“The Awful Grace of God”: Blue Bloods, Robert Kennedy, and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

A recent episode of Blue Bloods, entitled “Unbearable Loss,” (episode 10 of season 7) features an unexpected reference to the Classical world, in the form of a quotation from Agamemnon, the first tragedy in the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus. A police drama series might be an unusual place to find such a reference, but then again, Classical mythology remains so dominant in our culture that we shouldn’t be surprised to see it turn up in all corners of our entertainment.

Blue Bloods stands out among police dramas for its willingness to confront significant issues involving the police beyond just “catching the bad guys,” which is the main focus in many other shows. The morality and ethics of policing, the influence of politics and the media, racial tensions and accusations of excessive force, the importance of proper legal procedure, and even the role of religion and faith–all these areas and more have been dealt with by Blue Bloods at one point or another. If any TV series about cops had the depth to reference ancient Greek literature in a intelligent and meaningful way, it would have to be this one.

In this episode, one of NYPD commissioner Frank Reagan’s political adversaries, Reverend Darnell Potter, a black community activist known for his fierce criticism of the NYPD’s treatment of African-Americans, goes through an “Unbearable Loss” when his son is killed.

At first, the reverend seems willing to work with the commissioner and his son Danny, the main detective on the case, to catch the killer, but is quickly angered by the police’s handling of the case. Not thinking clearly due to his grief and suspicious of the police in general, he tells members of the black community not to cooperate with investigators. Eventually, the reverend recognizes that his son’s killer cannot be apprehended without the police, and he asks the community to aid them. Danny catches the gang responsible, and in a moment of reconciliation, the reverend invites Frank to attend his son’s funeral.

Commissioner Reagan meets the reverend and promises to help find his son's killer
Commissioner Reagan meets the reverend and promises to help find his son’s killer

One major aspect of Blue Bloods is its emphasis on family relationships. The entire Reagan family is connected to law enforcement or the justice system in some way (Frank’s father was once commissioner, two of his sons are cops, and his daughter is a prosecutor), and each episode features a dinner scene, in which family members reflect on the events of the episode.

Growing Boys
Blue Bloods family dinner scene

During the family dinner scene of this episode, Frank reveals that he has been asked to speak at the funeral and shares the quote that he plans to use–a quote from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (lines 179-183):

“And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

The main purpose of this reference, on the surface, is to convey through the evocative language of Aeschylus the intensity of the suffering and grief that accompanies a loss. Frank had intended to share this quote at the funeral of his eldest son Joe, who died in the line of duty, but couldn’t find the will to do so at the time. Now, by making use of this quote, Frank demonstrates his understanding and sympathy for the reverend’s loss through an expression of the pain and suffering he himself has gone through.

Beyond that, this quote also aligns with the Reagan family’s Catholic faith, in suggesting that the most difficult part of dealing with loss is having the wisdom and strength to accept God’s divine will, no matter how terrible it might seem. (Keep in mind that this is a translation of Aeschylus’ Greek that puts a Christian spin on it; the ancient Greeks with their many gods would have thought in a very different way.)

On the level of character and plot alone, this use of Aeschylus is already quite rich, but there’s another reason these lines resonates so well with this episode: they were famously quoted by Robert Kennedy in his speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 4, 1968, at what was supposed to be an ordinary campaign event in Indianapolis, Kennedy informed a shocked audience that King had just been killed. Drawing upon the words of Aeschylus, Kennedy called for unity, compassion, and love against the forces of hatred, revenge, and violence:

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Although there would be riots in many cities across the country that night, Indianapolis remained calm, in part because of Kennedy’s speech.

Robert Kennedy delivers his speech
Robert Kennedy delivers his speech

Interestingly, Kennedy’s quotation is actually a slight misquotation of Edith Hamilton’s 1930 translation of Aeschylus; this means that he did not have the “correct” verses in front of him, yet was still able to smoothly work them into his speech. In some way, this makes him even more impressive: to be able to remember these lines on the spot, he clearly had to have studied them quite closely. I don’t know any modern politicians who can recite lines of Greek tragedy from memory.

17th century painting depicting the sacrifice of Iphigenia
17th century painting depicting the sacrifice of Iphigenia

The Oresteia is a story about a shift in the nature of justice, from retributive violence to reconciliation and dialogue. Ten years before the events of the first play, Agamemnon, the titular war lord sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia, to secure favorable winds for his expedition to sail to Troy. Agamemnon returns home victorious, only for his wife to slay him out of revenge.

The cycle of vengeance continues as Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, kills his mother in retribution. Only the creation of a new justice system, based on open dialogue, proper legal procedure, and the rule of law, is able to end the cycle and move the community forward toward reconciliation.

By quoting from the Oresteia, Robert Kennedy was calling for his audience and for people across the country to respond to King’s death not by continuing a cycle of retribution and violence, but by striving toward justice and reconciliation through dialogue and understanding. The particular translation Kennedy was using refers to the Christian God and, like in the Blue Bloods dinner scene, the wisdom to accept His will in the face of loss, but it takes on additional meaning here: that we must accept that the path forward has to be one of love and forgiveness (i.e. the “grace of God”), no matter how terrible (“awful”) the loss of King may seem.

So, by referencing the same quote used by Robert Kennedy on that day in 1968, Blue Bloods is also calling for reconciliation and dialogue against the continuation of old grudges–in this case, between not only Frank and his adversary on a personal level, as the commissioner sympathizes with the reverend’s loss, but between the police officers and the African-Americans they represent.

Recent translation of the Oresteia trilogy
Recent translation of the Oresteia trilogy

Frank’s quotation of the Oresteia on its own already brings up ideas of reconciliation in general. Once we add to it the context of Robert Kennedy’s speech–the death of King, an exhortation for love and compassion in mending racial divides–it becomes clear that Blue Bloods is specifically calling for reconciliation and justice in overcoming racial tensions. And this is no surprise, given the role that such tensions played in this episode.

Finally, Robert Kennedy made use of this quote not just to call for reconciliation, but also, like Frank, to express the pain he himself had experienced in losing a loved one:

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

The quotation from Aeschylus occurs shortly afterwards. Kennedy is talking about the assassination of his brother, President Kennedy, of course, and is using the experience of that personal loss to sympathize with those who loved and respected Martin Luther King. In the same way, commissioner Frank Reagan uses the loss of his son to sympathize with the reverend as he goes through the loss of his son.

And, just as Kennedy recognizes commonalities in the deaths of King and his brother–both were killed by white people, he points out–Frank and the reverend realize the irony of their respective losses: the reverend’s son was killed by a black gang member who once participated in the reverend’s troubled youth program, and Frank’s son by a crooked cop.

Before we finish up, I want to mention again that the Christian interpretations of this quote that resonated so well with Robert Kennedy, the Reagan family of Blue Bloods, and a traditional American audience come about because of the way Edith Hamilton decided to translate these lines. Here is a more accurate translation of the original Greek (with some nearby verses for context):

Zeus guided mortals to have wisdom
and laid it down with authority
that from suffering comes learning.
And, in our sleep, at least, pain of unforgettable suffering
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and wisdom comes to us against our will:
Perhaps the favor of the gods sitting on their
sacred throne comes about through force.
(Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, 176-183)

These verses are spoken by the Chorus of Elders, who wonder what lessons might come about from the terrible violence that occurs as Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter. One idea made use of by Robert Kennedy and Frank Reagan–that wisdom results from the suffering of our losses–remains intact. But, the Christian ideas of ultimate faith in the divine will of God or the power of His love and mercy do not appear. The ancient Greek gods, like Zeus, use force and suffering to deliver wisdom to us: a similar concept, but the grace and compassion of the Christian God are absent. Ultimately, though, wisdom does come about from these events, in the Oresteia‘s creation of a new justice system based on dialogue and reconciliation.

At the end of his speech, Robert Kennedy added:

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Tragically, two months after he called for peace, compassion, and understanding, Robert Kennedy himself would be struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

Sources and Further Reading



  1. All I can say is “wow”. What a great analysis of a TV series unlike any other. At first I figured BB would be like all the other cop shows. When I finally watched it, I couldn’t get enough. To watch deeply flawed and injured individuals grappling with their morality, stand at the edge of the proverbial cliff, and then find the strength in their family and faith that prevents them from jumping…it is unique.

    1. Thank you so much for reading. Blue Bloods is one of my favorite shows on TV as well, not because it is a cop show (there are seemingly millions of these on TV), but because of the emphasis, like you said, that it places on faith, as well as important issues of morality and the power of family bonds.

  2. The episode of your topic was broadcast tonight. The quote resonated with me. I looked it and in the process landed here. What a great read! I love the Blue Blood series because of its unapologetic way it incorporates faith, as well as the little surprises that happen along the way.

    Good job on your post. I’m a fellow WordPress blogger!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I have to say that I too love the episodes that incorporate religion and faith, from the strength that the Reagans gain from their faith to the challenges of faith, especially when Frank has to work with and/or butt heads with leaders of the Church.

  3. I, too, saw the replay of this episode last night (more toward the end as the climax was unfolding). The scene at the dinner table held such heartfelt emotion that you could not but be drawn into it. The acting was real-life, and Tom Selleck’s (Frank) delivery from Aeschylus resonated. It would be hard to find better insightfulness and writing than your analysis, which I found because I “googled” the scene after the show ended. Fine job, and thanks for putting so much of yourself into this, for others to read and ponder!

    1. Thank you for leaving such a wonderful comment. I always enjoy the dinner scenes in Blue Bloods as moments of reflection and family bonding, but the emotion conveyed by Frank as he quoted from Aeschylus and spoke about his son brought the dinner scene of this episode to whole new level. Definitely a stellar performance by Tom Selleck.

  4. I remember the night Dr. King was killed and Bobby Kennedy spoke. He was a reader and a thinker and called up the quote from his memory bank. Yeah! Read Churchill & Orwell by Ricks.

    1. Thank you for sharing. I agree that Robert Kennedy was an incredible individual, and it is one of history’s great tragedies that he was struck down by an assassin.

  5. I have heard good things about BB but haven’t watched. Even knowing the show, I totally enjoy your very throughtful analysis of the show – crossing it with ancient words and American strategies of the Kings and Kennedies.

    Thank you for making the classic words seem so much more friendly in a familiar settings. Those words pierced. I love the 2nd, non Catholic translation.

    I will definitely bing watch BB now. Very nice. Thanks again.

  6. Wow Brian, I enjoyed very much your article. As a Catholic, I especially appreciate how you analyze the quote “By the Awful Grace of God…”. This brought me back to the time when we suffered the loss of our beloved Mom. Her passing happened so sudden and totally unexpected that all of us were devastated and reeling with excrutiating mental pain… Only through faith and the Grace of God, we were able to find peace in our grieving process. It’s almost as though through her death brought us closer to Christ and reaffirm our faith. Thank you Brian for the reminder.

  7. I just watched this episode of Blue Bloods on Netflix. I immediately had to Google the quote and I found your essay. I loved reading about the connection between the ancient Greek poet, Robert Kennedy’s use of the quote and Blue Bloods. Thank you!

  8. I’m late in watching Blue Bloods. The dinner table scene where this quote took place really got to me. The emotion shown by Frank – and his father – was incredible. I immediately googled “the awful grace of God” and found you! Beautiful analysis……thank you!

  9. not sure how all this works–blogg, website, whatever–but today viewing with my spouse a rerun of the 2016 episode and hearing the aeschylus quote i decided to see what was out there on the net and came across your essay. a terrific read and a very insightful commentary on the show as well as once again celebrating the power of something like the orestia as its core issues continue to speak so eloquently. unfortunately, our contemporary political landscape seems so small, petty, self-centered, not able to find places to listen and respond to thoughtful commentary whatever or whoever the source. in any case, thanks for your contribution in widening my own perspective. and i suspect you are looking forward as much as my spouse and i to the new blue bloods season.

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