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Nomadland Ending Explained: A Movie Analysis

nomadland ending linda may fern

Nomadland is a film adaptation of a non-fiction book written by journalist Jessica Bruder.

It tells the story of a woman in her sixties named Fern who, after losing her husband, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling nomad. 

In this article, I’ll take a closer look at Nomadland’s ending in reference to its themes of community and isolation.

The Dissolution of Empire: The Beginning of Fern’s Isolation

The film’s opening image portrays the dissolution of a town named Empire in Nevada after the local gypsum plant was forced to close due to the economic depression of 2008.

The gypsum plant had previously sustained the town’s workforce, but Empire had ceased to exist in just six months. 

This sets the stage for Fern’s isolation, as she suddenly loses her community, which is compounded by the recent loss of her husband.

Zhao shows this with neat visual storytelling as Fern takes in the scent of her husband’s old shirt when she visits her old storage unit. 

nomadland ending Empire

Fern’s Loneliness and Displacement

From the first few images we see of Fern in the film, we’re given the impression that she suffers from loneliness. She’s swallowed by the wide Mid-Western landscape, living out of a beaten, rusty old van.

This all helps to frame a sense of sympathy towards Fern and an understanding that she’s lost, displaced, and isolated.

Zhao very cleverly uses these images, which are later contrasted by what we learn about Fern throughout the film, which shifts our perception of the protagonist the film’s ending.

The Duality of Independence and Community

In the screenplay, Fern’s van is described as her ‘home on wheels,’ which opens an interesting duality between isolation and community that is threaded throughout the story. 

On screen, this is translated to the audience as Fern proudly shows the home touches she’s made to her van to her friend Linda-May and explains the sentimental value of the possessions within it. 

The subtext of Fern’s dialogue in this scene provides a perspective that her life in the van hasn’t emerged from desperation, but it is instead loaded with a sense of optimism as if the choice to live in there is completely deliberate. 

This is confirmed as she explains that she’s about to embark on a journey of her own across the great American West.

nomadland ending Fern midwest

Capitalism vs the Triumph of Human Connection

Fern takes temporary work in the local Amazon Warehouse, a faceless corporation that has come to define the modern economic era in the West. At the warehouse, Fern works as an automaton, engaging in soulless, uninspiring work.

However, the following scene is contrasted with the undercurrents of community. Beneath a facade of isolation lies a triumph of human connection as Linda-May introduces Fern to her colleagues before they share a rather personal and sentimental conversation about notions of home.

Later in the movie, Fern states her enthusiasm to work, which again re-contextualises the impression the audience develops as we watch her ‘slaving away’ in the Amazon warehouse. 

Nomadland Ending: The Thematic Spectrum of Isolation and Community

This binary spectrum is explored again when Fern bumps into a family she once knew from Empire.

The subtext of their conversation reveals that Fern’s roots were very well established in the town for a long period of time. When she’s offered a place to stay, she decisively turns down the offer, an action that is repeated numerous times throughout the narrative.

As a result, the audience is left wondering whether or not this is a result of Fern’s trauma of losing her husband. 

However, when Fern visits her sister after her van breaks down, a very insightful conversation between them reveals that Fern’s streak of independence was always present and that her tendency to do what she wishes has always been at the heart of her personality. 

nomadland ending final shot

Nomadland Ending Explained: A Triumphant Conclusion

The Nomadland ending sees Fern returning to the town where she grew up, visiting her old house, before she scatters her husband’s ashes.

These final scenes are loaded with optimism, informed by our shifted perspective over Fern from the rest of the story. 

The final shot shows Fern driving away into the sunset, leaving the town and the past completely alone. 

In this sense, her internal arc revolves around accepting her husband’s death rather than being cemented by settling within a community dynamic. 

In terms of her circumstances, she ends up exactly where she started. As a result, rather than Fern experiencing monumental change by Nomadland’s ending, what has actually changed more is the audience’s perspective over the character as we have come to learn she is not a helpless, impoverished woman turfed onto the road by capitalist imposition. 

In other words, her choice to be independent is her own.

For a deeper dive into the Nomadland ending and its relationship between character & theme, click the button below to watch my video essay.

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Nick Fore Script Doctor / Script Consultant

Nick Fore is an experienced script consultant who reads screenplays for the British Film Institute.

He has written comprehensive coverage on over 1,000 scripts and has helped screenwriters get their work into development with production companies such as Imagine Entertainment and Screen Ireland. 

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