×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The ending of Gerald's Game explained

Stephen King's novel Gerald's Game was once considered a completely unfilmable book. The story is introspection-heavy and mostly features its protagonist, Jessie Burlingame, talking to herself as she processes her dire situation. Equally importantly, Gerald's Game is about a sex game gone terribly wrong, resulting in Jessie's husband's death and leaving Jessie handcuffed naked to their bed. But thanks to director Mike Flanagan (Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep), who is becoming something of a Stephen King auteur, the story made it onto Netflix subscribers' screens in a way that is equal parts horrifying, compassionate, and ultimately darkly beautiful. 

Starring Carla Gugino as Jessie in one of the most moving performances of her career, as well as a chilling Bruce Greenwood as her husband Gerald, the film adaptation of Gerald's Game has easily become one of the best translations of a King work put to screen. With taut writing and stellar performances from the small cast that also includes Henry Thomas as Jessie's father and Carel Struyken as Raymond Andrew Joubert, Gerald's Game is a masterwork in the horror drama and survival horror sub-genres. But in spite of its straightforward-sounding story, there is a lot more to unpack in Gerald's Game than there seems to be on the surface. This is the ending of Gerald's Game explained.

Meet Jessie and Gerald Burlingame

Gerald's Game opens innocuously enough, with Jessie and Gerald packing small bags for a weekend away. But these banal actions quickly take a menacing turn with the addition of two police-grade sets of handcuffs that Gerald lovingly places into his satchel. On their way to the lake house the handsome couple listen to Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me" in the car as Gerald works to get his wife in the mood — attempts that she quietly rebuffs, moving his hand away from her thigh and turning the music off. 

As they near their remote lakefront cabin, Gerald almost runs over a stray German shepherd chowing down on roadkill. Jessie immediately wants to help the dog, and Gerald reminds her they're not there to adopt an animal. All the while, on the radio a report has been fading in and out about break-ins around the area, and gruesome scenes of desecrated corpses at the local cemetery. But by this point, Jessie is preoccupied with the stray dog, and Gerald is getting ready for his big event by popping Viagra. As soon as Jessie gets to their cabin, she cuts up a steak to feed the starving pup. Gerald is annoyed that his wife gave a mutt a $200 piece of beef, but he lets it go, guiding Jessie into their house and leaving their front door wide open.

Gerald's game

Gerald's sex game starts consensually... sort of. It's clear that Jessie is uncomfortable, but trying to hide it. She's bought a sexy new nighty, and realizes she forgot to pull the tag. This paper tag will be an actual lifesaver before long. However, when Jessie sees Gerald's handcuffs she balks, having been expecting the toy kind with fur that doesn't require a key. "Those can break if you go too hard," Gerald says, smirking even though she's visibly pained as he fastens her to the bed, one hand to each post. 

Gerald pops another Viagra and Jessie starts to look properly frightened. It's not long after Jessie is cuffed to the bed that the scenario turns ugly: Gerald's actual game is a violent intruder rape fantasy, one Jessie never agreed to. This is why he stopped Jessie from closing and locking the front door to the lake house. And now, in the midst of Gerald's game, she wants to stop, but he won't. 

They get into a horrible fight about their 11-year marriage and their recent problems, all while Gerald is still trying to have sex with his unwilling and vulnerable wife chained to the bedposts. When Gerald calls himself "Daddy," Jessie has a panic attack and bites Gerald in self-defense. He suddenly has a heart attack, and dies on top of her. In her attempt to wake him, Gerald falls from the bed onto the tile floor and cracks his head. Jessie is left cuffed to the headboard in a skimpy negligee, with nobody for miles to hear her screaming for help.

Jessie's first visitors

From marriage drama to survival horror in a matter of seconds, Jessie's first visitor is the stray dog she fed who starts drinking Gerald's blood and gnawing on his corpse: a terrible reminder to Jessie that they left the front door open. 

Jessie's next visitor is Gerald's ghost, who taunts Jessie horribly, saying cruel things about what a pushover she was and revealing what a true sociopath he'd been while alive. "I'm pretty sure you just lost your mind," Gerald's ghost laughs, and calls Jessie out for always disassociating whenever conflict appears. Ghost Gerald admits to having hurt her often and on purpose, as Jessie realizes what would have actually happened to her in that bed had her husband not keeled over. 

To counter this horrible hallucination of her cruel dead husband, another version of Jessie appears, a stronger version that goes head to head with ghost Gerald and tries to help Jessie rescue herself. Jessie's alter reminds herself that the real Gerald left a glass of water on the shelf over her head, and when she can't reach it to her mouth, Jessie's alter points out the tag she pulled from her slip that she can make into a straw. After a few blissful sips of water, a dehydrated Jessie, overloaded with adrenaline and cortisol — still listening to the stray dog chomping on her husband — passes out.

The Moonlight Man

Jessie wakes in the middle of the night from a terrible sleep. Her hands are purple and bruised from lack of circulation, and her legs are cramping painfully. But as her eyes adjust to the dark, she sees a figure in the corner of the room. It is extremely tall, and as it walks out of the shadows she sees its skeletal face and widemouthed grimace. Its hands are almost claws, and they hold a bag filled with bones and trinkets. Jessie thinks she's hallucinating this monstrous vision as she had with ghost Gerald and her other self. She calls him the Moonlight Man and keeps saying "You're not real." 

In one of arguably the most disturbing plot developments in the Stephen King multiverse, Jessie's nightmare vision turns out to be very, extremely real — even though it will be some time before Jessie figures this out. Played by cinema legend Carel Struyken, Raymond Andrew Joubert is a serial killer, necrophiliac, and cannibal who's been working the area. He suffers from the rare disorder acromegaly, which happens when the pituitary gland continues to release too many growth hormones after a person's adult skeleton has already fused. It causes the face, hands, and feet to distend. Struyken lives with it in real life, but in the film, his own unique physique was greatly exaggerated for extra horror movie effect.

"Mouse" relives her past

While Gerald's ghost continues verbally abusing Jessie he calls her "Mouse," a nickname her father used which triggers a memory of a traumatic childhood experience she'll have to relive in order to survive this new trauma. Jessie flashes back to the summer of the full solar eclipse at their family lake house. Young Jessie (Chiara Aurelia) was just 12 years old and had gotten her first period the month before. Her relationship with her pregnant mother Sally (Kate Seigel) was strained, and Sally made no secret of how much she disliked her daughter. Jessie decided she'd rather watch the eclipse from the lakefront instead of the boat, and her father Tom stayed with her. 

Like what happened decades later with her husband Gerald, Tom and Jessie's first moments together alone seemed perfectly innocuous. But it wasn't long before Tom started saying inappropriate things, escalating to an appalling act of sexual assault as the sky turned red from the eclipse. The song on the radio was Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me" — the same song Jessie turns off at the beginning of Gerald's Game. But what happened after was equally terrible: Tom manipulated Jessie into agreeing never to tell anyone at all, least of all her hateful mom, and made his disgusting crime seem like it was Jessie's idea to begin with. Because of his coercive language and gaslighting, Jessie fully internalized the shame and horror of what her father did — not just as a child, but for the rest of her life.

Jessie's painful escape

In the final moments of Jessie's flashback to being sexually molested and then psychologically abused by her father, Jessie remembers she accidentally broke a water glass in her hand during her first family dinner after the incident. When she returns to the present, she realizes she's going to have to cut that same hand again in order to escape. 

As she smashes Gerald's water glass and begins slicing through the skin on her wrist and up into her palm in order to remove skin and slide out of the handcuff, Jessie later comments on the realization she made while doing so: She's been living a metaphor ever since that summer of the eclipse. She'd been handcuffed to and by her father once he made her complicit in his abuse and what she would need to do the rest of her life to keep that horrible secret. Jessie also realizes she exchanged her father's handcuffs for those of her abusive older husband. 

Jessie pulls her mangled hand out of the right handcuff, wraps her bleeding hand with pads, and grabs the car keys. But nothing has been easy for Jessie, ever. Her path out of the house is blocked by the Moonlight Man, who she still thinks is a hallucination. His bag of bones is open and Jessie puts her wedding ring inside, saying once again, "You're not real. You're only made of moonlight." Bleeding profusely, Jessie manages to drive her car to the nearest neighbors, crashing it before passing out. She's gravely injured, but she's free.

Jessie confronts her past, and begins healing

We see Jessie again six months after her ordeal. Gerald's law firm helps her get the incident quietly written off as a simple heart attack. Jessie has had multiple surgeries to repair her hand, and with it, she writes a letter to her younger self to make sense of everything that happened. Because Gerald's ghost had taunted her about her lack of emotional connection and intimacy with anyone else, in particular friendships, Jessie begins opening up about her childhood and even starts a foundation to help abused kids. 

But Jessie still dreams in the red of that solar eclipse — dreams that include the Moonlight Man with eclipse eyes. She's puzzled as to why nobody could find her wedding ring at the lake house, until the news about Raymond Andrew Joubert breaks: Her imaginary Moonlight Man has been arrested for serial murder, cannibalism, necrophilia, and defiling corpses. Jessie has her chance to confront her final tormentor, and does so on Joubert's first day in court. "You're not real, you're only made of moonlight," Joubert parrots to a now-defiant Jessie. She sees her father and husband's faces in Joubert's as she stares him down. "You're so much smaller than I remember," she tells him and walks away a different kind of free woman.

Gerald's Game shows how unresolved childhood trauma lingers

Sometimes, unfortunately, it takes a new trauma in order for old traumas to resurface and bring along an opportunity to heal. Jessie hadn't realized how much that event with her father had shifted the course of her life until she ended up handcuffed to a bed with police-grade cuffs, a hungry stray dog, and a serial killer watching her sleep at night. "He didn't rape me," Jessie says to herself about that fateful day with her dad during the eclipse. "He didn't even touch me... That wasn't even the worst thing anyone ever did to me." And while she goes on to say the worst thing was Tom manipulating her silence afterward, we also know that Gerald did and said terrible things to Jessie during their marriage long before he cuffed her to the bed. Jessie took those acts of (often sexual) violence quietly and kept them to herself, just as she did with her father. 

The metaphorical walls that her father forced her to construct around herself to protect him from accountability stayed up until the moment she slid her hand free of Gerald's actual handcuffs. Forcing children to keep terrible secrets is a metaphorical imprisonment that can affect them for the rest of their lives, and Gerald's Game details in stark relief just how dangerous and damaging this dynamic can be, both physically and psychologically. Childhood trauma is one of Stephen King's major overarching themes, and Gerald's Game explores it with empathy and compassion.

Gerald's Game is a story about all-too-human monsters

Gerald is an insidious manipulator who controls Jessie in ways so subtle she doesn't realize until it's too late to escape. "Jessie, you married into the only dynamic you understand," her alter ego tells her while she's shackled to the bed. Since she could never fully admit just how monstrous her father was, neither could she admit it about her husband.

But it all goes back to that summer of the eclipse. "We both know you've been sleepwalking since you were 12 years old," Jessie's alter says. "We both know he put you in those handcuffs way before Gerald did." "If we don't tell your mom today, we can't ever tell anyone," Tom warned Jessie. "We walk out of this room and it never happened." Jessie's coerced acceptance that follows is as grotesque as anything else she has to do to survive in Gerald's Game.

It's also impossible to ignore the way Jessie's mom openly despised her and was verbally abusive, creating an environment that put her in competition with Jessie, leaving Jessie with no other parental figure to turn to. It's clear in Gerald's Game that Jessie's mother suspected something happened during the eclipse, but she does nothing to stand up for or protect her daughter. "The people who were supposed to protect you from monsters turned out to be monsters themselves, and they almost killed you," Jessie reflects. But the key word here is almost. Jessie survived. 

Stephen King easter eggs hidden in Gerald's Game

When Stephen King conceived of Gerald's Game, he saw it as a two-part novel that included what went on to become Dolores Claiborne, as both stories share the horrible theme of a father abusing his daughter. In Dolores Claiborne, the title character kills her husband on the same day of the solar eclipse; while doing so, she has a vision of a girl being molested by her father on a lakefront. In Gerald's Game, Jessie talks about a dream with a woman looking into a well and thinks it's herself. But King fans know it was Dolores.

Another King multiverse reference comes when Jessie says to her husband's ghost, "I'm gonna die." He responds, "Everything dies. All things serve the Beam." This is a reference to The Dark Tower series and its Beam holding the universe together, as well as a double entendre pointing to the beam of wood over Jessie's head that supports the lifesaving glass of water. 

King's other isolation horror masterpiece The Shining also pops up in Gerald's Game when Jessie's dad says, "We have to take our medicine," paraphrasing something Jack Torrance was heard to say in the throes of his violent rages. Yet another King novel that featured sexual violence and a cover-up, Bag of Bones, gets a nod when Jessie says about the Moonlight Man, "My visitor with the bag of bones."

Jessie mentions having gotten her period the month before her father molested her, and this event also caused major trauma in King's Carrie. Later, when Jessie bandages her hand she even uses pads to stop the bleeding. While the dog isn't a St. Bernard, it does have a taste for human flesh, just like another King creation, Cujo.