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The End Of Black Swan Explained

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan blurs the lines between drama and horror, garnering lead actress Natalie Portman an entire shelf of awards for her performance as troubled ballerina Nina Sayers. Black Swan follows Nina from simple member of the ballet corps to lead dancer, a promotion that sends her spiraling into paranoia and delusion.

Featuring a cast including Barbara Hershey, Vincent CasselWinona Ryder, and Mila Kunis, Black Swan is a twisted mirror of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet, all the way down to its disturbing finale. As Nina succinctly describes the ballet, "It's about a girl who gets turned into a swan, and she needs love to break the spell, but her prince falls for the wrong girl so she kills herself." The characters in Black Swan are even credited with two names, the second corresponding to their role in Swan Lake

Since Black Swan centers Nina, and Nina quickly begins losing her mind, viewers have to do a great deal of reading between the lines to understand her ultimate fate. Here is the ending of Black Swan explained, in all its sinister glory.

Nina and the ballet company

Black Swan opens with a dream: Nina as Odette, heroine of Swan Lake, as she is enchanted by the evil Rothbart. From the very start, there is something off about Nina. This feeling of unease deepens when her mother Erica enters. Erica is massively overprotective, her relationship with her 28-year-old daughter more like that of a mother and young child. Compliant and baby-voiced Nina is in a state of arrested development, enforced by her mother's firm, smiling control. Erica notices a small scratch on Nina's back, which Nina brushes off as nothing.

On the subway on her way to work, Nina sees a woman who looks exactly like her, only to realize, a second later, that it is an illusion. Nina is a dancer in an unnamed Manhattan ballet company, all of whom are surprised to find out that lead dancer Beth is being replaced. The company's director Thomas springs an unannounced audition for the role of the Swan Queen, which requires the dancer to portray both the virginal White Swan, Odette, and the sensual Black Swan, Odile. Nina is one of the dancers selected to try out, and as the White Swan, she excels. "If I were only casting the White Swan, she would be yours," Thomas tells her. When Nina is interrupted in her Black Swan audition by new dancer Lily, played by Mila Kunis, she panics and flubs the whole audition.

Fighting for the role of Swan Queen

On her way home, Nina sees another doppelgänger, one who appears to be a more confident version of herself. At home, she rehearses the choreography she stumbled through, but cracks her big toenail in half. Her mom admonishes her for pushing too hard, and says how unfair it is that Thomas would call auditions without giving anyone time to prepare.

The next day, Nina puts on a see-through shirt and red lipstick, trying to convince Thomas she's right for the role. He disagrees, saying all he sees "is the White Swan." Thomas forcibly kisses her, and she bites him in retaliation. Shortly after, Nina is shocked to see that he has cast her as the Swan Queen. The other company dancers are as surprised as she is, and draw the worst conclusions: When Nina comes out of the restroom, the word "WHORE" is written on the mirror in red lipstick.

Back at Nina's apartment, we discover just how unhealthily obsessed Erica is with her daughter: Her bedroom is filled with terrible portraits she's made of Nina through the years. Erica tries to celebrate Nina's casting by guilting her daughter into eating cake. The scratch on Nina's back is seen, grown far deeper and more serious.

The ousted queen

On Nina's first day of Swan Queen rehearsals, she's moved to a shared dressing room for lead dancers. Thomas praises Nina's work as the White Swan, but says she still needs major work to pull of the Black Swan. "Get ready to give me more of that bite," he instructs her, but she's only able to copy what the choreographer demonstrates. Later, Thomas and Nina watch Lily dancing. "Watch the way she moves. Imprecise, but effortless. She's not faking it," he says, shaming Nina through comparison.

Thomas organizes a gala to say goodbye to Beth and introduce Nina as the new Swan Lake lead. Beth is  furious and makes no secret of it. Taking a break from the party in the bathroom, Nina notices she has a hangnail. She pulls on it; it tears and bleeds profusely. But when someone knocks on the bathroom door, the injury disappears. Thomas invites Nina back to his place and as she waits for him, an enraged Beth accuses Nina of sleeping her way to the top. Later, to get her to loosen up, Thomas gives Nina a "homework assignment," telling her to explore her sexuality on her own.

At home, Nina's mom helps her undress and sees the wound on her back is worse. "You've been scratching yourself again! I thought you were done with this, Nina!" Erica cuts Nina's nails violently, hurting her daughter's hand where Nina hallucinated her earlier injury.

Struggles in rehearsal

Nina wakes the next morning looking stressed. She tries to finish Thomas' "assignment," but realizes her mother is sleeping in her room. This is not a good start to the day,  and Nina struggles in rehearsal. Her day gets worse when she finds out Beth has walked into incoming traffic and is badly injured, an incident that took place just after their gala confrontation. Thomas comforts her, but Nina is spiraling. Nina decides to go visit Beth in the hospital and is horrified by the state of her injuries, including Beth's devastated right leg.

Back at work, Thomas is losing patience with his White Swan. "You're stiff like a dead corpse! Let it go!" Thomas shouts at her. He sends home the male leads and tries to infuse some passion into Nina's dancing by making out with her. He cruelly says, "That was me seducing you, when it needs to be the other way around." Lily finds Nina crying and says Thomas is being too hard on her. Nina insists Lily doesn't understand.

At home, Nina is having more breaks with reality as she sees blood in her bathwater that isn't actually there. The wound on her back is growing. Nina cuts her finger on purpose and seems to delight in the act.

Downward spiral

Thomas' verbal abuse escalates. "You could be brilliant, but you're a coward," he taunts Nina. Nina confronts a dismissive Lily, and her paranoia grows that Lily wants her part. On the subway home, an elderly man sexually harasses Nina and instead of moving away from him, she just watches.

At home, Nina's mom asks whether Thomas had "tried anything with her," and they have a huge fight about Erica's life choices. Erica claims Nina ruined her career, and she doesn't want the same thing to happen to her. Angry, Nina reminds her mother that she was 28 when she got pregnant and had aged out of ballet anyway. Exercising control, Erica demands that Nina take her shirt off so she can check the wound on her back.

Right at the height of their conflict, Lily comes to the apartment to apologize and Nina leaves with her, even though their dress rehearsal is the next day. After dinner, Lily doses Nina's drink with ecstasy to help her loosen up — or, perhaps, to sabotage her. They meet cute boys, and Nina briefly loses herself in the electronic dance music as well as the drugs. Lily goes back home with Nina, who bars her door so they can hook up. Lily's back tattoo turns into black swan wings, and her face morphs into Nina's. 

Things start falling apart

Erica, fuming, doesn't bother to wake her daughter up for rehearsal. Nina arrives late to see Lily playing her role, deepening her paranoia. She also finds out she hallucinated having sex with Lily the night before. At home, Nina vomits, then decides to rid her room of all its childish things. She smashes her ballerina music box and jams all her stuffed toys down the garbage chute.

Back at the ballet, the costume mistress notices that Nina has lost weight since her last fitting. We learn that the scratches on Nina's back aren't actually real when we see her skin reflected perfectly unblemished in the mirror. Nina has a small breakdown when she finds out Lily is officially her alternate. Thomas tells her everything is fine and she needs to get some rest. Instead, Nina rehearses over and over and starts to have even more vivid and grotesque hallucinations.

In a panic, Nina goes to see Beth. She wants to tell Beth she understands now how Beth felt when she was replaced, and that she sees Beth as "perfect." "I'm not perfect," Beth hisses. "I'm nothing." Beth stabs herself in the face multiple times with a nail file. Nina runs away terrified, but in the elevator, she discovers the bloody nail file in her own hands.

Nina's psychotic break

Back at home, Nina's appearance changes rapidly. Her eyes turn blood red. All the portraits of her in Erica's room begin screaming, so she rips them off the wall. "You're sick!" Erica shouts, but when she tries to help, Nina repeatedly slams her mother's hand in a door. Nina wails as her legs seem to break in half, turning into avian feet.

The next morning, Erica tells Nina she's called her in sick for opening night, but Nina insists on going. Lily is ready to take on her role, but Nina threatens Thomas with another scandal if he doesn't let her dance. "The only person standing in your way is you. Lose yourself," Thomas says. But Nina's nerves are getting the better of her and her hallucinations continue. She sees her toes fusing together like webbed feet. She loses her concentration on stage, leading to her partner dropping her during the performance.

In her dressing room, Nina fights with Lily, who taunts her about embodying the Black Swan better than she ever could. Nina throws Lily into the mirror and stabs her in the gut with a shard of glass. Free of this interloper, Nina finally lets go as she takes to the stage as the Black Swan. She feels the spirit of the dance so hugely, she imagines herself growing luscious black wings. Everyone tells her she was beyond amazing, and she kisses Thomas on the mouth in triumph.

Nina's final act

Having nailed her performance, Nina returns to her dressing room to change for the final act, in which she will depict the White Swan's suicide. While she's changing, Lily arrives at her door to congratulate her for her incredible job. In a shocking turn of events, Nina realizes that she didn't actually kill Lily. She looks down and sees a shard of glass sticking out of her own stomach. Nina pulls out the broken piece of glass and looks in the mirror, realizing this is the end for her. As Thomas had said, she really was her own worst enemy.

Nina pulls herself together and brings the house down with her glorious final act. After her final jump onto a concealed mattress, the wound in her belly pours blood, turning her White Swan costume maroon. "What did you do?!" Thomas shouts when he realizes the extent of her injury. He calls her his little princess, just as he did with Beth, the first and probably last time Nina hears that potent pet name. But as her blood gouts, she smiles beatifically.

"I felt it," an exceedingly pale Nina says. "Perfect. I was perfect." The screen goes dark.

Nina is an unreliable narrator

There is a lot about Black Swan we as the audience simply can't trust. As the movie focuses on Nina's experiences, all the information we receive is clouded by her growing paranoia. For example, we can't exactly know what is truly going on between Nina and her mother, since Nina might be making up certain events for her own benefit. 

Take the scratches on Nina's back. By the time she performs in Swan Lake, we see her skin is absolutely perfect. But throughout Black Swan, Nina's mother is constantly nagging her about the injury. Is this a delusion shared by both daughter and mother? Or has Nina been imagining her mother tending her? If Lily didn't actually meet Erica, we might even consider that she's not there at all.

It's virtually impossible to know what exactly was going on with the ballet as well. Black Swan's use of mirrors and doubles, not just in Nina's hallucinations but also in the use of Swan Lake as the movie's central ballet, keeps us wondering which Nina is real — if any of them are. The metaphor of mirrors as reflections of a fragmented self is also a key visual theme in Black Swan, thanks to Nina's unreliable perspective. There are no singular Ninas — only hodge-podge collections of anxiety and talent.

Parental pressure

Nina's mother's story is tragic. She never made it to the heights of the ballet world, due (in her opinion) to her becoming Nina's mother when she was 28. Nina's father was someone involved in the ballet as well — a fact we glean when Erica expresses concerns over Nina sleeping with Thomas, and potentially "[making] the same mistake I did" — but we receive no further mention of who he was and whether he's had any part to play in Nina's life. 

As her only daughter, Nina is Erica's do-over in the ballet world, and that pressure is a huge contributing factor in Nina's eventual breakdown. Can you imagine your mom's bedroom being filled wall to wall with terrible portraits of you? Nina is a grown woman, yet her mother insists on undressing her when she comes home from work. Not allowing Nina any privacy, even a simple lock on her door, is also troubling. Erica's unhealthy obsession with her daughter is as distressing as Nina's own psychological break — maybe even worse, as we don't know what's at the root of Erica's own mental illness.

Ballet as body horror

To the outside observer, ballet is the epitome of high art. The dancers reach for the sky, floating inches off the floor like delicate angels, only touching down on Earth to bless the rest of us mortals with their exceptional beauty and grace. But underneath that divine facade of control and majesty, ballet is the stuff of blood and bone. Ballerinas, needing to stay slim, often live by extraordinarily restrictive diets. They also must control how much they exercise to prevent becoming overly muscular, which would ruin their lithe illusion, though they are simultaneously expected to be extremely strong. 

Dancing on pointe causes cracked toenails that sometimes never grow back properly, even when the dancer retires. Ballerinas also often dance on jammed or broken toes, yet the pain they are in must never show on their controlled faces. Rehearsals are grueling ordeals and practice is never-ending. When receiving physiotherapy during Black Swan, it's stomach turning to watch the therapist put almost her entire hand under Nina's rib cage to massage her spasming diaphragm. Ballet is beautiful, yes, but the price of that beauty is extreme, and painfully paved with horror movie-worthy bricks. Black Swan does not shy away from showing these beautiful and grotesque forces, nor how they come together to form ballet as a whole. It's a transcendent art, but it's also a punishing physical journey.