Tenet Explained, Part 2: The Prestige and Temporal Pincers

This article is the second part of a series about Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. The subject of this essay is rather complex and hard to follow without a solid knowledge of the movie. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you can (and should) read it here. After an introduction into the general aspects of Tenet, this second article will dig deeper into the details of the story.

We left our conversation analysing the Protagonist’s last dialogue with Neil. Neil revealed that not only this whole operation is a temporal pincer, but also that the Protagonist is its creator, and currently halfway there.

And this adds up with what we’ve seen in the movie. The attack on Stalsk-12 takes place on the same day as the Opera siege, the 14th (from Priya’s newspaper we know that it’s June 2019). Consequently, the narrated time of Tenet is about a little more than 10 days – forwards, than backwards. The center of the temporal pincer, the “joint”, is the assault scene in Tallinn. This is where the Protagonist gets inverted for the first time. And from there, he keeps going back in time for the sake of Kat, who’s been shot with an inverted round by her husband Andrei Sator. He goes back to the day when he and Neil had infiltrated Sator’s Freeport at the airport of Oslo. Together with Neil and Kat he infiltrates the Freeport again – this time to get the healed Kat out of the inversion. From there, they go back further until the 14th, when the Protagonist, Neil and Ives attack Stalsk-12 while Kat kills Sator on their holiday in Vietnam.

10 Seconds too Early

But not everything really adds up in Tenet. Quite the contrary, there is a lot that doesn’t add up – yet.

The first stumbling stone we come across is this: when Kat jumped the gun and killed Sator 10 seconds too early, why was the Algorithm not activated and the world destroyed? Incoherent storytelling?

By knowing Christopher Nolan as the accurate genius he is, this little “Pythagorean comma” can be no accident.

The somewhat surprising answer to this question is to be found explicitly expressed in the conversation the Protagonist, Neil and Kat are having on board of the Magne Viking:

Protagonist: [To Kat] You told me about a holiday where you let him feel loved.
Kat: Vietnam.
Protagonist: You said he vanished. What day?
Kat: I went ashore with Max and he flew off, but I don’t know what day it was.
Neil: It was the 14th. Ten days ago. He was in Ukraine.
Protagonist: At the Kiev opera siege. How do you know about that?
Neil: The point is, he wasn’t on his yacht, so that’s his window.

The Algorithm wasn’t activated because, although Kat killed Sator in Vietnam, there was another Sator alive in Ukraine, whose fitness tracker was still sending a signal to the Algorithm.

The information that Sator was at the Kiev Opera siege reveals to us that we’re not seeing the full picture of it. Oddly enough, the web is full or articles entitled “Tenet’s ending explained”. But in truth, it’s not Tenet’s ending that needs explanation. The ending is self-explanatory and pretty obvious. A closer look at the failed Opera siege makes us realize that, after we’re increasingly understanding the movie as it goes, suddenly the beginning starts to make less and less sense. Just like in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, we’ve first been shown something (The Pledge), the Opera siege. Then, in The Turn, “something extraordinary” happens – the whole fascinating storyline with the inversions and the temporal pincer. And we are “looking for the secret” about what really happened. In the third act, the actual Prestige, we’re being taken to the raid on Stalsk-12. We’re being shown something new, making us believe that it is an explanation of what we’ve seen in the beginning – the Kiev Opera siege. But it isn’t. It’s just a distraction, to lead our attention away from what was really important.

What needs explanation in Tenet is not the ending. What needs explanation is the beginning.

Rewinding for the full picture

Right from the very first seconds of Tenet, the Kiev Opera siege is filled with little details that remain unexplained until the very end, but have far-reaching consequences. We see the Protagonist and his 3 SWAT teammates (one of whom is played by The Expanse’s Wes Chetham) asleep at the beginning of the siege. Why were they asleep?

After what we’ve discussed about perspective in Part 1, the mere fact that the story starts with the Protagonist waking up suggests that this could be a reset of his consciousness. I would even go out on a limb here and speculate that the two possible moments for the Protagonist’s memory wipe must be either before the Kiev Opera siege or right after he took the fake cyanide. We do know that a memory wipe must have happened at some point, to ensure that any knowledge he used to have would not interfere with the outcome of the operation. Otherwise he would not have been the “fresh-faced Protagonist”, as Priya said. Remember, “Ignorance is our ammunition”. And, as explained in Part 1, this brings the Protagonist close to Memento’s Leonard Shelby. They both act out of faith in their respective limited perspective and in their intuition.

Then, there is a lot of mystery around the Plutonium 241 at the Kiev Opera. We know from Priya that “Sator tried to lift the only loose 241 from under a CIA team at the opera siege in Kiev. He got the team. Not the 241.” Although we know that we cannot take everything Priya tells at face value, we will now, for lack of better information, assume that she’s speaking the truth.

If that’s true, then Sator knew about the CIA-operation to extract the contact person (played by Jefferson Hall) who had the Plutonium 241. What we don’t know, is why Sator got the CIA-team, but not the 241 – although we see the team leave with it. We don’t see what happened to the rest of the team and how they got separated from the 241. Equally, we don’t see what happens to the Protagonist and his SWAT-teammate (the fake contact person) between the moment the Ukrainians recognize the wrong contact person and the torture scene at the rail tracks. There’s a significant time gap between those two scenes. And we don’t have enough information to understand why the Ukrainians turned against them in the first place, when they realized they were delivered the wrong person.

Independently from whether Priya is speaking the truth or not, we don’t know who the contact person is. We know neither why he was in possession of the Plutonium 241 nor whether he knew that it is the last part of the Algorithm. We don’t know with whom he had “established contact”, and we don’t know to what purpose. We don’t know why the Protagonist had to extract him, and we don’t know why he was so important for the Ukrainians that they became angry when they realised that they didn’t get him.

Actually, we know absolutely nothing about this whole scene, which leaves us with countless questions.

Why was the contact person guarded by Ukrainian military officials? Did they come to the Opera with him or did they seize him? Did they know he was in possession of the Plutonium 241? Furthermore, we don’t know why the Protagonist’s mission was to deliver a wrong person instead – and we don’t know to what end. Also, we do not know why exactly the Ukrainians tortured him and what they hoped to find out. And, just to finish this list of things we do not know about the Kiev Opera scene: we don’t know how the Plutonium 241 landed in the hands of the Ukrainian Security Service, while Sator got the rest of the Protagonist’s team, but not the 241.

Yet, the outcome of this scene is decisive for Tenet’s storyline. The fact that Sator didn’t get the Plutonium 241 in Kiev is the only reason why the Protagonist can later offer him to get it for him. Or did the Protagonist and his associates already try to make Sator get it in Kiev, so he would bring together the 8 other parts of the Algorithm – just as Priya has planned for the Tallinn raid?

In that case, we have to ask who crossed their plan in Kiev.

In fact, next to all these loose ends, there are some irregularities in the Opera siege scene that can actually help us bring a bit more light to the frame.

Apparently, Neil takes part in the Kiev Opera siege. He seems to be the one who saves the Protagonist with an inverted bullet. But only the bullet is inverted, Neil is not. After shooting it, he turns around and walks forward in a regular manner. The almost more curious detail in this sequence is that the person threatening the Protagonist is not only speaking English, but also mistakenly assuming that the Protagonist was planting the bombs to kill the people in the Opera – while, in truth, he was actually removing the bombs to save them. So this figure was also trying to save the spectators in the Opera House.

This character does not fit into any of the parties we are aware of in this scene. He’s no Ukrainian SWAT, he’s not part of the Protagonist’s fake SWAT-team, and he’s not part of Neil’s team (otherwise, Neil wouldn’t have shot him). Also, we have no idea why the Ukrainian SWATs wanted to kill the civilians. Or was there another party, also faking as Ukrainian SWAT, that wanted to kill the spectators? As if the whole thing wasn’t already complicated enough, in the Kiev Opera scene we seem to have at least 2 more parties than we had originally been aware of.

Last, but not least, Neils revelation that the Protagonist is the mastermind behind the whole operation urges us to ask how he first got himself involved in his own operation to begin with. The inability to identify the Protagonist by a proper name adds to the aura of mystery surrounding him. One might fathom he could be Arepo, which is the only word from the Sator-Square that hasn’t been properly introduced in Tenet yet. But as we hear that Tomas Arepo is a Spanish artist (assuming that it’s true), this shouldn’t be the Protagonist’s name.

The implicitly promised sequel

An accurate look at the Kiev Opera siege shows us that Tenet leaves us with a lot more to be excited about. The movie provides no reliable information about what really happened in and around this scene. But what we do know is that there must be something more happening in the background of the Kiev Opera siege, which we haven’t been shown yet. Knowing that “the whole operation is a temporal pincer”, and the Protagonist ist “only halfway there”, as Neils tells him, suggests that the necesesary sequel will bring us back to Kiev, to reveal what really happened in the background of this great Prestige. In the end, it was all just a trick.

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