Welcome to the best explanation of Tenet available on the internet. This article will scrutinize, resolve, and unriddle all of the essential details required to understand the acrobatic and elaborate story of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. What happened? Why did it happen? The meaning of it. The message of it. This article contains all of the answers.
Here’s the outline:
- The main characters
- The vocabulary of Tenet
- Why is the movie called Tenet?
- The ending of Tenet explained
- The timeline of events
- What is Tenet about? What’s the message?
- Why is The Protagonist not named?
- How is Neil alive at the end?
- Is Neil Kat’s son Max
- Is Ives actually Sir Michael Crosby
- What’s the meaning of Neil’s medallion on his bag?
- Kat’s character growth and development
- Why is Sator helping the future?
- Why didn’t the Algorithm go of when Sator died?
- Who captured The Protagonist at the Kyiv Opera House?
- What’s the Tenet hand gesture?
- Was Sator a CIA agent like The Protagonist?
- What happens to the bullet holes caused by inverted guns?
- Would the Algorithm have worked?
- What’s the grandfather paradox?
- Time travel in Tenet vs Looper and Back to the Future: aka What’s Happened’s Happened
- How long in the future is the Algorithm invented?
- Is Tenet connected to Inception?
- Is Tenet connected to Interstellar?
- Does Tenet have a mega plot hole?
- Free will in Tenet: does it exist?
The main characters
The leading man of Tenet. The Protagonist is a highly-capable CIA agent who has his life transformed when he unwittingly passes a test to join a secret organization known as Tenet. He is played by John David Washington.
Not much is known about Neil. It’s likely his real name isn’t even “Neil” but something else never disclosed. What we do know is that he was probably a British secret agent who is, sometime before the events of the movie, recruited into Tenet by The Protagonist after the events of the movie. But he’s charming, smart, and funny and is a light-hearted foil to the concentration of The Protagonist. He is played by Robert Pattinson.
The niece of Sir Frederik Barton. Part of the British elite. She’s an art authenticator who meets and marries Russian oligarch Andrei Sator. Unfortunately, the wealth of her life can’t mitigate the unhappiness of her marriage. She would leave Sator, but he possesses damaging information that would ruin Kat’s career and reputation. Her main concern is her son, Max. She is played by Elizabeth Debicki.
Having grown in up bitterly poor in a Russian closed-city called Stalsk-12, Sator craved validation through the accumulation of wealth. He was willing to risk anything to gain it. This led to antagonists in the distant future using entropy inversion to recruit Sator to their cause of re-assembling something known as the Algorithm. Sator agrees, receiving the massive wealth he most desired. But at what cost? He is played by Kenneth Branagh.
An arms dealer living in Mumbai. She is a key player in Tenet, having much more knowledge about the war with the future than almost anyone else. But even she doesn’t know everything. She is played by Dimple Kapadia.
Sator’s main henchman. He is played by Yuri Kolokolnikov.
Commander of the Tenet army. Played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
A contact of Neil’s who plays a crucial assistant role in Oslo and the defeat of Sator. It’s unclear whether he’s in Tenet or not. He is played by Himesh Patel.
The vocabulary of Tenet
Tenet: A secret organization founded to prevent the activation of the Algorithm.
The Algorithm: A device created by a scientist generations in the future. It has the power to invert the entropy of the entire world.
Entropy: Simply put, it’s the flow of time.
Inversion: Refers to reversing the entropy of an object, essentially flipping its relationship to time. Invert a gold bar and put it on a table and it will exist backwards. Same with a person.
Turnstile: A machine that looks almost like a giant rotating doorway, usually with a wall dividing its left half from its right half. Anything that enters one side and exits the other will leave with its entropy reversed. Anything normal will invert. Anything inverted will revert.
Posterity: Refers to future generations. Someone might plant a tree for posterity. The planted tree doesn’t necessarily benefit anyone right away. But it could benefit people in the future. In Tenet, posterity refers to information known to the future. For example, The Protagonist is told an explosion happened at Stalsk-12 on the same day as the opera house attack. He realizes that must be where Sator tried to hide the Algorithm. That’s an example of him benefitting from posterity. Likewise, Sator communicates with the future by sending emails. Anyone can read the emails as long as they have access to the account. Whether they’re in the present or the future.
Temporal Pincer Maneuver: An evolution of the classic military tactic known as a “pincer.” The traditional maneuver involves splitting the main body of a force into two groups then having them attacking an enemy position from opposite sides. The name comes from the visual of the two groups pinching the enemy. A temporal pincer accomplishes the same thing, but instead of splitting the forces in physical space, left and right, back and front, you’re splitting them in time. Forwards and Inverted. Information gathered from one, affects the actions of the other. Tenet has several examples of this. Like Sator’s forces during the Tallinn heist.
Why is the movie called Tenet?
The name “Tenet” comes from an archaeological curiosity called the Rotas-Sator Square. The initial discovery happened in Pompeii, in 1925—the square etched into a stone column. The square is made up of five words, each of which are five letters, with mirrored elements that create a singular palindrome. If that sounds a little confusing, allow us to demonstrate.
Rotas mirrors Sator. Opera mirrors Arepo. And Tenet is the palindrome that splits the square down both the equator and prime meridian and is derived from the middle letter of all the words. The T of Rotas and Sator. the E of Opera and Apreo. And the N in Tenet.
According to Italian sinologist Matteo Damiani, “Examples have been found in Rome, in the basement of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in the Roman ruins of Cirencester (the ancient Corinium) in England, in the castle of Rochemaure (Rhone-Alpes), in Oppede in Vaucluse, in Le Puy-en-Velay, in the court of the Chapel of Saint-Claire, on the wall of the city’s cathedral in front of the Archbishop’s Palace in Siena, on the facade of the Church of Santa Lucia in Magliano de’ Marsi, in the Certosa di Trisulti in Collepardo, in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, in the ruins of the Roman fortress of Aquincum in Hungry, in Riva San Vitale in Switzerland, just to name a few.”
That’s been one of the puzzling elements of the Rotas-Sator Square: how and why did it become popular enough to turn up in multiple countries across Europe? And what does it even mean?
From what I’ve cobbled together, having scanned several websites (seriously, people are pretty obsessed with this thing):
Sator = Sower
Arepo = May refer to a farmer’s sickle
Tenet = Guides
Opera = With care
Rotas = Wheels
Damiani does a deep dive on the potential meanings, suggesting literal interpretations, figurative, and more. Decades worth of scholarship hasn’t found a right answer, especially since “Arepo” wasn’t even an actual Latin word but seemed like a slang term with several potential origins.
In the literal description, you get the general sense of a farmer in a field, working with sickle and wagon.
In the more metaphorical sense, it’s easy to think of the Sower as God and the square referring to how God guides the wheel of fate.
Interestingly, the Rotas-Sator Square was often discovered in Christian churches, even though its origins in pre-Vesuvius Pompeii suggest it may have predated the popular spread of Christianity and been adopted as a sign by the church. “Tenet” does form a central cross within the square.
We mention all of that because Chirstopher Nolan derived the story of Tenet from the Rotas-Sator Square. And since the climax of the story involves a conversation about God, it’s highly likely Nolan worked such a thing in based on the Square’s association with the church.
And when we say Nolan derived the story from the Square, we mean he derived the story from the Square. Andrei Sator is the villain and his company is called, you guessed it, Rotas. Thomas Arepo is the name of the painter who forged the Goya that Kat deemed real, potentially ruining her reputation and creating the leverage Sator uses to keep Kat under his thumb. The inverse of Arepo is Opera. It’s no coincidence the film’s opening scene happens at an opera house. And, of course, the organization trying to simultaneously save the past and future is called Tenet.
You get the sense that Nolan looked at the Square and thought, “The words go backward. They go forward. How do I turn that into a movie, where the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning? Time has to be an element.” And he just went from there.
Tenet is also a regular word that refers to the doctrine or principle that guides an individual or group. For example, one teacher may have a tenet where no student fails. While another may have a tenet that all students should be seen and heard. The first is based on grades, a measurable factor that sets a performance benchmark. While the other is more emotional, and subjective to the student’s inclusion and mental health. In both cases, the teachers care about the well-being of their students. But the differing guiding principles will mean varying methods of approach.
We hear it used that way in the movie when Priya Singh first introduces herself to The Protagonist. He asks her about who supplied her with an inverted bullet and she responds with, “To say anything about a client would violate the tenets he lives by.”
So there’s also a thematic implication to the title of Tenet. Is there a main tenet? If so, what is it? Who does it belong to?
At its most basic, the title simply refers to the name of The Protagonist’s time-winding organization.
The ending of Tenet explained
Tenet’s final scene takes place at an unspecified time after the defeat of Andrei Sator. We’re in London. Kat is on the sidewalk, waiting to pick up her son, Max, from school. She notices a car and records a message into a device, noting the time, date, and location. The device is something given to her by The Protagonist in the event Kat ever feels like someone is after her. There’s no immediate, discernible threat. Just a feeling.
It turns out that inside the car is Priya Singh and a well-dressed hitman. Priya wants to kill Kat as Kat is a loose end who knows too much about Tenet and the future. “Do it before the boy comes out,” she says. Then The Protagonist exiles the hitman and takes up position in the car’s backseat, behind Priya. “That’s your idea of mercy,” he asks, “You gave me your word.” (He’s referring to an earlier conversation with Priya, which we’ll get to in a second).
“I told you, then, what it would be worth… Here, today? How did you know?”
The Protagonist pulls out a device similar to the one Kat spoke into. We hear her voice say, “Cannon Place. 3:00. Probably nothing. I’m…”
Then the Protagonist says, “Posterity.”
The camera cuts to Kat, outside on the sidewalk, saying the exact words we just heard on the recorder. This indicates The Protagonist in the car is from the future and has inverted and returned to this date in order to save Kat. The implication of this is that he is probably far-wiser than the version of him we just saw at Stalsk-12, stopping Sator from activating the Algorithm and reversing the entropy of time. And that comes off in his demeanor. He was always confident and collected, but Tenet itself and the aspects of inversion had always been something he was trying to figure out. Now, he demonstrates a master of the subject.
“I told you you’d have to start looking differently at the world.” At this point, we know a future version of him, decades older, is the creator of the plan to stop Sator. And this feels like the first steps of him maturing into that role. It’s that older version of The Protagonist who probably recruited Priya into Tenet in the first place (if not directly, at least by proxy).
Priya: I have to tie up the loose ends. [She believes this is her responsibility within Tenet.]
TP: That was never your job.
P:Then whose was it?
TP: Mine. I realized I wasn’t working for you. We’ve both been working for me. I’m the protagonist.
Priya: Then you’d better tie up those loose ends. [She quickly adjusts the mirror to avoid seeing the shot that will put her to rest.]
The Protagonist finishes with a quip, of all things, saying, “Mission accomplished.” As in he has tied up the loose ends.
There’s also a speech made by Neil that’s without context. When the speech starts, he’s still at Stalsk-12, having just had his final talk with The Protagonist then racing to a helicopter where he can invert, go back in time, so he can open the door in the hypocenter, allowing The Protagonist and Ives to stop Sator’s henchman, Volkov, from detonating the Algorithm. Unfortunately, that’s where Neil’s fate is sealed. So the speech functions as a kind of final will and testament. His last, wise words. You imagine they’re spoken to The Protagonist. But are they the contents of a letter or something? It’s strange.
Neil: We’re the people saving the world from what might have been. The world will never know what could’ve happened. And even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Cause no one cares about the bomb that didn’t go off. Only the one that did. [The voiceover pauses during The Protagonist and Priya showdown. It resumes immediately after.] It’s the bomb that didn’t go off. The danger no one knew was real. That’s the bomb with the real power to change the world.
On the macro level, what Neil’s saying explains how the world will never really know about Tenet, how Tenet stopped the Algorithm, the mother of all bombs, from detonating. Nothing happened so people can continue to live in happily in their ignorance.
On the micro level, what Neil’s saying applies to Kat. She sees the car. Sends a message. And nothing happens. She probably thinks she was being overly cautious or paranoid. When, in reality, a hitman was there, ready to strike. The bomb, metaphorically speaking, didn’t go off. But it would have changed everything. Her future (by terminating it). Her son and her son’s future. Even The Protagonist, who clearly loves Kat, would probably be a different person if she died. You could imagine that ensuring the future for her and Max is one of his main motivations.
And the situation with Kat applies to all of us. It’s universal. We all have metaphoric bombs in our lives that could have gone off but didn’t. And we’ll never know it. Simple things like not finding your car keys right away meaning you missed someone running through a red light and hitting you. Seth MacFarlene, famously, was supposed to be on American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11th, 2001. He arrived at the airport 10 minutes late and missed his flight. Why? Because he had partied too hard the night before. And his travel agent told him the flight left at 8:15am when it was actually 7:45. Innocuous things that could happen and has happened to all of us. Hijackers seized control of Flight 11 and flew it into the World Trader Center North Tower.
This is what Seth said: “The only reason it hasn’t really affected me as it maybe could have is I didn’t really know that I was in any danger until after it was over, so I never had that panic moment. After the fact, it was sobering, but people have a lot of close calls. You’re crossing the street and you almost get hit by a car… This one just happened to be related to something massive. I really can’t let it affect me because I’m a comedy writer. I have to put that in the back of my head.”
It sounds exactly like what Neil said, just presented in a different way. Not getting on that plane changed Seth MacFarlane’s life forever. It allowed him to have a future and to go on and create beloved shows like Family Guy and American Dad. He’s one of the defining comedy voices of the early 21st century. And that almost never happened.
What Neil’s saying is that when you give people opportunity, when you give groups and countries and the world an opportunity, then amazing things can happen. But if they bomb goes off, if you rob people of their future…then nothing’s possible.
And that’s what The Protagonist and Neil accomplished. They prevented the end of the world as we knew it. They gave humanity an opportunity to figure things out. Which is symbolized by Kat and Max having the chance to live their lives, freely and safely and in blissful ignorance of whatever danger is out there.
Tenet lives up to that tenet from the great Harvey Milk: “The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope.”
The timeline of events in Tenet
One thing that can make Tenet so confusing for people is that a lot of stuff happens off screen. Or is simply hinted at through dialogue. So this is an attempt to lay out details in a way that might help get a grasp on what happened before, during, and after the movie.
- BEFORE THE MOVIE: The Future
- An unspecified amount of time in the future, climate change threatens humanity.
- An unspecified group of powerful people somehow decide the only hope for survival is to reverse the entropy of civilization. This means every person would be “inverted” in the way we see people throughout Tenet.
- Say you knew for certain a meteor would hit the Earth in 5 days. If you inverted, you’d never reach the day of impact. Instead, you’d live your life going backwards through time.
- On your own, that’s incredibly lonely. But if everyone and everything else is also inverted, suddenly it’s not so bad.
- For the inverted, every decade in the past would become another decade into the future.
- Humans could survive this way for millions of years.
- An unspecified scientist (the “Oppenheimer of their time”) invents the Algorithm, a device capable of carrying out the necessary entropic inversion.
- The scientist realizes the horror of the Algorithm, as it essentially overwrites the past and might actually erase the future due to the grandfather paradox.
- To stop anyone from ever activating the Algorithm, the scientist breaks it into nine pieces and inverts the individual pieces, placing them in highly-guarded nuclear areas.
- The powerful people, determined to activate the Algorithm, come up with a plan that involves having an agent in the past who can collect the pieces of the Algorithm.
- They determine Andrei Sator is the best candidate. They recruit him by burying a document with his name on it and bars of gold that travel back in time for decades to a place only Sator will discover.
- Meanwhile, another group, Tenet, forms to prevent the Algorithm’s activation.
- BEFORE THE MOVIE: Sator
- Sator is born in the Russia closed-city of Stalsk-12, where nuclear-related scientific and military development occurs.
- A disaster happens when “one part of a warhead exploded at ground level, scattering the others.” This either destroys parts of the city or makes the whole thing unlivable (due to radiation).
- A young Sator, already entrepreneurial, bids on a job to locate plutonium in the rubble. “Nobody else even bid. They thought it was a death sentence.”
- While at the job, he discovers a strange capsule that contains a document with his name on it and several gold bars. He then takes out the members of his team to keep the gold for himself. This begins his communication with the future.
- At some point, he meets Katherine Barton. They marry and have a son named Max.The marriage eventually turns contentious, with Sator holding Kat prisoner.
- Sator spends the next two decades discovering pieces of the Algorithm and receiving gold bars from the future. Eventually, he only needs one final piece, which he plans to acquire at the Kyiv Opera House.
- BEFORE THE MOVIE: The Protagonist (Older)
- At an unspecified time in the future, The Protagonis sets in motion a temporal pincer to defeat Andrei Sator.
- The Protagonist inverts and travels to the past.
- As the Protagonist is from the future where he already defeated Sator, he can set things in motion in the past to ensure his own success.
- This Protagonist recruits Neil, Ives, Priya, and many others. He spends years preparing.
- The Protagonist eventually recruits his younger self by sending Neil to the Kyiv Opera House, kickstarting the events of the movie.
- BEFORE THE MOVIE: The Protagonist (Younger)
- The Protagonist has no known backstory. You can assume he was born in America, went to college, and probably joined the military.
- Eventually, he joins the CIA.
- At some point, US intelligence says Russians have made a CIA operative on a mission in Ukraine. The Russians will conduct a false flag operation at the Kyiv Opera House in order to extract the CIA operative.
- The CIA dispatches a team to save the operative. This team includes The Protagonist.
- BEFORE THE MOVIE: Neil
- We don’t know when Neil is recruited.
- He could be from the future and inverts with The Protagonist to the past.
- He could be from the past and recruited there by The “older” Protagonist.
- Given his capabilities, it seems safe to assume Neil was already a high-level military operative.
- He spends years working with The “older” Protagonist, preparing for the events of the movie. They become close friends.
- He goes to the Kyiv Opera House.
- BEFORE THE MOVIE: Kat
- Niece of Sir Frederick Barton. Part of the British establishment.
- At some point, Kat becomes a professional art authenticator and begins working at the Shipley Art Gallery.
- She mets Andrei Sator at an auction, dates him, marries him, has a child with him.
- She develops a friendship with an art dealer/forger named Tomas Arepo
- Arepo claims to have a famous Goya work. Sator wants to buy it, asks Kat to determine if it’s real. Kat says it is. Sator spends $9 millions. But the painting turns out to be a fake.
- Sator hurts Arepo as payback.
- Sator uses Kat’s professional failure as blackmail to keep her from leaving him.
- Kat ends up trapped. Sator controls most of her life, including who she sees and when she sees them.
- On the same day as the events at the Kyiv Opera House and Stalsk-12, the family takes a yacht to Vietnam. While returning from a trip to shore, Kat sees a woman dive off the side of the boat and yearns for that woman’s confidence and freedom.
- DURING THE MOVIE: Sator
- Spends the first half of the movie trying to acquire the last piece of the Algorithm.
- It eludes him at the Kyiv Opera House due to The Protagonist’s actions.
- He acquires it at the Tallinn sequence thanks to a temporal pincer.
- After acquiring the last piece of the Algorithm, Sator remains inverted for 2-4 weeks, until he’s past the day of the opera house and Stalsk-12 explosion.
- He re-inverts and arrives at his yacht in Vietnam. It’s here he’s chosen to die, thus triggering the dead man’s switch in his heart. The switch will send an email to an account accessed by the future antagonists, giving them the location of the Algorithm. They can then dig it up and activate it.
- Sator has his final call with The Protagonist and thinks he’s won.
- He realizes the Kat with him is the Kat from the future who inverted back to this point too. She shoots him.
- DURING THE MOVIE: Kat
- Kat begins in the doldrums, at the complete mercy of her estranged husband, Andrei Sator. She’s resigned and cynical.
- Over the course of the movie, she gains a sense of purpose and freedom and agency.
- The tipping point is during the Tallinn sequence. She draws a gun on Sator and has the opportunity to pull the trigger. But she’s too afraid. He strikes her, then his inverted self drags her through Tallinn and back to the Freeport, eventually shooting her in the stomach.
- This is Kat’s metaphorical death and follows her low-point as a traditional damsel in distress.
- Once saved from “death” by The Protagonist and Neil, Kat is “reborn” as an active participant. She’s free in a way she never was before. She travels with The Protagonist and Neil back to the day of the Opera siege and Stalsk-12 bombing. There, she confronts future Sator on his yacht.
- After listening to Future Sator give his big victory speech to The Protagonist, Kat reveals she’s not Past Kat, revealing the scar from Sator shooting her in Tallinn. Cementing her change in character, she shows no hesitation in pulling the trigger. She really is ready to move on.
- At the very end, she picks up her son, Max, from school and walks off with him.
- DURING THE MOVIE: Neil
- Shows up at the Kyiv Opera House and saves The Protagonist, introducing inverted objects.
- Is initially presented as simply a British agent assisting The Protagonist in investigating Andrei Sator.
- After Tallinn, it’s revealed he knows more about inversion than he let on, that he’s actually part of Tenet.
- In the battle at Stalsk-12, Neil plays a crucial role by moving between inverted and forward time. He manages to be in two places at once, securing the mission and saving The Protagonist.
- Has a final conversation with The Protagonist and admits The Protagonist will eventually recruit him, that this whole mission to stop Sator was set-up by an “older” version The Protagonist.
- DURING THE MOVIE: The Protagonist
- His mission at the Kyiv Opera House introduces him to Neil (without him knowing it), inverted objects, and the Algorithm (without him knowing it).
- He’s kidnapped by Sator’s men or Tenet agents testing him. Takes a fake pill, proving his willingness to die for a cause. This is the test he unknowingly passes to join Tenet.
- Spends a chunk of the movie learning key information: what are inverted objects, who is inverting them, who is Sator, how do you get to Sator, and what is Sator’s relationship with “the future”?
- At the airport Oslo sequence, he unknowingly fights his future self.
- Teams up with Neil. Meets Priya. Decides to save Kat from Sator.
- The Tallinn Sequence ends with The Protagonist’s introduction to the Tenet army. The Protagonist actively joins Tenet.
- Inverts with Neil and Kat to save Kat. This brings them back to the Oslo airport sequence and the fight with himself. Saves Kat.
- Having realized Sator’s plan takes place at Stalsk-12, on the same day as the Opera House attack,, all the good people—The Protagonist, Neil, Kat, and the rest of Prosperity—invert back to before the Opera House.
- During the battle of Stalsk-12, The Protagonist fights Volkov for the Algorithm and has a final, philosophical debate with Sator. He secures the Algorithm thanks to the help of both normal and inverted Neil.
- A final conversation with Ives and Neil makes The Protagonist aware he really is the protagonist and this whole thing has been a plot he cooked up in the future.
- The Protagonist saves Kat from Priya.
- We don’t see it, but it’s implied The Protagonist will eventually invert and go back an unspecified amount of time and begin to set-up Tenet’s presence in the recent past and set in motion the events of the film that led to Sator’s defeat.
BASIC PLOT SEQUENCE:
- Kyiv Opera House
- Given a new mission
- Information gathering
- Neil and Priya
- Sir Michael Crosby
- Oslo Sequence
- Fall behind
- Tallinn Sequence
- Joins Tenet and starts to see the world in a new way.
- Get ahead
- Oslo redux
- Stalsk-12 battle & Yacht showdown
- Final conversation with Neil
- Saves Kat
What is Tenet about? What’s the message behind the story?
If you’ve wondered what Tenet is a metaphor for, ultimately, it’s about giving people opportunity. Sator represents forces that would keep people oppressed and limit their opportunities. While The Protagonist represents those who fight for individuals to have opportunities. The reason you want people to have opportunities is for posterity. Posterity means “all future generations.”
Think about it this way. Say someone lives a life of limited opportunity. They like science but their family’s financial situation means the person works multiple jobs and struggles to keep their high school grades up. They fail to graduate. The lack of high school education limits job opportunities. They keep working multiple jobs just to earn a living wage. They barely have any free time and when they do it’s usually spent trying to recover enough before the next shift. This is the state of their life for the rest of their life. They never manage to maintain a relationship or have children.
Now imagine that same person but living a life of unbridled opportunity. They like science and are able to pursue it from a young age because they attend a great school with extra programs. Through these programs, they have opportunities to learn, produce, and network. By the time they graduate high school, they have job offers from top research labs. Some years later, they discover a breakthrough in applying nanotech to cancer treatment and it cures 90% of cancers.
How about a real world example? Remember our previous discussion of Seth McFarlene? McFarlene was only 26 years old when Fox purchased the rights to his adult animated comedy show, Family Guy. It began airing in 1999 and was immediately popular. But season 2 was less successful, as Fox kept shuffling the time slot and pitting a very weird concept against beloved classics like Frasier and Friends or hot new properties like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor. By 2002, Fox canceled Family Guy.
Remember that McFarlene was, on September 11th, 2001, supposed to be on American Airlines Flight 11. The very one flown into the World Trader Center’s North Tower. But he missed the flight and accidentally saved his own life. Had he not been hungover, had his travel agent not given him the wrong departure time, it’s likely McFarlene would have boarded Flight 11 and been stolen from this world.
Family Guy would have ended at season 3 and that would be the totality of his life’s work. Instead, he lived. And by having the opportunity to create, amazing things happened. Fox revived Family Guy in 2005, the show returned to incredible popularity, having developed a cult following via re-runs and DVD sales, and continues, 20 seasons later, to this very day (in 2022). Not only that, McFarlene went out to create other beloved shows like American Dad! and The Orville. He’s made popular movies. His comedy and creations have positively impacted millions of lives over the course of decades.
That’s what opportunity means.
Tenet is a story that lionizes the people who work behind the scenes every single day to allow others the opportunity to live and be happy and maybe do something great. The utility workers. Politicians. Automakers. Military. Those in the service industry. It might seem silly, but that cook who takes the time to follow food regulations ensures the health of every customer. There are traffic engineers who study traffic science then apply it to limit traffic accidents in cities and towns. That person ensures lives. Scientists who create electric cars, executives who put them into production, and politicians who incentivize them: they save lives.
In Tenet, it’s not a mistake that the whole reason the future is trying to activate the Algorithm is because severe climate change means imminent and irreversible catastrophe for them. People in our time were lazy about climate change and the result is a lack of opportunity for the future. In fact, it’s the end of opportunity, as society as we know it will cease to exist.
So not only does Tenet ask us to appreciate others who help us live our lives with opportunity but it also asks us to be the person who helps the future. To do what we can to create opportunity for those who will be here after us. To do your part for posterity.
Why is The Protagonist not named?
Every character in Tenet has a name, except The Protagonist. He never introduces himself to anyone. The one time he almost does is to Kat, who pauses for his name. All he offers is “Goya” then proceeds to show her the Goya painting he wants to talk about. On the one hand, this makes sense, as the character is supposed to have died in the line of duty after the opera house mission. To use his real name would compromise him. And to use a fake name might leave a trail he doesn’t want.
In the script, he’s only ever called “Protagonist.” Within the movie, there are two lines of dialogue that cement the name.
The first happens during the conversation with Priya on her balcony in Mumbai. She’s informing him about Sator’s relationship with the future. Then we hear this dialogue:
Priya: To get anywhere near Sator would take a fresh-faced protagonist. [She touches his cheek]. Fresh as a daisy. Get close. Find out what he’s receiving and how.
The second happens at the very end, when The Protagonist surprises Priya before Priya’s about to liquidate Kat. Sitting in the backseat of Priya’s car, weapon pointed at her, he says:
Protagonist: I realized I wasn’t working for you. We’ve both been working for me. I’m the protagonist.
Okay. So that’s the in-movie rationalization about why the main character doesn’t have a name but is just referred to as The Protagonist. But it begs the question, is there symbolism?
It’s not unheard of for Nolan to be tongue-in-cheek with the names of his characters. In Inception, he named Elliot Page’s character “Ariadne” after a character from Greek mythology who aided the hero Theseus’s escape from the minotaur’s labyrinth. Another myth has it that Ariadne is abandoned on an island but eventually rescued. So how does Nolan use this information? In Inception, his version of the character is an architectural student recruited by Cobb (DiCaprio) to build the dreamscapes used in Inception’s elaborate dream-heists. It’s labyrinth-adjacent. More specifically, she’s the one character attempting to help Cobb overcome his own metaphorical minotaur: memories of his deceased wife (Marion Cotillard). At one point, she also ends up kind of kidnapped to a dream tower that Cobb has to rescue her from.
Even within Tenet, we’ve talked about Nolan’s reliance on the Sator Square and the ways in which he incorporated the various words (Sator/Rotas, Opera/Arepo, Tenet).
So it seems like there might be a bit of intentionality.
Funny enough, The Protagonist does serve a strong foil to a famous spy. James Bond. If you were going to build an “anti-Bond” what would you do? Instead of being British, make him American. Instead of womanizing, have him be a chaste gentleman. Instead of boozing, have him refuse alcohol. And rather than him having an iconic name, make him nameless. Nolan has even said how his dream is to direct a Bond movie. So you could imagine that making a spy film he had to be considering Bond in some way.
Thematically, calling the hero The Protagonist does fit with some of the deep interpretations of the story. As we discussed, Tenet is essentially about disaster prevention and an awareness of the fact there are people out there preventing “bombs” from going off, each and every day, and we never know it. Every single one of those people are, to some degree, the protagonist of a story that won’t ever be told. They’ll remain nameless to the world. But we get to live the lives we do because of them. In that way, Nolan’s kind of asking people to step into the role in whatever way they can. To be a fresh faced protagonist of a tale. You don’t have to be foiling secret operations of evil doers from the future. It can be as simple as recycling. As buying an electric car. As voting. As being kind to others.
Think about it compared to Bond. James Bond is James Bond. None of us can be that. But the protagonist? That’s something we can be. And we see that with The Protagonist. His character arc is stepping into that role. He goes from feeling like simply an agent with a mission to the one in charge. The change in power dynamics with Priya over the course of the movie serves as a kind of parallax for the growth he makes between start and finish.
How is Neil alive at the end?
It might be confusing when you watch Tenet for the first time, but Neil being both dead and alive during the battle at Stalsk-12 is actually very easy to explain.
Inversion in Tenet works like a boomerang. An inverted person is always the future version of someone. It’s what we saw in the Oslo sequence. The normal Protagonist fights his inverted self 45-minutes into the movie. Then progresses through the movie, inverts at Tallinn, and travels all the way back to Oslo. It’s at the 1 hour and 41 minute mark he fights with his past self.
With Neil, it’s the same thing on a smaller time scale. The Neil who Volkov shoots is actually the future version of the Neil who drives the jeep and saves Ives and The Protagonist from the explosion in the hypocenter.
The flow of events is this:
- Neil sits with Blue Team and waits for the Battle of Stalsk-12 to finish.
- The explosion happens.
- Blue Team inverts and lands in Stalsk-12 right before the explosion.
- They stream backwards from the end of the operation towards the beginning, seeing the aftermath of everything.
- Someone from Blue Team will remain inverted past the start of the operation, re-invert, then explain to Red Team what they saw, allowing Red Team to plan accordingly. (This is how a temporal pincer works).
- During the operation, Neil hears an explosion and goes to investigate.
- Neil notices Volkov exiting the tunnel. Volkov derigs a trip-mine. Then leaves on the helicopter.
- In forward time, this means Volkov arrives on a helicopter, rigs an explosive, then enters the tunnel.
- Neil realizes The Protagonist and Ives are probably trapped inside the hypocenter due to the mine, that was the explosion he heard.
- Neil discovers a turnstile used by Sator’s men.
- He inverts back to normal time.
- In normal time, Neil finds an SUV, drives it to the top of they hypocenter, almost running his inverted self over.
- At the top of the hypocenter, he drops a line for The Protagonist and Ives.
- Back in the SUV, he drives away from the hypocenter roof, pulling The Protagonist and Ives out and away from the blast.
- Afterwards, the three of them talk. Ives and Neil determine an inverted Neil probably picked the door lock in the hypocenter.
- Ives leaves. Neil reveals The Protagonist is the one who recruited him, that The Protagonist has a future in the past. That they’ve actually been friends for years and been on many adventures.
- Neil inverts. Waits for the explosion to reverse. Then enters the hypocenter.
- In the hypocenter, he walks through an open door. Holds it open. Then eventually closes it. As he closes it, he walks in front of Volkov’s bullet. His body drops to the ground.
- In forward time, the body is on the ground. Rises up in front of the gun. Opens the door. Holds the door open. Then eventually closes it and runs back out of the tunnel.
- The corpse of inverted Neil will eventually be washed away by the dominant flow of entropy (something we discuss later on in the article).
The short version:
- Neil is inverted.
- Neil reverts to normal time.
- Normal Neil saves The Protagonist and Ives.
- Normal Neil inverts.
- Inverted Neil goes down to the hypocenter to pick the lock.
- He is in the wrong place, at the wrong time, as Volkov fires.
So the reason Neil is alive after he’s dead is that boomerang effect. The dead version of him is the future version of the living, breathing Neil who drove the SUV and had the final talk with The Protagonist. Unfortunately, when the movie ends, Neil is absolutely, positively dead.
Is Neil Kat’s son Max?
This is one of those theories that sounds good and has a cool-factor, but I don’t think it really adds anything to the story. In fact, I think it actually detracts from the story.
There are a few reasons this theory exists.
- Max’s full name is Maximilien. The reverse the name and you get Neilimixam. Shorten it the same way you do to get Max and what’s the name? Neil.
- Neil speaks with a posh British accent, similar to Kat’s.
- What a twist it would be!
Here’s why it doesn’t work.
First, Max is how old in the movie? Like 10? Neil is early to mid 30s? Think about the logistics of inversion. If Max aged to 20, he’d have to be inverted for 10 years, just to get back to the start of the movie. It’s maybe possible. But then you have to factor in him knowing people in the past, having a job as a British special agent, and being physically capable as well as educated. Traveling backwards for 10 or more years would allow for a lot of study. But it would be very limiting in other ways. Physically. Socially. How would he even start to begin working as an intelligence agent when he has no identity in the past? His public records would show him as 8 years old? It just starts to spiral into a logistical nightmare of “Well, maybe this explains it?” for 1,000 different problems.
Maybe you’re thinking what if The Protagonist didn’t wait for Max to be 20. What if he recruited Max right now. Or in 5 years. Maybe. But think about how much The Protagonist cared about Kat. Now think about how much Kat cared about Max. Do you think, for even a second, she’d let her son just go off to be part of Tenet? Do you think The Protagonist would do something like that after everything he did to help Kat have a future with her son? It would go against so much of the movie and established character motivations. That’s why I said if Neil is Max it detracts from the story.
It actually also violates the main theme. As we said earlier, Tenet’s about posterity, about the actions we take to provide opportunities for people now and in the future. Max is 100000% symbolic of that. Under Sator, Max’s future is bleak. With Sator gone, his future is wide open. That’s why the movie ends with Kat and Max walking off. They’re representative of the great potential of the future. That lines up with the last line from Neil’s closing speech: “It’s the bomb that didn’t go off. The danger no one knew was real. That’s the bomb with the real power to change the world.”
Max represents future generations having the opportunity to make things right. Make things better. To do great things.
If Max were Neil, it undercuts that sense of tomorrow. Because Neil’s already gone, in the past. It would mean Max never really had a future. I just don’t think that’s the direction Nolan would go in.
It makes more sense that The Protagonist, having met Neil, inverts shortly after the movie, travels back some years, reverts, finds and recruits Neil.
I hear you, though. “But, Chris, if that’s the case, why call the characters Neil and Maximilien in the first place? There are thousands of other names to pick. Is it just coincidence?”
No. I do think Nolan was playing into the whole Sator Square gimmick and liked the idea of deriving Neil’s name from the end of Max’s. It just doesn’t mean the two are the same character. Look at how the Sator Square words occur in Tenet.
Sator: main villain
Rotas: Sator’s company
Opera: location of opening scene
Arepo: art forger
While there is some connection between Rotas and Sator, Opera and Arepo don’t really have anything to do with each other. You could try and connect them with art. Opera is a form of art. Arepo is an art forger. But he forges paintings. So the connection is tenuous.
Some people might point to the fact that the entire movie has a palindromic quality to it. It starts on the day of the Kyiv Opera House attack, goes ahead a couple weeks, then boomerangs around and ends on the day of the Kyiv Opera House attack. Except it’s at Stalsk-12. And the Opera House never really factors into the final scene. Even then, the movie extends past that day and truly ends with the confrontation between The Protagonist and Priya. So not a perfect palindrome either.
Just because Nolan used duality and palindromes a lot in the movie doesn’t mean Max and Neil have to be the same person. It’s more likely a thematic connection than a literal one. Neil gives his life to save future generations. Max is the spiritual successor to that deed. So connecting them by name cements the symbolic connection.
We see a similar sense of connection/duality between the female scientist who educates The Protagonist on inversion and the unseen, unnamed future female scientist who Priya explains discovers the Algorithm. Some have speculated that maybe the scientist in the present becomes this future, Algorithm-inventing scientist. Honestly, we don’t have enough information either way. If you want to, you can talk yourself into it or out of it. I’d argue it’s likely just a spiritual connection more so than a literal one.
Ultimately, Neil was most likely just a very capable British spy recruited by The Protagonist. His real name probably isn’t even Neil.
Is Ives actually Sir Michael Crosby?
Similar to the theory Neil is Max, there’s another rumor that Ives, Tenet’s army commander, is actually British information broker Sir Michael Crosby (Michael Caine). Why would anyone think this? Like with the Neil-Max theory, it’s a cool concept. The idea that these characters we meet at one stage of their life we’re secretly seeing at another, older stage is compelling. And it’s been pointed out that Ives and Crosby have similar accents. This is the totality of the evidence in favor of this theory. It’s more than likely not true and simply something some people like to believe because it’s exciting to think it’s true.
It also doesn’t fit with the implications of what it means to join Tenet. The reason The Protagonist passed his entrance exam is because he willingly took the cyanide pill rather than give up information. He died for the cause. It’s one of the grim aspects of Tenet that’s never really focused on. But you have Priya out there feeling its her role to tie up loose ends to prevent knowledge of the Algorithm spreading. Which is why she wants to eliminate Kat, even after promising not to. This is why Neil was so nonchalant about going to pick the lock and how sad The Protagonist was about this. Neil knew he was going to his demise. But that’s what he signed up for. Otherwise, he’d have never been part of Tenet.
Ives is the most explicit about this tenet of Tenet, telling The Protagonist and Neil after they’ve claimed the Algorithm, quote: “We hide it. We end our lives. It’s the only way to be sure [that the Algorithm will be safe].” After a loaded pause, he adds, “But as to when, maybe that’s every man’s decision to make for himself?” That comes with the caveat Ives will be hunting down Neil and The Protagonist to make sure they held up their end of the bargain.
So if Ives is so determined to sacrifice himself for the safety of the Algorithm, why would he live to be as old as Sir Michael Crosby is? Not to mention that becoming a “Sir” means you’re at least somewhat well-known as the title is a recognition of service or greatness. For Ives to go from the commander of a private army to a knighted intelligence officer for Britain…it’s strange. Not to mention the age. Sir Crosby is like 80? Ives is 30s to 40s. To be at that point in time at that age, he’d have to invert something like 25 years into the past, then live 25 years forward. Nope. Not happening.
What’s the meaning of Neil’s medallion on his bag?
I wish there was a better answer. Unfortunately, it only seems like a functional device to set up the twist of Neil’s death. Which is kind of genius. You have this plot device with inversion that allows you to do a lot of cool things. We see how Nolan uses it for action sequences. For character development. For thematic development (see the next section about Kat). But you’d also want it to play a part in some kind of twist. Something that will really hit the audience. And what better thing than the death of a beloved character.
This is a two part problem, then. You need a scene where a character dies but the audience doesn’t realize who it is. Then you have to have a way to reveal it. There’s a number of ways to accomplish this. For example, we could have just followed Neil as he inverted again, went into the hypocenter, and closed the door (to open the door). At some point, we’d realize he was the mysterious soldier who was shot. The issue here is it takes time. You may not want to spend the extra few minutes having that all play out. Especially since we’ve already seen the end result.
Nolan’s solution is the medallion with the red string. Show the medallion on the body of the mysterious soldier. Then when we eventually see Neil carrying the backpack with that same medallion, the moment hits us. That was him!
All you’d really need is that one-two punch. Medallion on the body. Neil with the medallion. The Protagonist puts two and two together just as the audience does. So why does Nolan include the medallion way back in the beginning at the opera house? The easy answer is the rule of threes. It’s a pretty common rule in art and marketing and comedy. There’s power in that number. Comedians often use it when making a joke. “I told my neighbor to guess what’s in my hand. They said a dollar. I said no. They said a bug. I said no. They said a grape. I said…” You can hear it in the rhythm of the set up that on the third response something needs to happen. If the listing keeps going, the energy starts to fade.
But it’s also an importance thing. If you only show it when The Protagonist discovers the body then the audience might not key onto it as much. It’s possible they miss it. And you don’t want them to miss it because it’s one of the most emotionally charged moments in the movie when you see Neil carrying the backpack with the medallion and realize it’s him. You don’t want anyone confused. So you could over-emphasize it, zoom in on it. But it doesn’t really have any meaning in that moment. Instead, you introduce it way earlier in the movie. So when the audience sees it for a second time, they pop a little and go “I remember that! What is that?”
So that means introducing it earlier. Probably much earlier. Because Tenet has its palindrome qualities, it makes sense to mirror the occurrences. If it’s there at the end, then the first time the audience sees it should be at the beginning. Which is why you get Neil at the opera house with it. But you can’t show it’s Neil, that would ruin the surprise. And Neil, at that point, doesn’t want The Protagonist to know who he is. So he’s masked up.
This serves yet another purpose, though. It also makes us think the person with the medallion isn’t Neil. Our intro to him isn’t until a little later, in Mumbai. And he never lets on he was at the opera house. Unconsciously, the viewer will assume Neil and the masked person are different people. Especially when we’re in the Stalsk-12 battle and Neil’s running around alive and well while the medallion guy is out of commission. You now have this double revelation. That Neil was actually at the opera house and that Neil was the body in the hypocenter. It’s a double “Aha” moment. For any aspiring creative writers, there’s a lot to learn from this set-up and execution (no pun intended).
Kat’s character growth and development
Tenet isn’t all that interested in character development and arcs. Usually, you expect a character to have some kind of dilemma and either they solve the dilemma, come to terms with it, or succumb to it. For main characters, this is usually quite nuanced and can be multifaceted. Side characters, it’s typically much simpler.
Like in the movie Get Out, you have Lil Rey Howery playing Rod Williams, the best friend to the main character, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya). For most of the movie, Rod’s in NYC, away from the central action in Upstate New York at the Armitage family home. His character arc is whether or not he’ll take the action to go help his friend. Over the course of the story, more and more details pile up that convince Rod that Chris might need his help. Finally, he does, and arrives at the perfect time to save the day.
In Tenet, you really don’t get much of that. Neil has no real arc aside from being cool and charming. Sator is Sator. The Protagonist goes from being behind on everything to one-step ahead. This is demonstrated through his conversations with Priya. First one, he’s completely in the dark. Second one, they’re on more even footing but Priya still knows more and seems in charge. By the end, The Protagonist asserts Priya has been working for him.
Kat has the best character growth in the entirety of Tenet.
At the beginning she’s completely demoralized and in the thrall of Sator’s control. After meeting with The Protagonist and seeing him stand up to Andrei, she feels inspired, seizing the opportunity to unclip him while they speed sail the F50 catamarans in Italy. While it’s bold of Kat to make this attempt on Sator’s life, it’s also a bit craven. A kind of sucker punch that avoids actual confrontation. We see in the scenes that follow just how disheartened Kat is when face to face with Sator. How fearful. How impossible it is for her to take the same action. In Tallinn, she holds a gun on him, looks him eye to eye, but can’t pull the trigger. This is a key scene with important dialogue, so we’ll dive in for a minute.
Sator brings Kat to a warehouse in Tallinn. Inside, a line of tables loaded with weapons.
Sator: You see, Kat? Some of my favorites. Singed but, uh, salvageable, wouldn’t you say?
Kat: That’s not my area of expertise.
S: Ah, that’s right. You would never have anything to do with such things. But this is where our worlds collide.
K: What is this, Andrei?
S: You know perfectly well what it is, Kat. The filthy business that put those clothes on your back and our boy in his school, that you thought you could negotiate your way around. Time to go.
K: I’m not going anywhere with him. [Script says “you’. Strange discrepancy].
S: [Screams] Look at me! And understand. You don’t negotiate with a tiger. You admire a tiger until he turns on you and you feel his true f***ing nature! [Sator has approached Kat, seemingly ready to hurt her]
K: [Pulls gun] Don’t. You stay right there.
S: You are not going to kill me.
K: I already tried.
S: You pushed me off a boat. You are not going to shoot me in cold blood.
K: My blood’s not cold, Andrei.
S: No, but you’re not angry enough. Because anger scars over into despair. I look in your eyes, I see despair.
After that, Andrei beats up Kat and his inverted self shows up, grabs her, and brings her into the car chase, back to the warehouse, where he eventually shoots her in the hip.
Notice how Sator actively points out the difference between the current situation and what happened on the boat. It’s one thing to push him off a boat. It’s another to look him in the eyes and fire a weapon.
The key line here is “Anger scars over into despair.” Kat’s at a point where whatever anger she had has given over to despair. His diagnosis is the despair is too great for her to have the necessary anger to pull the trigger. And he’s right. She can’t. And he makes her pay for it.
But what happens after the Tallinn sequence? Kat’s not dying from the gunshot wound but from the “inverse radiation poisoning” caused by an inverted bullet wound. So The Protagonist and Neil have to invert her, bring her back a week to Oslo, and revert her. That’s the only way to reverse the damage and radiation, let the prevailing winds of entropy heal her. And it works!
What’s Neil say to her once Kat wakes up, coming back, essentially, from the dead? “It’ll be quite a scar.”
So you have Andrei mentioning scars. Then Neil mentioning scars. A little bit later, when the three heroes are inverted on the boat, heading back to the day of the Opera attack, Kat shows The Protagonist her scar. Her next words? “Tell me you’re gonna kill him.”
Remember, Tenet is a movie dealing with palindromes and things inverting their entropy. With that in mind, revisit Sator’s statement. “Anger scars over into despair. I look in your eyes, I see despair.” But now Kat has inverted. She’s literally going back in time. Metaphorically speaking, her despair also inverts. This reborn version of Kat isn’t despairing. She’s not even angry. She’s outraged.
This is the Kat who appears on the yacht with Sator during the climax. Keep in mind, this is Sator from the future. After the Tallinn sequence, he stayed inverted all the way back to this date, just like The Protagonist, Neil, and Kat. He thinks he’s on the yacht with past Kat. When, really, it’s future Kat. After playing along for a bit, her fury takes over.
Kat: I can’t do this. I can’t let you think you’ve won. [She takes out a gun she hid under a cushion.]
Sator: Don’t spoil this moment, Kat.
K: I’m not letting you go to your grave thinking we’re coming with you. [Aims.] You’re dying alone, Andrei. Look in my eyes. Which do you see? Despair or anger?
[Sator, start to consider which Kat he’s dealing with.]
K: I’m not the woman who could find love for you even though you scarred her on the inside. I’m the vengeful b*tch you scarred on the outside. [Removes robe, revealing scar from Tallinn.]
Sator finally understands this is future Kat. He lungs for her, screaming. But she, without hesitation, pulls the trigger.
What’s funny is that Kat dumps him off the boat, bringing us full circle to the earlier catamaran scene. So the first time she kicks him off a boat, it’s a half-hearted, sneak-attack that avoids the core issues between them. The second time, it’s having directly confronted him and establishing her own power and freedom.
That brings us to her diving from the boat. Of course, that’s the moment Kat referenced earlier in the movie. On that day, she had been returning to the yacht and saw this mystery woman diving off and envied the sense of freedom that woman possessed. She didn’t realize back then that it was her future self, that she would go from that sad, internally scarred person, to this empowered being.
It’s a really nice character arc.
Why is Sator helping the future?
The initial answer is money. We see in the flashback when Sator is in Stalsk-12 and first discovers a capsule from the future, it’s full of gold bars. He’s young, ambitious, and this is his way of making something of himself. As he says, it’s a “devil’s bargain—money for time.”
But decades later, he derives his conviction from something other than money. Control.
We see this with Kat. Even though their marriage is awful and loveless, he won’t let her go. He won’t move on to someone else. Why? Because he doesn’t want her moving on to something else. This is made explicit during one argument the two have.
Kat: Even a soul as blank and brittle as yours needs a response. Is fear and pain enough, Andrei? That’s all I have to offer you.
Sator: Well, that will have to do, then.
Kat: Why didn’t you just let me go?
Sator: Because, if I can’t have you…no one else can.
So we see it’s in Sator’s nature to keep what he believes belongs to him. There’s a sense of cruel entitlement that’s mixed with a bitterness towards those who have. Remember, Sator grew up in Stalsk-12, a closed Russian city that was an example of everything that can go wrong with communism. He was completely impoverished but craved more. So even though he’s now one of the richest people in the world, there’s still a deep-seated anger rooted in the unfairness of his childhood. Sator doesn’t just want things for himself. He wants to deny others. Especially if it’s something he can’t have.
On the personal level, that’s Kat. She doesn’t want to be with him anymore, so he won’t let her be with anyone else.
On the larger scale, it’s a future. Near the end of the movie, when our heroes are on the boat, inverting their way to the day of the Opera House attack, this conversation occurs:
Kat: No, you’ve missed the point. He’s intending to end his life.
Kat: He’s dying. Inoperable pancreatic cancer.
TP: And he’s taking the world with him.
Kat: If he can’t have her, no one can.
Because Sator’s dying, he won’t have a future. And because he can’t have a future, he’s refusing to let anyone else. It’s the same exact situation as Kat but on a larger scale, which is why Kat, who knows better than anyone the possessiveness of Andrei Sator, is the one to make the connection.
In short: he initially helped the future because he wanted the money. But he continued to help the future because he’s so incredibly petty he’d rather end the world than let the world exist beyond his death.
Why didn’t the Algorithm go off when Sator died?
This is easy, kind of. When Sator dies, it’s supposed to send an email to the future telling them the location of the Algorithm. That’s what Volkov was trying to do in Stalsk-12: deposit the Algorithm in a place no one but the future would find it (except The Protagonist and Ives stop him). The explosion at Stalsk-12 was insurance, as it would seal the location from all but the most dedicated.
The reason why The Protagonist and Neil think Sator’s death would end the world is that if Sator dies prematurely, it gives the future time to do something about it. Either they know to be at Stalsk-12 to stop The Protagonist from stopping Volkov, or they know something went wrong and can make adjustments like warning Sator.
From our perspective, as soon as the future is successful, the world ends. Either because the Algorithm works and the future inverts and erases the past. Or because the Algorithm simply annihilates everything immediately upon activation (more on that later).
So they had to keep Sator alive until they secured the Algorithm, preventing the Future from reacting appropriately.
Who captured The Protagonist at the Kyiv Opera House?
This is probably my favorite question in the entire movie.
This is how the opera house scene goes.
- Sator gets word the 9th piece of the Algorithm will be at the Kyiv Opera House. He devises a plan to extract it that involves a false-flag terrorist operation.
- CIA gets a tip terrorists will attack the Kyiv Opera House in an attempt to get what they only think is plutonium from a CIA asset.
- CIA sends a team posing as Ukrainian SWAT to extract the asset. The Protagonist is part of this CIA team.
- Midway through the extraction, The Protagonist realizes other SWAT members are actually placing bombs.
- He audibles the mission. Part of the team leaves through a different exit with the asset. The Protagonist stays behind to remove the bombs and leave with another agent posing as the asset.
- An evil SWAT member catches The Protagonist collecting bombs. Neil uses an inverted gun to save The Protagonist.
- Having disposed of the bombs, The Protagonist and agent posing as the asset leave the opera house and return to what should be the CIA van.
- Surprise! There are Russians in the van who take The Protagonist and other agent prisoner.
We pick up in the trainyard. The Russians have tortured the other agent to near-death. Now, they’re working on The Protagonist, ripping teeth from his mouth. Of note, many of the shots feature a train on either side of The Protagonist, moving in opposite directions. The trains, with The Protagonist in-between them, foreshadow the temporal-shenanigans of Tenet.
Eventually, The Protagonist has an opportunity. The other agent is on the ground, tied to a chair, but he’s retrieved his fake pill. Unable to take it himself, he waves it in offering to The Protagonist. The Protagonist doesn’t hesitate. He dives forward, mouths the pill, and bites down, releasing the poison inside, much to the aggravation of the Russians. Instead of dying, he wakes up in a hospital, with a CIA handler, Fay (Martin Donovan), explaining this was a test and The Protagonist passed. Which is what kicks off his next mission and the rest of the movie.
The obvious answer here is that Sator’s men were the ones who grabbed The Protagonist. Afterall, the whole thing was Sator’s attempt to get the Algorithm. He, more than anyone, wants to know what happened to it. So these Russian dudes grab The Protagonist in an attempt to figure it out. After the pill, though, they give up and leave him for dead. At which point the CIA would come in.
But what if it wasn’t Sator’s men? What if it was actually Tenet?
There are a few clues to this. First, and most obvious, is Fay’s response to The Protagonist asking why the pills were fake. “A test.” He then praises The Protagonist for not giving up his colleagues and being willing to die. Then follows that up with, “We all believe we’d run into the burning building. But until we feel that heat, we can never know. You do.” Fay’s saying, you’re someone who will die for a cause. Which actually ends up being an important aspect of Tenet. Anyone with knowledge of the Algorithm is a loose end who will eventually be tied up. Priya says it. Ives says it. Neil certainly understands it. It goes all the way back (well…forward) to the scientist who created the Algorithm. She broke it into pieces, inverted them, hid them, then took her own life.
Fay continues by saying, “You don’t work for us [the CIA]. You’re dead. Your duty transcends national interests.” He’s indoctrinating The Protagonist into Tenet because Fay’s part of Tenet. But his knowledge is limited. As he says, “This is knowledge divided.” He gives the gesture and the word and that’s it.
Clearly, recruiting The Protagonist into Tenet was something Fay wanted to do. It wasn’t a mistake or coincidence. It’s not like he was waiting for the perfect storm. That could take forever. It’s more likely he was part of orchestrating a test to see if The Protagonist passed. We know The Protagonist at the end of the movie will invert and go back in time, probably some years, to set up the temporal pincer maneuver that takes out Sator. He’s putting everything into place. From recruiting Priya and Neil to even recruiting himself. Behind the scenes, obviously, with only a few people probably ever knowing who he is or what he looked like. Like Priya doesn’t know him but Neil did.
The second clue is how immediately after The Protagonist takes the pill, we cut to the title screen that says “Tenet.” This reinforces how that moment was his indoctrination.
The third clue is that Neil was at the opera house and fired an inverted round. At that moment, Neil’s not inverted (and we don’t know it’s Neil yet). So why fire an inverted round? The only reason is to arouse The Protagonist’s suspicions, to get him thinking, “What was that?” It kicks off all of the inversion stuff. So this seems to be the beginning of future Protagonist (who has already lived the events of the movie and inverted back before them) recruiting his past/present self. Tease inversion. Do the test. Pass the test. Send him to talk to the scientist who will show more inverted stuff and lay the groundwork for meeting Neil and Priya and going after Sator.
We also know that Tenet has a whole army. It’s not just a handful of high-level people like Priya, Neil, and Fay. It’s Ives, Wheeler, and the rest of the soldiers who fight at Stalsk-12. Dozens of people. It’s not impossible that a couple of them were the ones who did the torturing.
There is a middle-ground. That the Russians really were hired by Sator. But that Tenet was nearby, monitoring the situation, and swept in as soon as The Protagonist took the pill. It’s a valid theory, I just don’t think it’s as fun as the whole kidnapping and torture being a Tenet operation.
Just to be clear: the events at the opera house were very real and not part of the Tenet test. TIn this theory, the test is only the kidnapping and torture.
What’s the Tenet hand gesture?
The gesture itself is simple. You bring your hands together and allow the fingers to interlock. If you do that and look at it, you’ll notice the mirror-like quality. The center-line of the knuckles and identical looking fingers on either side. The symmetry is nice.
Symmetry is also a major part of Tenet. As we discussed in the explanation of the title, the Sator Square that inspired the movie name is noteworthy for its palindromes and the symmetry created by intersecting the words Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera, and Rotas. And then we have forward and inverted characters and sequences where present and future intersect. So, visually, the movie has many moments of symmetry and mirroring. Even the story itself has a palindrome-like structure, with the movie beginning and ending on the day of the Opera House attack.
So the hand gesture falls into the overall aesthetic of Tenet. While that suffices as an explanation, there’s actually a moment in Tenet that grounds the gesture in the story. It happens when Neil and The Protagonist are bringing Kat to Oslo to deal with her inverted wound. The Protagonist asks Neil about the Algorithm.
Neil: 241 is one section of it. One out of nine. It’s a formula rendered into physical form so it can’t be copied or communicated. It’s a black box with one function.
TP: Which is?
Neil: Inversion. But not objects or peoples. The world around us.
TP: I don’t understand.
Neil: As they invert the entropy of more and more objects, the two directions of time are becoming more intertwined.
At the mention of the two directions of time entwining, Neil brings his hands together, interlacing his fingers. It’s the exact gesture given to The Protagonist when he started this mission. This is its moment of origin. Neil uses it to demonstrate what’s happening to time, thus inspiring The Protagonist to, eventually, use the gesture when he goes back in time and kicks off the temporal pincer maneuver that is the plot of the movie. It’s likely he’s even the one who first explained it to Neil this way. Which is kind of trippy, since he only knew to make the gesture because Neil showed it to him. It’s a fun little paradox.
The actual secret-agent use of the gesture happens twice. Both times early in the movie. First, when The Protagonist meets the scientist who will explain inversion to him. Second, when he meets Priya on the balcony of her high-rise apartment.
Was Sator a CIA agent like The Protagonist?
People probably think this because Sator, at one point, uses the CIA code phrase. So let’s recap then come back to the question.
In the opera house scene, The Protagonist introduces himself to the CIA asset using half of a code phrase: “We live in a twilight world.” To which the “Well-Dressed Man” says: “And there are no friends at dusk.”
A similar identification happens later in the scene when one of Sator’s false SWAT members realizes The Protagonist isn’t one of them. He lifts the fake patch off The Protagonist’s shoulder and asks “Who are you.” Just then, another SWAT member fires and takes out Sator’s man. He says, “No friends at dusk, huh?” All the undercover CIA agents had fake patches on. So this “SWAT” member recognized that The Protagonist must be undercover like him. That’s why he jokingly threw out the last half of the CIA code-phrase.
We hear this phrase used twice more. Once when The Protagonist calls a mysterious CIA contact and asks for “an assist in Mumbai” (that ends up being Neil). The second time is after Volkov finds The Protagonist spying on the arrival of a gold deposit from the future. Volkov brings The Protagonist out to Sator.
Volkov: He was at the window.
TP: I was curious.
Sator: My property shouldn’t concern you. Who are you? How do you come by your information about the opera?
TP: You wouldn’t do business with someone who wasn’t savvy enough to be recruited. Hell, the CIA provides two third of the market for fissile material.
Sator: They’re usually buying, not selling. But we do live in a twilight world.
TP: Is that Whitman? Pretty.
Why would Sator know the phrase if he’s not CIA? And why wouldn’t The Protagonist acknowledge it (by saying the dusk line)?
Much earlier, Michael Crosby told The Protagonist that Sator is “tapped into the intelligence services. I’ve warned them he’s feeding them rubbish, but they don’t seem to care.” What seems to be the case is that Sator has worked as an informant for the CIA in the past. Also, we know he runs temporal pincers quite often. So it’s likely he’s probably spied on agents or tortured agents for information. Regardless of the method, what’s important is that somehow, someway, he’s acquired knowledge of the phrase. He throws it out in front of The Protagonist just to see what The Protagonist does. Sator doesn’t know, at this point, who The Protagonist works for. Just that he’s American and has information very few would possibly have. Sator suspects CIA and hopes maybe The Protagonist will take the bait.
That’s why The Protagonist responds with such defiance. He doesn’t want to give Sator any insight. He wants to play dumb and act like he doesn’t know the phrase.
So it’s just a game of cat and mouse. Not a big reveal that Sator’s actually CIA.
What happens to the bullet holes caused by inverted guns?
One of the major questions. The Oslo sequence comes to mind, as we have the scene where the normal Protagonist walks into the room, sees glass with bullet holes in it, then his future, inverted self comes through the turnstile and un-fires the gun, removing the bullet holes from the window.
You might be one of the many people who sat there, thinking, “Wait…how long were those bullet holes there, streaming into the past?” Hours? Days? Weeks? Years? The longer you go, the sillier the answer seems. Someone would have noticed and said, “How did bullet holes get here?” and probably replaced the glass long before the bullet holes could actually get there.
So how long?
Neil sort of answers this when explaining to The Protagonist and Kat how inversion works.
Neil: But because the environment essentially flows in our direction, we dominate. They’re always swimming upstream. It’s what saved your life. Inverted explosion was pushing against the environment.
The Protagonist responds with the summarizing statement: “Pissing in the wind.” For the sake of the example we’re about to give, let’s ignore the pissing and go back to what Neil said about swimming upstream. Every river has a current flowing in a single, main direction. Sit on an intertube and flow with the current, life is easy. But if you try to swim against the current, things become more difficult, especially since you have a limited amount of strength. The stronger the current, the faster your strength depletes. Once your strength is gone, the current wins, and sweeps you away.
The idea in Tenet is, then, that the environment essentially self-corrects, that a bullet hole has a limited ability to swim against the current before it’s swept up by the current. So maybe it lasts for five minutes before forward entropy carries it back to non-existence. It’s likely a relatively short time. Like less than 30 minutes. Maybe even less than 10.
That’s what Neil’s talking about with the explosion. At the end of the Tallinn sequence, an inverted Protagonist is in a car crash (in a normal car). Inverted Sator comes up and uses an inverted lighter to set some leaked gas on fire and cause the car to explode. Except instead of burning The Protagonist, the inverted explosion starts to freeze him.
What saves The Protagonist is that the intensity of the inverted explosion is swimming against the current. Every second, forward entropy is reversing the explosion, making it like the explosion never happened. This limits its ability to cause lethal damage to The Protagonist.
The other example is the shoulder wound The Protagonist suffers on his inverted return to Oslo. Sometime before their arrival, his shoulder is normal but begins to ache. At one point, a wound opens and blood appears. A few minutes later, he’s in hand to hand combat with his past self and his past self stabs him in the shoulder. Which actually means the wound is taken away. So there’s really only a few minutes that the wound exists before the wind of entropy erases the damage.
But that actually raises a question about Neil.
When Neil dies, he’s inverted and shot by a normal gun. Similar situation as The Protagonist in Oslo. He’s inverted and stabbed by a normal knife. You would think since The Protagonist’s knife would appear in the minutes leading up to the stabbing, the same thing would happen with Neil. He’d actually have a headache while running down to the hypocenter and opening the gate. Then a wound would open at the back of his skull. And the damage would continually increase in gruesomeness up to the point of Volkov firing.
The answer is that Nolan hoped people wouldn’t notice. And if they noticed, they wouldn’t care. He’s known to bend the rules every now and then, deviating from established logic in subtle ways in order to keep the story moving. So sometimes the answer is just: don’t think too hard about it. Which is a shame because there’s clearly a lot of maintaining logic in Tenet. Nolan can be meticulous, as evidenced in the Oslo and Tallinn sequences. But even he admits things aren’t perfect. In the film’s press notes, he said, “I did have [Nobel physicist] Kip Thorne read the script and he helped me out with some of the concepts, though we’re not going to make any case for this being scientifically accurate. But it is based roughly on actual science.”
This leads naturally into the question:
Would the Algorithm have worked?
The goal of the Algorithm is to reverse time’s entropy. Meaning the entire world inverts. Nothing’s moving forward. Everything’s going backwards. It’s strange to think about. If time’s entropy inverted right now, then, to our perception, nothing would be different. That’s because we’re all going backwards together. Think about it like driving on the highway. As long as you’re driving with traffic, everything seems normal. But the moment you drive against traffic, it’s very noticeable.
That’s the nice, sterilized way of thinking about entropy reversal. The actual practical application is far messier. Especially because it would differ so much from what we see in the movie.
In Tenet, inversion only occurs when someone goes through a turnstile, resulting in the person existing in both normal and inverted time. Say you spent all day on the couch. Then at midnight you invert. You’d flow back into the day and see yourself on the couch. If you wanted to sit there, you’d have to sit next to your past self since you both occupy space at the exact same time.
But the algorithm would invert entropy without a turnstile. Meaning at one moment you’re moving forward, then the next you’re moving backward. It raises some serious questions.
Think about it. The turnstile works because you essentially boomerang. You walk in one door, turn, then walk out the other door. To the person inverting, existence is seamless. Even though they’re moving into the past, it’s still their future. They’re getting older, not younger. If you’re 25 and spend a year inverted, you don’t become 24. You still turn 26. That’s why, in Tenet, we often see “two” people. Because the turnstile-inverted person is simply continuing forward into the past.
But without a turnstile, there’s no boomerang. If you’re sitting on the couch when the inversion happens, you’d be occupying the same exact space as your past self. Which would mean, what? Instant death? This is what Wheeler tells The Protagonist when he inverts for the first time:
Wheeler: You’ll need your own air. Regular air won’t pass through the membranes of inverted lungs. Number one rule: don’t come into contact with your forward self. It’s the whole point of these barriers and protective suits.
TP: We don’t have time.
Wheeler: Well, if your particles come into contact…
Maybe the future people could wear protective suits and be sitting on a train or something? Even then, it seems like billions of people without suits and not moving would perish.
What’s the grandfather paradox?
There are all kinds of theories about time travel. Most are deterministic. If you do something in the past, you affect the future. Back to the Future demonstrated this nicely when Marty McFly affects the past to the point of almost causing his parents to not get together. He literally starts to flicker out of existence.
That’s what Tenet means, what Neil means, when he mentions the grandfather paradox. If you go back in time and eliminate your grandfather as a child, that means you’ll never exist so can’t go back into the past to eliminate your grandfather. Think of COVID. If you went back in time to stop COVID and were successful, it would mean you would never go back in time and stop COVID because COVID never existed to cause you to want to go back in time.
Time travel in Tenet vs time travel in Looper and Back to the Future: aka “What’s happened’s happened.”
I just want to point this out real fast because it’s interesting to me. Let’s go back to our earlier example. You sit on the couch all day, watching TV, then, at midnight, get up, go through a turnstile, invert, then go and sit on the couch next to your past self and watch TV all day. Linearly speaking, inverted you didn’t go and sit on the couch until 11:59pm. But to your past self, the inverted, future you would be on the couch when you came down from bed in the morning. You’d be on the couch next to each other all day. Then your inverted self would get up and walk back to the turnstile, while you also get up and walk to the turnstile.
So in Tenet logic, there’s never a time that existed where inverted you wasn’t there. That’s what Neil means by “What’s happened’s happened.”
But that’s not how it works in other movies. In Back to the Future, there’s the initial timeline where everything happens as it happens. Eventually, Marty McFly travels back 30 years and ends up interacting with his parents who are in high school. The past changes slightly but major events stay the same. When Marty returns to his present, it’s a little different, altered by his actions in the past. That means his parents would now have memories of a strange kid who appeared one day and was gone the next. When Marty goes back in time again in Back to the Future Part II, he creates another loop. He remembers everything from before his first trip, everything after his first trip, and will return to his present again, having it affected by everything he did now. That means Marty now remembers three different timelines. Timeline 1 (original), Timeline 2, and Timeline 3.
By Tenet logic, Marty would have always been in the past and interacted with his parents. There is no Timeline 2 or 3. There’s just always an original timeline where what’s happened’s happened.
Looper operates the same as Back to the Future. In Looper, everything progresses normally. Up to the point of time-travel being invented in the year, say, 2070. The mob sends someone back 30 years (the maximum travel time) to set-up a relay between past and future. This person starts acting on the past. Like recruiting people to work for them. That will slightly alter the future. Say you’re one of the people recruited. In the original timeline, maybe you were an insurance agent and led a middle class life. But now that someone has gone back in time and recruited you, it changes what happens between 2040-2070. Maybe you make a lot more money. Travel. Marry someone completely different. The choices this Timeline 2 version of you makes in the past start to affect you in 2070. New memories appear as your Timeline 1 disappears. Maybe Timeline 2 You loses a finger in an accident, suddenly you lose a finger. T2 You will eventually age all the way to 2070 and be a completely different person than you were in T1.
This is the difference between actual time travel and reversed entropy. In time travel, you jump from one year to another. In reversed entropy, you actually have to live through every second of inverted time. You can’t instantly travel back a year. Which is why you have “what’s happened’s happened” versus the time loops of other movies where things didn’t happen until you went back in time.
Either way, though, the grandfather paradox exists.
At what point in the future is the Algorithm invented?
This is pretty interesting. Priya tells The Protagonist that it’s many generations from now. That’s hard to pin down. What a generation refers to isn’t straightforward. There’s the sociological label, like referring to Zoomers vs Millennials vs Generation X vs the Baby Boomers. That’s usually about 10-15 year gaps. Born in 1980? You’re Gen X. Born in 1990, you’re a Millennial.
But then there’s something to be said about generations on a long scale of time. Like grouping Gen Xers, Millennials, and Zoomers all into a single block of people born between 1980 and 2010. This 30 year wave of people who grew up in the dawn of the computer age.
If you judge “generations from now” as a few, that could be as little as 30-45 years. But if you define a generation with a longer timeline, it could be 100+ years.
The only real context Tenet gives us is technology, climate, and nuclear powers.
For technology, scientists had to discover how to manipulate entropy on a particle level. Then start applying it to objects. Then to people. Then to the entire world. That could take awhile. Think about the evolution of phone technology. The first call ever, made by Alexander Graham Bell, happened on March 10th, 1876. It took until 1927 to have the first call from the United States to the United Kingdom. 51 years! Human telephone operators connected calls deep into the 20th century. Cordless phones didn’t arrive commercially until the 1980s. Cell phones didn’t become popular until the late 00s. It took nearly 150 years just to go from the first telephone to the first iPhone. So how quickly do you think scientists would develop entropy inversion science?
For climate, Sator explains the dire environmental situation to The Protagonist, citing rising oceans and dry rivers. Who knows how quickly or not that would happen. It could be 5 years from now or 200 years from now.
The nuclear power context is interesting. Priya mentions this to The Protagonist before the Stalsk-12 fight. It’s part of a vague explanation about the origins of the Algorithm and the scientist who invented it. Priya says, “…she [the inventor] rebels, splitting the Algorithm into nine sections and hiding them in the best place she can think of. There are nine nuclear powers. Nine bombs. Nine sets of the most closely guarded materials in the history of the world. The best hiding places possible.”
That would imply that the nine nuclear powers currently in the world—the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel—are still active countries in the scientist’s present, with facilities that were accessible enough to place the Algorithm pieces but guarded enough that the bad people couldn’t just find them.
We actually have some evidence in the movie that points to either direction. Those who think 100 years or more would probably point to the technology. Developing entropy inversion was probably no easy feat. To do that on a small scale might take decades. To do it on the scale of the entire world? That probably isn’t happening in just the next 45 years. Look how long it took just to get high-definition television. Or wireless telephones.
Is Tenet connected to Inception?
There’s nothing in Tenet that directly ties it to Inception. No character. No unique location. No technology or direct reference. As much as people theorized before the release that there might be a connection between the two, nothing much came from it.
So why do people compare the two? I think because they do feel spiritually bonded. Inception is a heist film that involves sci-fi technology that allows people to go into someone’s dreams. And these dream worlds allow Nolan to have some physics-defying action sequences and set pieces. Tenet is a heist movie that involves sci-fi technology that allows people to invert their entropy and go back in time. These inverted people and things allow Nolan to have some physics-defying action sequences and set pieces.
You can absolutely see Nolan asking himself how he can have a spiritual successor to Inception and the result being Tenet. To the point, even, where The Protagonist does kind of incept himself, planting bits and pieces of information here and there in the past to recruit himself into a mission he actually started in the future that is the past. So at the beginning of the movie, he has absolutely zero intention of ever starting a temporal pincer maneuver against Andrei Sator. But, by the end of the movie, that’s exactly what he knows he’s going to do, all because he’s already gone back and set it up and executed it.
So while the two movies share a vibe, that’s about all they share.
Is Tenet connected to Interstellar?
Another cool idea. There’s a nice dovetail to the two films. Tenet involves a future where climate change has civilization on the brink of annihilation. Interstellar starts with climate change putting civilization on the brink of annihilation. So a lot of people have excitedly wondered if there’s something there.
Interstellar takes place between 2067 and about 2150. There’s a ton of technological advancement and discussion of how to save the Earth. But no one ever mentions entropy inversion. Meaning it’s unlikely the two movies take place in the same universe.
But it is cool to consider the role of science and environment in Nolan’s films. Advanced technology plays a major role in The Prestige, Inception, the Batman trilogy, Interstellar, and Tenet. You also see Nolan increasingly concerned with society and the impact technology has on society. Whether that’s the brutality of industrialized weaponry in Dunkirk. Or Inception’s story focusing on benefitting the world by convincing a mourning son to dissolve his deceased father’s energy monopoly. Nolan’s next movie, Oppenheimer, will explore the origins of the greatest weapon humans have created (to date): the atomic bomb. Of course, Tenet made reference to Oppenheimer when Priya compared the creator of the Algorithm to the man who built the bomb and the moral war that follows the creation of such a thing.
Does Tenet have a mega plot hole?
I just realized this after writing everything else in the article. And it seems to be, if not an outrageous plot hole, a Grand Canyon-sized logic gap. Bear with me here, as I think this is a place you arrive at after obsessing over this movie way too much.
The story in Tenet happens over about a two week span. Day 1 is the opera house attack. About a week after that, The Protagonist wakes up, gets his mission, meets Neil, meets Kat, Oslo happens, he meets Sator, and Tallinn happens. That all takes about another week. So it’s two weeks forward, then all four main characters invert and head back to Day 1 for the final confrontations at Stalsk-12 and the yacht in Vietnam.
Here’s where the problem comes up. Tenet refers to posterity several times, in the sense that as soon as something happens in the present, the future knows about it. That’s how The Protagonist knows where to be to prevent Priya from killing Kat. Kat said the time and location into a device. As soon as The Protagonist heard that message, he could invert, travel back in time, and save Kat.
This is the foundation of the temporal pincer. In the Tallinn sequence, Sator’s team doesn’t know what The Protagonist does with the piece of the Algorithm, so Sator inverts, goes back to that moment, realizes The Protagonist threw the piece into the back of Saab, then radioes his team. His team simply inverts back to when the Saab was parked, grabs the piece, and that’s that.
Sator has whole teams dedicated to temporal pincers. He, more than anyone, has been able to use the maneuver for years, since he was the only person in the present in conversation with the future (as far as we know). He has turnstiles hidden in multiple parts of the world.
Think about this in context of Day 1. Stalsk-12 isn’t some random location. It’s Sator’s origin story. Where he grew up. Where he had first-contact with the future. Where he planned on depositing the Algorithm. It’s very important, in terms of his past, present, and “future.” So it would be a pretty huge deal that a battle took place there. That an explosion happened there. Nothing should happen in Stalsk-12 without Sator knowing it. And, yet, we never once see him mention it or acknowledge it.
Day 2, you’d imagine figuring out what happened at Stalsk-12 would be his biggest concern. Who was there? What did they do? You’d expect a recon team to go back. Or even some actual troops. For crying out loud, you have a scene, RIGHT AFTER THE EXPLOSION, where THE PROTAGONIST, NEIL, and IVES are all standing around, maskless, for anyone to look at. Sator, on Day 3, could have a photo of The Protagonist in his hand, and know that guy had something to do with whatever happened. By the time The Protagonist tried to meet Sator, Sator would know as much as there is to know.
Same thing with Sator’s death. At some point between Day 1 and Day 14 (the Tallinn sequence), Sator knew he wanted to invert all the way back to Day 1 and end his life on the yacht in Vietnam, with Kat when there was some kind of love between them. But let’s do a posterity check. If his plan worked and he died on the yacht, you’d expect there to be some record of it. Whether public or private. Like Day 1 Kat would remember her husband (who is actually Day 14 Sator) taking a cyanide pill and dying. Only for Day 1 Sator to be alive and well. She’d tell Day 1 Sator, “I thought that was you! But you’re here! Who is that?” Day 14 Sator should know that didn’t happen. There was no newspaper headline “Billionaire Andrei Sator passes away on yacht.” Also, the world didn’t end. If he inverted from Day 14 to Day 1 and was successful, there should never have been a Day 14.
You would think with how familiar Sator is with inversion and using it to gather information and how posterity works that he would check these things. But we don’t see him do that at all. He doesn’t seem the least bit concerned. Maybe that’s because he’s so focused on the last piece of the Algorithm he can’t focus on anything else? Maybe the explosion at Stalsk-12 on Day 1 convinces him he’s successful so he never considers failure? Maybe he is concerned about these things, we just never see it on camera. But it just seems like something the movie should have him at least recognize, even if it’s in a throwaway line of dialogue he says or is relayed to him by Volkov or someone.
As is, it simply looks like Sator decides to completely ignore what happened on Day 1 outside of the opera house, even though it’s incredibly important information. This also gets into the weird world of free will in Tenet.
Free will in Tenet: does it exist?
This is a doozy. We kind of talked about it in the time travel section. In a time travel movie, if news breaks that “Kat Barton was in a fatal car crash late last night” you could go back in time and prevent the crash, changing the future. In Tenet, you can’t. As Neil said, “What’s happened’s happened.” If The Protagonist inverted and tried to prevent the car crash, he’d fail because the crash happened. So clearly his trying to prevent it didn’t prevent it.
That kind of limits the effectiveness of inversion in Tenet. You can’t use it to change anything. Only attempt to stop things if you get information ahead of time. Like Kat naming the time and place minutes before Priya would have killed her. Or Neil radioing in that he and The Protagonist needed backup in Tallinn.
The “what’s happened’s happened” rule is a paradox though. It makes sense, in a way that hurts your brain. Like the scene in the Oslo Freeport. Day 7 version of The Protagonist doesn’t know he’s fighting Day 14 version of himself. But since those events already happened on Day 7, it also means that Day 14 can’t do anything to stop it from happening, as it’s already happened. But it’s weird because it’s already happened. So what if you just…didn’t go do the thing.
We never actually see anyone attempt this. Which makes sense, in a way, since how could they if what’s happened’s happen? The closest we get, though, is at the end, when Neil realizes he has to go back and pick the lock for The Protagonist and Ives to fight Volkov. If he doesn’t go do it, it doesn’t happen. But it already happened, so he obviously went and did it. But, like, what if he didn’t?
You get into these little moments of bootstrap paradox, too. A bootstrap paradox involves issues of origin. Terminator has a good one. There’s a war between humans and machines. John Connor leads the humans. Skynet leads the machines. Skynet decides the best way to win is to stop John Connor from ever being born, so it sends a T-800, a terminator, back in time to exterminate the mom of John Connor. To prevent this, John sends a soldier to protect his mother. The soldier and mom end up falling in love, sleeping together, and, guess what, creating John Connor.
A more general example would be like if someone traveled back in time and told a 10-year-old Kanye West they loved the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and played 10-year-old Kanye the album.
In Tenet, we see this with things like gunshots. The Protagonist walks into a room, sees a bullet hole in glass, then a few minutes later starts a fight that puts a bullet hole in glass. Is there anything he could do to change what happened, despite knowing what happened? Or do you fire in that spot because the spot is already there? Something similar happens with the proving windows. Characters see themselves walking into/out of the turnstiles before they move in, letting them know they made it alright. But it also means they know that’s when they should jump into it or run into it. That they will. That they already have. It’s strange.
But Nolan does, at least, attempt to address this, through Neil, before Neil inverts for the last time.
Neil: Just saved the world. Can’t leave anything to chance.
TP: But can we change things if we do it differently?
N: ‘What’s happened’s happened.’ Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.
N: Call it what you want.
TP: What do you call it?
N: Reality. Now let me go.
Neil’s essentially saying, “No, you can’t change things. You can only accept. But it doesn’t mean you should do nothing and leave things up to chance. It’s our responsibility to do our part to save the world. To create, as we said way up in the beginning of this article, opportunity for others. And the rest is faith, or fate, or reality. Whatever you want to call it.”
What questions do you have about Tenet?
Just leave them in the comment section.