Dune 2 Ending Explained

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This article contains major spoilers for Dune: Part Two and minor spoilers for the next book in the series, Dune: Messiah.

When the story of Dune: Part Two ends, Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atredies has everything you might want in the universe: the love of his life, the betrothed hand of a princess—who, for the record, is not the same woman—and the literal throne to the galaxy. There’s all that and more, so why does the second half of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of this iconic novel end on such a feeling of despair and doom?

Well, the legions of Fremen fanatics unleashing a holy war—or “jihad” as it’s called in Frank Herbert’s original text—plays a big part in that equation. As does the justifiable rage and sense of betrayal Chani (Zendaya) feels upon hearing her lover propose a political alignment with the House Corrino by way of marriage to the Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh). Yet for those who are not intimately familiar with the literary forebodings in Herbert’s books, it might all seem a bit obscure. Just why did the Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken) roll over and accept Paul Muad’Dib’s ascent to the throne? And why does Villeneuve candidly tell Den of Geek that “writing [these movies], you can’t avoid Paul’s terrible purpose. That’s the whole structure of this whole enterprise”?

Let’s unpack how Paul proved himself to be both a false prophet known as the “Lisan al Gaib” (Voice of the Outerworld) and the Bene Gesserit’s true Kwisatz Haderach. Let’s examine why we have been watching a tragedy.

Paul Atreides: Messiah, Kwisatz Haderach, and Villain

One of the cleverest (but sometimes frustratingly esoteric) things about Herbert’s book is that this is not the story of a boy hero chosen by destiny to save the universe. It is, in fact, a manipulation of that tale as old as time by the very characters within the story, including Paul in spite of all his lamentations and denouncements.

It was established in Dune: Part One by Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and her reverend mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) that Arrakis has been “prepared” for the Atreides family. What was meant by this is that centuries before the events of these movies, a Bene Gesserit traveled to Arrakis and spread superstitions and prophecies about a “chosen one,” or Lisan al Gaib, who would one day come to the desert with a Bene Gesserit-like mother. This individual would be the one to supposedly deliver the impoverished Fremen to paradise.

That ancient Bene Gesserit apparently did her job and did it well, so much so that centuries later Fremen have surprisingly carried on their own bizarre appropriated customs from the Bene Gesserit, hence having their own reverend mother who communes with her predecessors by drinking the “Water of Life” (bodily fluid excretions from sandworms). Of course the idea that Paul or anyone else in this world is a literal messiah sent from a divine place to lead the Fremen is a lie designed to make a future offspring of the Bene Gesserit’s life easier should the need arise.

But while the prophecy that ultimately causes the Fremen to worship Paul Muad’Dib is a fallacy, the reality of Paul being blessed with preternatural gifts is not. As established in both films, Paul is the culmination of a secret breeding and eugenics program designed by the Bene Gesserit that go back centuries. His bloodline, in fact, combines both sides of the warring houses Atreides and Harkonnen. 

Apparently, this selective breeding has gifted him with precognition. He can see the future, or at least many possible versions of it. Some of these visions come true, such as his love with Chani, and some never will, a la his visions of a deep friendship with a Fremen named Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), who Paul killed in a crysknife fight at the end of Dune: Part One.

Paul is thus the Kwisatz Haderach, the Bene Gesserit’s own riff on a messianic figure, although one with actual supernatural powers. However, the Bene Gesserit never wanted a man to have such abilities. The order considers the male sex’s aggression and ambition too dangerous for such power. Hence Paul being called an “abomination” in Dune: Part Two. Nonetheless, because her Duke wanted a son, Jessica disobeyed her coven’s wishes and produced a male heir. It is heavily implied in Part Two that this is why Gaius Helen Mohiam counseled the Emperor into sanctioning House Harkonnen’s attack and slaughter of the Atreides.

… And in the long run, for all her imperious pretensions, Mohiam might be proven to have a point. Paul’s gift of precognition allows him to foresee a grim future. If he embraces his role as a messiah for the Fremen, he will lead them to a genocidal bloodlust inflicted across the known universe. He resists that destiny for much of Dune: Part Two, but after drinking from the Water of Life like his mother, an even more empowered Paul succumbs to his worst instincts. He becomes the Fremen’s Lisan al Gaib and not only satisfyingly rides down the Emperor’s elite Sardaukar forces with Sandworms, but he also doesn’t lift a finger at all when his Fremen yearn for greener worlds to slaughter. In fact, he tells his armies to lead the other great houses of the Imperium (and all the civilian populations on their homewards) “to paradise.”

A hell of a euphemism for annihilation.

Breaking the Imperium with a Knife’s Edge

Paul’s ego-trip is all well and good, but the actual mechanics of why the Emperor bent the knee to the mad prophet of the desert, and how Paul will exert power over the rest of the universe, might be a little harder to discern if you haven’t read the book. So how exactly did Paul gain the throne because of a knife fight with Elvis?

For starters, the actual rationale for the knife fight is different from the novel. In the book, Paul crosses blades with Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Austin Butler) because the latter invokes the ritual of “Kanly.” Essentially a fancy term for mortal combat, Kanly is a sacred right meant to end a blood feud between great houses with a death. For the record, Lady Jessica and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin’s character) think Paul partaking in a duel to the death is madness at this point. He’s already won the war. But duel they do.

In the film though, it seems the ritual’s context is changed so that it is an act which confirms House Atreides’ conquest of House Corrino and the throne, with Feyd-Rautha fighting as the Emperor’s champion. In some ways, this is a smart move by Villeneuve and his co-writers. On the page, Paul’s gift of prophecy reveals it doesn’t matter at that point if he wins or loses. If he dies, he will be considered a martyr whose spirit will still lead the jihad; if he wins… well, the jihad’s coming anyway! By contrast in the movie, the duel is fought to canonize his victory over the Emperor.

In any event, Paul and the Fremen still had the whole universe over the barrel because, as Chalemet says in the movie, “He who can destroy a thing, can control a thing.” Spice melange, it must be remembered, is what makes interstellar travel possible in this universe. Without spice, the Guild navigators (members of the monopoly who controls space travel) will not be able to fly their ships. Spice also is what allows the wealthy and elite to live long past natural timeframes, with the Emperor being well over 100, for example. When Paul reveals he will destroy the spice unless he is essentially made king, it is representatives of the Spacing Guild who first acquiesce to Muad’Dib’s demands. Without the Guild’s support, the Emperor loses the throne in a flash.

In the film, it’s simplified to the Emperor immediately accepting he is cornered, but it’s worth noting that Paul must have blackmailed the Spacing Guild in the film too, because without them he would never be able to send his Fremen armies out across the stars to deliver other disobedient Houses “to paradise.”

Chani, a Princess, and the Wars to Come

Still, there is the bitterest emotional beat for viewers to accept in the film: to further legitimize his reign, Paul publicly demands the hand of Princess Irulan in marriage. One of the most elegant shots in Dune: Part Two is how the rest of the Emperor’s armies and courtiers bend the knee to Paul, and yet two women are left to stare at him with searching eyes. Chani and Irulan; his lover and his bride. Never shall they be one and the same.

For the record, in Paul’s mind this is entirely political in nature. He’ll make Irulan his wife, but keep Chani as his paramour or—as is the widely accepted term in Herbert’s universe—as his concubine. Keep in mind that his mother, Lady Jessica, was also officially Duke Leto Atreides’ concubine. The title of “lady” was a courtesy the Duke insisted on because he loved the mother of his child… but never enough to marry her.

Chani’s justifiable rage at this scenario is a departure from the book as well. On the page, she is very accepting (if on the verge of tears) of Paul demanding Irulan’s hand, and it is Jessica and Paul who assuage her fears. He insists he’ll never touch Irulan in the bedroom, and Jessica claims that history will remember Chani as his wife. These cold comforts are excised from the movie, which instead heavily leans into an emotional cliffhanger for the traumas to come.

Dune: Part Two does not end with a sense of final victory and vindication, much as the first novel did, but rather with the bitter sense that more horrors and tribulations await Paul, Chani, Irulan, and the whole universe.

As Villeneuve told Max Evry, a Den of Geek contributor and author of A Masterpiece in Disarray: David Lynch’s Dune, “You can’t avoid Paul’s terrible purpose. That’s the whole structure of this whole enterprise.” Villeneuve has previously confirmed he views his “enterprise” as a trilogy of films about Paul. There is the two-part adaptation of the first Dune novel which was just completed and, soon, a single-film adaptation of the much shorter second book in the series, Dune: Messiah. It was in the second book that Herbert began clearly leaning into the tragic underpinnings of his story.

Villeneuve started earlier by casting the climax of Dune: Part Two in shadow and dread. It will only get worse as we meet Paul again down the road as an older man with a younger sister—Alia who was briefly played by Anya Taylor-Joy in Dune: Part Two—that like him is gifted with omnipotent precognition. In fact, Alia arguably was never a child since she became aware of centuries of hardship on Arrakis after her mother drank from the Water of Life.

These siblings will rule over a much changed universe, and Paul will still years later be forced to navigate his love for Chani and his marriage with Irulan. Presumably, that dynamic will be a lot more fraught and fluid in Dune: Part Three than it is in a book where Chani is ultimately fairly passive and accepting of Muad’Dib’s whims.

Without spoiling the wars to come, Paul’s jihad will bring newfound power and awe to Arrakis and its Fremen population. But power does not necessarily begat happiness. Or long-term stability.

Dune: Part Two is out in theaters worldwide on March 1.

The post Dune 2 Ending Explained appeared first on Den of Geek.

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