Warning: So many Tenet spoilers ahead.
We’ve previously established, here at Vulture dot com, that Christopher Nolan simply loves to kill off his protagonists’ wives in some violent fashion, then use their deaths as motivating forces for said protagonists. The Prestige sees not one, but two wifely deaths, via drowning and suicide; Leonard’s wife’s murder in Memento is the backdrop to his Sisyphean quest; Marion Cotillard’s deranged, suicidal ghost haunts Leonardo DiCaprio’s dreams in Inception; Batman’s would-be wife Rachel is blown up halfway through the franchise; and we never even get to meet Matthew McConaughey’s wife in Interstellar. I went into Tenet expecting one of two things: Nolan would either continue his femicidal spree, mowing down Elizabeth Debicki in the process, or he would subvert the audience’s wife-death expectations in some Nolan-y way, perhaps understanding implicitly that if he made 11 movies about people’s wives dying horribly, it might look weird (10, however, is fine).
Turns out he went with the latter option. In Tenet, which is Only in Theaters (a once-benign phrase that now, I can unfortunately confirm, reads as a threat when splayed across the big screen), Debicki plays Kat, a rich British art person who is married to a vengeful Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) hell-bent on destroying the world because he has cancer and also because global warming. Kat is a strange sort of Nolan character, in that she seems to be the first wife he’s tried to write with any kind of discernible humanity. Unlike the Wives of Nolan Past, who mostly served as gut checks for their male counterparts, Kat has her own dreams and motivations. Unfortunately, those motivations can be boiled down to only one thing: her son.
Kat is obsessed with her son. Despite the fact that she is a nine-foot-tall billionaire art expert with many yachts at her disposal, all she wants to talk about is her son, with whom we never see her interacting (save for a faraway shot of her gesticulating toward him on a boat and bending her body in half to kiss him on the head at school) and who has no defining characteristics other than an interest in taking a day trip to the ruins of Pompeii. Kat is basically a Twitter bot who replies to everything with some non sequitur about her child. At one point, John David Washington’s “Protagonist” says something like, “Your son is cute.” She replies, “He’s everything.” Later, in the midst of an extremely tense, space-time-cracking heist, the success or failure of which will determine the very fate of humanity, she turns angrily to the Protagonist: “You’ll never understand a mother’s love for her son,” she says. “No,” he replies solemnly. At another point in the film, when she learns that her sociopathic husband, Sator, is planning to blow up the world, it’s explained to her that “everyone in the world will die.” She barely registers this before replying, quietly, “… Including my son.”
Kat’s strange, almost concerning single-mindedness about her son makes sense when considering the screenwriter. One gets the sense that Nolan, scribbling away in his grim tower, realized that were he to go forward with his radical plan to not kill off his character’s wife, he would need to then give her some kind of “interest,” so that she might come across as a real person. “What do women … like?” he must have thought, yanking at his starched collars. He thinks of his own wife, his mother, that one other woman who is his friend from college (would she call him a friend? He should write to her soon). Suddenly, an epiphany: “Women like … their children!” This is also how I am choosing to explain away her absolutely atrocious wardrobe, which includes several long, drop-waist skirts and saggy blazers that accomplish the seemingly impossible task of making Elizabeth Debicki, who is 12 pairs of legs stacked on top of each other, look frumpy.
Several times over the course of the film, which renders the words “plutonium” and “algorithm” meaningless, Sator attempts to murder and/or rape and/or beat Kat. As he explains it, he wants her to die because “If I can’t have you, nobody can,” which is also how he explains why he wants to murder the Earth (but that’s a topic for another delirious blog). Sator nearly shoots Kat in the head during a car chase. He almost rapes her in her bedroom on his yacht, dissuaded only by the notion that the Protagonist might hear him. And during one of the several “temporal pincer” missions (what have I done to deserve this?), he does in fact shoot her directly in the abdomen with an inverted bullet, which, as it is explained, is way worse than a normal bullet because of physics. Kat begins to bleed profusely, and the Protagonist is informed that she is on the brink of death.
The Protagonist simply cannot have this, because I guess he is supposed to be in love with Kat, even though the two have the chemistry of two Alexas confusedly bleeping at each other in the same room. So he decides that they’ll invert time so that she can heal backward and survive (this doesn’t make more sense in the context of the film than it does in this sentence). In other words, in Tenet, Nolan gets to have his dead-wife cake and eat it, too. In some version of the Tenet timeline, Elizabeth Debicki bleeds out in a nondescript Russian cavern, joining the esteemed ranks of Nolan wives before her. But in the version we see unfold onscreen, she survives, gets to save Her Son, and then, that’s it. She is fine now. So is her son.
But lest you think Tenet has, for the most part, cured Nolan of his predilection for wife-murdering, allow me to tell you, briefly, about Priya (Dimple Kapadia). Priya is introduced to us in the classic manner of that old jokey “riddle” where a father and son get in a car accident and are wheeled to the hospital, and when they arrive, the doctor on call says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son!” (The “punch line” being that the doctor is a woman. Sigh.) In the early scenes of Tenet, we’re made to believe that Priya’s husband is a world-renowned arms dealer — but in a stunning twist, it turns out that Priya herself is the arms dealer. She can’t operate on this boy, she shot him!!
Priya is the other type of Christopher Nolan Woman character, a cold-hearted careerist who doesn’t care who lives or dies, as long as she accrues capital (see: Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, Marion Cotillard in The Dark Knight Rises). You’ll recall that, for the most part, these sorts of women are also killed off in Nolan’s filmography, usually right in the middle of some diabolical plot. And at the end of Tenet, just as Priya is about to make her own attempt on the life of Kat, the Protagonist shoots Priya right in the freaking head. Kat, the only woman still standing, wobbles alone in her heels on the cobblestone street.