Ending Explained: 'Tenet'

About that surprise ending for Christoper Nolan's time inverting epic, here's what it all means.

By Chuck Walton

John David Washington in 'Tenet'

Tenet

Action / 2020 / PG-13

A secret agent embarks on a dangerous, time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III.

Much like many of the Christopher Nolan films that preceded it (at least the ones that were time-obsessed, e.g. "Memento," "Inception," "Interstellar"), there is ultimately a reason for the rhyme in his latest epic spectacle "Tenet."

More so, though, than his previous classic puzzlers, this one needs more secondary screenings to unpack. We would also argue that's less so due to any kind of filmmaking flaw, and exactly because of the intensity of filmmaking and purposeful obfuscation – incoherence by design (if you're a Nolan fan, trust means patience here).

"Tenet" moves fast, with much sound and fury. Scenes are quick, sequences are quicker, conversations are literally unintelligible at least a third of the time.

The good news is that at heart, the ending does make sense. We're still unpacking a lot of it at Noovie, but there's a gist to things that ultimately make up order. In case you don't have time to watch it 17 times, the below explanation should help. And yes, there are major spoilers ahead.

The Protagonist Really Is the Protagonist

© Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection.

At the end of the film, John David Washington's character, known simply as The Protagonist, is revealed by his buddy-in-action Neil (sly and memorable Robert Pattinson) to be his own savior. It turns out that a future version of Washington is the leader of the Tenet group. He will recruit Neil to the cause and basically send him back to save Washington's character at the Opera House, further prod him along the right path, and at the end, when they need to capture the Algorithm device and save mankind, Neil will literally take a bullet for him.

Since Neil at the finale is on an inverted path to that fate, he lets The Protagonist know he's nearing the end of their adventures together, while Washington is on the forward journey just at the beginning. They've shared a lot of time together. It's why he knew The Protagonist preferred Diet Coke.

Kat Saw Herself

© Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection.

Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) mentioned to The Protagonist that while she despises her crazy Russian arms dealer husband Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), she does admire his supposed mistress, whom she once saw taking a high dive off their yacht on a Vietnam holiday. As it turns out, that was also Kat, who had travelled back in time to save the world, and then took the plunge towards her freedom. Since Kat admired that lady's freedom…she admired herself.

Neil Sees Everything

© Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection.

Neil's the other protagonist. He always knows what's going on. On second and third viewings, look to Neil to get a sense of where all the strings are getting pulled. He's the coolest cucumber in the room. From his introduction to Washington, laying out plans to crash the jumbo jet, his relative calm during the car chase and aftermath…Neil knows what's up.

Neil Is Kat's Son?

The interwebs are posing a fan theory that's gained traction - Neil could be Kat's boy. For example, when Kat and Sator's young son's name's is spelled out in its full French form, "Maximilien," it contains "Neil" at the end in reverse. Coincidence? Hey, we're talking Nolan here.

We know by film's end that The Protagonist eventually will recruit Neil to the game. We also know Neil's a) a polished dresser, b) gracefully aristocratic in his manners, and c) highly educated. That would make sense if he is Kat's son. Timing wise, other folks on the internet aren't sure it all lines up since Kat's son is so young in the film. But as with anything Nolan, give it some time…the way Neil consoles Kat after she takes that inverted bullet, they do seem to have an awfully close connection.

Orange (String) Theory

As the Protagonist and Neil have their final conversation, Washington notices that there's an orange string attached to his backpack, which he's seen before, leading all the way back to the Opera House at the beginning. Since that event led to his own recruitment to Tenet…not only did Neil save his life multiple times…but really, The Protagonist saved his own. He will eventually form Tenet, and he'll recruit Neil to help recruit himself. The circle (and the film's palindrome title) is complete. Everything that's happened, happened.

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