'Marriage Story’ Actually Has a Happy Ending — But It’ll Still Break Your Heart [SPOILERS]

In ‘Marriage Story,’ we see a couple end their marriage, but the film’s ending is not an unhappy one. Here’s the ‘Marriage Story’ ending explained.

Abi Travis - Author

Dec. 9 2019, Updated 3:30 p.m. ET

marriage story ending explained
Source: Netflix

If you haven’t seen Marriage Story yet, we recommend you fix that as quickly as possible. It’s a wonderful, achingly beautiful film that certainly deserves a watch (and maybe some awards, too). Warning: It will probably make you cry at least four times...but it might also make you oddly happy. Especially at the end. Here’s the Marriage Story ending explained. There will be spoilers.

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What is Marriage Story about?

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story is a portrait of the marriage between Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). The film opens with each of them talking about what they love most about one another. We hear Charlie talk about how he loves Nicole’s infectious laugh, that she gives the best gifts, and that she always knows when to push him.

We hear Nicole say that Charlie is a great dad to their son Henry, that he’s a great dresser, and that he rarely gets defeated. Everything is lovely and adorable and happy.

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marriage story ending explain
Source: Netflix

After that heartwarming intro, though, the audience gets a shock to the system: Charlie and Nicole are separating, and those lists were merely an assignment from a therapist — he wanted them to write down what they love about each other in order to make their separation and eventual divorce less traumatic. Nicole refuses to share her list with Charlie and storms out of the therapy appointment. 

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The rest of the film chronicles Charlie and Nicole’s separation and divorce and it does not let up for even a moment. While there are many laugh-out-loud hilarious moments in the film (like when Nicole’s sister — played by Merritt Wever — talks awkwardly about a pie she’s holding), they are immediately followed by moments that suck the air out of the room (like when Nicole’s sister puts down the pie to officially serve Charlie divorce papers). 

Watching Charlie and Nicole interact throughout the film might make you start to wish that the two of them will reconcile — there’s clearly still a lot of love there. But as the story progresses and the divorce proceedings get nasty, it becomes crystal clear: Marriage Story is the story of a marriage at its end. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it has an unhappy ending.

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ending explained marriage story
Source: Netflix

Here’s the Marriage Story ending explained:

Near the end of the film, we see Nicole and Charlie perform separate renditions of songs from the musical Company. In Nicole’s case, the song is “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” — she sings it with her mom and sister, and it’s impossible not to interpret some of the lyrics as digs at Charlie (“You’re a moving / Deeply maladjusted / Never to be trusted / Crazy person yourself”).

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Then we see Charlie sing “Being Alive.” As he pleads for “Someone to hold [him] too close / Someone to hurt [him] too deep,” you’ll more than likely find yourself crying (and being very impressed by Adam Driver’s singing chops). If that were the end of the film, things would feel pretty sad and miserable. But it’s not.

We get two epilogue-like scenes at the end of the movie that leave us with hope — if not of reconciliation, then at least of moving forward with consideration and with echoes of the love that initially drew Charlie and Nicole together.

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marriage story ending
Source: Netflix

Charlie comes to Nicole’s home and meets her new boyfriend. It’s uncomfortable and awkward, but not malicious in any way. He then stumbles upon Henry reading aloud from Nicole’s list of things she loves about Charlie — the one she refused to share with him when the two began the process of separation. Charlie chokes back tears as he reads Nicole’s words (and so does the audience, of course). Charlie also tells Nicole that he’s moving to LA for a year to be closer to Henry.

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Then the whole new family (Nicole’s new boyfriend included) go trick-or-treating together. At the end of the night, Nicole tells Charlie to take Henry for the night (even though it’s her night to have him). He thanks her, picks up their son, and starts walking away. Nicole calls out to Charlie to wait, then bends down and ties his shoe for him. 

It’s a simple gesture, but it means so much. Both Charlie and Nicole have been able to set aside the nastiness of the divorce — the big-shot lawyers, the catty manipulation, the heartbreaking arguments — and are now willing to move forward into a future that prioritizes Henry’s needs and attempts to keep the peace. The Marriage Story ending may not be a typical happily-ever-after ending, but it’s a happy ending all the same.

Marriage Story is now available to stream on Netflix.

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