‘Tenet’ Ending Explained – All Your Tenet Questions Answered

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‘Tenet’ Ending Explained – All Your Tenet Questions Answered

Christopher Nolan didn’t want my first viewing experience of Tenet to be from the comfort and safety of my home. He wanted me to see it on a big screen, where all his big time-inverted action set pieces could be seen in all their bigness. And, to an extent, I understand. He put a lot of work into making a big movie and wants me to see it very big. But, because of the state of our world, I waited to watch it when it arrived on streaming services in December. I watched it on a 45-inch TCL TV with a Sonos sound bar at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday. I had to take a break to go to a meeting. The sun put a glare on the screen. Aside from watching on my laptop or phone, this is probably the last viewing experience Nolan wanted. And, honestly, I had a great time.

Because of the profession I work in, I’ve known spoilers for Tenet since the movie was first released in theaters. I’ve read a number of takes and theories and explainers on the film—including many of our own, explained by John David Washington himself. So, nothing in this movie was necessarily a surprise. This watch for me, was to see how Nolan pulled off this very confusing story for myself. I wanted to see how all these moving parts fit together more than I actually cared about all the action set pieces (which were still great even on a normal-ass TV).

As I made my way through the movie, I often paused to repeat key exposition dumps. I replayed certain action scenes to see exactly how parts moving backward and forward fit together. It was like watching a breakdown of a ballet. Very often, Nolan movies are about the execution of the impossible. And there’s perhaps been no more impossible Nolan movie than Tenet, an action film that involves multiples of the same characters moving backward or forward through a single timeline.

I know for a fact that, had I seen this in theaters during Normal Times, I would have been far too involved with trying to follow this inverted plot (taking notes, writing down key phrases) than I would have been with the movie as a whole. Watching it from home, I didn’t have to worry that I missed a key explanation. I could pause and catch the intricate details. And as such, watching Tenet was an entirely stress free experience that I wouldn’t have had in the theater on a one time viewing.

Now, I understand that this was not the way the film was intended to be seen. And I think for most movies from most directors, it would be a travesty to see their movie in this way. But, given the circumstances, this is a pretty great way to see a Christopher Nolan movie, because I had the Internet right there with me the entire time, where I could really dig into everything being said about Tenet. So, with all the research I’ve done, here’s how I’d fully explain the film’s ending:

The Tenet Ending Explained

Really, what makes a Nolan movie memorable to me, outside of the incredible visuals, is the over-analysis of his jigsaw plots. Following that in real time on a first watch felt like a live global viewing. And what’s funny about digging through this entire thing piece by piece is how simple the plot of Tenet really is: John David Washington is trying to stop an egotistical, sadistic, evil Russian from destroying the world. That’s it!

But Nolan makes this very basic James Bond plot his own by introducing Tenet’s time inversion. The battle for the future of humanity is being fought through a temporal pincer, where troops are attacking an enemy and simultaneously flanking that enemy with inverted versions of themselves. About half way through the film, Washington’s Protagonist and Robert Pattinson’s Neil invert themselves to travel backward into the past to fight battles we’ve already seen in the movie. That leads to the reveal that Washington was fighting himself during the big plane crash scene and also taking part in the car chase. During this part in the movie, fans have already posted detailed breakdowns trying to follow who has what and who is moving in which direction at any given time. I’ve even found a cute little timeline the shows the entire loop visually.

As it’s soon revealed, the evil Russian, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) was searching for nine different pieces of an algorithm that has the ability to reverse the planet’s entropy, which means he’d destroy all of humanity. He was put up to this by evil people in the future who don’t care if we destroy their past. This is the one plot point, from all of my research while watching the movie, I couldn’t find a good answer for. In the film, Sator briefly says that the future is angry because the past destroyed their environment so their only option is to turn back time. But when the Protagonist points out that this would destroy their future, too, Neil references the grandfather paradox, which is described as such:

The grandfather paradox is a potential logical problem that would arise if a person were to travel to a past time. The name comes from the idea that if a person travels to a time before their grandfather had children, and kills him, it would make their own birth impossible. So, if time travel is possible, it somehow must avoid such a contradiction.

In other words, as Neil says, “what happened, happened.” Which, I’ll be honest, kind of seems like a cop out.

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Long story short, they stop Sator, and save the world, but the twists aren’t done yet. Neil reveals that the Protagonist is the one who recruited him for this mission and they’ve known each other for years. The Protagonist also notices that Neil has the same bag and identifying markers as a mysterious person throughout the film who saved his life twice, in the end taking a bullet for him. This means, going forward, The Protagonist will meet Neil for Neil’s first time, go on a bunch of adventures and Neil’s story will end with him saving The Protagonist in a time-loop-esque bromance for the ages. I came across a handy graph that shows each character’s timeline at any given point in the film, if that helps.

In the very end, The Protagonist shoots Dimple Kapadia’s Priya saving Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat and explaining that everyone has been working for his future self the entire time. So, one would assume that going forward in his own timeline, The Protagonist sets up the entire plot of the movie to take place in the past and all the events that we’ve seen so far, including recruiting Neil.

There are a number of theories that fans have come up with, that have been addressed on the Tenet Reddit, including: Does Kat’s son grow up to be Neil? It’s a theory that is debatable, but one that Washington himself likes. Does Clémence Poésy’s scientist Laura invent time inversion in the future? We don’t know the answers to these questions, but we might actually learn them if there is a Tenet sequel. We know Washington is at least down for it.

Culture Editor
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.

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