David Fincher’s Seven ends with its serial killer caught and Brad Pitt’s character exacting justice, only it doesn’t feel like good triumphing over evil. The film’s final, devastating reveal is so bleak, Fincher even added a new line of dialogue to soften the blow, yet the note of optimism that’s sounded by Morgan Freeman’s closing narration still rings hollow. It also leaves us wondering: Is the world a fine place? And what exactly are we fighting for—or against? Here’s our Take on how Seven’s ending challenges our ideas of order and chaos, sanity and insanity, and right and wrong, posing a difficult question about the world and who we are.
Se7en ends on a devastating reveal: Brad Pitt’s Detective David Mills discovers the severed head of his wife, Tracy, lying in a box — the latest victim of the serial killer he’s been tracking. That killer, who’s known only as John Doe, taunts Mills by telling him Tracy was pregnant. He goads Mills into killing him, forcing Mills into fulfilling the final act of his master plan. So when Mills shoots John Doe, it doesn’t feel like triumph over evil. It’s a defeat.
Doe: “Become vengeance, David. Become wrath.” – Se7en (1995)
It’s a bleak ending to an unusually dark film, and it almost didn’t happen. As Pitt would later recall, the studio wanted to change it, worried audiences would find it too disturbing. Instead, director David Fincher made a compromise. He added a new voiceover from Morgan Freeman, who played Mills’ partner, Detective William Somerset, offering some wearied, yet resolute closing words:
Somerset: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” – Se7en
It’s a note of optimism compared to everything that came before, but it also feels slightly hollow. It leaves us wondering: Is the world a fine place? And what exactly are we fighting for — or against? Here’s our Take on how Se7en’s ending challenges our ideas of order and chaos, sanity and insanity, and right and wrong, posing a difficult question about the world and who we are.
Law and Disorder
Se7en begins like a classic ‘whodunnit,’ revolving around the hunt for a mysterious killer who takes a high-concept approach to murder. It’s a formula we’ve seen play out countless times, from Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie to the modern cop show. In this case, Se7en’s killer is inspired by sin, creating grisly tableaus that suggest his victims are being morally punished. And because there’s an unmistakable order to his plan, we’re led to believe the story will proceed in an orderly fashion — with the killer eventually tripped-up by his own unmistakable calling card.
Se7en’s protagonists seem immediately recognizable to us, too: an archetypal, ‘odd couple’ pair of cops whose conflicting personalities create friction. Somerset is the wise, world-weary veteran detective on the brink of retirement. Mills is the hot-headed young rookie, driven by an as-yet-untainted idealism. They’re opposites not just in their age or enthusiasm, but in their faith that their job still has meaning. Mills believes they can follow clues, apprehend the killer, and restore some sense of order to the world. But Somerset has become jaded — believing their job is just a futile pantomime, merely recording and labeling the madness raging around them.
Somerset: “You actually fought to get reassigned here. I’ve just never seen it done that way before.”
Mills: “I thought I could do some good.” – Se7en
This tension between order and chaos is foundational to detective fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories usually began with someone’s domestic bliss being thrown into disarray by some heinous crime. When the famous detective is called in, his job isn’t just to find the missing moonstone or unmask the murderer. It’s to re-establish the sense of order which the crime has disrupted. Sherlock Holmes reflected and reinforced the Victorian worldview that the world is well-regulated and moral — and since then, the detective story has continued to provide reassurance that, through diligence and determination, order can always be restored.
Inspector Peterson: “Being a detective is like — well, like making an automobile. You take all the pieces and put them together one-by-one.” – Mildred Pierce (1945)
By employing these classic tropes, Se7en gives us that same sense of comfort. No matter how grisly the crime, these mismatched buddy-cops will eventually bring the culprit to justice. By connecting each victim to one of the seven deadly sins, there’s also a reassuring sense of structure and finality. Each murder moves us closer to that final number seven, at which point we can be certain — one way or another — that this will all be over. Like the rain that lashes the streets throughout the film, this evil we’re witnessing is just a dark storm that will inevitably pass.
But then, John Doe surrenders. He turns up at the police station with two murder victims and a full half-hour of movie still to go. Immediately, we realize that those comforting genre structures were an illusion. Se7en isn’t a classic detective story. It’s not the protagonists’ powers of deduction or determination that will bring the bad guy to justice. As David Fincher would later note in his DVD commentary, “It starts off as a police procedural, and becomes a morality play about engaging with evil.”
In Se7en’s climactic scenes, Somerset and Mills must engage with that evil directly. It’s a surprise that obliterates that comforting structure, knocking the film — and the audience — off-balance, and leaving us uncertain about where we’re headed. And more importantly, we’re left unsure about who’s really in control. This feeling only intensifies during the long car ride that follows, during which John Doe is given the unusual opportunity to discuss his crimes at length, and justify his killings.
Doe: “Only in a world this sh*tty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face” – Se7en
Again, the power balance is off. The killer speaks freely, without remorse, but also without fear. And as they reach their destination, it’s obvious why. John Doe has arranged for them all to be here, at this exact moment, to receive that fateful box. Mills must then decide whether to submit to his place in Doe’s plan — to become wrath and kill him, or to maintain his faith in virtue, in a world that no longer holds any for him. Ultimately, Mills gives in.
As screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker later explained, Se7en isn’t really about cops catching a killer. It’s about the forces of optimism, represented by Detective Mills, being in constant conflict with pessimism, as seen in Detective Somerset. Their philosophical struggle mirrors our own, in a universe that tests our optimism every day.
Mills: “How did you get like this?”
Somerset: “It wasn’t one thing, I can tell you that.” – Se7en
In the end, good fails. If we are ruled by chaos, not order, is the world really worth fighting for?
Sane in an Insane World
Serial killers pose a challenge to the traditional detective story narrative not only because they reject order, but because they confound our very understanding of people. We can rationalize crimes that are committed for material gain, or the violence born out of vengeance or passion — however much they may appall us — because there is, at least, an element of human connection to them.
Six: “Single, he told me. Single my ass.” – Chicago (2002)
But someone who kills complete strangers out of sheer compulsion, who treats their victims as inhuman and largely disposable? It damages our sense of who we are. If we believe that humankind is essentially decent — that the world is a fine place — then serial killers present an almost incomprehensible obstacle to that philosophy. This is why, when it comes to serial killers, our first recourse is usually to question their sanity. In the film, John Doe’s mental health becomes an ongoing topic of debate between Mills and Somerset. To the optimistic Mills, someone would have to be deranged to enact those kinds of gruesome murders. But the jaded Somerset has seen the worst of humanity. He knows what so-called “normal” people are capable of.
Mills: “Why we gotta sit here, rotting, waiting until the lunatic does it again?”
Somerset: “It’s dismissive to call him a lunatic. Don’t make that mistake.” – Se7en
In the real world, that desire to label all serial killers ‘insane’ tends to flounder when it comes up against people like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, or John Wayne Gacy, all of whom were able to spend most of their lives as polite, productive citizens. Like John Doe, they were indistinguishable from ordinary people, and mentally competent enough to plan their murders and repeatedly put them into action.
David Fincher’s own Netflix series Mindhunter follows the FBI’s earliest attempts to understand these “sequence killers,” as they were first known, and to delve inside their psyches. This approach is what has led to theories like the Macdonald Triad, a set of childhood behaviors (bedwetting, pyromania, and cruelty to animals) that are said to be early predictors of violent, sociopathic tendencies. It’s a framework that places the focus on nurture rather than nature. Yet it doesn’t fully account for why some people weather their childhood traumas undisturbed, and others become remorseless murderers.
Hannibal Lecter: “Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse.” – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
As Somerset and Mills discover, it’s useless trying to get inside the head of John Doe, who is completely unknowable — even his name remains a mystery. We learn nothing about his background, or what might have led him down this dark path. For his part, Doe insists that he’s not fundamentally different from anyone else. John Doe can’t be written off as an aberration. And this is what allows him to take advantage of an optimist like Mills, who believes himself, and most normal people, to be inherently superior. By explaining away John Doe’s crimes as the depraved actions of a freak, convincing himself that he knows who and what this killer really is, Mills makes himself feel more in command of the world. But Doe refuses to give him an explanation that would allow Mills — and the audience — to compartmentalize him from the rest of the world.
Doe: “I’m not special. I’ve never been exceptional. This is though, what I’m doing.” – Se7en
The Thin Line Between Good and Evil
When science fails to explain serial killers, we often fall back on simple moral reasoning: killers are evil. They’re monsters — not humans. Their heinous acts are a rejection of all that is good in the world. Like the belief there is an overarching order to life, or that killers are somehow different from the rest of us, this idea comforts us and keeps us steeped in a Judeo-Christian sense of ethics that promises to reward the righteous and smite the sinner.
Se7en subverts this notion as well. We learn that John Doe is not only conscious of good and evil, he believes himself to be righteous. Doe’s murders are patterned after Dante’s Divine Comedy, where sinners are punished for their motives — the psychological roots of their sin. But whereas Purgatory provides an ironic or metaphorical punishment, one that’s often the opposite of their earthly misdeeds, John Doe coerces his victims to follow their sin to its extreme conclusion. The gluttonous man is forced to eat himself to death. The slothful man is left to rot away in bed. The vain woman must choose between living with a disfigurement and committing suicide.
Somerset: “Is that to say, John, that what you were doing was God’s good work?”
Doe: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” – Se7en
Because they have committed one of those seven deadly sins, according to those same ethics, it’s not easy to dismiss Doe as wholly evil or his victims as wholly innocent. Doe’s murders expose the unforgiving, Old Testament threat of retribution that underpins our basic understanding of morals. It’s a reminder that many of the vices we regard as a natural part of the human condition are, in fact, explicitly condemned affronts to God.
Like a pious Dirty Harry, Doe believes the system of man is rotten beyond redemption — which means taking God’s law into his own hands. And again, he’s not entirely wrong. When Doe hires his own lawyer, Mills and Somerset see just how easily man’s world impedes the path of true moral justice. Meanwhile, Doe is only able to find and kill Tracy because the police they work with are all so venal and corrupt.
Doe: “It’s disturbing how easily a member of the press can pay for information from men in your precinct.” – Se7en
Doe isn’t just pointing out how inextricable sin is from humanity, but how numb we’ve become to it. Mills dismisses the idea that the killings will have any lasting impact, confident they’ll be forgotten within a news cycle or two. And although Mills intends this as an insult, it highlights the very quality of modern life that Doe has been drawing our attention to: apathy. Much as the desire for vengeance connects Doe to Mills, the distaste for apathy is what links Doe to Somerset. Somerset recognizes that the world’s general lack of concern for others is what enables Doe’s crimes, allowing him to imprison a man for a year without anyone noticing, for example — so long as his bills are paid.
There are parts of John Doe in both detectives, just as there are in us. The fact that some part of us still relishes seeing John Doe die is the film’s final twist of the knife. As we subconsciously root for Mills to become wrath, we realize that John Doe’s sense of right and wrong is not so far removed from our own. This point is only reinforced by the assurance from his fellow cops that Mills — having just murdered a man in cold blood — will be protected because he did it while wearing a badge. In the end, we see how the supposed evil John Doe represents is not really some deviation from the norm. Like sin itself, it’s scattered throughout the city, inseparable from the world we live in.
The revelation that Tracy was pregnant when she died adds an extra note of shock and tragedy to Se7en, yet it’s also the completion of an overarching theme. While investigating what it means to take a life, Se7en also probes the question of what it means to create one, offering them as two sides of the same ethical coin. It’s the question we all must grapple with: Is this world capable of redemption? Or is that just what we tell ourselves to keep going?
Mills: “Do you like what you do for a living? These things you see?”
Man in Massage Parlour Booth: “No, I don’t. But that’s life, isn’t it?” – Se7en
When Se7en was first released, critic Roger Ebert noted that Somerset’s final line “plays more like a bleak joke,” offering a “small consolation” to the horrors we’ve just witnessed — Doe’s pyrrhic victory, Mills’ devastating loss, and Somerset being left to wander off alone. But perhaps there’s a greater consolation to be found in the final words Somerset actually delivers on screen: after he’s spent the whole film preparing to leave police work and the city behind, Somerset seems to imply he’s not going anywhere. He’s not willing to give up just yet.
Captain: “Where you gonna be?”
Somerset: “Around. I’ll be around.” – Se7en
Stories like Se7en can’t comfort us with the notion that evil is an aberration, that every crime will be solved, or that good will ultimately prevail because the world is not a fine place. But bleak as it may be, the film also reminds us that we can only face that world by rejecting apathy and finding the little sparks of human connection within each other, that produce just enough light and warmth to keep us going as the darkness thickens. It’s a film that allows us the chance to confront that darkness, leaving us with the knowledge that the best we can do is stick around, and wake up every morning ready to head back out into the fray to keep fighting.
Captain: [reading] “Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light.” – Se7en