Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Ending, Explained

If you knew that there was a possibility that your journey would’t end well, would you still move forward? Would you go down the same road again, knowing fully well that the heartbreak you suffered last time could be waiting for you there again? It is questions like these that ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ poses in front of its audience. Would you rather live with the pain or forget it altogether and risk making the same mistakes all over again? It is with this question that the film wrestles throughout its runtime, and eventually leaves the characters on a crossroads from where their future looks promising as well as doomed, at the same time. It doesn’t quite give us a conventional ending of a romance drama. But then, it is no conventional movie either. Here we break down its ending. If you haven’t seen the film yet, bookmark this article for later. SPOILERS AHEAD

Plot Summary

Joel and Clementine had been in love, but then their relationship deteriorated to the point where Clementine decided to have Joel’s memories removed from her mind entirely. Discovering that she chose to not remember him anymore, Joel is heartbroken and decides to do the same thing for himself as well. However, as the procedure begins and he relives all memories, both good and bad, he starts to have second thoughts about it. As the world falls apart around him, he desperately tries to save some part of Clementine deep inside his mind, somewhere that he can keep her safe and remember her the next day.

The Ending

In the end, Joel’s efforts to save something of Clementine in his mind doesn’t work and his memories are completely wiped off. This brings us back to the beginning of the film, where we see him go to the Montauk beach and meet Clementine all over again. A twist comes when both of them receive a mail from Mary, who has left her job at Lacuna and has sent all the files to the respective clients. Both Joel and Clementine listen to their tapes and realise that they have been in a relationship before and it ended so badly that both of them got their memories wiped because of it.

As Clementine walks away, Joel asks her to stay and ponder upon the reason why they should be together again and risk another heartbreak. Eventually, they decide to be together and see how things turn out, despite their knowledge of the previous results. They are ready to risk the pain in the future for the happiness they feel with each other right now. In the final scene, we see both of them back at the Montauk beach, playful and happy.

What does it mean for Joel and Clementine?

Humans, inherently, have the tendency of wanting to redo things. We fret over the mistakes we made, and the regrets we have, and we wish for another chance to do it all over again and do it differently. But then, it is the same person, doing the same thing, wired to make the same decisions all over again. How would you expect a different result from them?

This is what comes to mind when we see Joel and Clementine saying “okay” to each other, in a scene that gives off as much hopelessness as it makes us hopeful about them. Both of them know how the relationship had turned out previously. Both of them know that the cycle will repeat once again and they will end up right back to the painful separation that had previously led them to erase each other’s memories. And yet, they decide to go through with it.

The film doesn’t tell us what eventually happens to them. Do they weather the storm this time and learn from the mistakes that they don’t even remember they made? Or do they go through the same loop all over again, and eventually find it best to stay away from each other permanently? How does it end? The film leaves this decision on the audience. After spending well over a hundred minutes to show us just how their relationship is going to end, it leaves us with an uncertainty about their fate. It leaves their next ending in our hands; the audience gets to decide what happens. It depends on what kind of person you are, rather than what kind of relationship Joel and Clementine have.

Are you the kind that is prone to romanticism and the hopeless belief that love brings with itself, promising to conquer all in the end? Are you a sucker for happy endings, and after all the pain and heartbreak that Joel and Clementine have been through, you want something better for them this time around? Then sure, that’s how it will end. But, it can very well go the other way. If you want to stick to your realistic worldview and declare that despite their love for each other, Joel and Clementine are not compatible in the long run, and no matter what they do, will always be stuck in the same loop of falling in and out of love, then sure, they will break-up again, and there won’t be a happy ending. 
However, if you want to rely on the hints that the film leaves, no matter how small, and want to weigh your decision based on this rather than what you personally feel, then here’s what you should consider.

Speaking in favour of the theory where their story ends in heartbreak again, we support our argument with the fact that it has already happened before. Who’s to say they will do any different than they did the last time? Didn’t they go back to Montauk and the frozen lake, and didn’t they circle back to the same conversation where Clementine tells Joel that she is “just a concept” and “is looking for her own peace of mind”? Aren’t they already on the same path? Aren’t they still as impulsive as they used to be, because they are choosing to jump into heartbreak this time. This time, they know how it ends, and yet, because they can’t find any fault in each other right now, they are blinding themselves from the future. It all seems irrational.

But then, there is enough for us to speak in favour of a happy ending as well. They will do better this time because now, they have a complete collection of all the things they did wrong the last time. They have the tapes, and listening to them will shed light on the problems they had the last time but were never properly addressed. This time, they have a cheat sheet that will allow them to stay clear of the past bumps in their love life. As for whether they can really change, whether they can really make a different decision than they did the last time; the answer lies in another case of memory wiping.

Mary had a history with her employer, Dr Mierzwick, who was already married. She had her memories removed, but then, she fell in love with the doctor again. The moment she discovered she had been through the procedure, she was equipped with the power of making a different choice. She read her file, found out all the reasons why she had chosen to have her memory removed, and then, she decided not to go down that road again. The knowledge of her mistakes set her on a different path. Don’t Joel and Clementine have the same power now? Yes, they do, and so, yes, they have a better chance of not breaking up again.

The film closes with the scene where we see Joel and Clementine back on the beach in Montauk. If you really pay attention, you can see that Clementine’s hair colour is red this time, which means that this is not some previous memory- where she had blue, orange, and green hair- but is the continuation of their “okay”. They are happy, and it makes us hopeful for them. One could say that returning to the beach, and recreating the same memories, could be the sign of them treading on the same path all over again. Since we are clinging to details, we must also notice that the last time we saw them on the icy beach they were moving towards the house. This time, however, they are running in the opposite direction, the one that Joel had wanted them to when he was trying to hold on to Clementine while his memories were being wiped. Considering this, one could say that they have a better chance at a happy ending after all.

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