Examining the Baba Yaga: John Wick’s Psychology

As John Wick: Chapter 4 arrives, Fandom asked clinical psychologist Dr. Drea Letamendi to provide a profile for the notoriously skilled assassin at the center of the John Wick series. Read on to for Dr. Drea’s analysis!

He is known as Baba Yaga, or, the Boogeyman. John Wick’s unmatched talent for killing has earned him the reputation of an elusive, feared, and almost supernatural figure at an international level. He is an expert strategist, master marksman, and efficient hunter. When he got into the business, Wick’s motivations were not unlike the pursuits of any mercenary in the mob: killing is profitable. It’s just a job.

Wick is typically quiet-mannered and unexpressive. When he’s off the clock, he does not seek fights, and avoids unnecessary conflicts. If a stranger brazenly confronts him at a gas station, Wick will rebuff the man and drive away. And while he may be aware of his virtuoso reputation and even find some self-worth in his professional achievements, Wick’s desired outcome is efficiency. Finesse. Objectivity. Like most hired hitmen, it’s not personal. But when Wick experiences a string of meaningful losses, his urge to slaughter goes into overdrive. He is unwilling to stand down until he achieves a self-defined personal justice, no matter how bloody. Once someone as proficient and unstoppable as Wick is fueled by psychological injury, the result is a dangerous, formidable antihero.

Successful Killers

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

Risk is a necessary evil in the assassin lifestyle. Successful contract killers see what they do as their occupation, toward a profitable end, so they view their acts as self-sacrificing, committed, principled, and financially justified. Wick is consistently cool and collected when he works. He carries the attributes identified in real-life assassins. For one, he lacks a conscience. Despite even his most gruesome or extreme killings, he does not regret his decisions. Wick can grow wary, even exhaust himself, but he is as resolute at the end of the mission than at the beginning. The finality of his work is not a mystery or fantasy: he does it and moves on.

Professional killers must also be cunning and think outside of the box in order to achieve their goals. Wick’s unconventional features are the reason he’s gained a reputation. His most talked about feat is killing three men with a single pencil. He’s extremely knowledgeable and can outsmart his opponents. A related feature of successful contract killing is adaptability. Wick has an ability to improvise different tools to get the job done (pencils, cars, furniture, anything can be converted into a deadly weapon).

Two critical features exhibited by most professional assassins include risk-taking and restlessness. Typically, John is unfazed by high stakes and dangerous situations. He may enter conditions that are highly precarious and is willing to outlast his opponent. As far as restlessness, Wick craves drama and excitement in the form of physicality and close combat.

Like other assassins, Wick found the conditions of his early life meaningless, and channeled all of his strengths and interests toward attuning a repertoire of hunting and slaying. When he first joined the mob, Wick was using the name Jardani Jovonavich. Only a few in the syndicate were aware that he was forced to ditch his old name and switch to the moniker Jonathan Wick. When Wick worked, he was emotionless. Unreadable. Feeling neither sustainable joy nor sadness, and indifferent to death, Wick spent most of his adult life with few interpersonal attachments aside from cold, impersonal loyalties of criminal organizations. Assassins tend to have fragile and superficial connections to people and things, because they know the lifestyle requires them to sever or abandon attachments frequently and fast. They typically have no significant others in their lives, so they set themselves up to have little to lose and a lot of freedom. Real-world research shows that hitmen operate best when they “compartmentalize” or detach themselves from others, especially their victims. They bury their feelings quite adeptly, seeing people as mere targets, jobs, or a means to an end.

“The bodies [Wick] buried that day laid the foundation for what the organization is today.” – Viggo Tarasov

Like switching his name, Wick is able to compartmentalize and switch emotions as well. He’s able to recognize his work as grisly and bad, but can separate the moral gruesomeness from his sense of self. Wick does not perceive himself as a bad guy; he just does what’s necessary for the job. Thus, when Wick informs his employer Viggo Tarasov, the leader of the Tarasov Mob, that he’d like to get out of the business for good, he’s willing to satisfy Tarasov’s last request. Viggo sends Wick on a nearly impossible if not suicidal job: kill all of Viggo’s enemies in a single night. And Wick is successful in completing his part of the deal, consequently elevating the Tarasov mob as a criminal empire.

Someone, or Something, to Love

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

When Wick leaves the business, his home life is quiet, safe, and gentle. Showing love and affection for his partner, Helen, seems to come naturally. Shortly after marrying, Helen buys Wick a vintage car, which will become a symbol of their unity.

Five years after they are married, Helen succumbs to a terminal illness. Wick is at her side when she dies. Losing a spouse this way can be considered traumatic even if the death was anticipated. It isn’t necessarily the specific nature of the death that makes it traumatic, but how the event was interpreted by the survivor. Did he perceive it as cruel? Undeserved? Preventable? Helen’s passing occurred in the protected environment of a hospital room but still had the capacity to shock, terrify, and overwhelm Wick’s worldview.

The death of a loved one is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning, if it is untimely, involves violence, suffering, or bodily violation, or if the survivor regards the death as unfair and unjust. Research shows that PTSD, for instance, can indeed occur after a person experiences losing someone close to them to terminal illness. Furthermore, as the surviving partner, having to make medical decisions about treatment options, life support, and posthumous bodily integrity can prolong or deepen Wick’s traumatic experience. His response to the trauma is a reasonable one, as he displays an affectionate and loving goodbye, and celebrates Helen’s life by holding onto her belongings, saving videos depicting their time together, and contemplating their companionship.

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

Wick’s grief, though it begins in an unremarkable way, happens to be the beginning of a psychological spiral. When he abandoned the mob and his life as an assassin, Wick thought he could start over. Like changing his name and compartmentalizing violence itself, Wick believed he could create a world for himself that would be predictable, fair, and fulfilling. He believed he was in control of his life by securing a loving partner, a safe home to share, and a chance for a long future together.

The values of family, togetherness, safety, and trust were new priorities for Wick, who let go of a life of constant violence, bloodshed, contingencies, and risk. Losing his wife to an illness introduces a threatening concept and raises doubts that his life, no matter how he engineers it, will be gratifying. The most significant revelation is Wick’s ability to form an attachment to someone not based in affectless blood oaths but in reciprocal tenderness. This life experience would not be discarded like a body—this one becomes integrated into Wick’s worldview. Because the attachment is ripped away from him unfairly and with randomness, Wick knows he must find a way to reconcile his traumatic grief without guns and blades.

Rage Therapy: Does it Work?

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

Shortly after Helen’s death, Wick is surprised by a delivery. It’s a final gift from his wife, a puppy named Daisy. Still gutted, but a bit eased, Wick doesn’t hesitate to care for the dog.

“You still need something—someone—to love.” – Helen’s note to John

The morning after he receives his new puppy, Wick drives over to a private airport field. Security on post waves him in with a familiar nod; this is a habit. Wick spends the morning speeding across the runway, performing tactful and controlled maneuvers with his car. The acceleration and sharp turns would be risky were it handled by anyone other than Wick. His recklessness is mechanical. Almost automatic. But it’s a display of someone unhinged. Explosive. Adrift. Wick engages in this activity to get his heart pumping, to feel alive, to reach the high of the adrenaline he used to savor before retirement. It’s a release of pent-up rage—he uses his car to channel grief-related guilt, loneliness, and even physical pain into something accessible—and the tension, shakiness, and fear are completely controlled.

Driving recklessly with the intent to spike mood is considered an adrenaline dump, a method to achieve a satisfying feeling for a depressed or understimulated brain. Wick knows too well that extreme peaks of adrenaline will be followed by the chemical cooldown of the compound known as dopamine. After a reckless episode, he’ll feel a short-lived wave of pleasure and peace. A comfy fog that will wrap him up, that will ease and soften the edges of his anguish.

Wick’s display of violent energy can also be a form of emotional catharsis. And it’s for sale. Since the pandemic, the emergence and profitability of “break rooms” and “rage rooms” can be telling. One company whose slogan is, cheekily, “take it out on us!” offers a padded studio where clients can whack and destroy old printers, computer equipment, and furniture. They’re armed with pipes, bats, sledgehammers, and given items to break such as glass bottles. Another popular company offers stacks of cheap dishware patrons can throw against a wall. In these safe and permissible environments, clients indulge their destructive desires through timed, performative “episodes.” Rage rooms have become a socially acceptable if not trendy way to relieve stress, but do they actually work?

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

While smashing things can feel powerful, there is scientific evidence that violent cathartic “activity” fails to dissolve hostility in general. Destructive behavior doesn’t address the underlying issues within someone’s psyche, and in some cases, rowdy rampages may even perpetuate tendencies for further violence. Studies examining rage behavior show a positive correlation with more extreme and anti-social forms of violence. Findings even demonstrate higher levels of measured aggression in people who had supposedly vented their anger than in those who had done nothing at all with their anger.

It should be noted that a more formal version of rage rooms, “rage therapy,” is an alternative practice promoted in the wellness industry that involves the intentional and safe release of intense negative emotions. Typically facilitated by an anger management counselor, rage therapy can offer a temporary relief of pent-up anger and may even provide a small boost of empowerment, self-confidence, and uninhibition. A safe item (like an inflatable bat or raw eggs or paint) serves as an object that not only helps externalize an unresolved emotion, but can give control back into someone’s hands.

Rage therapy is considered a comparatively safe alternative to high-risk and impulsive behaviors that distressed people may indulge in, such as excess substance use, binges, instigation of fights, and serious self-injury such as cutting. And with someone like Wick who has a high pain tolerance and can easily sustain serious wounds, considering how to disentangle emotional pain from physical pain is critical.

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

Regarding rage rooms, commodifying violent expression is hardly an adaptive way to teach us how to handle unresolved trauma or distress. It should be noted, however, that an abundance of research shows that people who are likely to feel overwhelmed with emotions like anguish and shame can benefit from harmless physical actions like squeezing oranges, dunking our face in a bowl of ice water, or simply tensing and relaxing our muscle groups. These activities can calm and subvert the impulse to self-harm or engage in more destructive behavior toward ourselves or others.

Bottom line, if someone is willing to smash a plate instead of engaging in non-suicidal self-injury (e.g., cutting oneself with the intent to allay emotional pain), rage therapy can be considered a win. Therapists will note that healthier outlets such as dancing, singing, painting, gardening, sculpting, and other whole-body movements are ultimately less dangerous and serve to upregulate positive emotions, not negative ones. Being the murder machine he is, it is likely that Wick’s recklessness serves as a habit than anything actually curative.

Double Jeopardy 

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

While he’s grieving, Wick experiences a second, compounding traumatic loss. Unexpectedly, his house is raided by Viggo’s son, Iosef. In the middle of the night, the gang of intruders brutally attack Wick and abuse his dog. Wick is severely beaten to unconsciousness, and wakes up to discover his pet’s limp body. His prized car is stolen, his house ransacked, and his heart is shattered. Wick feels as if he’s lost everything, and this isn’t unrealistic to feel. When we deal with multiple losses, it is called cumulative grief. Wick isn’t given a chance to heal from one loss before facing another. He is experiencing a mix of painful and conflicting emotions: sadness, outrage, numbness, loneliness, rage, all at once.

“When Helen died, I lost everything…That dog [gave me] some semblance of hope…an opportunity to grieve unalone.” – John Wick to Viggo Tarasov

Most of the trauma psychotherapists see in our offices is interpersonal trauma, which occurs in the context of attachment relationships. Other types of trauma, such as car accidents, natural disasters, and random violence can certainly be difficult to overcome, but tend to resolve on their own. The thing about interpersonal trauma is that it messes with our brain’s wiring related to human connections. The more Wick experiences violence and loss inflicted by other people, the more he will emotionally detach and dissociate.

Gun violence specifically leads Wick to form a barrier between himself and his assailants. He is not in the present moment with others, furthering his ability to dehumanize or disconnect with them. And, as vengeance for his dog’s abuse pulls him back into the life of professional killing, Wick will then continue to absorb interpersonal violence, perpetuating a cycle of detachment and desensitization. Continued exposure to extreme violence is like doubling down on this neurobiological mechanism, in as much as Wick’s wiring becomes more attuned to dissociation, emotional numbness, cognitive narrowness, and neutrality toward violence, all allowing for improved meticulousness for the craft. The lifestyle, however psychologically hazardous, makes him sharper, faster, better.

Pet Therapy

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

Close relationships are by far one of the strongest predictors of good mental health. According to decades of research, companionship is the second most important factor leading to lifelong contentment. Friendships, intimate relationships, and even casual exchanges give us a sense of well-being, belongingness, and opportunities for validation. Social isolation is a stressor. Even 1-2 relationships are significantly better than none at all. People with few or no close relationships tend to show longstanding or chronic “fight or flight mode” when studied. They have higher levels of cortisol, more inflammation, and more medical problems. Bonds matter.

Can pets offer the same benefits as human companions? Our attachments to pets are relatively good for our health. Studies show that dogs can reduce depression and ease loneliness. Simply spending time with pets can raise levels of “feel-good” brain chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine. And interacting with pets through petting or playing has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol in humans. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), dogs are particularly helpful because of their unremitting attention to humans: “Dogs know how to sit with humans and be loving.” In fact, animals can even teach humans about mindfulness, which is the practice of attention, intention, compassion and awareness. Animals do this innately.

“It wasn’t just a puppy.” – John Wick

Caring for an animal can also be healing. Studies show that even the smallest gesture such as feeding fish can lead to a pet owner taking better care of themselves. Tending to an animal gives structure to someone who may be grieving, and elicits feelings of compassion and affection outside of themselves. For clarification, there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that pets can treat mental illness but it is very possible that pet ownership can augment or strengthen health outcomes by improving a sense of responsibility, igniting feelings of connection, and restoring purpose in life.

Pet therapy, the formal use of trained animals—typically in hospital settings—involves structured sessions in which patients co-regulate with animals by holding, petting, and talking to them. With only a few sessions, pet therapy can lead to decreased stress levels, lowered anxiety, and improved patient satisfaction in their treatments. And over time, formal pet therapy can lead to higher energy, better self-esteem, and improved social skills.

John acquires his second dog when he stumbles into a veterinary hospital to tend to his wounds. He rescues a pit bull who is scheduled to be euthanized, and although Wick is on the run and still healing from gunshot wounds, the brief bonding with this new friend is genuine and immediately reparative.

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

It isn’t uncommon for animals to serve as transitional objects for adults. A transitional object is an item used to provide psychological comfort, especially in unusual or distressing situations. It can be soothing because of something called quasi-relational regulation. Relational regulation is the desired feeling of warmth, contentment, and security that result from interacting with or even just thinking about other people. Some things that we do for relational regulation include texting or calling someone, meeting up with someone, and engaging in shared hobbies with someone.

Quasi-relational regulation occurs from interacting not with a loved one, but with the activities, animals, ideas, or objects that remind us of them. This might include imagining what our favorite character in a series might say to us, anticipating future connection such as planning a trip with someone, wearing certain clothes to connect to safe interaction with someone, or holding objects that remind us of someone safe and loving. Wick’s transitional objects include Daisy, his first dog, and his unnamed replacement pup, but may also include his vintage car, a prized possession that reminds him of his wife.

Delivering a Message

Wick ultimately believes that hunting down the men who stole his car and killed his dog will bring him retribution. Furthermore, having a direct hand in their deaths seems to be important to him. But does achieving vengeance truly bring emotional resolution? Will Wick feel mended or find peace from this violence? Sadly, no matter how exhilarating it may feel, viciousness rarely plays out like a remedy. One reason for this is that we tend to overestimate the relief we think we’ll feel when we punish someone who’s wronged us—we’re far too optimistic. And revenge may seem like it could be satisfying to us because of what is known as “comparative suffering,” the karma-like concept that witnessing our offender getting their comeuppance restores an emotional balance to the universe. Humans are fixated on evening the score as a way to reestablish moral justice. The High Table, as a society of professional mercenaries, subscribes to such a balance, and generally survives on the principles of commitments and stated loyalties, principles and rules, and purchasing power to enact the consequences of violations.

“Whoever comes, whoever It Is, I’ll kill them! I’ll kill them all!” – John Wick

A far more effective strategy for gaining emotional equilibrium is termed the “understanding” type of revenge. That is, revenge can feel successful when our offender understands why the act of vengeance occurred in the first place. Before he kills them, Wick needs his assailants to recognize the weight of their crimes. And, among the community, there is a fair amount of trivialization of those crimes—a car, a dog, who cares? When it comes to Wick, the point is that they took the last connections of his wife away from him. Indignance, ego, and disrespect are all a part of Iosef’s conduct, so Wick will not stop his rampage until his offender truly gets it. Put another way, unacknowledged revenge will feel no better than none at all. Real revenge isn’t just payback; it is about delivering a message.

The Lone Gunman

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

As an abiding member of the organization, it’s characterologically unlike Wick to break the sacred rule of the Continental Hotel, where no assassinations are allowed. Killing Santino D’Antonio at close range on safe ground not only reveals that Wick is putting his ego above the organization, but that he’s willing to endure the aftermath of excommunication and even death to prove his point. Winston, the New York Continental manager, has no choice but to place a bounty on Wick, but gives him one hour to evade an immediate ambush. While retreating, Wick seeks The Elder, the elusive crime leader who serves above the High Table, to request atonement for his transgression.

“Why do you seek to live?” – The Elder

Seen as a dead man already, Wick is given one last chance to reaffirm his service to the High Table. The Elder asks him to explain his willingness to live, and Wick’s response is about his wife. “To remember us,” he asserts. Wick believes that as long as he lives, he keeps the memory of Helen alive. Existing is the one and final way that their time together can have a place in the world. Wick’s decision to reclaim favor with the High Table is not about ego, but about his healing. The Elder tasks Wick to terminate Winston, but when Wick infiltrates the hotel, both he and Winston lay down their weapons, refusing to engage in a stand-off.

Analyzing the Baba Yaga: The Psychology of John Wick

When Wick teams up with Winston and his concierge Charon to defend themselves inside the confines of the Continental, there’s an exchange of positive energy amidst the chaos of bullets and explosions. Between these colleagues exist a level of trust, understanding, and shared motivation: fight the High Table and its oppressive machinery. This new commitment upregulates Wick’s positive emotions, awakening the flow of adrenaline that may explain how he survives the unlevel ambuscade. And—stick with me for this one— for assassins, this is play. A collaboration is a healthy outlet. This social synchronicity (shared, interactive emotions) can be reparative for Wick. Play involves any imaginative, stimulating, and self-directed activity and is removed from the set of rules expected or set for us. Benefits include promoting optimism, taking on other perspectives, thinking outside of the box, and growing fond of others.

Despite depleting an entire army of assassins, Wick finds himself caught by the Adjudicator, with Winston leveraging the option to reclaim his hotel. It’s likely that when Winston appears to betray Wick by shooting him on the roof of the Continental, he knows he’s essentially giving his gritty friend a slim chance to live. Wick sustains a gunshot wound and falls several stories to the ground, but as he is the Baba Yaga, miraculously manages to survive an otherwise deadly ending to this chapter.

Problematic Heroism

John Wick’s melodramatic relentlessness creates a mood we can’t help but get carried away with. He’s an agitator. A fighter. A defender of dogs. But Wick’s story is easily a hyperbolic projection of our shared psyche, permission for the audience to indulge in our wishes to overpower and subdue our enemies. The reality is that traumatic injury feels so horrible and cuts so deep that the fantasy of targeted attacks becomes readily playable in our minds. We feel deserving to spatter our shame, guilt, hopelessness, and rage. So much so that we may not notice that the franchise is a glorified, grandiose portrayal of a mass shooting by a retaliating, disgruntled employee.

What we can glean from Wick’s story is the power and inspiration of self-agency. Nothing can be as liberating as knowing our actions are self-generated, controlled, and directed by our own phenomenal will. Wick’s ability to infiltrate deeper into the organization, to ascend through the elusive hierarchy and face its leader, to subvert its rules and negotiate re-entry into the elite assassin syndicate, profoundly elicits our yearning to take control back in the face of pervasive harms. Wick resists being debilitated by his enemies and instead assesses what he can control—and what he can’t—which is an effective way to manage trauma.

Personal agency isn’t simply about emotional perseverance but also the mental harnessing of our strengths. Wick leverages his expert skills—persistence, survivalism, improvisation—to cling on to the single remaining memento that gives him his humanity. He may have broken nearly every bone in his body to protect it, but his loyalty is toward himself alone.

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