The following contains spoilers for The Terminal List.
Amazon’s new TV series The Terminal List has critics enraged. The Daily Beast describes it as an “Unhinged Right-Wing Revenge Fantasy.” The Guardian opines: “It’s clear that The Terminal List is an ill-concealed rightwing conspiracy. . . . television this hilariously bad is rare.” Professional critics are leveling a singular, behemoth charge against the show: It is conservative propaganda. Audiences, however, have not shared that response. It was the most popular show on Amazon the week after it was released, and is highly rated on the platform, with over nine thousand reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, the average audience score is 94 percent, while the average critic score is a dismal 40 percent.
The show follows Navy SEAL James Reece (Chris Pratt) after his entire platoon is ambushed and killed on a covert operation. Upon returning home, Reece discovers an intricate government coverup of the disastrous mission, motivated by a corrupt pharmaceutical experiment on his platoon. As Reece uncovers the truth, his family becomes a casualty of this conspiracy; his wife and daughter are murdered. Reece crafts a list of those involved in the death of his platoon and family and begins systematically executing vengeance on each.
The show is, simply put, about vengeance. Many recent films center around the theme, such as The Batman and John Wick. Both films, however, received mostly positive reviews from critics and audiences. So what distinguishes The Terminal List from other tales of vengeance, and what makes is so appalling to elite media critics?
The show’s treatment of justice—its rejection of a subjective moral order enforced by a tyrannical government—is an offense to a media critic class that has abandoned traditional conceptions of morality and replaced them with an ideology crafted by intellectual elites.
In the traditional biblical narrative, vengeance is exacted first by God. The psalmist cries out, “O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongs, show thyself!” Elsewhere, “The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.” Scripture assumes that vengeance is the natural response to the injustice of the world. However, individual vengeance is to be tempered by the received law of God and governmental authorities. The government too is under a divinely revealed standard of justice. The apostle Paul declared that governing authorities do not “bear the sword in vain,” for they are “a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
In the post-Enlightenment liberal world, the very concept of an objective standard of justice has been abandoned. Rather, man erects whatever framework of morality lessens human discomfort and prevents the summum malum. This societal framework can be altered, often by a select few elites who believe that they have grasped the errors of the past. C. S. Lewis called these elites the “moral innovators,” seeking to establish a framework of justice that ultimately is nothing more than an ersatz religion enforced by tyranny.
The Terminal List does not portray this modernist framework of justice. When the institution of government fails to punish evil, and indeed perpetrates it, Reece exacts just retribution. He is not pursuing his own subjective framework of justice. Rather, Reece is willing to perish in pursuit of vengeance, as justice cannot be satisfied with anything less than complete execution of his list. When Reece is confronted by an armed FBI agent near the end of the show, he resolutely walks away from the agent, stating that he is “already dead.” The agent, who has been investigating Reece, allows him to leave. He deems Reece’s actions just.
The final two individuals on Reece’s list are Secretary of Defense Lorraine Hartley (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and Reece’s close friend Ben Edwards (Taylor Kitsch). Hartley authorized the corrupt pharmaceutical testing and justifies her actions by arguing that the drug could lead to an eventual decrease in military casualties and trauma. Ben discloses that he organized corrupt intelligence that led to the death of Reece’s platoon. He reasons that their death in battle spared them from the pain of cancerous tumors that resulted from the drug testing.
The evil of these deceptive actions is shown to be unjustifiable. This is made clear when Hartley takes her own life as Reece confronts her. She recognizes that she rightly deserves death. Ben likewise does not attempt to escape what is due. Both Hartley and Ben have justifications for their actions, but they understand that justice demands punishment when Reece confronts them.
The “moral innovators” of the show—the government and large corporations running the drug test—commit murderous atrocities that offend the basest standard of morality. So too, in our world, the expert, managerial class believes it knows better than those who are directly impacted by its twisted standard of morality. If one dares to raise objections, to suggest that its actions offend the obvious moral boundaries of reality, he or she is declared a bigot, an enemy of “progress.” The modern tyranny of gender ideology—the present moral “innovation” that must not be opposed despite its obvious perversion of the human body, destruction of children, and corruption of education—is the clearest example.
The harsh critics of The Terminal List implicitly understand the threat of an objective moral standard; a standard that overrules even their elite class. For them, even an implicit recognition of this standard makes the show “a grim, chaotic, and nonsensical journey into domestic terrorism.” Meanwhile, the same media outlet will praise a feminist revenge fantasy film (Promising Young Woman), in which a woman attempts to seduce men and torture them for previous sins.
While critics spew outrage, audiences are enjoying a show that doesn’t attempt to propagate a revision of the moral order, but rather recognizes and engages the human desire for ultimate justice when society’s institutions fail. These opposing responses reveal the rift that runs through American culture and institutions. It is a division not of aesthetic taste but of moral and ideological foundations.
Caleb Symons is an undergraduate student at Patrick Henry College studying journalism.
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