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The Ending Of Terminator: Dark Fate Explained

Terminator: Dark Fate has arrived, and it's safe to say that fans have a lot of questions. Which works out really well, because we happen to have a lot of answers! Answers that require spoilers. Very, very many spoilers

And you can toss out pretty much anything you thought you knew about the Terminator franchise, because the first scene of Terminator: Dark Fate completely re-writes the timeline, erasing Terminator 3, Terminator: Salvation, and Terminator: Genisys from existence. Sorry, hypothetical fans of those films!

It's not the beginning, but the ending of Terminator: Dark Fate that we really want to unpack, though. What does it all mean? Have we really seen the last of John Connor? And where does the franchise go now? Here's a look at the ending of Terminator: Dark Fate explained.

Carl plays a key role in Terminator: Dark Fate

The first two thirds of Terminator: Dark Fate set the table. A new evil Terminator model called the Rev-9 has been sent from the future to kill a Mexican woman named Daniella. Luckily, someone also sent a bionic woman named Grace back from the future to protect her. And Sarah Connor also shows up, hellbent on destroying any Terminator she sees in order to get revenge for the death of her son John, who was offed in about three seconds in the film's opening scene. Surprise!

Looking for help from a mysterious stranger, the three make their way with great difficulty to Texas, where they discover the stranger is none other than... the original Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator model T-800 who killed John in the first place. The real surprise here, though, is that this Terminator has voluntarily given up the terminating business and has settled down in a human life under the name Carl. He embodies the core message from T2 — that people can choose their own fate and rewrite their future. He decided to stop being an evil killing machine, and instead become a nurturing father figure. It's an unexpected and interesting twist that suggests humans and robots may actually be able to live together in peace after all — if the robots simply choose a different path. 

Terminator: Dark Fate features a new hero

One of the big mysteries in Terminator: Dark Fate is just why the robots have sent their agent back in time to kill Dani. Sarah Connor, of course, assumes that Dani is fated to one day give birth to the person who will lead humanity's successful counter-revolution, just as Sarah herself once was. 

During the final chase scene, though, Grace reveals the truth: that Dani herself actually becomes the resistance leader in the future. As Sarah puts it, Dani is the new John Connor — the new last, best hope for all mankind. 

Like Carl, Dani's character arc also reinforces the idea that you can choose your own fate. Several times in the film, the others urge her to run and hide, but she instead insists on fighting back. She chooses to become the hero humanity needs, and indeed, it's those choices that actually make her a hero. It's a real real contrast to John, who seemed in both T2 and Terminator 3 especially to reject the role of savior, only reluctantly being pressed into it by circumstance. John as a character seemed consigned by fate, while Dani seems to be choosing her own path.

Terminator: Dark Fate pays homage to every other Terminator film

The last third of Terminator: Dark Fate is essentially one giant action sequence that involves car chases, helicopters, multiple plane crashes, gun fights, and a Humvee getting swept over a dam, leading to an underwater brawl. It's such a whirlwind of non-stop excitement that you may not have noticed it's all very, very familiar. 

Of course, we've seen helicopter chases and battles in multiple previous Terminator films. But while the dam setting is sort of new, the end showdown feels very, very familiar. In the original Terminator, the robot faced off against Reese and Sarah Connor in an empty industrial factory. In T2, the evil robot faced off against John and Sarah Connor and their helpful, reprogrammed T-800 unit in an empty steel mill. Here, the evil robot faces off against Sarah Connor, Grace, Dani, and their helpful T-800 unit inside an empty dam, which turns out to have a lot more moving machinery than you might expect. 

Basically every action beat at the end of Terminator: Dark Fate is based on something from a previous Terminator installment. In a way, that's thematically appropriate. Even though Sarah successfully destroyed Skynet in T2, we learn that it was just replaced by a new AI called Legion — the details of the future are different, but the outline is still the same, just as the details of Dark Fate are different from the previous films, even though the plot is still the same. This leads to a bit of a mixed message, though: instead of T2's belief that you can choose your own path, Dark Fate seems to be saying that no mater what you choose, there's no way to avoid your fate. 

Terminator: Dark Fate will blow your mind. Literally!

In the climax of the film, the whole team of good guys faces off against the Rev-9, which seems unfair until you consider the Rev-9 has the ability to split into two different, self-sufficient robots — a metal exoskeleton like the T-800, and a fluid form like the T-1000. The only way the good guys are able to win is by Grace sacrificing herself so Dani can take Grace's power source and jam it into Rev-9's eyehole, causing it to melt down. 

As it happens, fans have seen this before, because that's almost exactly how Arnold's good guy Terminator defeated the evil T-X in Terminator 3: he removes his power core and shoves it in the T-X's mouth, whereupon it explodes and destroys both of them. We're not sure if this is a loving homage to Terminator 3, or if the filmmakers just assumed everyone had forgotten Terminator 3 existed at all. Either could be true! 

Terminator: Dark Fate gives you a big thumbs up

With the power core delivered to the Rev-9's head, there's just one last thing that needs to happen: a sad descent into the pit where both the villainous Rev-9 and the heroic T-800 model known as Carl blink their final blinky lights. It's sad — or at least it's supposed to be sad, something we know because it's very intentionally calling back memories of the infamous climax of T-2. 

You remember that one, right? It's the one with the thumbs up! Ah, yeah, now it's coming back: after beating the T-1000, Arnold's T-800 commits himself to the fire in order to destroy all evidence of the Skynet technology. As he slowly sinks into the molten steel, he bravely gives a final thumbs up to the sobbing John Connor. 

This time around, Carl just gives a final lingering look at Dani, the new "John Connor," before his system shuts down, but it's obvious the filmmakers are hoping the memory of T2's tearjerker ending will add some much needed gravitas to the climax of Terminator: Dark Fate. And you thought only Avengers: Endgame relied on prior knowledge of the characters and story in order to have any emotional resonance.

Terminator: Dark Fate still isn't quite done with the homages just yet

That's not the final "moving" moment designed to awaken deeply ingrained muscle memory in viewers, though. The final scene of Terminator: Dark Fate is carefully crafted to deliver a double subliminal whammy to anyone who has seen Terminator and T2.

Dani and Sarah Connor are at a playground, where they watch a young and oblivious Grace playing with her family. After Dani vows to make sure Grace doesn't have to sacrifice herself, she and Sarah jump in a waiting vehicle and drive off to prepare for the impending Armageddon. 

The playground element, of course, is a clear reference to the infamous playground scene in T2 when Sarah Connor watches families get incinerated by the Skynet-caused nuclear holocaust. And the "riding into the sunset" ending is exactly the same as the end of the first Terminator film — only this time, instead of being pregnant with the future savior of humanity that she has to train, Sarah Connor is riding shotgun with her. 

Terminator: Dark Fate took its cues from Star Wars

Structurally, Terminator: Dark Fate is almost identical to the original Terminator film, in much the same way that Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens mirrors the original Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope

So we actually have a pretty good idea where they could go with the next film in the series — a new version of T2! Sure, the plot would actually have to be pretty different, but the main thrust of T2 was the attempt to prevent Armageddon by destroying Skynet. In Dark Fate, the characters don't ever have the chance to even think about stopping the apocalypse, but they could certainly try to take steps in Terminator 7 to prevent the new AI, Legion, from coming to be. 

Dani's vow to save Grace from ever needing to sacrifice herself suggests that she may already be planning to prevent the robot apocalypse. Exactly how she and Sarah Connor will manage to do this — and how they can prevent yet another different AI from replacing it again — remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: we can't wait to find out which beloved scenes from the previous Terminator films they'll mine for the next one.