Aside from high-octane action sequences and genre-defining fight choreography, the “John Wick” franchise retains its uniqueness in its meticulous worldbuilding, thanks to the expertise of director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Koistad. The dark corners of the urban jungle, where the eponymous assassin, the Baba Yaga, hunts, are controlled by a set of rules governed by certain organizations that have the power to interchange the dynamics between the hunter and the hunted. There is a sense of honor, a code of conduct to be upheld; as the character Winston said, in this violent, nightmarish world of theirs, the rules are the only thing that differentiates them from the animals, or at least that’s what the privileged criminals like to think to keep the illusory shine on their conscience. In fact, overstepping his boundaries and willfully breaking the rules is what ultimately led John to do penance in the course of the trilogy, and as the fourth chapter of his bloody saga releases this weekend, taking a look at the well-synced underworld universe will help us relate to the trials and tribulations the master assassin will be facing.
The High Table And The Elder
The ultimate overseer, the one organization to control the entirety of the underworld in John Wick’s universe, the High Table, consists of twelve representatives of the most powerful crime organizations across the world. Acting as judge, jury, and executioner, the command of the High Table is absolute and obeyed by all the members, organizations, and crime families that are governed by it. The power of the High Table is such that it is compared to a unified world government, and if we must, we can compare it to the ‘Hidden Ones’ in the “Assassin’s Creed” series, only stronger in authority. Through its spying eyes across the globe, the High Table keeps a close watch on every major action happening in the shadowy depths of the underworld. The High Table demands unwavering loyalty from the persons or institutions under its governance and uses ruthless enforcers to do its bidding. A violation of the rules set by the High Table means a fate worse than death.
With his seat in the fiery dunes of Morocco, the Elder is the official leader of the High Table. The Elder has the power to overturn the decisions taken by the High Table members and is the most revered person in the underworld hellscape. The Elder has a penchant for archaic ways, as his mannerisms suggest.
Currency And Markers
The High Table has its own currency minted in Morocco, in exchange for which the denizens of the underworld can avail themselves of specialized services of the highest standard. The currency, which is minted as gold coins, has inscribed the Latin phrase ‘Ex Unitae Vires’ (Unity is Strength) on one side with a medieval figure and shield and ‘Ens Causa Sui’ (The thing that causes itself) with a lion and shield on the other. The specialized currency provides a sense of exclusivity to the criminal empire as well as helps the organizations avoid detection, suspicion, and other hassles that regular currency can entail. Although the monetary value of the gold coins isn’t quantified, their relative value can change based on the reputation of the holder, as the director himself claimed.
At the same facility in Berrada where the gold coins are minted, the markers—a tool signifying a blood oath—are made. A round token brooch-like in its appearance, the front panel of the marker has a skull adorned with a crown and vines. Decorated in gothic style, it’s a morbid reminder of the grimness of the pact enacted by these instruments. The inside of the marker has space to imprint the blood oath, a bloodied impression of the fingerprints of the individual who is using the marker for protection or in exchange for someone’s service. Markers are a person’s last resort to get out of a situation that is impossible to salvage and bind the user to the person the marker is taken from. According to the rules, the marker provider can ask for any sort of favor from the taker, irrespective of the situation (unless they manage to retire as John did), and a violation of the rules of the marker will give the provider the full authority to end the said person’s life or worse.
The High Table offers best-in-class services to the denizens of the underworld in exchange for gold coins. The services, usually hidden in plain sight, offer the necessities, which range from the ‘Tailor,’ ‘Cartographer,’ ‘Sommelier,’ ‘Pawnbroker,’ ‘Doctor,’ ‘Cleaner’ providing artillery, armor, navigation equipment, currency exchange, health services, and disaster management, as well as different amenities. The distinctive services provided in secrecy help the criminal organization keep a low profile without attracting unwanted attention from the authorities, although it doesn’t seem like that has much or any effect in their world.
Organizations like Ruska Roma, the Bowery, and crime families like Camorra operate in the New York underworld, running their institutions in their distinctive territories. In exchange for their sworn fealty to the High Table, they are allowed to function freely and avail themselves of the specialized services provided. Even the most dreaded organizations in the world and crime scenes have to abide by the commands of the High Table.
In order to carry out their will, the officials at the High Table make use of their enforcers, known as the adjudicators. The adjudicators don’t engage in direct combat themselves; rather, they act as the representatives of the High Table and are thereby licensed to be the recipient of any query or service by default. The adjudicators have their own brooch to signify the validity of their identity.
A chain of luxurious hotels spread across the globe, the Continental acts as a safe haven for the dregs of the underworld and works as the regional headquarters for the High Table. The concierge and manager of the Continental are the ones given the responsibility of handling the ‘business’ and criminal clientele. The cardinal rule of the High Table is to keep the Continental as neutral ground amidst rival criminal organizations, and therefore, taking lives on the Continental grounds is strictly prohibited. Violation of this rule will result in death at the hands of exclusive operatives of the Continental, or, as it happened in the case of John, the perp (funny, given the denizens of the underworld are that, to begin with) will be declared an excommunicado—an open target for the manhunters, restricted from any service or protection, with a bounty on them. On the other hand, failing to comply with the order of the High Table can lead to the Continental being deconsecrated. The Continental also has a singular ‘Administration’ office, equipped with vintage technology to avoid being hacked, where individual records and licenses of members of the underworld are kept, as well as where the declaration of bounty, ex-communication, and the official status change is carried out.
The organization and the rules that guide them in the John Wick universe are a result of the amalgamation of the real-life regulations of various organized crime sects like the Mafia, Mob, Yakuza, Triads, etc. The adherence to the rule with an almost religious sincerity, the self-imposed seriousness, and the sense of discipline it tries to convey almost seem laughable at times, both in real-life scenarios and in fiction, given the motive, actions, and context.