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The Entire Tenet Timeline Explained

Amid the turmoil of 2020, the cinematic landscape was altered once again by the mind-altering auteur, Christopher Nolan. His latest temporal adventure, "Tenet" has wound up being one of the most successful films of 2020 & 2021, with chart-topping returns among films featuring an original script and no superheroes. The action saga helped breathe life back into a post-pandemic Hollywood, while simultaneously changing how we conceptualize the linear flow of time. Marching into theaters with a simple cause-effect view of our reality likely left you questioning the fortitude of your perceptions. Multiple viewings of "Tenet" still result in an insanity loop that has physics professors foaming at the mouth.

In the same vein as the 2016 Denis Villeneuve film "Arrival," Nolan's latest time-warping shenanigans require its audience to abandon all concepts of the linear progression of time. When it comes to the core concepts involved it can be a bit much. That's likely why you sought out clarification on the muddled timeline existing within the palindromic "Tenet" — a movie that becomes ever so slightly clearer with each viewing (emphasis on slightly). Several viewings have tangled our gray matter, but here we will suffer through the brain cramps to effectively describe the timelines existing within the "Tenet" landscape.

Prologue - Time Inversion and The Algorithm

"Tenet" is only a time traveling film in the sense that we are all currently traveling through time — even as you read this. This film is a completely unique approach to time. To elaborate, Marty McFly traveled from 1985 to 1955 instantly in "Back To The Future." Alternatively, the time theories in "Tenet" would require the characters to live 30 years while inverted in order to reach 1955. The complexities of how this time inversion works is an entirely different topic altogether; you can read about it in more detail in one of our previous articles.

The primary antagonist, Sator (Kenneth Branagh), is in contact with a future generation. These are the people who invented time inversion technology. One of their scientists developed a device, named The Algorithm, that could invert our entire world — rather than just individual objects placed in a turnstile. In order to avoid its use, the scientist disassembled it, inverted it, and buried it. Sator is working with this future generation to find the pieces of the algorithm that are traveling back through time, reassemble them, and invert our entire world.

It is best to view "Tenet" as one gigantic palindrome. The audience is traveling forward through time with the characters, then The Protagonist (John David Washington) is inverted and we travel back to arrive at the same time as the movie's opening scene, but at a different location. The Kiev Opera Siege (opening act) and the events at Stalsk-12 (final act) occur at the same time.

Sator makes first contact with the future

Many years before the opening act of "Tenet," a young Sator receives a contract to retrieve lost plutonium capsules in his irradiated hometown of Stalsk-12. This occurs during the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is here that Sator makes first contact with the future generation seeking to re-assemble The Algorithm. He spends the years leading up to the story in "Tenet" building the turnstiles used for inversion and hunting down pieces of the algorithm.

The initial version of Sator entering the "Tenet" story is contained within Kat's memories. While on a vacation on their yacht off the coast of Vietnam, the two achieve a rare moment of intimacy in their relationship — one where Sator and Kat truly feel they are in love with each other. Sator ruins the moment by offering her an ultimatum: freedom from his tyranny in exchange for leaving her son behind. Kat is enraged by the proposition and angrily departs the water vessel with her son. After a reprieve, she receives word that Sator wishes her to return to the yacht. As she is pulling up to the rear of the vessel, she glimpses a woman diving off the side of the yacht and Sator has vanished.

The Kiev Opera siege

Enter John David Washington (The Protagonist). The time that the Kiev Opera siege occurs is a crucial timestamp. It occurs at the same time as the incident on Sator's yacht AND the detonation in Stalsk-12. In overarching plot terms, it is when the events in "Tenet" both start and end. The Protagonist is a CIA operative charged with rescuing a high-profile target and retrieving a package at the Kiev Opera House. This package, unbeknownst to The Protagonist, is the final piece of The Algorithm. While working to ensure the safety of any bystanders, he is rescued by Neil (Robert Pattinson), whose character can be identified by a piece of red string with a ring attached to it, dangling off his backpack.

This is The Protagonist's first interaction with time inversion. The bullet that saves him is an inverted bullet, although he has no clue what just happened. The Protagonist is captured and interrogated. In order to avoid spilling state secrets, he takes a cyanide capsule. Assumed dead by his captors, The Protagonist is then retrieved by his people and informed the capsule was a fake. The briefing he receives is his first step into the world of "Tenet." However, the only thing these individuals (the bottom rung of this organization) can do is point him in a direction. They direct him to a scientist who will explain the mechanics of time inversion.

Tracing the inverted bullets to their source

Using the keyword "Tenet," The Protagonist gains entry to a secret laboratory where inverted objects are gathered for study. The lab's lead scientist explains how time inversion works. Mastering its use requires more intuition than a catalog of knowledge. While getting his bearings, The Protagonist is practicing with inverted ammunition and realizes the bullets don't appear to have been made in some distant future. The two theorize that the bullets were manufactured in our time and thus inverted here, in our time.

Sourcing the materials in the bullet leads The Protagonist to an arms dealer in India named Priya (Dimple Kapadia). The planned intrusion on her homestead requires an accomplice. This is where The Protagonist first meets Neil (Robert Pattinson). Keep in mind, this is the first time he has met Neil, but this version of Neil has known him for years. A unique reverse bungee jump into Priya's ivory tower allows for a crucial conversation to take place. It is during this conversation we learn of the existence of Sator and his communication with the future. From there, The Protagonist seeks out more information (hello there, Sir Michael Caine) and finds his entry point: Sator's estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). An accomplice of hers was reported to have forged a very convincing Goya painting. Kat (an art appraiser) officially authenticated this painting. Sator purchased this forgery and is using it to imprison Kat in their marriage.

Using Kat to get to Sator

The protagonist uses information regarding the forged Goya to ingratiate himself to Kat. She expects her husband to, once again, bully a potential friend out of her life. Expectedly, Sator's henchmen arrive to assault The Protagonist but he winds up holding his own against them. This results in Kat believing he may be a way out for her. The destruction of the forgery would loosen Sator's grip on her and allow the possibility of escaping an abusive relationship. She informs The Protagonist that the forged Goya is being kept in a place known as Freeport, an airport facility of great interest to Sator.

The Protagonist is being somewhat manipulative by telling Kat he means to destroy the forged Goya held there. In reality, The Protagonist hopes to find plutonium and other nuclear materials inside. Neil and The Protagonist gather a crew and begin planning how best to break into the well-guarded facility. They devise a plan that involves hijacking a cargo plane and crashing it into the side of the building containing Sator's vault.

The Freeport heist

The Protagonist and Neil guise themselves as wealthy benefactors to gain entry into Freeport. While on a tour of the facility, their accomplices are setting their plan in motion. They hijack a large cargo airliner and taxi it across the runway, aiming it directly at the building containing Sator's vault. They scatter the gold bars contained in the cargo plane across the runway and smash it into Freeport. The ensuing mayhem from the plane crash allows Neil and The Protagonist to meander their way to Sator's vault, where they find the first set of turnstiles.

As Neil and The Protagonist are examining the turnstile from opposite sides of the room, they activate and two different versions of a man emerge. One of these men is traveling with the flow of time and races off down the hallway — Neil gives chase. The other man is inverted, and engages in mortal combat with The Protagonist. It is one of the most intriguing battles in movie history. There is one combatant who is inverted (traveling against the natural flow of time) and another who is traveling with the natural flow of time. Watching closely, you can see a moment when The Protagonist gets his bearings and assumes control of the battle. It results in him gaining the upper hand against the inverted soldier and he tries to get answers out of him. Suddenly, the crashed airplane's engine, just outside the hangar door, revs up and the assailant zips off across the floor in reverse. A moment later the airplane engine explodes.

Establishing a working relationship with Sator

With this new influx of information, The Protagonist opens a dialogue with Sator. He convinces Sator that he is a freelance agent looking to do business. Sator invites him on a boating excursion with his wife. Seizing a moment, Kat untethers Sator and sends him careening into the ocean. Rather than letting him drown, The Protagonist leaps in after him and saves his life. This action invokes some mild favor with Sator, who asks him to spend the night on their yacht.

While snooping around in the night, The Protagonist witnesses Sator receiving a recent haul from his future contacts. The shipment is filled with inverted gold bars — it's the payment Sator is receiving for his endeavors. When The Protagonist is discovered, he talks his way out of the situation. The result is him being hired to retrieve the "plutonium" that was lost in the Kiev Opera siege. The Protagonist is still unaware that this is actually the final piece to The Algorithm and not plutonium. Neil and The Protagonist plan yet another heist. This time they must break into an armored vehicle traveling on the highway.

The highway heist of the final algorithm piece

The initial robbery of the armored vehicle goes off without a hitch. The Protagonist leaps aboard the vehicle, breaks in, and makes away with the contents. However, their robbery is sabotaged by the very man that hired them. Sator appears in another vehicle. He is inverted, and is holding Kat at gunpoint. The Sator we see here is a future version who knows the outcome of this entire ordeal. This forces The Protagonist to toss the contents of the package over to Sator. This exchange occurs with a third silver vehicle in play. This unknown driver also appears to be inverted, as he is driving in reverse and enters the fray via an inverted car crash.

As Sator and his henchman escape, they abandon Kat in a driverless vehicle speeding down the highway in reverse. The Protagonist manages to stop the vehicle but is taken hostage by Sator's men shortly after. The resulting interrogation involves two different versions of Sator. An inverted Sator questioning The Protagonist on the opposite side of the glass and then the current Sator who has yet to begin his journey backward through the highway heist. Neil and allies arrive just in time to save The Protagonist. Sator escapes by hopping into the turnstile and beginning his temporal pincer movement. This is a military maneuver involving attacking your opponent from two different directions; only the two directions they are attacking from here are different directions in time.

The Protagonist inverts and chases after Sator

This is the moment in the film where we begin our journey back toward the date of the Kiev Opera siege. At this point, Kat has just been shot with an inverted bullet. In order to ensure the healing process takes place appropriately, they need to invert her. The Protagonist, Neil, Kat, and their allies enter the turnstile to invert. The Protagonist knows that Sator is on his way back to the incident on the highway in order to obtain the final piece of The Algorithm. He jumps into a silver vehicle (wink) and, using the reversed world around him, tracks the movement of the package from earlier. This allows him to watch the case's journey back into Sator's vehicle.

Speeding along the highway, The Protagonist experiences the same ordeal from another angle. Now The Protagonist is the unidentified man in the silver vehicle. He tries to stop Sator from escaping but only succeeds in showing his hand. Unknown to viewers, during the highway incident, The Protagonist had pulled The Algorithm out of its case and tossed it into the silver vehicle. He fails to realize quickly enough that it was himself driving the car earlier. When Sator sees this exchange, he knows now that all he has to do is re-invert and grab it out of the silver car at a later time when the vehicle is back in his possession. 

The Protagonist and Neil approach the Freeport heist from a different perspective

Neil and The Protagonist need to travel days inverted for Kat to heal from her gunshot wound. The turnstiles where they initially inverted are not accessible for them to flip back around. Prior to the highway incident, Sator has control of that particular turnstile. This means they need to find another turnstile to re-align themselves with the proper flow of time. The only turnstile accessible to them exists a week earlier at the Freeport heist they manufactured. There is still only a small window of opportunity though, so they need to slip in during the mayhem they created in the initial heist.

As The Protagonist is about to enter the facility, the crashed plane's engine suddenly begins to reassemble itself (exploding in reverse). When the engine kicks back on, it blows The Protagonist through the door and he slides back under the gun being held by himself earlier. We are blessed with another entrancing fight scene involving two different directions in time. This time we are aware that The Protagonist is the inverted soldier. Alternatively, you can see a moment where he gets his bearings and assumes control of the battle. He is able to make his way back to the turnstile and align himself with the proper flow of time. Only now he is also the soldier who Neil chased earlier. That's right. There are three different versions of The Protagonist in this scene. Does your brain hurt yet?

Sator assembles the algorithm

After escaping the chaos at Freeport, The Protagonist and Neil join up with other soldiers in the Tenet army. Sator now has all the pieces of The Algorithm and his plan is to entomb it at a site in Stalsk-12. This would allow the future generation to get a hold of it and activate it, thus invoking global annihilation. The time of this burial is set to take place on the same day as the Kiev Opera siege, so The Protagonist and his crew must travel (inverted) back to this point in time. This is represented mostly on a massive ship we see moving in reverse, passing by the oceanic windmills we saw in the opening moments of "Tenet."

During the briefing of the soldiers, everyone is informed of the battle plan. The temporal pincer movement that Sator employed earlier (during the highway incident) will be the same strategy all these troops use in Stalsk-12. Half of their troops will be traveling with the flow of time. They will then inform the troops at the end of the battle, who will invert and travel back through the battle with the knowledge they gain. While this is taking place, Sator plans to be aboard his yacht, with Kat, and take a cyanide capsule to end his life. This death will send an email burst to inform the future of The Algorithm's location.

The temporal pincer in action

The final battle in "Tenet" is worthy of an entire article in and of itself. It is packed with paradoxical occurrences that are hard to wrap your brain around. For instance, the building that is detonated by both inverted and non-inverted troops ... we have to wonder when that building was ever fully formed now? Best to stay focused on The Protagonist's narrative. Along with Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), he journeys into the cavern beneath Stalsk-12 to retrieve The Algorithm. They need to slip out the device without Sator knowing, so that he will still believe he has buried it for the future generation.

Neil is traveling inverted through the battle and witnesses a trap being laid for The Protagonist and Ives. In order to help, he jumps into a turnstile to flip back around and warn them. This is what allows Ives and The Protagonist to escape from the explosion via a harness Neil drops down for them. There is another version of Neil at play here too. A version we don't see entirely played out but we can infer as his inevitable demise. The red string on his backpack is seen on a dead soldier behind a locked gate down in the tomb. The soldier proves to be inverted as he springs back to life and unlocks the gate for The Protagonist, taking a bullet from Sator's henchman in the process. Neil saves Ives and The Protagonist on two different occasions during the Stalsk-12 battle.

Epilogue - A doomed friendship

Ives, Neil, and The Protagonist take different sections of The Algorithm and set off on their own individual journeys. It is in this departure that Neil informs our hero that it was him, The Protagonist, that created the Tenet army. He is also the one who recruited Neil in the first place. This is a truly heartbreaking development. This means Neil and The Protagonist have a doomed friendship existing of them both traveling in different directions. The start of their friendship for The Protagonist involves him learning of Neil's death. Now he has to live their experiences together with that knowledge. And from Neil's perspective, their friendship involves The Protagonist progressively losing knowledge of their relationship.

The final moments of "Tenet" exist just outside the core palindromic story of the film. The Protagonist is now better equipped to manage all the pieces in play and removes Priya from the equation. The battle has been won but The Protagonist entered the whole ordeal at the end of it. Now he must work backward through everything to set up the Tenet organization and inform all the people that helped him succeed in stopping Sator. This includes recruiting a friend he knows will die in the end, just before leaving him with a fateful goodbye, "I'll see you at the beginning, friend."