with Marvel fans wanting him removed from Guardians of the Galaxy. Many mocked him for his speech at the MTV Awards, in which he said, “God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you.” The thing is, Pratt is much more considerate and thoughtful than he is made out to be, and a lot more three-dimensional than he is portrayed by the media. Pratt explained his religious beliefs to Men’s Health in a candid, wonderful way:
Religion has been oppressive as f-ck for a long time. I didn’t know that I would kind of become the face of religion when really I’m not a religious person. I think there’s a distinction between being religious — adhering to the customs created by man, oftentimes appropriating the awe reserved for who I believe is a very real God — and using it to control people, to take money from people, to abuse children, to steal land, to justify hatred. Whatever it is. The evil that’s in the heart of every single man has glommed on to the back of religion and come along for the ride.
All this to say, Pratt, like The Terminal List itself, may erroneously seem extremely conservative and closed-minded to some (and “offensively bad” to Slash Film), but is actually more complicated and pensive than first appears, and pretty entertaining to boot. The Terminal List debuts July 1st on Prime Video.