Mar 3, 2013

The Ending of "The Master" Explained

Left to right: Madisen Beaty and Joaquin Phoenix
NOTE: Due to recent conversations, the entire theory involving Doris is suspect. I am currently in the midst of updating the information to make a more rational theory. However, I stand by the symbolism and majority of the themes.

With last week's release of director Paul Thomas Anderson's puzzling film the Master, many have gotten a chance to revisit the conundrum and try to understand what they just saw. Initially written off as being commentary on Scientology, the film plays out with no clear thesis and a narrative that makes less sense. The glue is really in Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman's dynamic performances. However, the puzzle isn't nearly that complicated when you look at the symbolism. Anderson left many of the answers in plain sight all along.

It can be argued that the Master is a misleading title. It will leave you wondering who the titular master is and what it has to do with anything. Most have just written it off as Hoffman's character, Lancaster Dodd. Others think it references Phoenix, who plays Freddie Quell: a former sailor who gets mixed up with Dodd's cult-like religion called the Cause. If you go based on this narrative, the story is a blunt look at two men fighting for power. However, I argue that Dodd's story is inconsequential to the point of the film. He has no arc. He is just a figurehead.
The Master is in fact a love story between Quell and Doris Solstad (Madisen Beaty), his girlfriend prior to deportation. If you follow the basic progression of the film, the movie ends with him having sex with her and using quizzical techniques that Dodd used on him. Whether this is used as a joking matter or to show that no matter what, he was impacted by Dodd, he seems to be happy finally looking into the woman's eyes. True, he has had sex numerous times, whether with shop girls or sand mounds, but this is the primal focus of his character for most of the film.
Quell is a horny little character. He masturbates into the ocean and even humps a pile of sand in the shape of a woman. Of course, he comes across as self involved during most of this. He is off by himself. When brought in for questioning, he is given a Rorschach test and bluntly exclaims that almost everything is either a vagina or sexual penetration. The themes of sex carry throughout the whole film, until the very end when he has sex with Doris.
But how do we reach that conclusion? There are three symbols featured that make the case that this is all about mental reparation and that Quell is secretly trying to improve himself for when he finally reaches Doris' house and can triumphantly make up with her. 


Water is a common theme running throughout the entire film. True, Quell's first appearance in the film is of him peaking over a wall with weary eyes. However, majority of the opening scene takes place somewhere around water. He is either on a boat, bathing in the sun while everyone below him is busy working away.
Cut to a scene where they are on a beach. Water is dominantly present again. Whether the masturbation was the equivalence of praying to Mecca, or in this case, the direction of Doris, is interesting. He even drinks water out of a tube inside the boat, as witnessed at some point throughout the opening scene. This is most likely alcohol, as he seems to be a master at making it, even if he claims that it is full of "secrets" when talking to Dodd. Even then, he appears to be distant on his personal feelings, and Dodd may be the closest that he has received in years to an intimate relationship that didn't involve talk of how to get rid of crabs.
Of course, the bigger symbolism is the boats that Quell just happens to be on. The narrative is unclear on where Quell's boat came from, but if you broadly associate it with a deleted scene in which he posts a sign stating his trip to China, it most likely is at least Asia. It also dovetails nicely with Dodd's closing scene in which he sings about a slow trip to China.
However, the boats can easily be seen as separate missions. When returning to America, Quell is clearly a soldier. We don't know what he experienced, but from a psych evaluation moments later, it is implied that he is definitely disturbed. Maybe a little socially maladjusted, but he is probably striven for sex that it overshadows his judgment. Not quite a direct correlation to Doris yet, but it ends phase one of the Quell journey.
As established by Dodd at a point in the film, Quell joins the boat on the west coast, as they are in need of crossing the Panama Canal to New York. It is quite possible that during his time on the west coast, he tried to connect back to decent society, and therefore took up different jobs. Both were ruined by alcohol. One that he ingested and ended up fighting a patron at a camera shop. The other ingested by someone else who ended up passing out.
Quell's journey to become a decent man is proving to be a failure so far. Without much notice, he hops aboard Dodd's boat. It is quite possibly because he sees people dancing on the top deck and he wants to be part of the happiness. That or booze. However, I perceive this as the second journey of Quell's stint in the movie. If the first boat symbolized him digressing in sanity, then the second one is his attempt to regain it.
After a brief encounter with Dodd, who appears to be a confident man, Quell quickly become apart of the Cause. What is interesting to note is that Dodd brings up Quell's sexual history and other factoids in hopes of understanding his mind. Introducing Doris. The two are seeing each other one last time before he leaves. Maybe these are the secrets that he claims to be hiding in his drink. A form of repression that he hopes to overcome.
The deal breaker seems to be not only an intimate relationship with Dodd, but the scene that follows. Dodd holds a wedding ceremony for a couple. They are happy. Thus, Quell imagines that Dodd may have some answers after all to happiness, possibly even matrimony. This explains their close-knit relationship throughout the rest of the story, as Quell believes that he has all of the answers and is frustrated when they don't work.
What is not blatantly covered in the story is the passage of time between when Quell left Doris and when he met Dodd. There is a clear insistence that months, maybe even years happened in different gaps. Probably at least seven years passed by, which definitely explains Quell's lust for women, even if they are one night stands and he doesn't seem happy no matter how much sex he gets. 


Provided that we trust Quell's narrative, he is very horny. As established previously, he is wanting to have sex as well as drink. This is all possibly to repress his emotions for Doris. In fact, the lust he shows towards her in what little time we see her is quite astounding. Quell rips off the screen to a window and makes out with her in a violent, passionate manner. This is probably as happy as we ever see him for the rest of the movie.
Quell clearly loves Doris. Why else would he return to her in the end? While it is arguable that the scene immediately following him riding off in the desert is out of order, the meeting of Doris' mother at least establishes where the story is going. He may be wearing his uniform and commenting on how attractive she is, but there is this sense of desire. This is immediately answered in the following scene in which he finds her in a bar. Provided that the narrative is telling the truth, the story is now established that he has been spending time since returning to finding out where she is, and forever considering her the one that got away.
Of course, another element to all of this is possibly the Casper cartoon that plays in the film. This addresses the subject of friendship, and may be reflecting Quell's internal monologue. The only possible thing that could make him happy as that friendly ghost is Doris.
Dodd and his wife Peggy also have quite a bit of chemistry going on. I believe that this can be seen as Quell trying to use Dodd as a father figure. He sees them perversely as his parents, who can only lead him to truth if he follows them. The choice to give Quell a jacket during the release of his book "Split Saber" at least implies some sort of deep bond. This is immediately proven when a naysayer to Dodd's book talks to Quell, that he immediately goes off on him.
While not exactly sex, Quell is using them as role models for happiness. Tied in with the wedding, he is looking for acceptance and hope that while there is possibility that Doris will forever be the one that got away, he can live in happiness. However, his neurotic shell shock causes his manner to never quite be tame or socially acceptable, and almost as parental guardians, the Dodds are forced to let him go because they don't feel he is getting anything.


Along with water, this felt like the most obvious decision on the list. I feel like almost every song choice is deliberate. Consulting the soundtrack, I have found many correlations between lyrical content and a theme. There is this sense of love and bonding in almost every one, almost driven by a plot.
This only solidifies Quell's journey. Along with the boats symbolizing a portion of his experience and his choice to see the Cause as a gateway to happiness, the music clues us in to deeper themes that possibly explain everything about Quell.
When Doris sings "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," it expresses celibacy. Doris is sad to see Quell leave, but sings the song to say that she will be there waiting for him, figuratively under the apple tree. She hopes that he doesn't sit under it with anyone else but her. This sticks with Quell, as proven in the processing scene, and possibly explains why he remains dedicated to finding her. Also, this more than justifies why Quell became involved heavily with the cause after seeing Dodd host a marriage ceremony. It symbolized what he wanted.
When working as a photographer, he hears Ella Fitzgerald's "Get Thee Behind Me Satan." He spends the time during this song working in the store and being tempted by a shop girl to have sex. Of course, the message in the song is almost blatant enough not to realize that this is Quell being tempted out of celibacy: 
"Someone I'm mad aboutIs waiting in the night for meSomeone that I mustn't seeSatan, get thee behind meHe promised to waitBut I won't appearAnd he may come hereSatan, he's at my gate."
Essentially, this is him being tempted into doing evil. While it can be argued if Quell is a violent drunk, or his behavior infuriates him to the point of strangling a customer, he is somehow the victim of a rapid mood change immediately following him actually being faced with temptation and abusing it to the fullest extent.
Then there is Jo Stafford's "No Other Love":
"No other lips could want you more For I was born to glory in your kiss.Forever yoursI was blessed with love to love you Til the stars burn out above youTil the moon is but a silver shellNo other love,  
Let no other love
Know the wonder of your spell."

The opening line alone suggests that he was passionately in love with the first woman that he kissed, which may be Doris. At least within the narrative, Doris was the first woman. It also helps to establish how madly in love he is that he is somehow under her spell. It also continues this theme of moons. While maybe unintentional, there could be a deeper, scientific explanation behind the song choices in that the moon can control the gravitational pull of the tides, thus implying that Quell is just drifting and drifting until he finds her.
Dodd's final scene features him singing the song "On a Slow Boat to China"

"I'd love to get you on a Slow Boat to China
All to myself alone.
A twist in the rudder
And a rip in the sail
Drifting and dreaming
Throw the compass over the rail.
Out on the ocean
Far from all the commotion
Melting your heart of stone
I'd love to get you on a Slow Boat to China
All to myself (with nobody else)
Yes, all to myself alone."

If you buy into the logic that Quell was returning from China, as the deleted scene indicated, then this dovetails nicely. Also, it continues the moon and ocean theme nicely. There is a lost at sea vibe for most of the tale. Also, while it may be implicit of Dodd's personal emotions to Quell, it may just be that he wants him to pick his brain. Quell makes no sense and therefore has to be let go. However, while it could be expressing Dodd's desire to meld him into the perfect member of the Cause, it could also be a reflection of Quell's interior monologue. He just wants to leave Dodd behind and be alone. Essentially, along with this being the last blatant song about being at sea, this is a farewell to the two through a metaphorical song, possibly referencing how they met aboard a boat and did their little process.
Then the clencher, the one that almost makes everything clear. The song that plays over the closing credits, as we get a glimpse back at Quell, lying on the beach with a sand dune in the shape of a naked woman. The song Patti Page's "Changing Partners" plays, thus bringing the musical narrative to a close:
"Though we danced for one moment and too soon we had to part
In that wonderful moment something happened to my heart
So I'll keep changing partners till you're in my arms and then
Oh, my darlin' I will never change partners again."
There are many associations with dancing that could be applied here. Whether it is the blatant scene in which Quell imagines Dodd and an entire room of members of the Cause naked or if it is more in line with the idea of dancing with "Satan" or partners that essentially didn't improve his condition, the one point is clear. Quell wasn't exactly happy for most of his time with the Cause and tried to make it better for him. When that failed, he just changed partners, with the hopes that it would lead him back to Doris.


Quell is essentially just lost at sea until he finds his way to the arms of the woman he loves, Doris. He uses the Cause in hopes of clearing his head and hopefully finding answers to happiness until he finds the one that got away. It is essentially about drifting through life, looking for answers when you feel hopeless and without love. 

This is blatantly proven through the boat symbolism and the multiple songs, ingeniously selected to reflect not only a quest for love, but his journey at sea. Don't believe me? Just look at the lyrics and the whole picture will become clear.
I am sure that Dodd has his own arc besides publishing the book, but it doesn't seem like something as interesting. Maybe Dodd was just looking for a friend to compensate for his aggressively controlling wife. Maybe he just needed a live wire. Maybe it was cliche, but he could have been secretly gay. Any way you look at it, I am convinced that Quell is on his own journey and Dodd just happens to be in it.
With this established, it is possible that without saying it, the film states that religion is not for everyone. It may help some find answers. But for some that no matter how hard they try to accept, it just will never fill more logical voids.

What do you think?


  1. Well this whole theory is kinda destroyed by the fact that that's not Doris that he's sleeping with at the end... I'm not sure how you thought that. She looks nothing like her and she says her name in the scene. Also, to just completely write of Dodd is foolish. This film is about Quell and Dodd's relationship

    1. Thank you for the heads up. İ will look into editing the post after İ consider yourfacts. Still, İ think it is about how religion does not have all of the answers.

    2. I'm not sure the fact that it wasn't Doris at the end of the movie hurts the ideas in this post. It actually works well with the 'changing partners' idea. Quell will keep finding proxies for Doris, including Dodd. The fact that the movie opens with Quell and ends with him (post Dodd rejection) tells me this is about Quell's relationship with himself, not his relationship with Dodd. Dodd is just another 'changing partner'.

  2. No, the theory holds water, even if the woman is not Doris (she is still a kind of a dialectical merging or resolution of Doris as well as an overcoming of the Doris fixation/idealization - or more simply an acceptance of a person/love "beyond" both Doris and Dodd). That said, just as Anonymous wrote above, you can't write off the Quell/Dodd relationship, or the love triangle, or hexagon, or whatever it is....

  3. Really enjoyed this review.seems to be the most concrete one I have found and makes the most sense in mind although I'm sure there are many more interpretations

  4. All that writing and everyone still missed the point of the film. The master (we see) is not the master. He is a fake his wife is telling him what to write.
    Its all about how their are two sides to every man and how people manipulate others to boost their own image.
    Look at the dvd cover and the name of his final book (w/ "all the answers").
    You are still young so I can see how you missed alot of this. (The older critics???? Wow, they make the directors point for him. Its all in black in white, but it cant be that simple? He is to good of a director there is more hear than what you see. The truth is It's a mediocure film at best and is not Stanley Kubrick(in reply to the Shining documentary comment).
    Is about who we are and who we pretend to be. Plain and simple. Thats it!!!(simple)
    Its everywhere in the movie. Hoffman see's Phoenix as a man who is his equal or maby above him, but keeps heroics a deep secret hidden in a bottle. Phoenix telling the blinded follower im a war hero what have you ever done.
    He cannot accept the lies in Hoffman's character and is respected (by Hoffman) for seeing the truth.(or his true colors). Someone who has never accomplished anything. No homo erotica is not an intentional part of the story, he is attracted/ to the only person who can see through him.(or the true him) As we all are,but gay is a stretch.
    His book title supports all this(for a book w all the answers we only get the title!) The title is the only part of the book that's important!
    Look at the dvd cover its the sword(like his second book). It shows the same men on oposite sides. The 2 sides of people theory. Then only one person cearly. Suggesting we blur these lines.
    We see people how they present themselves not for who they are. And there are 2 sides to everyone. He is closest to Phoenix becuse he sees Hoffman for who he really is. In addition to the fact that Phoenix is accomplised, but presents himself in a crude way so that people do not see that side of him. Hoffman is the polar opposite, he is unaccomplished(even having his wife write his speeches for him),but is well recived due to how he presents himself.
    Hoffmans character is seen as silly or fake to the "real" of Phoenix. They are both hiding parts of their lives, they dont want others to know about.
    This is the only interpertation period!!!(that is the movie) period
    love? (Nope,its a loveless story w both leads) The water(that's trying to win a cinematography award, not movie insite)
    Just like the movie is trying to say. We intentionally blind ourselves to what is put right in front of us. Well every critic has done the same.(by missing the point). Its so grand it cant be that simple, and will watch it enough times to find coincidental bs.
    Its too similar to their will be blood. Same point different era. You had Daniel Lewis who had no issue with who he was(real) and the (fake) preacher! I feal like he wished he had done the movie w just the play of those two character's. So he did and called it the master.
    The master is what the cult sees him as and he sees Phoenix as someone who is more accomplished, but feals no need to sell himself which is misinterpreted as homo exotica.
    Hoffmans wife says, he will be our downfall. (Because Phoenix was not the type of man who cant swallow bullshit and call it barbacue.)
    In one important scene he lets phenox off the hook becuse he keeps saying door,window,door, window its wood its just a door! Look at everyone else in the background of that scene they were starting to see the truth. Its just wood and glass.
    Its like Milton first said in the 1600s "those who have had their eyes put out, are repreaved of their blindness"
    We love to sell ourselves to others. Phoenix as faulted as he was only once (out of anger) breaks down and tells of his impressive war record. Hoffman falsely builds himself up at every opportunity! And the world sees a war hero as a failure and a fake as the master of all.

  5. Fuck Doris! That is only in the movie to make Phoenix look flawed in every part of life. Read my prior post!
    !!!!I helped work on this film!!!!
    So It's not my opinion, it's fact!

  6. A clarification on the DVD cover. It shows 2 sides of Hoffman and two sides to his wife. Phoenix is at the top the and the only one who is not two sided! With Hoffman pointing up at Phoenix, the real master (at the end).
    I worked on this movie and I am close with the people behind it. I know what its about!! If you feel anything in the movie contradits my posts,I would be happy to explain it(i cant write a book on every scene hear):-). If you understood "their will be blood" fully, this is all so obvious.
    Im surprised the kid running this site has not challenged my point of view, with his being so different(or wrong). I would not have seen beyond the obvious(water,sex and troubled lives) at your age either. This is the whole point of the movie. Its all about what you dont see in people,because we are taught to look at what brand jeans someone's wearing. Not the PERSON wearing them!!
    As hard as Phoenix tried to be fake he could not! Phoenix is the true master, because he cannot be swayed/swindled or fooled. Even when he thought he wanted to be.
    The whole movie is about two sided people. They use a drunken bum to show that as bad and crude as he seems, he is the only true person. This is why Hoffman likes him.
    This is very similar in concept to "their will be blood". The way the fake preacher was held in one light, and DD Lewis was thought of as a greedy hateful man. Its a common theme in all his work. The why and how behind the way we are perceived.
    Watch the movie Black Death. Same idea's, but in a much better movie!
    In their last scene together, Hoffman says"if you leave again you are not welcome back". "I will be your enemy!"??
    He is saying if you do not submit to our ways, leave and don't come back! This is becuse (like his wife said), he would be their downfall. He shows the others how fake it is. (Even his son finally submits to the cause in the end.)
    Then it cuts to him drunk and fucking(and it in no way symbolizes Doris!) This is saying he left Hoffman and that's who he is. Just a random hook up. They insinuate this in the very last scene. He is on the beach, drunk and cuddling a woman made of sand. He was shown earlier trying to do the same, but it got washed away.
    The whole final scene shows he never changed, even though he clearly was looking for companionship and acceptance. If he had changed, he would have been accepted and gotten what he thought he wanted.
    He has realized the world puts me down for not putting on ears(not being fake).
    In the end he is content, realizing how unhappy Hoffman really is, even with his fake and hollow success.
    Its all about two sided people. And how acting fake, can lead to success. A very lonely hollow success.

  7. Hoffman was gay, and he liked phoenix. His wife knew it too. When she stroked him in the bathroom, she said he could do whatever he wanted as long as she and others didn't find out. She was talking about his attraction to Phoenix. That's why she read that x-rated script to him, to see how he'd respond, to see if he was gay too. Hoffman told him at the end that he could stay, or if he left, he couldn't come back- that's because it tortures him that he can't have phoenix. He even sings a song about having phoenix all to himself, and that's when phoenix cries, realizing Hoffman's attraction for him. Throughout the movie, hoffman is frustrated by something he can't have, and by the fact that he doesn't have all the answers that everyone is expecting him to have. He still has his doubts about the cause. Phoenix is causing Hoffman's core beliefs to change, and that's why his views changed in the second book. At the end, phoenix finds solace in the sand woman, because that is what's familiar, and that's where he finds the most comfort. To him, the sand woman is the embodiment of companionship, even if she does chafe the old willy.

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  9. I can't believe no one here picked up on what the story was really about: Dodd was Doris in another life. Dodd's mention of being sworn enemies in another life was referencing the pain of the separation of Freddie and Doris. Some of you did skim the surface though.

  10. Phoenix was god, that's why he could change the girls eye color, he could control everything, but he didn't know he was god, all he wants is true love but feels it's impossible in the world he is lost in, still he can do nothing else. God can only find love by allowing free will and to not know he is god.

    At the weeding, Hoffman talks about catching the dragon and how he was going to next, teach it to sit and roll over (something along those lines) they cut to Phoenix who is thinking about the comment, deep down you can tell he knew something was up, he could sense it but didn't know how to place the feeling. Hoffma's work was just to find Phoenix, he understands the always changing flux of realities motions, and pushed his mind to pull him to Phoenix, to find the one who was not bound to mans animal mind, because Hoffman was the devil, and all he want's is to purify everything so he can love his master, Phoenix, god. This is his chance to unite them, in the next life he will kill him for he broke his heart. The endless fight of eternity is our complete incompletion. Don't bother to find any relation to the film and the bible, the bible is just for the commerce of domestication and has no affiliation with anything beyond sticks and stones.

    1. i like that but what if its the other way around, phoenix s the devil an offman is god?

    2. I can see that, but I'm using 'god and devil' just as illustrations, metaphors if you will for something we don't have a word for in an attempt to explain the duality of our creation on an unconscious organic interaction level, a quantum unconscious glue if you will that vibrates our emotions in such a way that we can precise reality in a solid physical manner, to truly live, life is not a trick in this regard but it's sort of a self generated interactive illusion where we make cults and strawberry jam, and some people play jazz music when the mood strikes

  11. Finally, an interpretation that's similarlar to something I was leaning towards.