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Tenet’s ending and twist, explained

Christopher Nolan layers twists on top of twists in his time-bending epic

Graphic image of a man wearing a breathing mask and staring ahead with the word “spoilers” written across the entire image Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures via Polygon
Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

Christopher Nolan’s new movie Tenet is actually out in theaters (at least in some places), and in typical Nolan fashion, the ending is knotted, dizzying, and absolutely wild. While Tenet does a better job of explaining itself both visually and verbally than some of his other movies, there are still plenty of confusing things to get hung up on in the third act.

So if you’ve already seen the movie, or if you just want to spoil yourself, we’ve picked apart what exactly happened at the end of Tenet, and made some sense of the twists and turns of the last few minutes.

[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the entirety of Tenet.]

The ending of Tenet

JACK CUTMORE-SCOTT, JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON and ROBERT PATTINSON in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic TENET Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures

Tenet ends in a complex set-piece that’s happening in at least three different moments in time all at once. The first is a joint operation being handled at a secret base where Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is storing the Algorithm, the key to destroying the past. (It’s not really clear how or why the Algorithm will destroy the past, but several people throughout the movie emphatically say it would, so it has to be true.) One squad performs the operation moving forward in time, while the other moves through “inverted” time, setting up strategic moves and providing information for the standard squad.

The entire operation is really one big distraction so that Protagonist (John David Washington) and Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) can sneak into an underground bunker and steal the Algorithm. The two are mostly successful, thanks in large part to an assist from a mysterious soldier whose identity they can’t see. They steal the Algorithm and are pulled to safety at the last minute by Neil (Robert Pattinson).

At the same time, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is sent back in time to one of Sator’s happiest memories to distract him from the operation that’s going on and to prevent him from killing himself too early. Kat succeeds in her mission, but ends up shooting Sator a little earlier than planned, though it works out: She’s still synced up with the other groups’ removal of the Algorithm.

Back at the secret base, Protagonist and Ives both take sections of the Algorithm to go hide, while Neil goes back in time to a few minutes earlier to make sure the operation goes smoothly — by sacrificing his life to get Ives and Protagonist in the bunker.

Tenet’s big twists

ELIZABETH DEBICKI and KENNETH BRANAGH in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic TENET Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures

There are a few twists that Tenet ends on, and they’re all closely related. A part of the big reveal comes when Neil turns out to be the masked soldier that saved Protagonist in a sequence at the beginning of the movie. From there, Neil explains that Protagonist is actually the person who hired him in the first place, and that he and Protagonist have been friends for a long time in Neil’s timeline of existence. In other words, Protagonist’s future involves going back in time to recruit Neil for the very mission they just finished.

As Neil puts it, “For me, this is the end of a beautiful friendship; for you, it’s just the beginning.”

The movie then moves straight from this reveal to a larger one: It turns out that the entire operation to stop Sator was all part of Protagonist’s plan the whole time, just a future version of him. Quietly, behind the scenes, Protagonist had been inverting himself back to the correct moments to make sure every single thing happens exactly as it needs to — just like Neil during the climactic final battle, suggesting that this is where he learned it from. While Sator thought he was pulling the strings with information from the future, Protagonist was orchestrating the whole thing with an extremely long and complex temporal pincer move, putting all the pieces in exactly the right spots.

spaceballs: dark helmet watches spaceballs on vhs Image: MGM

Tenet has a built-in explanation for why we never saw Protagonist operating in the shadows throughout the movie: As is noted early on, one of the few things you absolutely cannot do when you invert yourself is come into contact with your past self. So if we’re watching present-Protagonist throughout the movie, the version that doesn’t know anything about inversion or the Tenet organization yet, then it only makes sense that we would never come into contact with future-Protagonist.

Tenet’s twist may seem complicated at first, but much like the rest of the film, it follows a traditional heist-movie path: Our heroes were one step ahead the whole time, even if we didn’t realize it. Of course, in the case of Tenet, it’s because they’d already performed the heist and went back in time to make sure the plan worked.

But while the twist does feel like classic misdirection, Tenet’s Protagonist surprise serves another purpose that makes it somewhat unique among movie twists. The reveal recontextualizes everything in the movie that came before it, but because of the time travel, it also serves as an excellent epilogue for Washington’s character.

We know he’ll keep going, and we know just how good at inversion he’ll become, because we’ve already seen the movie that’s all about his crowning achievement. We know that his entire complicated, time-hopping plan works in the end. On top of that, Neil’s warmth toward the Protagonist in their final moments together lets us know just how close they’ll become in the future — or... in the past?

In other words, Tenet’s twist basically serves as the movie’s own prequel and sequel at the same time, which, given the rest of the movie and Nolan’s own quest for reinvention, makes sense.

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