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The ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood explained

Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, the ninth film by legendary writer/director Quentin Tarantino, has finally made it to theaters, and just as we expected, the film is packed with details, filmmaking flourishes, and side stories built into Tarantino's own version of Hollywood in 1969. The film largely revolves around the adventures of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), but the film has earned a great deal of publicity for its intention to also tackle the infamous Manson family murders which took place in the summer of 1969 in California and claimed the lives of seven people, including most famously the actress Sharon Tate (played in the film by Margot Robbie). 

As with every Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is rich with storytelling depth and meaning throughout, but that's particularly true of its ambitious final sequences leading up an ending that leaves plenty of unanswered questions and implications for us to mull over. Now that the movie's out in the world, it's time to do just that. Let's dig deep into the ending of Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood

MAJOR SPOILERS ahead for the whole film. 

An era-ending crime no more

Well, let's get the biggest development of the ending out of the way right up front: Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is a movie in which the Manson family murders didn't happen — not as we know them, anyway. It's clear from Cliff's visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch that Charles Manson's grim little commune was up to something they didn't want people to see, but when it comes time to commit the infamous murders on Cielo Drive on the night of August 8, in this universe one drug-fueled decision by Susan "Sadie" Atkins to change plans and try to murder Rick Dalton instead creates a ripple effect. Sharon Tate and her friends survive that night, and three key members of Manson's family do not, thanks to Cliff's fists and Rick's flamethrower. 

Though the film ends before it can explore the full extent of this ripple effect, it's safe to assume that the black cloud created by the Manson murders in 1969 that echoed down through American culture was at least abated in a number of key ways. Joan Didion famously wrote that the night Sharon Tate died was the night the 1960s ended, and while chronologically the decade was about to end anyway, perhaps Rick and Cliff's acts of self-defense were enough to keep the feeling of the 1960s alive in Hollywood for at least a little longer. The greater cultural impact of that is in some ways unimaginably big, but it's still fun to think about.

The future of the Manson family

Even while tripping from his acid-soaked cigarette, Cliff was able to recognize the members of the Manson family from the Spahn Movie Ranch, and even in the aftermath of the crime he was able to begin telling the police details about the family members he faced on the night of August 8. That, coupled with any physical evidence the police gathered at Rick's house that night, would be more than enough to launch an investigation that would lead police to converge on the ranch. 

What that means exactly isn't fully explored in the film, but there would no doubt of have been consequences for many Manson family members in the days following the crime, even if the only true consequence was a decision to pack up and flee the ranch before the "pigs" could close in on them. In real life, many family members were ultimately arrested for stealing cars, so the police investigation into the break-in at Rick's house may have simply hastened that charge. Also in real life, Manson's acolytes had already murdered at least one person, music teacher Gary Hinman, on Manson's orders, so someone could have easily confessed to that crime a little earlier. Whatever the case, all signs point to a police presence at Spahn Ranch soon.

The future of Manson

Though he was ultimately convicted in the murders of everyone in the Tate house, as well as the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next night, Charles Manson did not murder any of those people with his own hands. They were killings carried out under his orders, and he was the unquestioned head of his group, but the blood in those particular cases (though he did tie up the LaBiancas) was not literally on his hands. 

With that in mind, it's interesting to ponder what might have happened to Manson in a world in which the murders failed. Linda Kasabian, the fourth member of the family sent to the Tate house that night, drove away rather than participating, which suggests that she could still do as she did in real life and become a witness for the prosecution, confirming that Manson had ordered the attacks and earning him a conspiracy to commit murder charge. It's also possible that other, lesser charges would have landed him in prison, since he'd been in and out of custody his entire life by the time of the murders. 

It's also possible that Manson would have found a way to flee and set up his family somewhere else, but ultimately Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is not interested in this aspect of the story. Manson is in essence defanged by the film's ending, suggesting a world in which his mystique is crushed by the failure of his mission that night.

Rick Dalton's new opportunity

The very last shot of Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood shows us Rick, having torched Susan Atkins in his pool at the tail end of the attack on his house, being invited up to Sharon Tate's home for drinks with her and her friends. It's the realization of a fantasy Rick has been nurturing ever since he figured out who was living next door to him: The hottest director in town, Roman Polanski, and his rising star wife. To him, they are the people who can get him into all the best Hollywood circles. They are the people who can put him in bigger, better movies. They are the people who can resurrect his struggling career. 

The film offers us no promises as to what lies in store for Rick's professional life on August 9, 1969 and beyond, but within minutes of meeting Jay Sebring he has already bragged about torching a crazy hippie with the flamethrower he keeps in his tool shed, so at the very least he's going to become a hit at various Hollywood parties for a while, and it's easy to see him telling that same story at the Playboy Mansion just a few days later. 

At best? Well, Rick could end up with everything from a role in Tate's next film to a brand new TV series. We can only imagine. 

Cliff Booth, hero stuntman

Rick spent most of the Manson attack in his pool with headphones on, leaving him to do nothing more than clean up after Cliff's heroics by finishing off Susan Atkins with his trusty flamethrower. Cliff took the brunt of the damage, which included no small amount of bumps and bruises, a spell of unconsciousness, and a knife embedded in his hip. Still, he's ever cheerful as the ambulance takes him away, promising Rick that while he might have a limp courtesy of Patricia Krenwinkel's knife, he'll live to fight another day.

Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood spends some time early on touching on Cliff's reputation as a strange guy who Rick continues to vouch for even though he's apparently at least partially responsible for his wife's death, and it's hard to believe everyone would forget about that because he fought off attackers at Rick's house and basically saved his best friend and his best friend's wife. If anything, it only adds to his reputation as a violent man in some circles, but in others it could also speak to his reputation as a badass with a long career in stunt work. Perhaps he becomes the stunt supervisor on Rick's next gig, and manages to become an elder statesman of his little corner of Hollywood — much like Kurt Russell's character, Randy, apparently has.

Best friends forever

The bedrock of Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is ultimately not the life or death of Sharon Tate or the exploits of the Manson family. It's the friendship between Cliff and Rick, something which ends up transcending any dynamic as simple as leading man and stunt double or successful actor and hired help. These men are in some ways closer than brothers, there for each other through good times and bad, and that relationship is the through line that carries the film even in its loosest, hangout movie moments. 

In the final minutes of the film, it's very clear that Rick feels indebted to Cliff for saving his life and his wife's life, and their relationship is still so close that Rick momentarily considers following Cliff to the hospital rather than staying with his wife (which he ultimately doesn't do anyway, because he heads to Tate's house instead). No matter what happens from this point on, Rick is going to take care of his friend, and Cliff is going to understand that love and pay it back to Rick in whatever way he can. What was supposed to be the end of an era as Rick prepared to part ways with his home has now made their bond stronger than ever.

The imagined future of Sharon Tate

At the time of her death, Sharon Tate's acting career consisted of only a handful of film roles (some of them uncredited) and a few stints on TV, most notably a recurring role on The Beverly Hillbillies. As the woman working the box office at the movie theater notes, she was best known at the time as the other girl from Valley of the Dolls, the one who wasn't Patty Duke, but as the scene in which she watches The Wrecking Crew in the theater shows, she was a talented actor with a bright future. 

It is, of course, impossible to guess what Sharon Tate's full professional future would hold in a world in which she's not murdered on the night of August 8, 1969, but without question she would have continued to have success as an actress, and perhaps had the chance to become among the greatest in her generation. She also, perhaps more importantly, would have lived to enjoy motherhood. It's this bittersweet notion, a world in which a Hollywood princess like Sharon Tate is allowed to live on, that most sticks with you as you leave the theater after watching Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, in part because the mythology that has sprung up around her in death means that the potential, unlived life she never got to have carries even more weight.

The Polanski family

The most resonant aspect of the alternate history set up by Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is, of course, the idea of a word where Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, and their friends all survived that night in August of 1969, and by extension it's possible that the family's next victims, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, would not have been targeted the next night. Tate's survival carries with it a number of greater implications, one of which is that her marriage to Roman Polanski would have continued, though for how long we do not know. 

Though he was a famous womanizer and Tate was aware of his affairs, by all accounts the couple were deeply in love with one another, and Tate's murder absolutely unraveled Polanski at the time. Actor Laurence Harvey once said of their marriage, "Marriage vows mean nothing to him but few men have adored a woman as much as he adored Sharon."

Would they have stayed together? We don't know, but at the very least they would have been able to parent a child together, and perhaps some of the darker chapters of Polanski's life, and the harm he later caused, could have been avoided. Perhaps they could have even made more films together, another bittersweet thought that we're simply left to ponder as the credits roll.

An alternate history

Even before the Manson family begins its attack at the end of Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, there are certain key differences establishing the alternate universe in which the film takes place. For one thing, Linda Kasabian drives away immediately rather than waiting in the car for the murders to end; for another, 18-year-old Steven Parent (who was visiting the groundskeeper that night and was shot in his car by Tex Watson) is nowhere to be found around the Tate house or the street outside. The biggest difference is that the Tate murders as a whole never take place, of course, but these key details establish the bigger ripple effect even before that crime is avoided. 

What else changes in this new timeline Tarantino has established, one in which Tate doesn't die and Polanski doesn't come home to a slaughterhouse? What does Joan Didion write about if not the Manson murders and subsequent trial? Does Bruce Lee, whose legend also looms in the film, somehow also get to survive his own tragic early death just three years later? Do the Beatles ever learn about Manson's strange interpretation of their lyrics? 

These are things we can't possibly know, of course. The ripple effect caused by this deviation from such a gruesome chapter in American history would be too great to measure, but it's definitely intriguing to ponder.