The Terminal List Creator David DiGilio Breaks Down Season 1 [Spoiler Interview]

"There was a reason the Department of Defense didn't give us support for this," David DiGilio told us in a recent interview. 

The Department of Defense is not a fan of author Jack Carr's series of novels about NAVY Seal James Reece, who is played by Chris Pratt in the Prime Video adaptation. DiGilio, who serves as the showrunner of that series, didn't want to stray away from the criticisms of broken chains of command and bad decision-making. It's a show that points fingers at the powerful. 

It's also, first and foremost, a revenge story. Throughout the journey, Reece rarely questions his actions, but as an audience, we do. He puts lives at risk, including his friends. It's a story of obsession and revenge: The good, the bad, and the ugly. And as DiGilio told us during our conversation about season 1 of "The Terminal List," things get messy.

'True journalists are incredible people of integrity who are compelled by truth and accountability'

How has the last week been?

Oh, it's been epic. Absolutely epic. The fan response has been bonkers, and I think it was just announced that the show was the number one show on Prime Video last weekend, so it beat "The Boys," which is nuts.

Did Amazon tell you how many people watched it?

I don't know if they're going to reveal the actual numbers. My last show, "Strange Angel," was for a streamer, but it was CBS All Access. It was such a small platform at the time. They never shared any numbers. Now that Nielsen's starting to track independently, we're reaching a world where I don't know if they want to share or they're reluctantly sharing, but when something does well, they share. We got the news from the social team sharing the asset of, "The number one series on Prime Video this [last] weekend." Everyone over there sounds pumped.

When you get to the end of the story, you make it very clear Katie (Constance Wu) is the hero of the story.

Yeah, I love that. I will tell you the one bummer for me about the critical response is that it feels like it's trying to politicize the show. People from both sides of the aisle made the show. The most important thing was making sure that we authentically portrayed the warrior ethos from all sides. We have people who have lived it and we have people who are coming into it and observing it through Katie, through Tony Layun, played by JD Pardo. On the other side, you have Reece, you have Ben, Hartley, all of these people who have lived inside it.

And so, it's not a political show. It is a show that is about an authentic experience that does not get portrayed very much on screen these days, which is really too bad and needs to be portrayed more, and that was the only thing. The show, there will be people who maybe it's too dark for. It's pretty violent, but it is entertaining. If you don't come in trying to politicize it, it's just an awesome ride and an incredible look at a character who is a massive character. James Reece has an enormous following, and is an incredible portrayal of that warrior spirit. We're really pumped about it, because it's really connecting with people.

It's interesting: Those questions or thoughts about its politics did cross my mind, but in the end, I also thought, "Well, big pharma, a politician, and the powerful are the villains. Even in the end, a soldier, too, can be corrupted."

Yes. Yes, exactly. And that's the most painful of betrayals is your brother in arms. I mean, that final scene with those two guys is one of the greatest scenes I've ever been a part of. Chris and Taylor [Kitsch], from the moment they met on Zoom, they just had it. They had this friendship. You see the pain of that moment.

I think because they're such talented actors, they got so inside it, so it was a very hard scene for them to film. They crushed take after take, but it was painful for them to go through those emotions of betrayal because they had formed such a tight bond. And that ethos of teamwork, the brotherhood, the sisterhood of the military was part of our ethos making the show whether you had ties to the military. So many military veterans worked on the show. Or if you're like me and you're a civilian who has family who have served, or if you're just a civilian who wants to explore this world and this character, that ethos of teamwork was everything on set with this from the top down.

And so, I just remember that scene, and we filmed it right near the end of the schedule. It was like a pin, you could hear a pin drop on set. Just everybody was so into it because we had all come on this journey. To have this moment that just rips your heart out, it was a really fitting way for all of us, I think, to end that journey together.

In this day and age, it's nice to see a positive portrayal of a journalist.

Thank you. I mean, my mom was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post for over 25 years. I grew up in and around the newsroom and it's been very hard over the past few years to watch attack after attack on the press when I know true journalists are incredible people of integrity who are compelled by truth and accountability, and that's who Katie is in the book. That's why Jack wrote that character in the book. And that's why we took that character and amplified it, gave her more screen time in the show.

It's always a noble journey, too — just the search for truth.

Exactly right. When you have a character played by Chris Pratt, one of the biggest movie stars in the world who is compelled by something as primal as vengeance, then you better have a movie star with a character who is compelled by something just as important — the truth — playing the role in Katie.

'He in a way is freed of his normal constraints'

In episode 5, you see Reece make a villainous choice. He puts civilian lives at risk. For that episode, where was the line between moral ambiguity and villainy?

I think one of the things that you do is you write the action, you write the character, and you let the fan bring their take on it. One thing that makes Jack Carr's book so interesting is if you take the warrior class, you take the top apex predator, and you take away everything he has to live for, then he in a way is freed of his normal constraints. The thing is, if somebody just looks at this as violence for violence's sake, no, it's just not even close. 

It is completely coming from the place of a character who has nothing left to lose. It's the whole reason for episode 6, is to remind you that the list is the list for a reason. There are people who are going to be after him who are going to be obstacles to his goals, but he still has that code because they are not on that list. That's the power, I think, of that episode, is it's the one episode where Reece can't kill anyone and has to pursue what he's pursuing while protecting innocence.

Five is a big one. I mean, it's a huge one. A big change from the book is what happens to Steve Horn. One thing you try to do in an adaptation is to both honor what made the source material great — which in this case is this character in this incredible, authentic portrayal of the warrior ethos — but then also create surprise. One of the big moments of surprise was we took the big bad, Steve Horn, and killed him in episode 5. He's in the book all the way at the end. We wanted to be able to have the audience both recognize scenes and feel they know where they're at, but then create a twist for people who are fans of the book so that they are finding things that are huge surprises and twists along the way as well.

And then the question becomes, "Well, who's David and Goliath now?"

Yes, yes. My favorite line from the whole season. I think if there's one thing that is political about the theme of the show, it applies across both sides of the aisle. Who is David and who is Goliath in this country? It's a great question. The individual who has the voting power or the institution? I mean, it's just a wonderful question. It really does, in our current climate, apply across both sides. I think growing up in Washington, DC inside the Beltway ...

Same here.

That's awesome. You know what it's like, having grown up there, is that you actually grow up celebrating the things that unite you, not the things that divide you. You have a sense of this is where the root of power in this country has been. At least growing up inside the Beltway in the 1980s, early 1990s, that was the sense of what we were all working towards a common goal, even if we had differences. And so, this is one of the things that I think is very powerful about the character and the reason I think fans from both sides of the aisle are loving it, is that it talks about the power of the individual. It's almost like a throwback aspect from the 1970s, the kind of great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

"Parallax View” and "Three Days the Condor," yes.

Exactly, exactly. Although "Parallax View” might not give the power to the individual. Anytime you tell a story of individuals finding power and institutions underestimating them, that's something very American on both sides of the aisle. I think it is one of the powers of Reece. Again, Katie, too. Here's this member of the press who is hunting down the truth and getting it out there. Tony Layun, too. Again, JD just crushed it for us in this. We were so thrilled to get them coming off of "Mayans" in between seasons. You have this triangle of vengeance, accountability, and justice. And guess what? It's messy.

Reece is often wrong. You can say he's not the hero of the story.

I think exactly that's where different people will view it differently, and that's okay. That's okay. I think that's the danger of politicizing it, is it makes you come in having to judge instead of going in being entertained and coming out with your own read on it. And that is the part that I think the fans, like you look at the reaction online, that's what they're loving.

It also raises the question of, "Do I really want art to always affirm what I believe?"

Yeah, yeah. It's a challenge. I think [producer/director] Antoine [Fuqua] has said in interviews, there's a cautionary tale inside of this. I think if we touch on any politics, it is the politics of deployment. 20 years of war. 20 years of escalating the workload of special operations. We have so many people who don't even think about it and maybe choose not to, and that's a cautionary tale right there. It's important if we're living in the age of authenticity and representation on screen to honor that military authenticity, military experience as part of that. It's important for both sides to think about.

'It's First Blood meets Jacob's Ladder'

Ridley Scott once said about "Black Hawk Down," "You're out of your mind if you make a war movie that's not anti-war."

Oh, man. Yeah.

But at the same time, honor veterans.

Yeah. I'm not trying to make this a comment on reviews. I'm really not. But the last thing I'll say is, for people to claim and try to make it something that it's not is a mistake. Jack Carr, the dude is one of the smartest people you will ever meet. And that's a thing with Navy SEALs. They are incredibly smart guys, an unbelievable combination of physical and mental strength. They think critically all the time. There was a reason the Department of Defense didn't give us support for this.

They didn't?

[Laughs] No, we had to do this all on our own. It's because Jack Carr is critical of broken chains of command, and that is very rare and not something that the Department of Defense loves. And so, everything that you're seeing in this show was built through our incredible technical advisors who are former Navy SEALs. Ray Mendoza, who worked on "Lone Survivor." Jared Shaw, who plays Boozer, he's also a former SEAL, as a co-producer. They were with me every step of the way, including in post, where we would literally change visual effects, muzzle flashes, or blood hits to make it authentic to what it actually feels like. That's the level of detail that went into this.

We had to, through our tech advisors, production design team, visual effects, everything, we had to build the world of Coronado. Locations team, all of these things. We had to build the world of Coronado in these bases, because we did not have support from the Department of Defense. Jack created this character in this story about a guy who really is an enlisted soldier or sailor who becomes an officer. And the enlisted military absolutely loves this story, but sometimes officers in chain of command have issues with it because it's critical of bad choices.

Let's talk about episode 6, which is very "Rambo: First Blood."

Well, it's "First Blood" meets "Jacob's Ladder." That's the best way to think of it. That episode is written by Max Adams. He is a former Army Ranger turned screenwriter, producer, director. Max is also, again, one of the smartest dudes you'll know, and he has a history of service in his family. A common thread between Max and Jack: Deep, deep lovers of pop culture. 

A lot of guys in the military are deep lovers of pop culture. They have downtime and it's movies, TV. These things are hugely important to our troops. And "First Blood" was one of Max's first loves. One of mine as well. I think Max and I really connected when he brought up "Jacob's Ladder." He had a professor at West Point who said the most accurate portrayal of the military experience is actually "Jacob's Ladder." I saw that movie at the perfect age. I was a psychology major, and I love the psychological thriller genre.

When we got to episode 6, we were like, "Oh God, what if the toughest thing he is dealing with is his mind because he has lost his medication?" And that became the secret sauce of that episode. Max did SERE school, the survival school. All the things that operators go through, the training, that's reflected in there.

Then there's psychological portrayal of survivor's guilt, which is also a big theme in Jack's novel. Reece is dealing with massive survivor's guilt because of the loss of his men and his family. Again, that just crosses lines politically and military or civilian. That's something that's a uniquely human experience. And so, that's the joy of the show. It can't get reduced down to one thing. It's all of them and it challenges you and entertains.

That's just a good hour you can watch on its own, too.

Exactly. It took some work. We shot that all over Southern California in a hundred-plus degree heat in those crazy remote locations and state parks, movie ranches. Huge, huge commitment from this cast and crew, and it paid off.

"The Terminal List" is now streaming on Prime Video.