This article contains spoilers for The Terminal List.
The Terminal List, starring Chris Pratt as James Reece, a badass SEAL with a recently-diagnosed brain tumor whose entire team was just killed in a suspicious operation gone wrong, is a visually murky, exceedingly grim revenge story, catnip for people who like to see these kinds of operators let loose on the world. As James Reece’s creator Jack Carr—himself a former SEAL with just the kind of bearded, gun-slinging author photo that you’d expect—described the story in the preface to the first book in his Terminal List series: “It is about what could happen when societal norms, laws, regulations, morals, and ethics give way for a man of extraordinary capability, hardened by war, and set on a course of reckoning; a man who is, for all practical purposes, already dead.” The answer to that question will not surprise you: That man, played drawn and weary by a grey-faced Pratt, travels far and wide, a motley crew of allies in tow, to interrogate and then murder gang members, lawyers, financiers, and military personnel in a variety of creative ways. The conspiracy that killed his team gets revealed by bloodshed, and plenty of it.
Yes, this is, as the Daily Beast’s review’s headline called the show, “an unhinged right-wing revenge fantasy.” Yes, it’s yet another invitation to worship at the altar of the Navy SEALs, who have become, in the decades after 9/11, our culture industries’ warrior saints, which isn’t good. And if you think the show is bad, the book, which is fast-paced and bloody and replete with descriptions of weaponry and gear, is worse. Pratt and showrunner David Digilio toned this thing way down for (Amazon) Prime time. Carr tells you right off the bat that his book is about a “consolidation of power at the federal level” that he sees as a danger to “freedom.” He writes Reece’s main antagonist inside the military command structure as a general with “liberal leanings” who “was clearly more concerned with force diversity and the push to open the SEAL teams to females than he was with crushing America’s enemies.” Reece’s ally in journalism is trustworthy because of her work “exposing the lies and cover-ups that followed the Benghazi fiasco.” Reece even drinks Black Rifle Coffee in the morning, “tempered with some honey and cream.” (That last part sounds good, and I’m going to try it.)
But I’m not here to critique those aspects of the show’s worldview. I’m here to talk about the deaths of Lauren and Lucy, Reece’s wife and elementary-school-aged daughter, played on the show by Riley Keough and Arlo Mertz. The two, brunette and beautiful—the wife, a professional runner and running coach; the daughter, an avid artist—welcome Reece home partway through the first episode. We get some sweet family flashbacks, with Reece on the couch strumming a guitar while the three hang out on a rainy day. I watched the show before reading the book, but I should have known from the fact that those flashbacks also feature a bird fatally slamming into their window that something bad was going to happen to these two. But I didn’t guess it, and so was blindsided when Reece, alerted to possible danger when he’s attacked while getting an MRI, races home to find Lauren and Lucy lying between the island and the counter in their beautiful kitchen, both shot to death. Lauren’s arm is draped over Lucy, as if she was trying to protect her in their last moments.
I don’t think zero shows, ever, should kill children. If you look at the “does a kid die?” category on the website Does the Dog Die?, which catalogs other “trigger” events in entertainment besides the canine ones, you find a few examples of shows and movies that earn it. Consider the episode of The Walking Dead when the sisters Lizzie and Mika die—Mika, because Lizzie, understandably fucked in the head due to living through a zombie apocalypse, kills her to make her into a walker; Lizzie, because the adults taking care of her decide she is too far gone, and they don’t have the time, safe harbor, and psychological expertise necessary to bring her back. I’ll never forget those scenes, but I don’t resent the writers for including them. It was an effective way to show how this situation might impact children and the people who take care of them, and a very persuasive argument that living through an apocalypse as a child or a parent would freaking suck.
In comparison to this, a random child death like Lucy Reece’s is a sacrifice: to plot, to momentum, to heighten Reece’s sense of outrage. We barely get to know Lucy at all, except to hear that she likes to draw and loves Reece—the minimum necessary, really, to justify his mission of vengeance. The book’s daughter is only three, and the show has retained her penchant for art while making her much older, around nine or ten, avoiding the sticky problem of showing the body of a murdered toddler. But the show’s Lucy still draws like a baby—the Lucy picture that Reece uses as scratch paper to write out his “terminal list” of revenge targets is a childish image, three figures in front of a house. I don’t point this out to mock this murdered tween’s artistic acumen, but because the show seems to have barely considered her at all. Her death, and her mother’s, have to happen so that Reece can be finally freed from “societal norms, laws, regulations, morals, and ethics.” If your kid gets murdered, after all, you can be forgiven almost anything. Just ask the Punisher.
“I believe God always has a plan. Life is short, no matter what it is,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in May, when asked what he would say to the families of murdered Uvalde elementary-schoolers. How, we ask one another, could a nation regard the random, violent deaths of children in mass shootings and just move on? Shows like The Terminal List represent parental grief as explosive, but also somehow fulfilling—mission-driven, purposive, meaning something. The show holds Lucy at arm’s length in part due to clunky writing, but also to give us just enough of that taste of grief to justify Reece going supernova, without really making you think too hard about how permanently debilitating experiencing such a thing might be for your average, non-operator parent. The Terminal List is a classic American fantasy about the goodness of the SEALs, the corruption of high-level government officials and corporate shills, and the purifying quality of righteous violence. Lucy’s death adds just one more: the fantasy that if your child was the one killed, you could, somehow, shoot your way out of it.