The Best John Connor Isn’t Who You Think It Is


The Big Picture

  • Thomas Dekker portrayed John Connor in
    The Sarah Connor Chronicles
    , humanizing the character and addressing his destiny.
  • The series emphasized John Connor’s importance to the franchise, showcasing his growth and essential role in saving humanity.
  • John Connor needs to be at the forefront of future
    installments to truly honor the character’s significance.

The Terminator franchise has had a rough go at it the past few years, often getting muddied down by Hollywood trends that attempt to hijack the film series and conform it to its rebooted image. But to this day, nothing beats the original James Cameron films, and in the age of A.I. we live in now, Terminator feels as relevant as ever. But one character in the franchise stands above the rest, constantly battling the future while holding tightly to the past. No, we’re not talking about Sarah Connor. We’re talking about her son, John Connor, who was prophesied to be the leader of the human resistance against Skynet in the eventual Future War. But while we’ve seen plenty of actors tackle the John Connor character since Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it’s his time on television, played by Thomas Dekker, that stands out as the most memorable.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Release Date
January 13, 2008


The ‘Terminator’ Franchise Has a Lot of John Connors, but Thomas Dekker’s Portrayal Is the Best

The opening moments of Terminator 2 introduce us to a battle-hardened adult version of John Connor, played by Michael Edwards, before jumping back in time to the 1990s, where we meet a young John played by Edward Furlong. For most of the Terminator franchise, we only see these two versions of the character. There is either the young, innocent John who has yet to embrace his destiny or the war-torn hero who gives his all to restore humanity and defeat the machines.Nick Stahl continued Furlong’s role in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, while Christian Bale and Jason Clarke gave us versions of adult Connor in Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys. Furlong returned to the role briefly for Terminator: Dark Fate, which unceremoniously killed off the young version of the character, but we’ll ignore that atrocity here.

But, between Stahl’s performance and Bale’s sat Thomas Dekker, who played John for two seasons of the short-lived Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. While Linda Hamilton has almost always played Sarah Connor in theatrical productions, Lena Headey took on the role for television opposite Dekker’s John. The pair worked masterfully together, revisiting a dynamic first established in T2 but with more consistency and finesse than audiences had time for in the theater. For 31 episodes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles bridged the gap between James Cameron’s initial sequel and the Future War so often teased by the franchise, best capturing the spirit of the director’s original vision for the series. John and Sarah are handled here with plenty of care, and additional characters created for the series only add to the T2 narrative.

Thomas Dekker stands out as the best John Connor on screen. He genuinely feels like an older version of Furlong’s character who has been colored by his experiences in Judgment Day while still holding out the slightest hope that he might have a normal life someday. His classic teenage attitude would rival the original Power Rangers and all the time he’s spent with his mother since the events at Cyberdyne has changed him profoundly. But while most adaptations of John Connor focus either on the boy being chased by killer cyborgs or the man leading the charge against them, Dekker’s portrayal was a genuine mix of both as his John struggled with the harsh truths of Judgment Day.

Thomas Dekker Humanized John Connor in a Natural Progression From ‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines’

John Connor (Thomas Dekker) and Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) in the 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' episode "Born to Run"
Image via Fox

One thing Nick Stahl did well in Terminator 3 was show us a John Connor with little to live for. At this point in the franchise’s timeline, Judgment Day had seemingly passed, his mother was dead from cancer, and he was all alone in the world with no destiny to step into. That last bit doesn’t prove true, as Stahl’s John eventually steps into his role as John Connor: Resistance Leader, but only at the very end. In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the nature of long-form television allows Dekker’s John time to breathe and figure out how to respond when a band of T-888s from the future arrive to ensure their survival. Almost carrying on with what Stahl started in Rise of the Machines, Dekker uses his time on The Sarah Connor Chronicles to examine the psyche of John Connor in a way that hasn’t been done before––or properly explored since.

In The Sarah Connor Chronicles, John deals with human issues. He falls in love and then loses that person. He kills a man and can hardly bear it. He strives to be an average isolationist teenager but can’t help but be involved when he sees things going wrong. The way the series frames it, John is trying to live as a normal teenage boy would, but with the weight of the world still fully on his shoulders. This weight eventually forces him to give in to his destiny, a process that takes some serious time over the show’s second season, but when he does, it doesn’t feel like a light switch. More than that, it’s not because Skynet has already dropped bombs on humanity. Rather, John chooses to become John Connor (forsaking his fake identity as “John Baum”) out of necessity and truth, recognizing that whether Judgment Day occurs or not, he will always be John Connor.

Of course, unlike Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, this John has people to process this with, even if he often chooses to do so alone. After all, “Being John Connor is lonely,” as the reprogrammed Terminator Cameron (Summer Glau) once noted to him. But alongside Cameron and his mother, John can also confide in his uncle, Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green), who traveled back after his brother Kyle did the same. Sadly, Kyle (played by Jonathan Jackson in the series) didn’t make it to help raise his son, but Derek and Sarah’s ex-boyfriend Charley Dixon (Dean Winters) help guide John in ways his mother can’t. While feature film versions of John Connor only had Arnold Schwarzenegger-looking Terminators as strong father figures, Dekker’s version benefited from a number of strong men and women in his development into a leader.

‘The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ Gave John Connor Time to Grow––and Reminded Us Why He’s Essential to the Franchise

Thomas Dekker as John Connor in the 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' episode "Today Is the Day, Part 2"
Image via Fox

In many ways, John’s heartbreaking revelation of his destiny (completed in the fabulous and aptly named two-parter, “Today is the Day”) is why John Connor cannot be replaced. Originally conceived as a messianic figure, John knows he must defeat Skynet or risk humanity’s genocide. Even his initials, J.C., are meant to evoke comparisons to Jesus Christ, and John does his best to live up to the pressure. By allowing John these formative years to develop him into the hero Kyle Reese once told us he would be, The Sarah Connor Chronicles emphasized the importance of John Connor while never diminishing Sarah’s relevance to helping save the world. She’s a regular sci-fi Virgin Mary, just one who carries a really big gun.

While more recent installments have attempted to subvert general expectations around John Connor’s heroism, including Genisys and Dark Fate,which makes his part in the timeline irrelevant, The Sarah Connor Chronicles existed in an era that still believed in John Connor. It’s no wonder Terminator Salvation was released almost immediately after the series ended, with Christian Bale playing a warrior like John Connor. Frankly, after what we’d seen from Thomas Dekker, it felt like a natural progression for the character, albeit set about a decade later. By the time John ends his arc on the show in the impromptu series finale, “Born to Run,” we see a man prepared to lay his life on the line to save those he loves, even if he doesn’t make it home from the Future War. But what Bale lacked in compassion and Stahl lacked in conviction, Dekker married in his performance on the Terminator television show.

John Connor isn’t just the guy who sends Kyle Reese back in time. He isn’t just the guy who saves the future. He isn’t just the kid that the T-800 and Sarah Connor must protect to keep Skynet from winning. He’s a person, a representative of what humanity can achieve at its full potential. Dekker’s John genuinely cares about those around him. His empathetic nature juxtaposes well with his tactical training, and, as such, he’s able to both care about and direct people in powerful ways. While The Sarah Connor Chronicles hints that the future John Connor might not be as human as some believe (which may have inspired his role in Genisys), the John of the present corrects himself and is sure not to fall into the same pitfalls. Armed with knowledge of multiple possible futures, John pushes forward despite them.

John Connor Deserves Better in Future ‘Terminator’ Installments

For many, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is the superior sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. For starters, the show expertly captures the tone of the James Cameron film while building brilliantly on the foundation laid back in the ’90s. Bringing the story into the 21st century, The Sarah Connor Chronicles was able to do so without cheapening the originals and honored the respective journeys of its lead characters, namely John and Sarah. It proved that there’s more to offer from John Connor than just a bullet to the head or a poorly executed turn to villainy. Rather, John needs to be at the center of the Terminator franchise going forward, ready to resume his destiny or at least revisit it in the modern era.

We could all debate how exactly the Terminator franchise should return next, but surely James Cameron is working on some ideas. Hopefully, he learned from the poor response to Dark Fate that people don’t just care about Sarah Connor, but they care about her son as deeply as she does. In many respects, the franchise falls apart without John Connor, and future installments––no matter the exact medium––would do well to acknowledge and respect that. Sarah Connor is essential to the Terminator story, but John Connor is too. He cannot be replaced, no matter what the last two motion pictures might tell you, and Thomas Dekker proved that years ago. No wonder he’s still considered by fans as the superior John Connor.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicle is streaming on Hulu in the U.S.

Watch on Hulu


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