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The Ending Of Coherence Explained

The idea of an alternate reality, one where everything that we know is only slightly changed, can be both fascinating and terrifying. But what about the concept of numerous realities, ones which individuals can flit in and out of without even realizing?

In the 2013 film "Coherence," directed by James Ward Byrkit, the latter is exactly what a group of eight must grapple with. The story begins with Em (Emily Baldoni), who is meeting her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling) and friends for a dinner party on the same night a comet is set to pass overhead. At first, Em's only worry is that Amir (Alex Manugian) brings Kevin's ex-girlfriend, Laurie (Lauren Maher). As Kevin recounts fun memories with Laurie right at the dinner table, it's clear there's some unfinished business between the two. But soon, another woman is the least of Em's problems.

Chaos and confusion ensue when the power goes out, and Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Amir travel to the only lit house two blocks away. The pair returns looking shaken up and holding a box, which includes a ping pong paddle and numbered photos of the friends in red ink. Hugh reveals that at the other house, he saw themselves.

Throughout the 90-minute run time of "Coherence," the friends realize that the comet has opened up access to multiple, extremely similar, realities. In fact, throughout the course of the night, the majority of the characters switch realities unknowingly. While some, like Mike (Nicholas Brendon, aka Xander from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), prepare to wage war against their alternate selves, others see it as an opportunity to trade up.

How does Coherence end?

Tensions among the group reach a breaking point when it's determined that various members have switched realities. There are some hints along the way of this alarming conclusion, such as Em overhearing the same conversation twice between Beth (Elizabeth Gracen) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria) about a herb the latter purchased at a thrift store. 

But the full force of what they're dealing with is made clear through the random item found in the box. Each version of the group chose an item at random to put inside to serve as a symbol of their reality. But by the end, only Em, Laurie, and Kevin recall the ping pong paddle. Beth and Lee remember an oven mitt, Mike a napkin, and Hugh and Amir a stapler. This is how the group and the viewers come to realize that many of the characters we met at the beginning of the night have actually been swapped for alternate reality versions of themselves.

As the friends fight — and just after seeing an intimate moment between Kevin and Laurie — Em sneaks out in an attempt to find a better, less hostile reality. She stumbles across a variety of identical houses, all bearing a similar angry group. One even shows Kevin and Laurie snuggled together. Finally, Em finds one house where everyone is having a nice evening, and she and Kevin are a loving couple.

Em knocks out this happier version of herself, hides her in the shower, and takes her place. The next morning, Em 2.0 has vanished and our original leading lady believes she got away with the switch. However, while standing outside with the woman he thinks is his girlfriend, Kevin receives a call from the Em who is supposed to be unconscious in the bathroom. He gives the imposter an incredulous look before the screen cuts to black.

An explanation of how and when the friends switch realities

Early on, the group notices a vast space of darkness outside, but it takes a while for them to realize the significance of it. This darkness is sort of like a roulette wheel — whenever someone walks through it, they step out on the other side into a different reality. The catch is, the new destination is completely random. This means that attempting to return to a previous reality is left up to chance. 

The first two to venture outside are Amir and Hugh, the initial versions of whom we never see again. Then, when Em, Kevin, Mike, and Laurie go to investigate, they wind up in a new reality. Later on, Mike decides to blackmail his alternate self and accidentally heads into yet another reality. Beth and Lee are the only ones to never leave. Whichever house is shown, they're the only two originals. Each version of a person for the most part looks and acts the same aside from minor details.

Overall, their troubles are rooted in science. Hugh, whose brother is a science instructor at UCSC, details the concept of Schrödinger's cat. This thought experiment states, basically, that if you put a cat in a box with a vial of deadly poison that may or may not be released and closed the lid, you wouldn't know whether the cat was alive or dead until you opened the box to check. Until that point, the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead. Quantum physics states that both realities can exist simultaneously and separately thanks to quantum decoherence. "It's only when you open the box that they collapse into a single event," says Hugh. The power of the comet somehow caused quantum coherence, with all realities crashing into one.

Are any of the original characters seen at the end of Coherence?

In an interview with DePaul Visiting Artists Series, "Coherence" writer and director James Ward Byrkit shared that Em, Kevin, and Laurie are the only three characters that viewers follow from the beginning. Even when they pass through the darkness, audiences are brought along with them to the other side. But it's only Em whose final fate we see. "You're watching Emily from the first shot to the last shot," said Byrkit. "That's the whole key to the story." 

When Em can no longer stand the flirting between Kevin and Laurie, she decides to take her chances in the reality roulette wheel and lands in a world where Laurie is not a nemesis. Though Em thinks she got rid of her alternate version, that's not the case given the phone call that Kevin receives. This likely means that there are now two Ems existing in this reality. Since the comet has passed and there's no more dark space, there's also no more reality switching. Em is trapped in a world that's not her own and must now deal with the consequences.

It's quite the ironic situation — Kevin is finally loving and attentive, but now, he may see her as a threat. Given the laughter among this group of friends, this reality seems to somehow be immune from the comet craziness. However, because of Em's frustration and determination to find a new life, this group's comfortable reality is about to implode.