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The Terminal List Is a Muddled Mess of an Action Thriller

An aversion to character development and excessive violence make for a frustrating watch.
  • Chris Pratt in The Terminal List (Photo: Justin Lubin/Amazon Studios)
    Chris Pratt in The Terminal List (Photo: Justin Lubin/Amazon Studios)

    Over the past few years, Amazon Prime Video has solidified its place as the streaming destination for expensive action thrillers, with The Boys, John Krasinski’s Jack Ryan, and recent breakout Reacher topping the charts and dominating the cultural conversation.

    Each of these series have brought something new to both their source material and the genre — be it The Boys’ overt political commentary or Reacher’s nuanced costume design — giving them a leg-up in a crowded streaming landscape. With 500-plus shows debuting every year, existing IP may draw eyeballs, but it’s what you do with those familiar characters that keeps viewers engaged episode after episode.

    Unfortunately this lesson seems to have escaped the team behind The Terminal List, Prime Video’s latest big budget drama (and the streamer’s answer this July 4th weekend to Netflix's blockbuster release of Stranger Things Season 4, Volume 2). Based on the novel of the same name by Jack Carr, The Terminal List stars Chris Pratt as James Reece, a Navy SEAL whose entire platoon is ambushed during a covert mission. When Reece returns home, he begins questioning his memory of the event, and he soon learns dark forces are working against him, endangering his life and the lives of his loved ones.

    As action thrillers go, The Terminal List is about as generic as they come — it’s notably similar to Michael B. Jordan’s Without Remorse, Amazon’s film adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel — and viewers hoping for a violent, fast-paced drama won’t be disappointed. But save for a few brief moments, The Terminal List fails to move beyond its conspiracy plot, and underdeveloped characters and wooden dialogue only widen the gap between the Prime Video drama and its predecessors.

    The Terminal List’s overall blandness is particularly disappointing given its impressive star power in front of and behind the camera. In addition to Pratt, who also serves as an executive producer, the series stars Constance Wu as a journalist investigating Reece’s case, Taylor Kitsch as Reece’s former platoon mate and best friend, and Jeanne Tripplehorn as the secretary of defense, alongside a long list of recurring players that includes Riley Keough, Jai Courtney, and JD Pardo. Behind the scenes, acclaimed film director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, The Magnificent Seven) executive produces, while David DiGilio (Strange Angel) serves as writer and showrunner.

    But even with so many big names on board, The Terminal List seems unsure of what to do with them. Every character in the series functions only to advance Reece’s quest for vengeance — and often the show waits multiple episodes to explain their relationship to the out-for-blood SEAL. Pilot Liz Riley, played by Tyner Rushing, appears in almost every episode and is presented as a major character, but it’s not until Episode 5 that we learn who she is, and why she’s indebted to Reece (in fact, her official character description offers more information than we glean from watch the entire season).

    Over and over, The Terminal List introduces new characters without offering even the slightest hint of information about them, leaving the viewer to muddle through a conspiracy that eventually works its way up to the highest levels of the military. These nefarious businessmen and corrupt officers don’t need a full backstory, but if they’ve found their way onto Reece’s hit list — his "terminal list," that is — we deserve some context upfront about who they are, and how they’re connected to the other sinister figures populating this world.

    The Terminal List’s aversion to character development extends beyond its supporting players; Reece’s interiority is largely left unexplored, and Pratt's gruff performance yields little additional insight. An obligation to his family drives Reece to extreme violence, but beyond his sense of duty and sacrifice, characteristics that apply to nearly every military thriller, we learn little about the man himself.

    The series makes repeated references to Reece’s father, who was also an accomplished SEAL, but stops short of interrogating how this relationship shaped Reece into a man capable of mowing down dozens of people, including other military members. Who is James Reece when he’s not at war with the world? What messages about heroism and American exceptionalism did he internalize from his father and his years of service, and how did they mold his worldview? DiGilio doesn’t seem interested in raising these questions, let alone answering them, a decision that does a disservice to both Reece and the audience.

    As The Terminal List races through plot, it relies on red herrings and graphic violence to carry its story. At various points Reece is forced to choose between pursuing “answers or blood,” and more often than not, he opts for the latter, offing his enemies in increasingly sadistic ways.

    In perhaps the season's most difficult sequence to watch, Reece uses a hand ax to disembowel a sicario, then hangs him by the intestines and instructs him to walk away. When the camera cuts to partner-in-crime Ben Edwards (Kitsch), who looks on with mild discomfort, the series seems to imply that this is a turning point for Reece in his journey from decorated SEAL to domestic terrorist. But if Edwards is concerned about his friend’s mental state, he doesn’t act on it; instead, he continues to help Reece hunt down everyone involved in the conspiracy, moving further up the chain of command with each kill. As a result, this brutal, horrific murder ultimately adds little to the larger narrative, making it seem violence for the sake of violence is the end goal.

    Amid all this carnage, Wu’s Katie Buranek serves as something of a bright spot. As the journalist investigating the plot against Reece, Katie functions as an entry-point for the viewer, and Wu does her level best to give life to a stilted script. Katie is also one of the few characters who gets something approximating a backstory, alhough it’s not fully fleshed out until the penultimate episode: when she was a child, her father took a stand against the Chinese Communist Party and paid the ultimate price, an experience that taught her the importance of speaking truth to power. That sentiment pushes Katie to complete her reporting, even when she finds herself targeted by a host of dangerous players.

    With its in-your-face violence, far-reaching conspiracy, and holiday weekend release, The Terminal List goes to great lengths to establish itself as a tentpole thriller. But by going so big, the series overlooks the smaller moments that fill in the contours of its plot and add depth to the narrative. A big swing only works if you’re willing to actually go big — and a series afraid to even raise the questions it’s pointing towards isn’t going to get the job done.

    All eight episodes of The Terminal List premiere July 1 on Prime Video.

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    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The Terminal List, Amazon Prime Video, Antoine Fuqua, Chris Pratt, Constance Wu, Jai Courtney, JD Pardo, Riley Keough, Taylor Kitsch