Ambiguous Ending

Reporter: The book ends on an ambiguous note. We don't know—do you think [the young lovers] get back together in six months like they promised each other?
Jesse: I think how you answer that is a good test if you're a romantic or a cynic. You think they get back together; you don't, for sure; and you hope they do, but you're not sure.
Before Sunset, commenting in-universe on the ending of Before Sunrise

Sometimes the resolution isn't clear-cut. There's a lot left unexplained and the audience is still asking questions. Usually done so that different people can come to different conclusions.

Compare Gainax Ending, which is just plain confusing, and No Ending, in which there's no resolution, period. If there are two possible outcomes, one reasonable and one magical, it's Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane. In a horror context, see Nothing Is Scarier. When fans wish this would have happened, but it didn't, then it is a case of Fan-Disliked Explanation.

Contrast Happy Ending and Downer Ending, where the conclusion is obvious, Bittersweet Ending, which is ambiguous about the happiness of the resolution, but not on the events themselves, and Esoteric Happy Ending, which is ostensibly happy until the audience actually thinks about it.

Since this is an Ending Trope, beware of spoilers.


Examples:

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    Anime 
  • One of the most classic examples is the ending of Cowboy Bebop, where after his final fight with Vicious Spike, limps down the stairs to find an armed guard surrounding him, only to raise his hand in a gun shape and say "Bang," before collapsing. The series director, Shinichirō Watanabe, purposefully keeps the ambiguous tone in interviews, saying that Spike was "probably just sleeping."
  • In the finale of the second season of Code Geass, Lelouch is apparently killed by his friend, Suzaku, dressed in the infamous Zero outfit, after having planned to make the world hate him, so as to unite in peace after his assassination. This is all well and good, until at the very end C.C. is being pulled along in a wagon driven by a man with hidden features, during which time she talks about how she was wrong about the isolating nature of Geass, addressing Lelouch as though he may be alive. This is further supported by Nunnally receiving visions of Lelouch's memories upon touching him after his assassination, encouraging the theory that Lelouch absorbed his father's Code during his final confrontation with him, becoming immortal upon getting impaled rather than dying.
  • The result of the duel between Yugi and Jonouchi in the final episode of the Battle City arc of Yu-Gi-Oh! is never shown. Many fans actually beleive that Jonouchi won, seeing as it's the most likely reason why he got his Red Eyes B. Dragon card back (which he told Yugi to keep in an early episode of the arc, but which he has in the next arc; since Yugi and Jonouchi were still playing by Battle City rules, the ante rule presumably still stood). In fact, that was the biggest reason why he told Yugi to hold onto it; he didn't think he deserved to use it until he was a strong enough duelist to prove it.
  • Likewise, the ending to Yu-Gi-Oh! GX was left deliberately ambiguous. The final episode consisted of a duel between Judai and Yugi, and although there was no official ending, it can be implied that Yugi won.
  • The conclusion of A Cruel God Reigns. It's not really clear whether Jeremy and Ian become a couple, or where their relationship will go from there.
  • Storm Thief is probably the best example: the golem is floating randomly in the ocean, unable to control himself; the flotilla trying to escape the island has got away, but what they'll find on land (assuming they reach it) is totally uncertain; and the entire city is in the grip of the mother of all probability storms, meaning pretty much anything is possible there.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa ends with Alphonse and Edward together but on the wrong side of the Gate. What happens on the right side is a mystery and it's unknown if they ever reunite with their friends. If they don't then what are their lives like after?.
    • Somewhat addressed in the Kids OVA. It shows Ed's grandchildren in our world, coming to visit an aged version of him, ending with text saying that somewhere in our world Ed turned one hundred in 2005.
  • Captain Earth: Do Daichi and Hana survive the destruction of the Blume, or do they die?
  • In Baccano! the old man and granddaughter decide the story is better off with no ending, so the audience can imagine what happens next.

    Comic Books 
  • Convergence:
    • Convergence: Crime Syndicate #2. While some of the Crime Syndicate is shown in the main Convergence title, the ending of the second issue leaves it unclear as to who won the battle, Superwoman or the Justice Legion's Wonder Woman. For that matter, the fates of the rest of the Justice Legion is left unclear.
    • The ending of Convergence: World's Finest Comics #2. Is the Vigilante dead? Will the Crimson Avenger survive? And what exactly happens to Scribbly and the Shining Knight?

    Fan Works 
  • ''To Love-Ru The ending of To-Love-DEATH ends with several characters escaping the school by helicopter, but the city has already succumbed to a zombie invasion. The story leaves them still in the chopper.
  • Pony Pals Dirk Strider Edition ends with Pawnee making her choice as to whether the book should be destroyed to what it used to be. It's not stated which choice she makes.
  • Who We Are ends with the changeling among the Mane Six finally revealing herself to the others but it's never revealed who it is.

    Film 
  • Birdman has what could be called two ambiguous endings, depending on a person's interpretation.
    • One theory is that Riggan did in fact successfully commit suicide onstage, and everything afterwards is a hallucination/afterlife sequence.
    • Assuming the previous theory to be false, the final ending of the movie leaves Riggan standing, optimistic outside his hospital room window, at a height certainly high enough to kill him should he fall. The camera pans away to see his daughter, Sam, enter the room, and, once worriedly looking down from the window to see if he had jumped, slowly looks upwards towards the sky, as her expression changes to jubilant excitement. Throughout the film, it has been hinted that Riggan does in fact have superpowers, that nobody but himself can see; this theory says that, instead of simply dying after falling out of the window, after telling Birdman, "Goodbye, and fuck you," he frees himself of the restraints of his former life, and his daughter can now see him flying.
  • The Graduate ends with a famous Maybe Ever After / "What Now?" Ending. Ben whisks Elaine away from her wedding to some other dude, but their uncertain stares and pensive expressions as they ride away indicate uncertainty as to whether they will repeat the mistakes of their parents.
  • The Short Film The Happiness Salesman initially appears to have the clear cut ending of Karen rejecting the salesman's offer upon discovering that the payment was her first born child, but after leaving The Salesman comes back to give her the free gift he promised - a steak knife. The music starts to become intense as Karen stares down at the knife while listening to her baby crying, implying that Karen may have changed her mind about the offer.
  • Inception ends with Cobb returning home to his children after a successful heist. Just to be sure, he spins his totem top one more time (certain objects could act as reality checks to help the owner tell if he was dreaming or not; for Cobb, if the top eventually falls over, he's in real life), but runs off to see his kids before it stops. The screen cuts to black before the audience knows as well, leaving it up in the air if Cobb is still dreaming or not. Even though, according to most viewers, seeing as the top was his wife's totem, his wedding ring is his totem. If that theory can be trusted, then every time that he was wearing his ring, he was asleep (because in the dream world his projection of his wife was alive), and every time he wasn't he was awake. In the final scene, he isn't wearing it. Therefore, if this theory is true, then he was awake and with his children at the end of the film.
  • Before Sunrise: The film ends with Jesse and Celine promising to meet again in six months, with no way of getting in contact before then. Not until the sequel (nine years later) do viewers find out what happened next: they never made the meet.
    • The two sequels also end on this note. In the second, they appear to get together, but with little idea how it will end given that the developed different lives in the aftermath of the first film. The third film is similarly ambiguous, though they are now married, it is less than perfect and it ends with them questioning whether they would stay together but leaning towards yes.
  • The end of 2011 British horror The Awakening leaves the veiwer uncertain of whether the heroine (Florence Cath Cart) survived the poisoning attempt and is alive or whether she's a ghost who's haunting Robert. On one hand, many assumed she was dead because she walked past people without them even seeing her (even when she was very, very close) and in the background you can hear the headmaster talking about her as though dead ("Yes, she always was a bit strange, that Cath Cart girl"). On the other hand, some thought her alive because she tells Robert she's working on a manuscript for a new book and asks him to get her a taxi back to London, which isn't a activity most ghosts endevour in. The film's ending is purposefully contradictory to add suspence and disettlement.
  • The Cabinetof Dr Caligari Did the story Francis tell about Dr. Caligari and Cesare true or just the ravings of a madman?
  • K-PAX: Throughout the film the viewer is challenged to decide if prot is an alien or a mentally ill human being. The ending gives the answer as a "definitely maybe".
  • Dogtooth ends on a shot of the father's car outside the factory, with the eldest daughter in it. What happens afterwards is up in the air.
  • A Serious Man—After having played the part of The Woobie for most of the film, things finally begin to look up for progatonist Larry Gopnick. After having been concerned about his job security throughout much of the film, Larry is informed he'll indeed make tenure. And while it's never specifically stated that Larry is reunited with his wife Judith (who had sought to divorce Larry and marry an older man until he died in a car crash), the two are seen smiling and holding hands at their son Danny's bar mitzvah, implying as much. Danny even manages to get his transitor radio back after having it taken away during Hebrew School. However just as the movie seems to take an upbeat turn, Larry recieves a phone call from his doctor, telling him that the results from his physical are in and that he needs to see him in his office; while we are not told what the problem is, we can imply it is most likely a serious medical condition. The movie ends with Danny at Hebrew School when it's announced there is a tornado and the students must be evacuated for shelter. The last shot is Danny staring at the rapidly approaching tornado as the teacher struggles to open the door of the shelter.
  • The Thing (1982) ends with Childs and Mac in a destroyed arctic camp, with no hope of rescue. it's also left ambiguous as to whether Nauls died (although it is strongly implied he did) or even if Childs himself is a thing.
  • The Shining: Before the credits, the very last scene of the film is a zoom in close-up of a photograph in the Overlook Hotel...showing Jack Torrance, seemingly in his 20s or 30s in the photo, at the front of a ball room crowd smiling with the caption saying in cursive, "OVERLOOK HOTEL, JULY 4TH, 1921". The film takes place 60 years after the photograph was taken. No proper explanation has ever been given as to what the ending means.
  • The Jacket ends with the screen going black and the spoken question "How much time do we have?", leaving the audience wondering if the last scene was for real or not.
  • The ending to Blade Runner was so ambiguous, that it had not one, but two other versions that tried to make sense of the film. In the end, it only served to make it even more confusing.
  • While the main character of Girl, Interrupted is released, it's never explicitly stated if Lisa ever got out. Susanna claims that she saw some of the girls from the hospital later in life, but doesn't say which.
  • American Psycho ends with Patrick Bateman confessing his crimes to his lawyer, only for it all to be brushed off as a joke. It's left completely ambiguous whether Patrick was actually a murderer or just hallucinating violent imagery.
  • Eagles Gathered closes with Silver's death, but never makes it clear what actually happens when you die in the underworld, nor what happened to Gold: successfully rescued, dead, or never existed at all.
  • Sound Of My Voice: Was she really from the future or not? There's evidence on both sides. Law enforcement claims that she's a con artist, but were they really law enforcement? How does she know the girl's ("her mother's") secret handshake?
  • Envy: After Vapoorize is recalled from market and it results on Nick and Tim no longer being rich, they come up with a new invention: pocket flan. The movie ends with them using an infomercial to advertise it but it's never shown how much they make from that.
  • Unknown (2006): Depending on what Jean Jacket chooses to do about the final revelation, the ending may turn out to be anything from a fairly decent Bittersweet to a rather bleak Downer.
  • (500) Days of Summer ends on this note. While it is known from the beginning that Summer and Tom don't make it, this still occurs with the final scene. When Tom is going for a new job intereview, he meets Autumn and they have a pleasant first interaction. But there is nothing to suggest this relationship will be any better than the last.
  • In Bruges: The film ends with Ray being carried into an ambulance after getting shot multiple times, however, we never find out whetever he survives or not.
  • Swimming Pool: Which Julie is the real one and which is the imaginary one? If the young one is real, was she with Sarah at the French house doing all those things? Or did Sarah just invent the crazy stuff? Alternatively, was Julie even there at all? Is Franck actually dead? Did he even ever come to the house? Lots of questions, to be sure... these are just a few.
  • The Break Up ends with the titular couple meeting up on the street months after their break-up and exchanging pleasantries. It's left ambiguous if they will just go their separate ways or make another try at their relationship.
  • Alice: The film ends much like how Alice's Adventures in Wonderland did, with Alice waking up in her room from the dream. However, Alice notices that the glass case that contained the White Rabbit is still broken and the Rabbit missing. This makes it unclear if the dream is actually over or if she's still in Wonderland.

    Literature 
  • The short story "The Lady or the Tiger," written in 1882 by Frank R. Stockton, has an ending that is purposely left ambiguous, with the author saying that he is in no position to reveal how it ended, letting the reader make his own opinion, based on what he believed one of the characters - the princess - would do. The plot of the story is a no-win situation where someone faces a Sadistic Choice, and it is up to the reader to decide just which choice she made.
  • Somewhat subverted with The Princess Bride. It has a Bolivian Army Ending which leaves it questionable whether the heroes where able to escape and survive. However, William Goldman commented that they did make it, and seeing as he's the author, you can probably take his word on that.
  • The Venus Prime series ends with Sparta and Blake going off in the world-ship, never to be seen again by the other characters.
  • Charlotte Bronte's Villette ends with the narrator refusing to tell the reader whether or not her Love Interest survived his trip to the West Indies and returned to her. She says that the reader can believe so if s/he likes. It comes across as a Snicket Warning Label without what comes after the label - something akin to a Bolivian Army Ending.
  • Nadine Gordimer's novel July's People, an imagination of the violent collapse of South African apartheid centered around one white family and their black servant (the title characters) as they try to keep themselves together while fleeing, has this. The last chapter reverts to the present tense, and ends with the mother running toward a just-landed helicopter, unsure whether the occupants could be "saviours or murderers."
    • An earlier, shorter novel of hers, The Late Bourgeois World, also ends with the protagonist undecided over whether or not to take an action that would reveal a disturbing family secret.
  • Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 ends with the secret of the titular property, and at least the beginning of the solution to the novel's mysteries, about to be revealed.
  • Before the Distant Finale which reveals the entire story is a narrative being presented at an academic conference decades later, revealing its historical validity is not conclusively established, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale ends with its protagonist, Offred, being taken away in custody from the estate she lives at by a fellow servant. She believes she's being smuggled out of Gilead, and he's a member of the resistance posing as an undercover member of the secret police. However, it is entirely possible that Offred is actually being arrested.
  • The ending of Shutter Island is unclear as to which "reality" is true. It is unclear whether Teddy has truly regressed, or if he wishes to "die" (at the very least, lose his ability for conscious thought, through lobotomy) in order to avoid living with the knowledge that his wife murdered their children and he is her murderer. The ending of the film is less ambiguous, and indicates that Teddy has made a conscious choice.
  • Afternoon Of The Elves has an unusually ambiguous ending for a children's book. Was Sara-Kate just lying about the elves the whole time? Despite all the evidence in support of this conclusion, the finale still leaves you with a whisper of doubt. Maybe, just maybe...
  • In The Bell Jar, Esther undergoes shock treatment for her depression. The book ends just as she's about to meet with the consultant to see if she has recovered and can be discharged. The final line is the ambiguous "I stepped into the room."
  • The book version of Brooklyn has an ambiguous ending. Eilish breaks it off with Jim and gets back on the boat to America. She's not sure if she's done the right thing and the book ends with her trying not to think about it. The film changes this to a more direct happy ending, where Eilish is seen reuniting happily with Tony in New York.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Being Human (UK) ends its final season this way. Did Tom, Hal and Alex really become human again and have their happy ending? Or are they still stuck in one of the Devil's dream worlds?
  • The Sopranos arguably has the king of all ambigious endings in its series finale. After disposing of his arch-nemesis Phil Leotardo, Tony is seen taking his wife Carmela and son AJ to a diner, later to be joined by their daughter Meadow. It's seemingly an upbeat scene, with the exception of Tony discussing potential legal troubles on the horizon. Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" starts playing in the background, and you begin to see curious shots of seemingly random persons in the diner mixed in with shots of Tony and his family happily chomping down on onion rings. Arguably the most curious is a man wearing a Members Only jacket seen walking towards the bathroom. The music swells, and suddenly—cut to black, series over. To this day, fans continue to argue whether this implied that Tony was suddenly shot as the screen cut to black (Perhaps by the man in the Member's Only jacket?), or that it meant nothing at all—Tony and family continued to enjoy their food without interruption.
  • In season 2 of Forbrydelsen, it's unclear whether or not the last thing the killer says is true.
  • The two-part Series Finale of Frasier ends somewhat ambiguously. After all his friends and family have gone on to start new chapters in their lives, the viewers are led to believe Fraiser has accepted a new job in San Francisco, and assume the plane he is on (where he has been relating the story to a fellow passenger) is going there. However, the final scene shows it landing in Chicago, where Charlotte has moved. Fraiser asks the other passenger to wish him luck, and the episode, along with the series, ends. Presumably, he wants to get back together with Charlotte, and it's up to the viewers to decide whether or not he's successful, and whether or not they live happily ever after.

    Theatre 
  • Anna Christie ends with a superficial Happy Ending, as Anna has agreed to marry Mat and her father Chris is finally OK with the wedding. But that resolution is promptly followed by anxiousness and melancholy, as the characters worry about the future.

    Videogames 
  • Final Fantasy VII famously ended with a sequence so ambiguous that for years it was a subject of much speculation whether or not humanity was wiped out by Holy. The sequels eventually cleared up the ambiguity.
  • You gotta admit, MOTHER 3 has such a strange one that you can make up whether it is either a Happy Ending, Bittersweet Ending or just a downright Downer Ending. The worst part about it is that you never really find out the fate of everyone. It is to sure haunt players for years to come.
  • Yume Nikki ends with Madotsuki jumping off the balcony of her apartment. However, some players have interpreted this as a happy ending, assuming that everything in the game is all part of a dream, and that her "reality" is in itself a series of false awakenings.
  • Bioshock Infinite: The ending explains a great many things, but the final fate of Booker, Elizabeth and Anna are left unanswered.
    • The DLC Burial At Sea shows that Elizabeth survived in some form or fashion, only to somehow get killed/lose her powers and then later die for real.
  • Dark Souls: Both endings only show what happens immediately after the player makes his or her decision, leaving the long-term consequences completely undefined. Linking the Fire has the player sacrifice him/herself and burn forever. The Age of Fire and the Lords' rule will continue... but the Lords were ambiguous at best and most of them are now dead. The Dark Lord ending has the player refuse to burn and instead become the Dark Lord of the new Age of Dark. This may be the Death of the Old Gods and a golden age for man... or The End of the World as We Know It for gods and men alike.
  • Dark Souls II: It only has one ending, but it's just as ambiguous. After all of the trials the Undead Hero endured, they finally claim the Throne of Want. Then...that's it. The game ends with no indication of whether the Undead Hero claiming the Throne changed anything or simply perpetuated the cycle from the previous game.
  • Tales of the Abyss does resolve the issue with the Big Bad, but what... or rather, who exactly the red-haired man is that appeared. Fans are still debating.
  • Marathon, specifically Infinity. People are STILL CONFUSED, almost 20 years later!
  • Year Walk revolves around a man, Daniel Svensson, who embarks on an Årsgång, a Year Walk, an ancient Swedish tradition steeped in folklore meant to be done during midnight of New Year's Eve which allows the walker a glimpse of the future, in order to find out if Stina, the girl he loves, is going to pick him or a different suitor. After having overcome trials The Fair Folk tasks him with he gets his answer: She doesn't love Daniel anymore. Furthermore he has a vision of Stina lying bleeding on a field... Cue the second act of the game where the player learns about the work of current-time folklore researcher Theodor Almsten who is reading about Year Walking and learns about the fate of Daniel who, according to historical documents, was executed after having stabbed Stina to death in accordiance with a vision he had while year walking. Theodor quickly gets obsessed with the case and, convinced that it must be possible to save at least Stina's life, is soon contacted by the Fair Folk. Through signs they provide him he learns of a way to open a box that can connect the future and the past during a Year Walk and, hoping that Daniel will understand, he sends an Ominous Message from the Future: A document detailing Daniel's trial and execution; his last words, "I should have killed myself"; a plead for Daniel to save Stina along with a knife that the Fair Folk left him, hoping that if Daniel kills himself, he'll be unable to harm the girl... The game does not reveal if Daniel ultimatedly does kill himself with the knife or if Theodor succeeded with nothing except providing Daniel with the knife he would murder Stina with.
  • The ending of God of War III is pretty conclusive, but the end leaves Kratos' ultimate fate a little unclear. He commits suicide to empower humanity with the same violent, god-killing hope that he's been using all along, and then left dying on what's left of the mountain by Athena. However, a post-credits scene shows his body missing and a trail of blood leading to the sea, making his true fate unknown.
  • Saying that the final ending of Hellsinker is ambiguous is putting it lightly. While most of the endings are somewhat comprehensible ranging from bittersweet to flat out downers, the last one is deliberately unclear on what exactly happened.
  • Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil. Did the Marine and McNeil both die at the end and are living in the afterlife to honor their sacrifices?
  • Wolfenstein: The New Order. At the end of the game, did B.J. die from his wounds sustained by Deathshead's grenade, or from the bomb dropped on the compound by La Résistance, or was rescued at the end in a helicopter as heard in The Stinger?
  • Something of a series trait for Frictional Games' line of Survival Horror games:
    • In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, depending on your actions in the final chamber, you can get either one of two of these: If you topple the pillars and disrupt the ritual, Alexander is devoured by the Shadow and Daniel is allowed to go free... with no hints as to whether this is a good thing or not. If you send Agrippa's head through the portal instead, Alexander is devoured and Daniel is enveloped in shadow — but it's implied Agrippa and Weyer rescue Daniel and bring him to their new dimension. The third ending is a straight-forward Downer Ending, with Daniel being Swallowed Whole and condemned to eternity inside the pitch-black darkness of the Shadow's guts.
      • Meanwhile, in the official expansion pack Amnesia: Justine, your player character turns out to be the titular sadistic monster, and despite her stated goals about her "test", you've apparently learned nothing: even if you save all three men, you just lock them up in your Torture Cellar and go on your merry way, with the only difference being dialogue between Justine and her maid.
    • In Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, Oswald Mandus kills himself in a Heroic Sacrifice that destroys the Machine and its Manpigs. But who knows how much slaughter it carried out on London's population, or how such devastation will affect the fate of the world when World War One rolls up in a few decades, as it's seemingly guaranteed to do...
    • In SOMA, Simon Jarrett ultimately learns that the Brain Uploading works by creating perfect copies, rather than transferring consciousness. So, even though a copy of Simon is living a blissful existence on the ARK, at least one and possibly two other Simons are left aboard the ruined remains of PATHOS-II, leaving him/then buried alive in a decaying aqua-station on the bottom of the ocean of a dead planet, trapped, possibly alone, for all eternity.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Last episode of Cybersix ends ambiguously. Cybersix was so close to the exit, did she make it? The Big Bad is dead but Jose is shown to have survived and the very last shot is of Lucas wondering the streets, looking up and seeing light in Adrian/Cybersix's window. Since the show was cancelled so we will likely never know what happened.
  • The "Unknown Mystery Killer" episode of Celebrity Deathmatch ended with an intentional loose end. The killer - who had murdered Drew Barrymore, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, having the gall to do it outside the Deathmatch ring - simply called Nick and Johnny one last time to taunt them, but was never identified, saying Johnny catchphrase ("Good fight, good night") for him in an evil-sounding voice right before the credits rolled. (Of course, this was likely intentional.)


http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AmbiguousEnding