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The Ending Of Spiderhead Explained

Contains spoilers for the Netflix film "Spiderhead"

On June 17, Netflix released "Spiderhead," a joint endeavor with The New Yorker loosely based on the 2010 George Saunders short story, "Escape from Spiderhead." Directed by Joseph Kosinski (of "Top Gun: Maverick") and adapted for the screen by "Deadpool" writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the film stars Miles Teller and Marvel's Chris Hemsworth. In both its finale and ultimate message, the film differs wildly from its source material, but the general premise is the same.

In "Spiderhead," a researcher named Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth) attempts to confirm and make use of the malleability of the mind by testing a variety of brain chemical enhancing or depleting drugs on inmates. For example, think of any number of SSRIs, but multiplied by about a thousand; think, too, of what the reverse of such a drug might do to a person. 

Abnesti's test subjects have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison, so acting as guinea pigs is a small price to pay, as he reminds them constantly, in exchange for the facility's homey accommodations. In the film, Teller's Jeff — an inmate who killed his girlfriend and best friend in a drunk driving accident — eventually discovers that Abnesti owns the pharmaceutical company, and his intentions are not to change the world by creating a drug that (to paraphrase) "allows people to love," but by creating a "Soma"-esque substance that elicits absolute obedience from its taker. An obedient world, he reasons, is a happy one. When Jeff discovers the mad scientist's true motivations, he finally rebels, and the ending that follows asks us to think about the value of negative emotions such as regret, guilt, and shame.

Hemsworth and Teller are integral to Spiderhead's message

Among the many drugs tested are N-40/"Luvactin" (which causes the user to fall in love), "Laffodil" (which causes the user to find everything funny), and the dreaded "Darkenfloxx." The last of these prompts a depression so overwhelming that one of the inmates, after being given too high a dose, ends up dying by suicide. In both the story and the film, it's this death coupled with Abnesti's Milgram Experiment mirroring (read: he essentially forces Jeff to help administer Darkenfloxx to another inmate) that prompts the protagonist to rebel against the doctor. 

Ultimately, Jeff is able to convince Abnesti's assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio) to help him tamper with the doctor's own brain chemistry so that he and his love interest Lizzy ("Lovecraft Country" vet Jurnee Smollett) might make a run for it. Not only are they successful, but in Abnesti's own attempt to escape from the police (who are quickly descending on his isolated facility thanks to Verlaine's whistleblowing), the various drugs flooding his body cause him to see a fast-approaching mountain peak as a glowing orb of love. He crashes his puddle jumper into the rock and (presumably) dies, while Lizzy and Jeff escape into the sunset in a speedboat and a summarizing voiceover punctuates the sunny, "It's a [Just] World (After All)" ending. It's in this voiceover and the differing outcomes for the two main characters that the film's relatively straightforward thesis is revealed.

Spiderhead's Mad Scientist is a lonely one

Chris Hemsworth's Steve Abnesti, we learn, was abandoned by his father as a child. The desire to fill this void causes him to abuse a number of his own experimental happy drugs, and delude himself into thinking that some of his test subjects are actually his friends. On one occasion, he reminds Jeff that loneliness is as deadly as cigarette smoking, and the film gives us several scenes illustrating the excessive and desperate solitude of Abnesti's existence. Of course, the inmates are not his friends. They're his prisoners, and he's been consistently feeding them a drug that makes them more compliant. Though the subjects are required to give consent before Abnesti can administer a drug (importantly, by saying "acknowledged"), it's only the illusion of consent — one that intentionally and not-so-subtly mirrors the blindness with which most of us click "Accept" on any number of apps or devices. 

By having Abnesti die as a result of his unwillingness to face his loneliness and feelings of abandonment and rejection, the film suggests embracing such emotions is fundamental to our survival. It's no accident that the drugs are administered via a smartphone app, and Abnesti's (almost literal) willing blindness as he happily crashes into the side of a mountain is a tangible manifestation of our reliance on so many convenience-promoting, emotion-dulling, and dopamine-inducing apps and devices. Jeff's escape, by contrast, speaks to what might be gained (as opposed to lost) by allowing ourselves to simply feel bad.

Spiderhead's happy ending is filled with sorrow

As the heroes of "Spiderhead" (literally) ride off into the sunset, we're hit with the following voiceover from Jeff: "I wish there was a self-forgiveness drug ... but there's no drug like that. So, we're gonna have to do it for ourselves." It's an inarguably trite little moment of message delivery — and one that tracks with critic Nick Allen's review in RogerEbert.com –  but when combined with the actions of Lizzy and Jeff, it certainly serves to get the point across. 

Despite their successful escape, the characters — Lizzy, in particular, who accidentally killed her own child — are alternating between abject, adrenaline-fueled elation and deep, inadvertent sorrow, since they both know all too well what comes next. In short, they're both filled to the brim with genuine feelings and confronted with the pain, regret, shame, remorse, and intermittent glimpses of hope that involuntarily flood a mind removed from medically enhanced or diluted emotion. Though this relatively happy and uplifting ending differs wildly from that of George Saunders' short story, it allows the filmmakers to explore the same truth, albeit through a different and more direct lens. 

In a sense, the ending of "Spiderhead" is the Laffodil to George Saunders' Darkenfloxx, though both investigate and ask questions about what it means to be human, and alive ...

Kosinski's film is an interpretation of Saunders' message

In essence, George Saunders' story takes an unflinching look at the unsentimental reality behind our notion of personhood. Underneath it all, the story suggests that our mind, that thing around which we base our understanding of both humanness and our relationship to it, is a random collection of chemicals and chemical and electrical reactions that have evolved in a decidedly unromantic and biologically-driven way. Even the final, heroic act from Jeff (who takes the Darkenfloxx himself rather than be a part of its administration to someone else) is done not because he feels any kind of love for the individual he's saving, but because he wants to avoid feeling bad

In Saunders' "Escape from Spiderhead," the idea that our hard-wired need to avoid bad feelings keeps us imprisoned, compliant, addicted, and all too willing to subject ourselves to technologies, cultural norms, and societal structures that reinforce and profit from this instinctual desperation looms large, and it isn't a need from which Jeff is ever fully able to escape, even in death. In his final moments, he waxes pragmatic about how each unique bird song is little more than an accident of their biology, before realizing the reason he suddenly, finally, feels happy is that he won't have to feel bad about being responsible for someone else's death. 

The newly-released "Spiderhead" concerns itself with these same things, but goes a step further, and acts as less of an adaptation and more of an interpretation of Saunders' ultimate point. 

Spiderhead's ending asks us to open our eyes

Yes, the film says, we are all a series of chemically-driven responses, but controlling or dulling those responses artificially (in the extreme) takes away our humanness. If we hope to survive, we have to be able to see and embrace life as it truly is — in all its frequently gut-wrenching glory —– without deluding ourselves with illusions of control, fulfillment, or reprieve. 

The film stops short of suggesting that the use of any and all drugs that impact or medicate the mind is, in itself, a bad thing. That the drugs aren't represented as pills is important, and helps posit Abnesti's concoctions as more symbolic than literal. The idea isn't that treating our negative emotions is inherently "bad," but that the total erasure of those emotions and our instinct to fill the void rather than face it leaves us dependent, enslaved, and ultimately blind to any joy we might be able to mine from our existence. 

In one of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's cheekier moves, Abnesti blasts one-hit-wonder Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science," further underlining "Spiderhead" as a reminder that so much of the science and technology in our modern world leaves us capable (metaphorically speaking) of flying directly into a mountainside. The beatific, awesome landscape surrounding the facility is at once majestic and menacing; it is both soothing and dangerous. But in his final, drug-clouded view of it, Abnesti sees only purity, goodness, and light, and dies as a result. He may be behind the controls, but he's lost control entirely — just as we might, the ending suggests, if we're unwilling to see things as they truly are.