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The Ending Of Widows Explained

Eight years after winning the Academy Award for Best Picture with his sobering historical drama "12 Years a Slave," British filmmaker Steve McQueen made waves again with his five-episode Amazon anthology "Small Axe" — a series so good it had critics considering it for film awards, per the LA Times. It's been something of a comeback trail for McQueen, following a relatively low-profile post-Oscar period for him in Hollywood. But that comeback could just as well have happened two years sooner, back when he released one of the best movies of his career to shockingly little fanfare.

Adapted by McQueen and "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn from an '80s British TV show, "Widows" had the talent, the pedigree, and the critical favor to be the adult-oriented heist thriller event of the year. Its ridiculously stacked cast alone — consisting of Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Cynthia Erivo, Robert Duvall, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, and Jon Bernthal, just to name a few — ought to have put way more butts in seats than it did. For whatever reason, the movie flopped at the box office, barely making back its $42 million budget, and failed to gain awards traction, save for a solitary Viola Davis nomination at the BAFTAs.

Still, "Widows" amassed a significant fan following for the intelligence and maturity with which McQueen and Flynn tackle the thrills of the heist movie genre. The film's story of three mob wives who decide to take a multi-million-dollar heist into their own hands after their husbands die in a failed getaway has everything you want out of a quality action thriller, up to and including its unusual, disarming, yet note-perfect conclusion.

Widows has a hard-earned happy ending

Following nearly 100 minutes of meticulous preparation, Veronica (Davis), Alice (Debicki), and Linda (Rodriguez), accompanied by their impromptu getaway driver Belle (Erivo), finally get down to business on their plan to steal $5 million from the residence of the Mulligan political dynasty and use it to pay off their husbands' $2 million debt to crime boss Jamal Manning (Henry). They face some unforeseen turbulence, including a crossfire with patriarch Tom Mulligan (Duvall) that leaves Alice wounded and an attempt by Jamal's henchman Jatemme (Kaluuya) to make off with the money, but Veronica ultimately manages to reach their hideout with all of the cash in tow.

There, she is confronted with her presumed-dead husband Harry (Neeson), who faked his death in the botched getaway. Still tormented by their son Marcus' fatal shooting at the hands of the Chicago police years prior, Harry explains to Veronica that he needs the money to start over with his new, white wife Amanda (Coon) and their child. Just as he's about to kill her, a distraught Veronica finds the strength to do what needs to be done and shoots him first.

Despite the pain and betrayal of this denouement, the heist is ultimately a success. The rocky road is what allows the "happy" ending to feel truly earned in a movie as dark and gritty as "Widows." Because of everything they've been through and how hard they worked to get there, when we see Linda buy back her family's clothes shop, Alice make plans to open up a business, Belle move away to start a new life with her daughter, and Veronica donate the money for the building of a public library, the prevailing feeling is less happiness than relief. Finally, the playing field is level again for these women.

The final reveal of Widows is even sadder than it seems

All of the main characters in "Widows" are used to being jerked around by the men (and even women) in their lives. Linda has to handle most of the shop management workload and swallow her husband's criminal life as being "for her," even as it constantly jeopardizes their legitimate business. Alice has an abusive husband and must endure her own mother's physical abuse and emotional manipulation on top of it. Belle is constrained to a life of few options due to the social gulf perpetuated by Chicago's greedy political class. But Veronica, despite her material comfort and the equity she insists on having with her own husband, has it possibly the worst of all.

Part of what makes the last act of "Widows" so heartbreaking is that, while untangling the nature of Harry's master plan, the viewer is brought to understand just how dismissive he is of Veronica as a human being. Harry's conversation with Jack Mulligan (Farrell) reveals that he was allowed to fake his death by Jack's contacts in the police, in exchange for $1 million in hush money plus the screwing of Jamal Manning, Jack's political rival, out of his own $2 million. Harry's cruelty, as revealed by his plan, is threefold: He has left Veronica all alone and wallowing in grief yet again, he will toss her aside to start a new family, and he has doomed her to bear the brunt of Jamal's retribution. It's unclear whether he's counting on her carrying out the heist so he can swoop in and snatch the money at the end, but either way, his willingness to kill her off is just icing on the dehumanization cake.

Veronica's smile at the end of the movie says a lot

Being reduced to a pawn in her husband's selfish game would seem to corroborate Veronica's worldview throughout the movie, which is that she lives in a ruthless, violent world and can't afford to let her guard down or trust anyone. For the women of "Widows," individualism and adherence to protocol are a desperate means of securing real agency for a change — hence Veronica's refusal to develop the least bit of camaraderie with her cohorts. But this attitude proves to be dehumanizing in its own way, as it robs the women of their ability to form the human connections that would allow them to process their grief.

Though killing Harry and ensuring the heist's success is the endpoint of Veronica's plot in "Widows," her character arc isn't concluded until the movie's very final scene. It finds Veronica at a diner, talking to a man who will use her donation to help build a new public library named after her son. Once they've settled everything, Veronica looks around to find Alice a few tables away, talking to a friend. She follows Alice out of the diner and calls to her on the street. The film's final image is Veronica grinning warmly as she asks Alice the simple question, "How you been?"

It's the first and only time we see Veronica smile so warmly in the whole movie. This sudden character shift sums up the emotional arc of "Widows." We don't get to know if Veronica and Alice become friends, or even if Alice will respond positively to the greeting, but Veronica's smile is nonetheless the most courageous thing she does in the whole movie: Instead of continuing to wallow in isolation, she breaks the cycle of trauma and opens herself up to the vulnerable humanity her husband's ploy denied her. Inevitably in such a densely plotted movie, the way McQueen and Flynn wrap up "Widows" can have a few holes poked in it. But emotionally and thematically, it's a flawless ending: the affirmation of everything the rest of the movie so intensely and painfully repressed.