What happened at the end of The Matrix Reloaded? The Wachowskis made a conscious decision to subvert the message of The Matrix—but what does it mean, and how does it explain the movie’s frenzied conclusion?
The Matrix Reloaded ends by, once again, undermining everything we thought we knew about the world. Neo is, we learn, not The One—he’s merely one in a series of “systemic anomalies,” an eventuality the machines have already planned for.
Neo: “The prophecy was a lie. The One was never meant to end anything. It was all another system of control.” - The Matrix Reloaded
This choice was, to put it lightly, controversial when The Matrix Reloaded was released in 2003. But fan disappointment was part of the project from the beginning: the Wachowski sisters made a conscious decision to subvert the message of their popular and acclaimed first installment. But what does that mean, and how does it explain the film’s frenzied conclusion, with Zion on the brink of extinction and Neo in a coma? Let’s dive into The Architect, the problem of choice, and the ending of The Matrix Reloaded.
Human, All Too Human
For all its mind-blowing reveals and philosophical questioning, the first Matrix movie is ultimately a typical hero’s journey. Thomas Anderson, a seemingly ordinary man, discovers that he is a long-prophesied hero who will free the human race. But this isn’t a story about just any hero; it’s one about a mythical, even religious figure.
Morpheus: “The Oracle prophesied his return, and that his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix, end the war… bring freedom to our people.” - The Matrix
Accordingly, The Matrix ends with Neo literally dying and coming back to life, imbued with the powers of the savior of humanity. And when The Matrix ends, he can manipulate The Matrix at will, can stop bullets with his mind, rewrite code while jacked in, and force the once-unbeatable agents to run from him. He’s a literal superhero. At the beginning of The Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowskis take pains to show us how powerful Neo has become in a fight against the previously invincible agents. By the end of the fight, Neo is literally hovering above The Matrix. He is now seen as a higher being.
For the humans of Zion, Neo is almost a god. Even skeptics like Link have come around.
Link: “After being on that ship and seeing Neo do the things he can do, I gotta say… I’m starting to believe him too.” - The Matrix Reloaded
Neo’s abilities make creating stakes in The Matrix Reloaded difficult for the Wachowskis—after all, he can emerge victorious in practically any scenario. The movie’s biggest action sequences have to aggressively sideline Neo, whether by putting him 500 miles away from the city or by forcing the resistance to complete several objectives simultaneously—unlike Smith, Neo can’t be in two places at once.
Still, for all that The Matrix tells us that The One is an unbeatable, invincible savior, the characters in The Matrix Reloaded spend a lot of time undercutting Neo’s apparent omnipotence, reminding us that, when it comes down to it, Neo is still flesh and blood. First, the agents decide to fight him because, after all, they’re not bound by being human. When Neo fights The Merovingian’s goons, he wins — but he bleeds. And in the biggest single fight of the movie, Neo reaches his limits: Though he manages to fend off hundreds of copies of Smith in an epic brawl, he eventually gets worn down and tired, because that’s what happens to human beings.
Why does this matter? The Matrix Reloaded ends with Neo confronting a vision he’s been having since the beginning of the movie: Trinity dying. As Zion leader Councillor Hamman points out, Neo’s difficulty sleeping is an indication that he’s not become some kind of perfect deity or machine.
Near the end of The Matrix Reloaded, the two sides of Neo—the invincible, unmovable hero and the anxious, scared human—collide, when he’s forced to choose between his god-like duties as The One and his personal commitment to Trinity.
The Architect: “There are two doors. The door to your right leads to The Source and the salvation of Zion. The door to your left leads back to The Matrix—to her, and to the end of your species.” - The Matrix Reloaded
The Problem Is Choice
The Matrix Reloaded is about the problem of choice. The first Matrix already raised central questions about fate versus free will. In their first conversation together, Morpheus asks Neo how he feels about fate. The concept of choice in The Matrix trilogy is most famously embodied by the red and blue pills — representations of two potential approaches to life that Neo (and all of us) can take.
Morpheus: “You take the blue pill, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill…and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” - The Matrix
On one level, the red pill is a symbol for what The Matrix is all about — rejecting a reality where you’re not in control and deciding to free your mind. And even as Neo turns out to fulfill the prophecy of becoming the One, The Matrix emphasizes that he still has to choose his destiny.
By the beginning of The Matrix Reloaded, though, the balance has shifted back toward the weightiness of fate. Neo’s fixed identity as the One has replaced Thomas Anderson’s original identity as a slave of the system. Accordingly, that idea of himself overrides his own judgment. He’s sitting around, waiting for The Oracle to call and tell him what to do. When that does happen and he meets with The Oracle, Neo seems to be given the next step of his destiny: going to The Source. For much of The Matrix Reloaded, we might expect that this is the natural arc of the film—Neo will make it to The Source, and in doing so, he’ll somehow gain the power to end the war between man and machine. And if this were how the movie went, that would pretty much deliver the same uplifting emotional journey of the first film.
Many, if not most of the other characters in The Matrix Reloaded see their fate as being somehow tied to Neo’s quest for The Source, and to the destiny they believe he has. In the first Matrix, leader Morpheus is driven by faith in the One and the Oracle’s prophecy. But in The Matrix Reloaded, we (and the other characters) double down on his fundamentalism. Even The Oracle, who has set Neo on this path, seems to have placed her faith in him to a greater degree than she already did.
But in committing themselves to their sense of fate, destiny, and purpose, they also commit themselves to seeing the world the same way the movie’s villains do. Take Smith, whose crusade of trying to homogenize and overtake the entire Matrix comes from his desperate obsession with purpose. Or The Merovingian, who dismisses the possibility of making any choice and believes all things are determined solely by cause and effect. So the human characters are, we might say, thinking like programs. But that blind faith in destiny which unites the humans and their computerized counterparts crumbles when The Architect confronts Neo with his true purpose:
The Architect: “You are here because Zion is about to be destroyed.” - The Matrix Reloaded
The Architect embodies a traditional idea of God: he’s an old white man with a beard who built the world, and he spends most of his time watching humans from a distance. His comprehensive, algorithmic knowledge of humanity allows him predictive power that approaches the supernatural. So it’s fitting that this godly figure here serves as a representation of external meaning—of the way that people seek purpose from something or someone outside of themselves—something they don’t have to choose. In the first Matrix, Neo originally expected to be told if he was the One or not. Then, throughout The Matrix Reloaded, Neo waits for someone to tell him his purpose. But when that happens, his purpose turns out to be letting thousands of people die, including Trinity—something The Architect explains in dispassionate, obtuse language. The supposed “end of the war” the prophecy foretells is, in fact, a reboot—a way of simply going through the cycle again. Yet something gets in the way of the machine’s business-as-usual restart and their mechanism for controlling the One—the unexpected twist of Neo’s love for Trinity. Even facing the impending destruction of Zion and the likely extinction of his species, Neo renounces the supposedly rational decision—his love is too strong.
So in the end, Neo embraces radical free will—not only won’t he follow his given destiny, but he also rejects the limitations of the choice given to him entirely.
The Architect: “As you adequately put, the problem is choice.” - The Matrix Reloaded
While the Architect presents like an all-powerful god, this overlord is really just part of another, larger system—The Architect was created to fulfill a specific purpose by the machines, who were in turn created by modern humans.
So by rejecting this fake God, Neo must grapple with the revelation that there is no Source, no Central Authority, or Deity, that can confer ultimate meaning on his existence. And the purpose he chooses for himself is simply saving Trinity. The word “existentialist” gets thrown around a lot in pop culture, but this film’s arc is, literally, the process one goes through as an existentialist—acknowledging the lack of an external source of meaning, and (after overcoming the crisis of that loss) embracing the opportunity to create meaning and values in your own life. In fact, the Wachowskis ground The Matrix in the work of proto-existentialist Arthur Schopenhauer.
When asking what to do in the face of a fulfilled or otherwise ignored purpose, there’s a surprising place to look in the Matrix trilogy: computer programs, creatures of the machine world that should ostensibly be the enemy of humanity. Like Neo, these programs were built to do one specific thing:
The Oracle: “See those birds? At some point, a program was written to govern them. A program was written to watch over the trees, and the winds, and the sunrise and sunset.” - The Matrix Reloaded
But our understanding of the world in The Matrix is complicated by these programs’ fear of death and the choices they make. The programs that are visible to humans in The Matrix—programs like Seraph, The Merovingian, and even The Oracle—are those who have consciously chosen to ignore their purpose, or who have merely outlived it. Even The Merovingian’s bodyguards have, like Neo, lasted longer than they were originally intended. These programs have been given a new reason to live by The Merovingian, but absent his leadership, they would be in the same position as Neo—lost, looking for what gives them purpose.
Neo emerges from his meeting with the Architect determined to have it all his way: not only does he catch Trinity as she falls through the air, he pulls the bullet out of her, then restarts her heart. It’s the same thing Trinity did for Neo back at the end of the first Matrix, and it indicates the Wachowskis’ broader perspective on Neo’s abilities: The power of The One is less about completing an assigned destiny within the set parameters of a war, than it is about ignoring those rules altogether and doing what you want because you want it.
Neo: “I love you too damn much.” - The Matrix Reloaded
I Dreamed A Dream
At the end of the movie, everyone is in a state of despair. Zion is facing down a massive army of sentinels. Neo is reevaluating his existence as The One. And poor Morpheus has to question the story upon which he has built his entire life. Eventually, with the destruction of The Nebuchadnezzar, everything Morpheus thought he knew has been taken from him. Now what?
If there’s another ending comparable to The Matrix Reloaded’s, it might just be that of Angel, the spinoff of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The series ends with Angel’s assembled crew, full of characters who have rejected their original purposes, choosing to continue to fight for good and justice, even in the face of overwhelming odds. For a moment near the end of The Matrix Reloaded, that’s what the film seems to be leaving us with—the act of continuing to fight, rather than the ability to win, is the point.
From there, though, the movie pivots—there is a chance to overcome the enemy. The crew of The Nebuchadnezzar are attacked by sentinels, forcing them to abandon ship. But Neo, now more deeply aware of his connection to The Source and of his abilities as The One—not to achieve some singular purpose, but as tools to let him achieve what he wants—is able to shut them down, outside of The Matrix. How exactly Neo accomplishes this feat, what it will enable him to do next, and what will happen now that he’s been connected to Bane (a living man overwritten with the Smith program) are questions for our next video. Ultimately, Reloaded is a transitional movie, leading into the more explicitly spiritual themes of The Matrix Revolutions.
The Oracle: “I see death, and you are all that stands in his way.” - The Matrix Revolutions
By the end of The Matrix Reloaded, everything the resistance fighters thought they knew has been undercut. And likewise, the Wachowskis have unleashed a philosophical tremor on the viewers, capable of shaking up and toppling whatever you took away from the first movie.
The first Matrix flatters us and asks us to identify with its hero. But once the hero loses his center of gravity, we lash out accordingly. Are people capable of moving past this kind of existential crisis? Can the revolutionaries who have long viewed all machines as enemies in a black-and-white “us versus them” mentality, learn to work together with programs—people who are not even technically people? The Matrix Reloaded answers with a resounding “maybe,” leaving the answer up to us. Judging from the original reception of the movie, it seems like many fans may have ignored that message. Will it continue to be rejected?
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