This post contains spoilers for Spectre.
Spectre, the latest James Bond movie, hit theaters last Friday to disappointing reviews. The Verge’s Bryan Bishop plainly summed it up: “Spectre is a mess; a listless mash-up of lazy gags and storytelling shortcuts that doesn’t just echo the series’ Mooreian lows—it undermines all the work the franchise has done since 2006.”
Nothing in the movie encapsulates the mess better than its bonkers ending. Lazy gags? Check—while Bond is being tortured, somehow his captor doesn’t notice Bond’s lady love Madeleine slyly sidling up to him to take his weaponized watch. Storytelling shortcuts? Oh, yes—as Madeleine leans over Bond to take the watch, she also tells him she loves him even though they’ve only known each other for a few days. And in the final act that follows, we’re treated to one nonsensical pivot after another.
Entertainment Weekly writer Darren Franich has a lot of thoughts about Spectre’s ending, its idiosyncrasies, and how it fits into the franchise as a whole, which he explains at length in an essay published on Tuesday. Toward the end of his analysis, Franich presents a zany, tempting suggestion: What if James Bond actually died at the hands of his captor, Franz Oberhauser? Think about it: One minute, Oberhauser has Bond strapped down in a chair, and is using a drill to excavate his brain. The next, Madeleine tells him she loves him, and they stage an escape that’s nothing short of miraculous. According to Franich’s theory, the escape doesn’t really happen—instead, Bond is being killed by the brain drill, and all the nonsensical things we’re seeing are simply figments of a dying man’s imagination.
Franich doesn’t mention it, but his theory on the ending of Spectre is actually a technique Vulture writer Adam Sternbergh aptly named the “Everyone’s Already Dead” trick. Last year, in an essay called “Here Is the Simple Mind-Trick That Makes Every Movie and TV Show Seem Better,” Sternbergh suggested that whenever a movie has a bad, illogical ending, you should try pretending all the characters have died. With this trick, Sternbergh explains,
[Y]ou’re watching a character’s dying fever-dream. This is very important to understand. In a dying fever-dream, anything’s possible. So all you need to do is select the exact moment in a TV show or movie’s narrative when things start to go a little hinky, then decide that, at that moment, the main character and/or all the characters are dead. It’s that easy!
Sternbergh invented this theory for another big-budget November film with a nonsensical ending, Interstellar. It’s nice to know that it works for Spectre, too, and presumably every other incoherent blockbuster Hollywood will throw our way in years to come.