The ending of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet,’ explained

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Christopher Nolan is no stranger to complex narratives playing with concepts of time. So it’s no wonder audiences have been left puzzled by the ending of his latest offering, “Tenet.”

Warning: spoilers ahead.

The final few scenes of the movie reveal that it’s essentially one big closed loop. We’re going to break them down.

“Tenet” is a reference to the final battle, the “10-minute assault.” And, as you can see, it’s actually the word “ten” both forwards and backwards. In the battle, we see Robert Pattinson’s Neil and John David Washington’s Protagonist move conversely forwards and backwards in time, a key tool to the plot of the film.

Nolan uses inventive colour blocking throughout the movie to represent time travel. Red and blue pop up through the costumes, the production design, and the cinematography to symbolise characters moving backwards and forwards through time. This cleverly ties in with the underlying physics of the movie, the Doppler effect of light. Electromagnetic waves experience blueshift, caused by the movement of a source towards the observer, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, redshift, caused by the movement of a source away from the observer.

Neil and the Protagonist, along with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ives, need to retrieve the algorithm before Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh, kills himself on his yacht in Vietnam. Sator had buried the algorithm under bombs in his Soviet former hometown, now a closed city, which would be triggered by the dead man’s switch in his fitness tracker if he died. If this were to happen, the algorithm would be activated, changing the entropy of the world so powerfully that it would end all life.

But Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki, ends up killing Sator on his Vietnam yacht, telling the team afterwards that she couldn’t allow him to “die letting him think he’d won… I knew you’d find a way” to get to the algorithm. She flees the boat by diving off the side of the deck, revealing that she was the same woman that her previous self had seen jumping off the side of the boat earlier in the movie.

During the battle, Neil goes back through the “time stile” machine, which inverts his entropy and allows him to travel backwards through the event. This turns out to be a significant piece of the puzzle. The Protagonist, meanwhile, continues to experience time forwards, leading up to the event, and heads to the Hypocenter to find the algorithm.

When the plan is on the verge of failure, “backwards” Neil, driving a vehicle, drags Ives and the Protagonist out of the Hypocenter. The three decide to split up the algorithm between them and bury it in different points of time in order for it never to be reassembled and used to cause further destruction. It’s at this point that Neil announces that he is going “back in” to the event, inverting himself again and insert himself into the timeline. The sad truth is unveiled: Neil is killed when he goes in backwards and saves Ives and the Protagonist. We had actually seen him lying on the floor of the Hypocenter before the detonation. So he is effectively stuck in a time loop, exiting the event only to go back in, reliving the events of “Tenet” over and over again.

This explains the orange string on Neil’s rucksack. It’s the same bag carried by the mysterious man who saved the Protagonist from being shot at the National Opera House in Kyiv at the start of the movie. Neil had been there throughout, ensuring the continuation of the mission. Bowing to the inevitability of time, Neil admits, “What’s happened’s happened.”

There are also two audible clues here to earlier points in the movie. Neil asks if he is the “only one who can get the door open on time,” referring to the door of the Hypocenter. But, of course, the audience already knew that he was the best locksmith because of his ability to open the doors quickly in the Freeport in Oslo. Neil also tells the Protagonist that this moment is “the end of a beautiful friendship,” a line that echoes Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, at the end of “Casablanca.”

Rick: Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Narrator: It’s fitting, then, that the first time Neil and the Protagonist actually meet in the timeline of the movie is a colonial-era bar in Mumbai, where Neil orders a gin and tonic. Neil already knew the Protagonist’s order, a Diet Coke.

Rick: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

Narrator: Neil then reveals it’s actually the Protagonist who recruited him for the mission. Neil and the rest of the team have been working backwards to the event, while the Protagonist has been moving towards it, and now, beyond it. So when the two factions converge, Neil’s loop is closed, but the Protagonist’s continues. He is, of course, “only halfway there.” Neil’s mysterious recruitment is a cause of conversation several times in the movie. In the shipping container travelling to Oslo, Neil refuses to tell the Protagonist who recruited him, saying instead that he always knew they would “get the job done.”

By implication, this means the mission, the Tenet organisation, as well as the plan for Sator to find the pieces of the algorithm were all set up years in the future by the Protagonist. He would have planted the plutonium for Sator to find and begin his plan for domination. He would have arranged Priya, played by Dimple Kapadia, as the go-between. He also recruited himself for the mission.

The audience has not been witnessing the Protagonist solve a mystery all along. Instead, they have been watching someone follow a path of predetermined clues.

Victor: All I have for you is a word. Tenet. Use it carefully.

Narrator: Nolan often plays with concepts of time, and his movies rarely follow a linear narrative. While “Dunkirk” depicts concurrent events through alternate perspectives and “Interstellar” ends almost at the beginning, “Tenet” more resembles “Memento” in that it ends somewhere near the middle of the story.

The epilogue takes place outside Kat’s son’s school on Cannon Place. The Protagonist shoots Priya and an assailant, who have shown up to assassinate Kat, thus eliminating the ability for any major players in “Tenet,” apart from himself, to move forward in time. The Protagonist has effectively turned into a time bodyguard to protect Kat and her son. After all, protecting her was the main purpose of the mission to prevent reverse entropy. He’d picked up a phone call from her alerting that something was suspicious. You’ll remember this was the phone that he had given her earlier. “There may be a time or place you feel threatened. Talk, state your location, and hang up.” “Who gets the message?” “Posterity.”

It’s also a nice nod to the restaurant scene earlier in the movie, where he plants his number in her pocket with instructions to contact him. She says, “You won’t be taking my call.” And he says, “I might surprise you.”

Remember the colours we mentioned earlier? It’s fitting that the final shot is Kat and her son leaving the school gates. Kat’s outfit features blue, and her son’s school uniform features red, suggesting some symbiosis in the timelines.

Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments.