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The ending of Knives Out explained

Rian Johnson's deliciously twisted whodunnit Knives Out is finally in theaters, but even if you paid close attention all throughout the hilariously savage caper, you may still be left with some questions — particularly when it comes to the ending. The mystery at the center of Knives Out revolves around who killed Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a famed mystery novelist who started his own successful publishing house, became extremely wealthy, and used his impressive earnings to support the families of his three children. From the moment Harlan is found dead in the film's opening, we're taken on a twisting journey through what the family thinks happened, what really happened, and the biggest question of all: why?

Plenty of characters in the film had a motive to want Harlan dead, but how he actually wound up six feet under is a complex question with a surprising answer. And while the film dangles numerous pieces of the puzzle in front of the audience throughout its runtime, it's not until the last few minutes of Knives Out that they finally come together to form a complete picture. There's a lot of information offered up at the close of the film — not to mention all the important tidbits scattered like breadcrumbs — and we wouldn't blame you if you're still a little unsure how it all fits together. We're here to lay out everything you need to know about the ending of Knives Out, and what really happened to Harlan Thrombey. 

Of course, the fun of Knives Out is all about watching the ingenious plot unfold, so we seriously recommend you don't read on until you've seen the movie. It would truly be a crime to spoil your appetite for this delicious donut, and there are most certainly spoilers ahead!

How are all the characters connected in Knives Out?

To understand the ending of Knives Out, it's important to first understand each character in the film's sprawling cast, and how they're all connected to one another. At the top of the family tree is Harlan's wizened mother, Greatana Wanetta (K Callan), who doesn't say much, but sees a lot. Then there's Harlan, and his two surviving children, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Walt (Michael Shannon). Walt ostensibly runs Harlan's publishing house (although in reality Harlan is still the one pulling the strings), while Linda is a "self-made" businesswoman who built her business from the ground up (with a handy million-dollar start-up loan from her father, of course). Then there's Joni (Toni Collette), an Instagram influencer whose husband, Harlan's son, died 15 years earlier, and has been living off of Harlan's generosity ever since. 

Linda is married to Richard (Don Johnson), and they have an adult son, Hugh (Chris Evans), although the family calls him by his middle name, Ransom. Walt is married to Donna (Riki Lindhome), and they have a teenage son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell). And Joni has a college-aged daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), from her marriage to Harlan's son. 

Also in the Thrombey family's orbit are Harlan's housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), and his personal nurse, Marta Cabera (Ana de Armas), who throughout her years of employment, also became his close friend and confidante. Although the Thrombeys often say they consider Marta "part of the family" (a claim that's constantly undermined by their inability to remember what country she's from), the only one she's really close to, other than Harlan, is Meg.

How did Harlan Thrombey die in Knives Out?

In the opening scene of Knives Out, Harlan's housekeeper Fran discovers him dead on the couch in his study, covered in blood from an apparently self-inflicted knife wound to the neck. His family had all come into town for his 85th birthday party the night before, which turns out to be convenient since they wind up sticking around for the funeral, will reading, and police investigation. Although Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield), the investigator assigned to the case, believes Harlan's death is a clear-cut case of suicide, he still questions everyone who was in the house the night Harlan died, just to make sure all the bases are covered. However, renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play right from the get-go.

Technically, Blanc turns out to be only partially right. No one murdered Harlan Thrombey; he really did commit suicide by slitting his own throat. However, the actual circumstances surrounding his death were far more complicated than that. Not only was Harlan's suicide intended to cover up what he believed was an accidental poisoning, but someone else really was trying to kill him, and their actions are what led directly to Harlan's death by his own hand. 

What did Marta think happened to Harlan in Knives Out?

Early on in Knives Out, we get Marta's version of the events that led to Harlan's death, which caused her to believe that she killed him. After Harlan's birthday party, Marta accompanied him up to his study, where they played their nightly round of the board game Go — which Marta always won — and she gave him his evening medication. Occasionally, Marta would follow up his prescribed dosage of his daily meds with three milligrams of morphine (which Harlan referred to as "the good stuff") to help with the pain he'd been suffering since a recent surgery. Since it was Harlan's birthday, Marta thought he'd earned a dose of "the good stuff" to help him sleep, but when she went to pick up the vial of morphine, she realized she'd accidentally gotten the tiny glass bottles switched, and had already given Harlan 100 milligrams of morphine — a lethal dose. 

Frantically, Marta searched through her bag for the antagonist that would counteract the overdose, but it was missing from her supplies. She tried to call 911, but Harlan stopped her, knowing the ambulance wouldn't arrive in time, and not wanting Marta to face scrutiny that would lead to her undocumented mother being deported. Instead, before the morphine kicked in, Harlan walked Marta through an elaborate plan to keep her above suspicion, then slit his own throat in order to make his death look like a suicide.

What actually happened to Harlan Thrombey in Knives Out?

While Marta's version of events was the truth, it wasn't the whole truth. It turned out that Harlan's grandson, Ransom, had switched out the morphine with Harlan's other meds earlier in the evening, intending for Marta to administer the overdose of morphine while thinking it was his regular medication. However, Ransom failed to take into account Marta's professional expertise and familiarity with Harlan's evening routine, not to mention Harlan's own tendency to be a sore loser, all of which caused his plan to go sideways. 

You see, earlier in the evening, after Marta had set out all of Harlan's medication beside the Go board, she beat Harlan at the game yet again. Harlan knew she could beat him nearly every time, yet still was convinced each time they played that this time, he'd finally win. When Marta won, Harlan overturned the game board, sending his medication tumbling onto the floor along with the Go pieces. When Marta exasperatedly retrieved the vials from the floor, she didn't even look at the labels, but simply knew which drug to administer based on the appearance of the contents of the bottles. So when she gave Harlan 100 milligrams of the drug in the bottle labeled "morphine," she was actually giving him the correct medication — which means that if he'd allowed her to call the ambulance like she'd wanted, instead of taking matters into his own hands and slitting his throat, he would've been just fine. 

Why did Harlan Thrombey change his will in Knives Out?

After financially supporting his family for years, Harlan had come to the conclusion that their financial dependence on him wasn't doing any of them any favors. He realized that his children had grown up to be entitled, selfish snobs who didn't understand the meaning of hard work, pursuing their dreams, or being considerate to others. Joni was the only one who was literally stealing from him, double-dipping the money Harlan provided for Meg's college tuition ($100,000 per year), but they'd all all grown accustomed to the indulgent lifestyle that Harlan's wealth afforded them, and had convinced themselves that they deserved it, even though they'd done nothing to earn it. 

Hoping to motivate them all to go make something from themselves and become more hardworking, better people, Harlan had decided to cut off their access to his fortune. He fired Walt from the publishing house, told Joni he would no longer be paying Meg's tuition, and informed Ransom that he was removing the entire family from his will, instead naming Marta as his sole beneficiary. Unlike the members of his family, Harlan was impressed by Marta's kindness and work ethic, and felt that she would be a better steward of his millions than his children and grandchildren. He also knew that Marta's mother was undocumented and that her immigration status had been a constant source of worry for Marta. In his final moments, Harlan had hoped that by giving Marta his money, she could use it to take care of her own family. 

What does the Slayer Rule mean for the plot of Knives Out?

Multiple times throughout Knives Out, characters refer to the "Slayer Rule" as a way to circumvent Harlan's wishes and allow his family to inherit his estate, instead of Marta. Believe it or not, despite its dramatic name, the slayer rule is actually a very real thing in inheritance law. In both real life and in Knives Out, the slayer rule states that a murderer cannot inherit the property of their victim. So although Harlan left his entire estate to Marta, if the family could prove that she killed him, it would void his will, and ownership of his assets would revert to his family. 

What's more — as explained by Harlan's lawyer, Alan Stevens (Frank Oz) — the slayer rule applies to civil law, not criminal law, which means that a person can be acquitted of murder in criminal court, and still lose their inheritance in civil court if there is enough evidence. For the characters of Knives Out, this means that Marta wouldn't actually have to be convicted of murder for them to gain access to Harlan's money. All Ransom has to do in order to reclaim his inheritance is amass enough evidence against Marta to file a wrongful death claim — a much lower bar to clear than having to convince a jury of murder beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Who hired Benoit Blanc to solve the mystery of Knives Out?

Throughout Knives Out, the mystery of who hired Benoit Blanc simmers beneath the larger murder mystery, and not even Blanc himself knows who his employer is until the end of the film. He was hired with nothing more than an envelope full of cash and a newspaper clipping of Harlan's death, which was enough to pique his interest and get him to head over to the Thrombey mansion. 

It seems strange that someone would hire a private investigator to dig into what appeared to be a suicide — especially since for most of the film, the only person who seems to know the full circumstances around Thrombey's death is Marta, who has a vested interest in no one finding out the truth. It turns out that Ransom was the one who sent Blanc the cash and the newspaper clipping, hoping that he would discover that Marta had given Harlan a lethal dose of morphine, which would trigger the slaughter rule and prevent her from inheriting his estate. But of course, things don't wind up going according to Ransom's plan. 

What was Ransom's plan in Knives Out?

To understand what Ransom was trying to do in Knives Out, you have to go all the way back to the beginning, when Harlan told him that he was cutting the family out of his will. Ransom was the only one of them to learn that information, along with the fact that Harlan was naming Marta as his sole beneficiary. From his time as Harlan's research assistant, Ransom knew about the slayer rule, which led to him hatching his plan. If he could show Marta killed Harlan, then she wouldn't be able to inherit, allowing him to get the money he felt he was owed. 

Ransom switched the medications in Marta's medical bag and removed the antidote that could counteract the morphine, thinking that when Harlan died of an overdose, it would obviously point to Marta. But when Harlan slit his throat and his death was ruled a suicide, Ransom needed someone to make a more thorough investigation, which is why he hired Blanc. However, when he heard Marta "switched" the medications and realized that Harlan didn't overdose after all, Ransom changed tactics yet again, destroying the autopsy records and endearing himself to Marta so that she'd give him "his share" of the money. But then when Fran attempted to blackmail him, Ransom changed his plan yet again, intending to kill Fran and frame Marta for her murder instead of Harlan's. 

What happened to Fran in Knives Out?

Since the Thrombeys opted not to invite "the help" to Harlan's funeral, Fran the housekeeper was still at home when Ransom sneaked into the house to replace the medications he'd tampered with in Marta's medical bag. Fran had never liked Ransom, and grew immediately suspicious that he'd done something shady. She contacted her cousin in the medical examiner's office and got a copy of the toxicology report from Harlan's autopsy, which she didn't know how to interpret, but assumed it said something to incriminate Ransom. 

Fran made a copy of the report's header, storing the original in the same clock where she hid her marijuana (the "stash" she sometimes shared with Marta and Meg), and sent it to Ransom with the note, "I know what you did," along a meeting time and place, where she intended to confront him. Ransom in turn sent the note along to Marta, giving her a slightly later meeting time, intending for her to show up as Fran died, so that Marta would get arrested for Fran's murder. When Ransom met Fran, he attacked her and injected her with morphine, leaving her for dead. But she's still alive when Marta arrives, and manages to gasp out that the toxicology report was with her stash, and that "Hugh did this." Despite confusing this statement for an accusatory "You did this," Marta nevertheless tries to save Fran by calling 911 and administering CPR. Fran eventually dies in the hospital, leading to Ransom's arrest for her murder. 

How did Blanc discover the truth in Knives Out?

Blanc can tell from the first instant he meets Marta that she knows more about Harlan's death than she's letting on, due to a small spatter of blood on her white shoes. Although he doesn't necessarily think that Marta killed him — due in no small part to her inability to lie without vomiting — he is sure there's something she isn't telling him, which is why he displays such a strong interest in her throughout the film. When Marta finally comes clean to Blanc after trying to save Fran, he thinks he has all the pieces. But it isn't until he reads the toxicology report that Blanc finally realizes what happened, and who is to blame.

While poor Fran hadn't known how to read the toxicology report she'd found, Blanc does, and realizes the second he looks at it that Harlan hadn't suffered an overdose after all. He understands that someone must have switched Harlan's medications intentionally, and based on the events of the night of Harlan's party, he knows it must have been Ransom. While his suspicions may not have been enough to get Ransom convicted, it turns out that Marta tricked Ransom by telling him Fran was alive, prompting Ransom to brag to Blanc that he'd gotten away with everything. But unbeknownst to Ransom, Marta's been lying, and has managed to hold off her regurgitation reflex just long enough for Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) to record Ransom's entire confession.

What happened to Marta at the end of Knives Out?

After spending the entire film in a constant state of panic, Marta is able to rest easy at the end of Knives Out, knowing that nothing she did led to Harlan's death, and that she helped the police find the person truly responsible for what happened to him. Marta's lack of culpability in Harlan's death means that the Thrombey family has no grounds on which to contest Harlan's will, allowing Marta to claim her entire inheritance, which consists of the publishing house, the mansion, the rights to all of Harlan's written works, and $60 million. We last see her sipping from a mug that says "My House, My Rules, My Coffee" (first seen way back in the opening shot of the film), standing over the rest of the Thrombey family on the mansion's balcony. 

Aside from promising Meg that she'll continue paying her college tuition, the film never tells us explicitly what Marta plans to do with her newfound wealth, but we have a few ideas. During a conversation with Walt, in which he implicitly threatens to report her mother to the authorities unless Marta gives the Thrombeys the money, Marta throws his threats back at him by saying that the "resources" he promised to help her family are hers now, and that she can hire the best lawyers in order to help keep her mother in the country. As for what she'll do with the rest of the money after immigration lawyer fees and educational expenses? Our guess is she'll do her best to use it in a way that would make Harlan proud. 

What happened to the rest of the Thrombeys at the end of Knives Out?

Despite their hyperbolic assertions that Harlan's will would leave them with nothing, we suspect that most of the Thrombeys are going to be just fine following the end of Knives Out. Ransom, of course, is likely going to jail for the murder of Fran and the attempted murder of Harlan, but the rest of them are not nearly as destitute as they'd like to claim. Although Linda won't inherit any of Harlan's money, she still has income from her own business, none of which will go to Richard in their likely divorce (after all, she's found the letter Harlan wrote in "invisible ink" informing her that Richard's been cheating on her), since Richard signed a prenuptial agreement. 

Walt has been fired from Harlan's publishing house, where he kept pushing Harlan to sell the movie rights to his books, but will also likely be fine after severance. Harlan's intent was to push Walt to follow his own dreams, not to leave his son a pauper. And although Joni is sure to miss her allowance from Harlan (along with the $100,000 a year she was skimming from Meg's college tuition), she still has whatever income she was making as an Instagram influencer, so she's definitely not going to be broke. As for Meg, she will be permitted to finish college, with Marta taking over responsibility for her tuition. The only one of the Thrombeys we're really worried about is young Joseph and his alarming Nazi-adjacent views, which we're not sure can be cured simply by cutting off his inheritance.