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The Ending of ‘Spiderhead’ Explained

In ‘Spiderhead,’ nothing is what it seems. Here’s a breakdown of that wild twist ending,
Spiderhead Explained Netflix Movie
By  · Published on June 17th, 2022

Ending Explained is a recurring column in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of the new Netflix psychological thriller Spiderhead. Yes, prepare for spoilers.

If there was a drug that could make everything around you look beautiful, would you take it? What about one that made you find everything funny? Or one that made you fall in love? And what if there was a substance you could give someone that made them do anything you say? Or one that caused them great pain and discomfort?

These are the questions explored in Spiderhead, Netflix’s new sci-fi thriller directed by Top Gun: Maverick’s Joseph Kosinski and penned by Deadpool co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Based on George Saunders’ 2010 New Yorker short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” the film follows Jeff (Miles Teller), a young man serving time in an experimental prison facility called “Spiderhead.” 

Conceived by pharma-God Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), Spiderhead administers test drugs that create synthetic emotional states – such as love, laughter, or honesty – to inmates as part of a preliminary trial. In exchange, subjects are granted a little more independence during their sentences. And if all this sounds a little sketchy, don’t worry: Steve assures Jeff that he created these substances to ensure world peace. But, as you might expect, it isn’t long before the drugs start to have (really) adverse effects.

By Spiderhead’s third act, Jeff is fed up with Steve’s threats to use the drug Darkenfloxx – which provokes acute suicidal tendencies – on prisoners during the tests. So Jeff starts digging around and discovers that Steve is in the process of testing a brand new drug: B6, or O-B-D-X (sounds a little like obedience, eh?). Meanwhile, Steve is in the process of putting B6 through its final test: Is it strong enough to make you hurt someone that you love?

So Steve fills Jeff with the submission-juice, and places the latter’s kinda-girlfriend, Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), in the test room. Then, he commands Jeff to pump her with the dreaded Darkenfloxx. Jeff says no, proving that B6 isn’t quite as strong as Steve had hoped. Jeff then decides to stop his boss once and for all, and the two get in a fight, which leads Steve’s drug box to break and subsequently flood him with a cocktail of his own nefarious potions.

Meanwhile, Jeff rescues Lizzy and the two make a mad dash for the exit, but not before Steve orders the rest of the inmates, who are unknowingly jacked up on B6, to stop the couple from leaving the facility. The two get out right in the nick of time, though, and race back to the mainland on a boat. To escape being caught by the cops, Steve flies his plane off the island, but the Darkenfloxx compels him to crash into the side of a rocky mountain before he can make his great escape. 

So Spiderhead ends with two characters literally riding off into the sunset. But is it really a happy ending? On one level, this triumphant finale is undeniably about the perseverance of love above all else. After all, love is the one state of being that B6 cannot overpower. And on a smaller scale, Jeff’s love for Lizzy is what finally gives him the strength to break free from Spiderhead’s grasp, despite initially believing that he deserved his treatment at the facility due to the nature of the crime that sent him there. 

One can safely assume, then, that once Jeff and Lizzy return to the mainland, they will live a happy life together. This is an undeniably less cynical ending than Saunders’ short story, which not only sees Jeff committing suicide with Darkenfloxx, but also forgoes a love-interest character altogether, and thereby takes the question of “love persevering over everything” entirely off the table.

But the end of Spiderhead isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. Behind the happily-ever-after ending shot, the film inevitably leaves its viewer with a bitter taste in their mouth. Earlier, Jeff mentions that this isn’t the first experimental facility he has been to. So while Steve’s death is undeniably a step in the right direction, one can assume that, in this world, there are dozens of other Steves hungry to step into his shoes and exploit prisoners.

This leads us to our next question: was Steve always corrupt? There are two plausible options. One: his company, Abnesti Pharmaceuticals, really did start out as a venture for world peace. Steve simply wanted to get people laughing more, loving more, and being more honest. But then, once he got a taste for being the puppetmaster, he couldn’t stop until he had total control – ie: until B6 was coursing through the entire populations’ veins.

Or maybe that theory gives Steve too much credit. Perhaps B6 was always the end goal, and the other drugs were simply a means to an end. The love drug, for example, has the potential to allow the administrator to test whether or not a subject will harm his loved one while under the influence of B6. The honesty drug is simply another form of obedience, too, and Darkenfloxx is nothing more than an elevated form of torture. In the end, maybe these substances were all conceived as mere baby steps toward the creation of B6.

The true key to understanding Spiderhead’s ending, though, comes in a comparison between it and its source material. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” the problem of exploitation remains at the forefront until the very end. Unlike in the film, B6 doesn’t come in the form of a twist. Instead, it is present from day one. This asserts a kind of cynicism and unavoidability inherent in Spiderhead, where in the film, Jeff starts off with a kind of naive optimism.

Where the story is about abuse and exploitation, the film is about the perseverance of love. Perhaps the latter is the way it is because of Hollywood’s need for a happy ending. Perhaps it’s more honest about the state of the world. Or, perhaps, we are simply too afraid to acknowledge the ugly truth.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.