Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is bewildering and brilliant in equal measure, especially on your first watch. It all pivots on the idea that objects and people can be sent back in time to the present, but with an entropy that’s “inverted”, meaning everything happens backwards. Because of this, the thrilling climactic mission – in which the Protagonist (John David Washington) and right-hand man Neil (Robert Pattinson) try to stop Russian oligarch Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from helping the future to destroy the present – is incredibly tricky to follow. Here are 10 pointers about the Tenet ending that should help you decode a little more of what’s going on.
Humans from the future wants to destroy the present because they’ve inherited a dying planet
They believe that if they prevent present-day humans from doing any more damage to the Earth, they have a better chance of securing their own long-term survival.
Sator wants to destroy the present because he’s dying of pancreatic cancer
Being an evil megalomaniac, he believes that if he can’t have the Earth, then no one else should either. It’s much the same mentality he displays in blackmailing his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to stay with him after he’s shown his devastatingly cruel side. If he can’t be with Kat in a genuinely loving relationship, then no one else is allowed to be either.
Sator has been in cahoots with the future all along
Sator grew up in a secret city in the Soviet Union which was destroyed in a nuclear blast. While digging for lost plutonium in the rubble – an incredibly dangerous task that no one else would take on – he found the first piece of an algorithm which enables the future to invert time and destroy the present. Terrified by what she had created, the scientist behind the algorithm split it into nine pieces and hid them in the past so it could never be activated.
Working on behalf of the future, Sator has spent his life searching for pieces of the algorithm in exchange for massive wealth. It’s a bit of a Faustian pact, because he knows all along that he, his son and everyone else will be killed when he finds the final piece. Now that he has all nine pieces, he plans to use a dead man’s switch to activate the algorithm and end the (present-day) world.
The Tenet organisation is using a “temporal pincer movement” to stop him from doing so
Their plan is to send two armed units – one travelling backwards in time, one travelling forwards – to the activation site so they can take control of the Algorithm. They’ll then split it into pieces again and hide it forever. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s time-travelling soldier Ives leads this mission, which the Protagonist doesn’t fully understand until it’s been completed.
Kat is the mission’s “backstop”
She’s sent back to a happy moment on Sator’s yacht – the moment before he plans to kill himself and end the world – to buy the two Tenet units some extra time.
She kills Sator before he can kill himself because she doesn’t want him to think his plan succeeded
Fortunately, the Protagonist has already managed to grab the Algorithm and break it into pieces, so the dead man’s switch on Sator’s wrist has no effect at all.
It’s Neil who saves the Protagonist’s life at the activation site
At the pivotal moment, a masked man with a red string on his backpack takes a bullet for the Protagonist when one of Sator’s men shoots at him. The masked man dies, but his sacrifice allows the Protagonist to grab the Algorithm and escape from the activation site alongside Ives. Once the pair emerge, they reconvene with Neil and the Protagonist spots a red string on his backpack. He realises that as part of the temporal pincer movement, Neil will soon go back in time to save his life.
The Protagonist recruited Neil in the first place
As Neil explains poignantly, this mission is the end of his own Tenet journey, but just the start of the Protagonist’s. At some point in the future, the Protagonist will found the Tenet organisation, then send himself back in time to carry out its missions. Think back to Neil and the Protagonist’s first meeting in the film: Neil knew his drink of choice was a Diet Coke because he’d been working with him for years at this point; the Protagonist just doesn’t realise it yet.
Neil also saves the Protagonist’s life in the opening scene
The masked gunman who pulls the Protagonist out of the concert hall siege has – you’ve guessed it – a red string on his backpack.
The Protagonist kills Priya to protect Kat, but also the Tenet organisation itself
In the final scene, wealthy arms dealer Priya (Dimple Kapadia) – the woman who first told the Protagonist about Sator, and a key player all along – tries to kill Kat to “tie up loose ends” from the mission. She’s thwarted by the Protagonist, who shoots her dead before her lackey can take aim at Kat. He doesn’t want Kat to die, but he also doesn’t want someone like Priya – who knows a little too much about Tenet – to live.