Breaking The Lemniscate: The Ending Of Inception

Man, Inception.

I can’t stop noodling it.

Now, to be clear, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

Like, for real.

Really real.

Like, we’re gonna spoil the whole goddamn ending of the movie.

I’m not kidding.

3…

2…

1…

You had your chance.

I had reservations about the ending to Inception. The ending, as you know if you watched the movie, loosely appears to show a world where Cobb’s plan was successful (after much agita and complication), and where he is once more allowed back into the country and back home and finally allowed to be with his children. We think, okay, is this a happy ending, or is it something else? And then Cobb puts his totem — the spinning top — down on the table and it spins and spins and spins and and we hear “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey playing and then, and then, and then —

Credits.

And maybe I’m mixing this up with the Sopranos a little. Shut up. It’s an apt comparison.

The reservations for me orbit the notion of storyteller ambiguity. That level of ambiguity is interesting because it gets people talking, but as a storyteller I don’t have a lot of respect for it. You’re telling me a story, so tell it. Don’t wuss out. Put your balls on the table. A story’s ending is everything, and by failing to commit to an ending — and further by failing to commit in a big way, given that the ending of Inception allows for the dramatic pendulum swing that crosses realities and perceptions — a storyteller is more or less giving a half-hearted shrug. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? You decide, he says, and then takes a nap and fouls his pants.

Inception’s ending isn’t merely a question of little details that could go either way. That’s a functional ambiguity. But here we’re left with a huge dichotomy — “It’s a dream” or “It’s reality” — and it ends up being spectacularly jarring. For me, at least. It feels like a cheat. And shows a lack of confidence.

Except, something nagged at me.

Nolan isn’t a storyteller lacking confidence.

Plus, you look back at the Sopranos finale, even though that was wildly ambiguous, Chase still had an ending in mind.

And so it occurred to me: Nolan must have an ending in mind, too. Somewhere in that ending is the answer — a declaration of intent. Films are a visual medium so I thought, okay, look back over the visuals and what do we see? The top is for most people the easiest and most forthright clue, and herein I think Nolan learned something from The Prestige

The spinning top is an artifact of misdirection.

We’re going to focus so much on the top that it’s hard to see everything else.

Like a magician, Nolan wants you to focus on this while he performs his trick.

Look past the misdirection…

And then, duh, boom, splurch, there it is —

The kids.

Look past the top and you see the kids, and if you see the kids you see that they’re the same age they’ve been in every dream he was having. They’re the same age from his memory. They’re wearing the same clothes. They’re part of the dream: where before the dream-kids would not turn their heads to see, now their heads have turned. They see their father. His life continues. He may now grow old, and without regret.

He’s still in the dream. He’s still in Limbo.

Maybe he always was. Or maybe he just didn’t come out of it when he met Saito.

I don’t yet know. That’s the fascinating thing. Finding one answer doesn’t put all the other answers in line. Each answer asks two more questions. That’s great — this infinite lemniscate ever turning, ever looping back, is like the Escher print that are the dreams within the film (or the film itself), a weirdly recursive story that has thematic ties to The Prestige and Memento. And once more, I think Nolan is a confident storyteller, and I think contained within this film are answers. It’s a puzzle, and it challenges us to solve it.

I’d originally thought too that the “it’s a dream” ending (i.e. top doesn’t fall) means it’s also what you would consider to be the “negative” ending — but I don’t know that to be the case. We still have a sense of reconciliation: he has put his wife to rest, he can now see the faces of his children, he is moving beyond regret, and (if you believe that the rest of the film is “real”) he helps negotiate Fischer’s troubled past and offers him a feeling of reconciliation (though that inception is a deception).

I’m more and more fascinated by this.

I need to see it again, I think.

I’m also left to wonder what is the deal with that phrase that’s oft-repeated through the film: grow old with no regrets. And Ariadne in Greek myth is not a maze builder, is she? But a maze solver? She helps Theseus through the Cretan maze, right? To defeat the Minotaur? Is she even real? Is she part of Cobb? A segmented piece — he can no longer make mazes, but a part of him still can? Or is she real, a person hired by the grandfather to perform “inception” on Cobb? Is this film a con on him rather than on Fischer?

Holy crap, my head hurts.

But anyway: the ending.

You ask me, it’s a dream. I don’t know how deep or how long, but it’s a dream. The clues are there. Ignore the misdirection of the top. Look to the children for your proof. How to explain it otherwise?