In the wake of Warner Bros.’ recent announcement that they intend to reboot The Matrix I have been encountering a lot of the same anti Matrix sequel rhetoric that has been floating around the Internet for years. While the general reaction to the prospect of a reboot has been (thankfully) negative, some people are saying that the inevitable reboot can’t be worse than the terrible sequels. I am acutely aware that most people view the first movie as incredible and its two sequels as colossal screw ups that squandered the potential of a great series. That mentality could not be further from the truth. The sequels are an integral part of a cinematic whole that, taken together, is a masterpiece of science fiction. The Matrix Trilogy is a synthesis of philosophy, mythology, and religious symbolism. It is a work of astonishing thematic depth and complexity, and I do not believe for a moment that Warner Bros. will be able to recapture that spark, no matter who they attach to the project. So today I am going to affirm the value of the two Matrix sequels by exploring their themes and symbolism while hopefully clearing up some of the more common misconceptions about these films.
First, I want to acknowledge the work of blogger, Coronas Hide and his two articles about The Matrix sequels (which you can read here and here). The article you are about to read is a simplified adaptation of his original work, but it is my hope that my version will be less obtuse and more understandable. If you find this article interesting, I encourage you to read his original arguments rather than my grossly simplified version.
Alright, let’s talk about the big picture right up front. In the broadest of terms, The Matrix Trilogy is all about pairs of opposites – opposing characters, opposing worldviews. The central theme of the films is the tension between choice and causality and how that relates to the nature of humanity – specifically what it means to be a man or a machine. Note we already have two conceptual pairs of opposites (choice/causality, man/machine), but within the films themselves, it is through pairs of opposites that these ideas are explored: Neo and Smith; the Architect and the Oracle; the Merovingian and Seraph; and so on and so forth. This tendency towards binary pairings is pervasive throughout and each has its own purpose. The characters in the trilogy are vessels for their respective ideologies, and through conflict with their opposites, the tension between their worldviews is expressed.
In addition to these thematic elements, the characters in these films also function as religious symbols from several faiths, most notably Christianity and Hinduism (with a tad of Greek Mythology). Their symbolic roles add additional layers of meaning which allow the films to make deeper statements about the human condition. However, keep in mind that the films never slip into allegory, so it would be unwise of you to dogmatically insist upon painting the characters as one to one analogues of their symbolic counterparts. Rather, view the trilogy as a complex tapestry with many competing and complementary elements. One at a time, let’s explore some of the themes and symbolism surrounding the characters in these films.
Humanity and Disobedience
“Everything begins with choice,” says Morpheus, and indeed, The Matrix itself begins with this idea. When Mr. Anderson is late to work he is reprimanded by his boss: “Either you choose to be at your desk on time from this day forth or you choose to find yourself another job.” The word choice here is conspicuous. The film wants to call our attention to this concept from its earliest moments. Mr. Anderson is being told to conform to the system, to keep his head down and do his job like a machine. But he doesn’t. He disobeys. In the same way that he breaks the law under the hacker alias Neo, so too does he reject the rules when they are forced upon him. He gives Smith the finger. He takes the red pill and rejects the world of The Matrix and its system of control, and as the One, gains the power to rewrite The Matrix according to his will.
Note how closely tied this all is to disobedience. Simply making a choice isn’t significant, it is choosing to disobey. To the gamers reading this, would you kindly remember the words of Andrew Ryan? “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” All the humans plugged into The Matrix who accept the program are little more than slaves. All the humans living in Zion who chose to reject The Matrix are free men, a fact Morpheus references when he calls on a captain to disobey an order from Commander Locke. “The reason that most of us are here is because of our affinity for disobedience.” In the context of these films, disobedience is the quintessential human characteristic and it it what separates man from machine. Keep this in mind as this concept will pop up repeatedly.
Machines and Purpose
Smith is one of the most complex characters in the trilogy. In the first film he is an Agent of the Matrix and a symbol of authority which Neo flouts, but in the second film their relationship has evolved considerably. Smith is no longer an Agent. He is Neo’s nemesis and he has somehow gained the ability to copy himself. Just what exactly is Smith?
The reductive answer is to say that Smith is a computer virus. While that is technically true, it doesn’t provide us with a mechanism or reason for how and why he came to be in such a form. The Oracle helps us along a little when Neo asks her about Smith: “He is you. Your opposite. Your negative. The result of the equation trying to balance itself out.” This tells us that Neo and Smith are polar opposites of each other – two sides of the same coin, but how exactly did this happen?
The answer comes from Smith himself in Reloaded just before he and Neo have their big brawl. During Smith’s monologue he discusses the manner in which Neo destroyed him in the first film. Recall that Neo merged with Smith and exploded him from within (that they merged is significant). Afterward Smith was changed. He tells us, “I don’t fully understand how it happened, perhaps some part of you imprinted on to me, something overwritten or copied, but it is at this point irrelevant; what matters is that whatever happened, happened for a reason.” Note the focus on purpose. Smith doesn’t care what happened; he only wants to know why. Though Smith might think it is irrelevant, what was “overwritten or copied” is at the heart of Smith’s new nature. Consider these lines:
“I killed you, Mr. Anderson. I watched you die… with a certain satisfaction, I might add. Then something happened. Something that I knew was impossible, but it happened anyway. You destroyed me, Mr. Anderson. After that, I understood the rules, I knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was compelled to stay, compelled to disobey.”
When a program breaks down its purpose is to return to the Source and be deleted, as the Oracle just informed us in the scene immediately preceding this one. But Smith was “compelled to disobey” – a human characteristic! How could Smith have gained this ability to disobey? By merging with Neo. The part of Neo that is imprinted onto Smith is Neo’s humanity. In the same way that Neo is a human being who carries within him the computer code of the One, so too is Smith a computer program who carries within him an element of Neo’s humanity. This even explains Smith’s new, viral nature.
In the first film, when Morpheus is captured, there is a memorable scene where Smith explains his views on humanity and how we are not actually mammals.
“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague. And we are the cure.”
Smith’s understanding of humanity is bound up in the machine’s worldview and their insistence on purpose. Each machine, and each program is created to fill one role, to perform a single function and to do it perfectly. Machines have no concept of life or personal growth. These ideas are tied to what it means to be human. Now that Smith has an element of humanity within himself he must discover how to reconcile that as part of his nature. He must learn how to grow – how to be human. But in his worldview, humanity equals replication. Therefore Smith manifests his inner humanity through rampant, viral self copying.
As Neo grows as an individual, Smith grows in numbers. The two are mirror images of each other. By merging with Smith in the first film, Neo creates his own nemesis. It is an act which should feel familiar to anyone who remembers the prophecy in Harry Potter. “And the Dark Lord shall mark him as his equal but he shall have power the Dark Lord knows not.” The same idea is at play here (even Harry and Voldemort’s souls being bound together is a nice parallel), but the roles are reversed. When Neo marked Smith as his equal he destroyed Smith’s role as an Agent – his purpose. Smith hates Neo for that. Now that Smith has become Neo’s antonym, he finds a new purpose: destroying Neo.
God the Father, Brahma,
and the Parameters of Perfection
The Architect is perhaps the most clear cut example of religious symbolism in the trilogy. The most obvious parallel is that he is God, in a more or less Christian sense of the world. Specifically, he embodies the way God is described in Genesis. He created the world, but has little to do with its day to day running. The Architect sits, clothed all in divine white, in his flawless, heavenly white chamber and watches the world unfold on his TV sets.
If we switch gears to Hinduism for a moment, we can say that the Architect is also Brahma, a deity who similarly created the world but does not rule it. After setting things in motion Brahma meditates on his lotus flower and meddles no further in the affairs of the world. It may seem odd to bring Hinduism into the equation seemingly without provocation, but bear with me. Hinduism features prominently in many areas of the trilogy, so it is important to establish that the Architect’s role works symbolically within this context as well.
Returning to the Architect as Genesis God, there is another element shared by both figures which is significant: the prohibition of knowledge. God creates the Garden of Eden, a perfect world for Man to live in, but demands that man not question the world or think too deeply about how it works – Man must not eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Similarly, the Architect created the Matrix, a world analogous to the Garden, and demanded that man accept the program – the perfect world. But things don’t work so well. “The first matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect. It was a work of art. Flawless. Sublime. A triumph only equaled by its monumental failure.” The first Matrix lacked the Tree of Knowledge, an essential element of the Garden because it gives man the opportunity to question the perfect world and to reject it – to disobey. Remember, disobedience is the defining human characteristic. It isn’t until the third version of the Matrix that the Tree of Knowledge is included in the form of the red pill. Now that humans have a way to indulge this need for disobedience, the system works.
It is extremely telling that the Architect designed two versions of the Matrix which failed to acknowledge this defining human characteristic. Machines strive for static perfection – to fulfill their purpose. The Architect is the clearest embodiment of this idea in the whole trilogy. The perfection of the Matrix he created, the flawless, unblemished nature of his person and his chamber, even his speech pattern of mechanical, efficient, eloquence all demonstrate how machines are bound by what he calls “the parameters of perfection.” Machines have no conception of choice, disobedience, or personal growth. Indeed, as the Architect tells us, it took a different program to contribute this nugget of understanding. “If I am the Father of the Matrix, she would undoubtedly be its Mother.”
The Mother, Kali,
and Knowing Thyself
Let’s start by looking at exactly how the Oracle is the Mother of the Matrix. Her contribution to the program is the addition of choice – the option that each person plugged into the Matrix is given to either accept the program or reject it. This runs counter to the machines’ overall goal of creating a perfect system of control, hence why the Architect could not conceive of it. This version of the Matrix, much to the Architect’s displeasure, is flawed. Not just conceptually flawed, but literally, mathematically flawed. Consider the Architect’s response when Neo asks the question, “Why am I here?”
“Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the matrix. You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision.”
Based on this line we can conclude that the introduction of choice into the Matrix unbalanced it mathematically and that this remainder is expressed specifically as Neo – the One. Furthermore, this implies that the Oracle isn’t just the Mother of the Matrix, she is the mother of the subroutine of the One – she is Neo’s mother. Another line from the Architect confirms this conclusion.
“She stumbled upon a solution whereby nearly ninety-nine percent of the test subjects accepted the program provided they were given a choice – even if they were only aware of it at a near-unconscious level. While this solution worked, it was fundamentally flawed, creating the otherwise contradictory systemic anomaly, that, if left unchecked, might threaten the system itself.”
If there is any remaining doubt that the Oracle’s introduction of choice birthed the anomaly (Neo) into the Matrix, just remember that the first time Neo meets the Oracle she gives him home baked cookies. Who other than your mother gives you home baked cookies? The Oracle as Mother firmly establishes her as the Architect’s symbolic counterpart (remember the pairs of opposites?)
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at how the subroutine of the One is significant. The Oracle doesn’t just introduce choice into the Matrix, she introduces the choice to accept or reject the Matrix itself. She introduces disobedience, which as we know by now, is the definitive human trait. The Oracle understands humanity in a way that the Architect does not. We cannot exist in a state of static perfection fulfilling our purpose. We need to be able to grow, and to do that we have to disobey – exit the artificial Matrix and enter the real world of suffering and time. This is the path of the One.
Humanity’s growth through disobedience manifests itself in Neo. The code of the One, the systemic anomaly, is effectively a conduit for all those people jacked into the Matrix. Neo’s growth is humanity’s growth. Incidentally, this “conduit-ness” is what gives Neo the power to rewrite the Matrix according to his will. He is channeling the collective disobedience of humanity. That may seem like a bit of a stretch, but there is a moment in the Architect’s chamber which supports it. The Architect is explaining the anomaly of the One when he is interrupted by the countless Neo’s on the monitors.
The Architect: “As you were undoubtedly gathering, the anomaly is systemic, creating fluctuations in even the most simplistic equations.”
Neo: [All from the monitors] “You can’t control me! I’ll smash you to fucking bits! You’re fucking dead! Fuck you! I’ll fucking kill you! I can say whatever I want! You can’t make me do that! You old, white, prick!”
This is the only time in the films that Neo’s power to create “fluctuations in even the most simplistic equations” (like flying and stopping bullets) is directly tied to disobedience. We even have Neo giving the man the finger again just like he did to Smith in the first film. The seemingly endless multitude of Neos on the monitors and their belligerent attitude represent the countless people still jacked into the Matrix. Their disobedience is bound up in the One and this is what gives Neo his power.
The previous point is little more than a fun diversion. It’s nice to know how things work. What’s really important though is that the Oracle understands that choice and disobedience are necessary for personal growth. What she is ultimately introducing into the Matrix (a static, perfect system) is the capacity for human growth (represented specifically as Neo). This reveals her symbolic role as the goddess Kali from Hinduism.
Kali is the Hindu goddess of death and rebirth, but for our purposes we can interpret these things as the cycle of life and growth. In order to grow, living things must consume the dead, and out of this consumption is birthed new life. This idea also works spiritually in a Hindu context. There can be no personal growth without a cycle of death and rebirth. Recall how in the first film the Oracle tells Neo that he is not the One.
Oracle: “Sorry, kid. You got the gift, but it looks like you’re waiting for something.”
Oracle: “Your next life, maybe. Who knows? That’s the way these things go.”
And sure enough, at the end of the first film Neo is killed by Smith, but is then reborn inside the Matrix. Only then does he gain the power of the One. Through suffering, death, and rebirth, he grows.
The fact that the Oracle understands human growth sets her up in opposition to the Architect. The Architect is working to maintain the status quo – a perfect but ultimately stagnant system. The Oracle knows that machines only grow in response to humans; they need humans for more than just energy. This is why she says, “I’m interested in one thing Neo: the future. And believe me the only way to get there is together.” The Oracle, by introducing choice, disobedience, death, and rebirth into the system gives humanity the ability to grow, and by extension, allows machines to grow along with them.
It is similarly noteworthy that the Oracle does not freely impart her wisdom, but instead delivers only what each person is ready for. Both Morpheus and Niobe mention this tendency of hers.
Morpheus: “You saw the Oracle? What did she tell you?”
Niobe: “Same thing she always does: exactly what I needed to hear.”
In short, though she could save those who consult her from suffering by sharing her foresight, she understands that this suffering is necessary for humans to grow. Ergo, she shares her knowledge only with those who are ready to receive it – those who know themselves. In the first film the Oracle points out a sign in her kitchen bearing the words “temet nosce” which is Latin for “know thyself.” We are told from our first meeting with her that her philosophy is one of introspection.
Some of the most poignant lines in the whole series come from the Oracle and deal specifically with this subject. The Oracle is all about understanding oneself through understanding one’s choices. She tells us that, “We can never see past the choices we don’t understand,” and that “You’ve already made the choice. Now you have to understand it.” The implication here is that understanding yourself and why you are making a choice is more significant that making the choice itself.
Consider the existentialist thought experiment involving a young man deciding whether to go to war. He has two men he can consult for advice: a veteran and a minister. The veteran will of course tell him to go to war and the minister will obviously tell him to stay. Whichever man he chooses to consult…well, that’s the choice he has made. He’s already made the choice to go or to stay. Now he has to understand it.
The takeaway is that it is incredibly difficult to understand why you do what you do. The Oracle tells us that to understand the why you must understand yourself. But there is another character who proposes a very different worldview.
The Devil, Hades,
The introduction of the Merovingian is the first time that the trilogy questions the validity of choice. Prior to the scene in his restaurant we’ve been operating solely under the Oracle’s philosophy, but the Merovingian compellingly refutes it. Because he is a villain our knee jerk reaction is to reject his worldview outright, but if we look closely we can see that he is not wrong.
The Merovingian argues that choice doesn’t actually exist. You behave the way you do as the result of pure scientific determinism – you respond to stimuli. “You see there is only one constant. One universal. It is the only real truth. Causality. Action, reaction. Cause and effect.” We rail against this idea. We don’t like being told that we don’t have free will. Morpheus objects for us: “Everything begins with choice.” But here is where things get interesting. The Merovingian points out that our heroes did not choose to come and meet with him. They were told to come to him by the Oracle and then they obeyed. Now it can be argued (and indeed the Oracle would argue) that they could have chosen to reject what the Oracle told them, but had they done that Neo could have never advanced along the path of the One. So in this instance, the Merovingian is actually right. This should make us distinctly uncomfortable since this revelation is separated by mere moments from a metaphorical rape scene.
The Merovingian chooses to demonstrate his belief that choice does not exist by robbing a nearby woman of her choice (the word we might use in this context is consent, but I digress). He surreptitiously sends her a desert bearing a line of code which forces her to have an orgasm right at the table. She doesn’t understand the reason why this is happening to her. She is merely responding to stimuli. The Merovingian however does understand the reason why it is happening and this is what gives him power over her. Remember the Oracle’s philosophy of knowing one’s self in order to understand why you do things? The Merovingian is similarly interested in the why, but he looks outside the self. Extrinsic factors vs. intrinsic factors.
“Causality. There is no escaping it. We are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the why. Why is what separates us from them, you from me. Why is the only real source of power, without it you are powerless. And this is how you come to me: without why, without power, another link in the chain.”
These lines drip with malice in light of what we have just witnessed. The Merovingian is a dangerous, rapacious individual and he is prepared to do to our heroes what he just did to that woman. This ties in perfectly to his symbolic role as the devil and casts new light on the fact that in both of his big scenes our heroes are there to make a deal with him.
The first big clue that the Merovingian is the devil comes in the form of his wife. Her name is Persephone, wife of Hades in Greek mythology. Hades, the lord of the underworld, is often conflated with the Christian vision of the devil and hell. Though in actual Greek mythology Hades’ role was quite different, just role with it for now. The other big clue comes in the form of the Merovingian’s symbolic counterpart: Seraph.
Yes, that’s correct. Seraph is the Merovingian’s counterpart. I know I have just discussed the Merovingian as contrary to the Oracle, but that has more to do with worldview than symbolic role.
“Seraph” quite literally means “angelic being” and if we look at Seraph in the film’s we can see this sort of aura about him what with his white outfit and whatnot (recall that the Architect [God] was similarly decked out in white). Furthermore, when our heroes enter the Merovingian’s club in Revolutions one of the henchmen calls Seraph “wingless” followed by the Merovingian himself calling him, “L’ange sans ailes”, which literally means “wingless angel”.
So Seraph is an angel. More specifically, he is an angel who protects the Oracle. This is quite significant since every time we see the Merovingian the Frenchman is openly hostile to the Oracle. He detests her philosophy; he bargains to have her delivered to him; he even takes credit for destroying the body she had in Reloaded (in reality the first actress playing the Oracle passed away and the filmmakers were forced to recast her; this just allows them to explain away why she looks different in the third film, but again, I digress). Since we know that Seraph is an angel and her protector, we can safely say that her assailant, the Merovingian is the devil.
For further evidence, take the scene in Revolutions when our heroes go to bargain with the Merovingian for the release of Neo. He is presiding over a place called Club Hel. This is quite literally hell. Our heroes even descend into the club in an elevator by pushing a big red button that says “Hel” on it. Inside the people are wearing devilish clothing and are indulging in all manner of sin, sodomy, and debauchery. In case you still weren’t getting it, the Merovingian’s first words when they arrive are, “What in the hell?” The film isn’t exactly subtle here.
It is also worthy of note that this scene doubles down on the Merovingian as Hades as well. Most notably, Neo is in a coma at the time (a sort of symbolic death) and our heroes have descended into hell (or the underworld) to bargain for his release. The person working for the Merovingian who controls this process is the Trainman. This is Charon the Boatman, the servant of Hades who ferries soles across the river Styx. But since we’re in a sci-fi world we have train tracks instead.
Now that we fully understand all our characters and what they represent both thematically and symbolically, let’s examine the overall trajectory of the story and see how all these elements interact.
The Messiah and The Path to Enlightenment
Neo begins the trilogy as a relatable everyman with a rebellious attitude, but his role in the films shifts markedly once we hit Reloaded. As The One, Neo wields god like powers and it is clear early on that the people of Zion view him with Christ like reverence. The film is quite heavy handed about this, so me pointing out that Neo’s story parallels that of The Christ shouldn’t surprise you. Note how residents of Zion come to him with prayers and offerings near the beginning of the film, and how throughout he is repeatedly referred to in Messianic terms. A noteworthy example comes from Commander Locke in his argument with Morpheus over the city defenses. “I don’t care about Oracles, or prophecies, or Saviors!” (Note Morpheus’ blind faith vs. Locke’s blind rationality, another pair of opposites!) We will return to the idea of Neo as Christ several times, but for now let’s briefly jump religions and look at things from a Hindu perspective.
The big revelation in Reloaded comes when The Architect reveals that there have been five previous iterations of The One. The Matrix itself is cyclical and Neo is intimately tied to it. Each time the One returns to the Source the code he carries is “reinserted” and The Matrix is rebooted. Coupled with periodic extermination of Zion, this gives the machines a perfect system of control. In theory anyway.
The presence of reincarnation should be painfully obvious here. Neo has literally lived five previous lives. The genius of all this is that there is an internal sci-fi logic to how this works in the form of a permanent element that remains constant throughout this cycle: the code of the One. The same code has existed within the bodies of five previous Ones. We actually have a sci-fi mechanism for Neo’s “soul” living multiple lives. The significance of all this, as you should recall, is that reincarnation, or death and rebirth, has a purpose: growth.
To grow requires that one suffer and learn through the passage of time. The Matrix however, is a world of timeless, static, perfection, which the Architect calls, “a harmony of mathematical precision”. Earlier we established that the Matrix in all its iterations is symbolically comparable to the Garden of Eden – it is a perfect world that provides for all Man’s needs, but lacks the capacity for growth.
Though the Architect tells us that The Matrix was redesigned to include suffering in its 2nd version, remember that it isn’t until the 3rd, when people are given a choice to accept the program, that things start working. The 3rd Matrix is the first one that allows for the possibility of human growth by choosing to reject the program – choosing to disobey. Now that we have this in mind again, let’s examine the symbolic human journey Neo undertakes in each of his lives.
- Man is born inside the Garden of Eden (The Matrix).
- Man disobeys the rules of the Garden by eating of the Tree of Knowledge (Neo takes the red pill).
- Man is cast out of the Garden into the Real World, where through suffering and the passage of time, he grows as an individual (Neo gains his second sight by being blinded and loses Trinity).
- Man finds his way back to God (Neo returns to the Source).
Step 3 is the one that the machines fail to understand. They try to use this system to maintain unchanging perfection, but each time this cycle runs Neo grows towards something. If we take the Hindu approach, we could say that he is growing towards Enlightenment, but we’ll see what exactly that means a little later. For now, let’s just say that this sixth version of Neo is satisfactorily different from his five predecessors and this manifests itself in the choice he makes in The Architect’s chamber.
The five previous Neos all conformed to the system by returning to the Source. They followed the path of the One to its final conclusion, sacrificing themselves to save humanity. This choice parallels the Christ narrative, even going so far as to make the right hand door lead to the Source in the Architect’s chamber (Christ sits at the right hand of God). However, by accepting the system they also behave like machines. But Neo chooses Trinity. He rejects the system of control. He disobeys. The sixth version of the One is a free man. “And on the sixth day God created Man.”
Limbo and Meeting Ramachandra
After the scene with the Architect at the end of Reloaded Neo destroys a group of sentinels in the real world and falls into a coma. I mentioned earlier that this coma can be read as a symbolic death. Specifically, it is comparable to Christ’s post crucifixion death. At this time Christ’s soul separates from his body. Now there are multiple versions of this story floating around in the various denominations of Christianity, most notably Catholicism. In some versions Christ’s soul goes to limbo while in others his soul goes to hell. As it turns out, both versions appear in Revolutions.
After destroying the sentinels Neo goes to a place called Mobil Avenue Station. Mobil, in case you didn’t catch it, is an anagram of limbo. Meanwhile, Trinity, Neo’s lover, companion, and “other half” so to speak goes to Club Hel, which as we know is literally hell, to bargain with the Merovingian, the devil, for Neo’s return. The two narratives unfold contemporaneously and both contribute to Neo’s eventual freedom, but of the two, Mobil is more significant.
Mobil is the most overtly Hindu scene in the entire trilogy. Though it takes place in a metaphorical limbo, the Indian ethnicity and names of the characters Neo meets tells us that we need to shift gears. Their names are Rama-Kandra, Kamala, and Sati. Rama-Kandra is Ramachandra the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu. His wife Kamala is an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. In the film they have a daughter, Sati, whose name means “self immolation” or “willful self sacrifice”, the subtext here being that this form of sacrifice springs from divinity. This idea will come into play at the film’s finale, but we’ll get to that later.
In Hindu mythology there is a passing of the torch moment where Ramachandra meets his predecessor, Parashurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu. Remember how Neo is the sixth incarnation of the One? In the context of this scene, Neo is Parashurama. Now in the original story Ramachandra continues on after the two meet and Parashurama goes to meditate on a mountaintop. This being a film, it wouldn’t make much sense for our hero to suddenly become an entirely different person, so instead Ramachandra imparts some wisdom to our hero.
Neo and Rama-Kandra discuss two important subjects: love and karma. First, Neo asks Rama-Kandra what he is doing in Mobil. The answer is that he is smuggling his daughter out of the machine world and into the Matrix. Why? Because he loves her.
Rama-Kandra: “I love my daughter very much. I find her to be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. But where we are from, that is not enough. Every program that is created must have a purpose. If it does not, it is deleted. I went to the Frenchman to save my daughter. You do not understand.”
Neo: “I just have never…”
Rama-Kandra: “Heard a program speak of love.”
Neo: “It is a human emotion.”
Rama-Kandra: “No, it is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?”
Rama-Kandra: “Then perhaps the reason you are here is not so different than the reason I am here.”
Rama-Kandra may be a program, but like Neo, he is a bit of an anomaly. His daughter Sati has no purpose, yet he loves her unconditionally. Keep in mind that Rama-Kandra and his wife Kamala represent divine beings. Ergo, this sort of unconditional love is the divine form of love and it manifests itself as Sati, “willful self sacrifice”. In the final line of this exchange Rama-Kandra tells us that the unconditional love that Neo has for Trinity is the same as the love Rama-Kandra has for his daughter. Hence, Rama-Kandra imparts this divine quality to Neo, or at the very least illuminates it within him.
Next, we learn that Rama-Kandra and his wife will not be accompanying their daughter into the Matrix. When Neo asks why, Rama-Kandra says that this is his karma. This is a new way of thinking about the machine’s worldview of purpose.
“Karma is a word, like love. A way of saying: “What I am here to do.” I do not resent my karma. I’m grateful for it. Grateful for my wonderful wife, for my beautiful daughter. They are gifts, and so I do what I must do to honor them.”
It is interesting to have purpose suddenly cast into a different light. Because it is the machines’ worldview our normal response is to reject it because the machines are the bad guys. But much like how there is validity in the Merovingian’s philosophy of causality, there is value in fulfilling purpose as well. This isn’t about right and wrong. It is about contrast. It is about balance. It is about choosing the middle path between pairs of opposites. This concept of the middle way is intimately tied to achieving an inner sort of divinity, a.k.a Enlightenment. Recall that as the One, the Christ, Neo’s purpose is to save humanity. In the finale with Smith, we see all of these ideas come to fruition: the divinity of unconditional love, of fulfilling purpose, of willful self sacrifice, the choosing of the middle path, and achieving Enlightenment.
When Neo leaves Mobil he has passed through another cycle of death and rebirth, and as such has grown further towards Enlightenment. Through his exchange with Rama-Kandra he has effectively become the seventh incarnation of the One – a new being. The film confirms this with a few quick lines right after Neo’s return.
Morpheus: “Are you ready for us?”
Link: “Almost, sir. They got some pretty ancient hacks here, we’re working on it. Did you find Neo?”
Morpheus: “Can’t you see him?”
Link: “No, sir. We were reading something but I couldn’t tell what it was.”
The Final Battle
Union with the Shadow Self and Ascension
The final battle with Smith encapsulates everything we have discussed. It is the most significant scene in the entire trilogy and also one of the most commonly misunderstood. At face value one might say that Smith won, but that is a tragic misreading of the scene. Before we dive into all the themes and symbolism going on here, let’s get the mundane stuff out of the way first. How exactly is Smith destroyed?
Before Neo goes to confront Smith he makes a bargain with a giant floating head. Though the film does not refer to it as such, the name of the head is the Deus Ex Machina – the “God out of Machine.” It is the Infinite God from which all the lesser deities like the Architect and the Oracle have sprung. It is the Source. Those familiar with Tolkien and The Silmarallion should recognize this concept. When Middle-Earth is created in that story we are told that Eru Iluvatar created the Valar as “the offspring of his thought.” So it is with the Deus Ex Machina. It is the Source of all programs. Even without knowing this tidbit, it is pretty easy to deduce from the imagery and Neo’s journey so far that he has reached the Source.
When Neo goes to fight Smith he jacks into the Matrix directly at the Source. In short, Neo becomes a conduit to the Source itself. When Smith absorbs him, Smith becomes connected to the Source. And when a program returns to the Source, it is deleted. Hence, Smith is destroyed.
Now let’s look at the symbolism of the fight itself. As we know, Smith is Neo’s opposite. Created when Neo merged with Smith in the first film, the two of them are mirror images of each other. They have the same powers and are like magnets with a positive and negative charge. This is conveyed visually in the fight itself. Note how they ram into one another again and again and are repelled away from each other. They even land punches at the same time.
What this conveys is that the two are completely evenly matched. Like the light and the dark they cannot destroy one another. No matter how much flying martial arts Neo does he will never overcome Smith. It is at this moment that Smith delivers his great speech. He rails against Neo, listing every reason why Neo keeps fighting. Again, this is all about purpose – about understanding the why.
“Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why? Why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose! And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although… only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?”
And against this tirade Neo, with a dispassionate voice and in a state of near zen like peace, gives us the most profound line in the trilogy.
This is what the entire trilogy has been building towards. In this moment, Neo has achieved Enlightenment. Remember how I said back in the Ramachandra section that the tension between opposites isn’t just about good and evil? It’s about balance. It is about choosing the middle way through the pairs of opposites.
We have seen the Oracle’s philosophy of understanding the why by understanding the self. We have seen the Merovingian’s philosophy of understanding the why by understanding causality. In this moment Neo stands at the middle between the two, and so he is free of both of them. There is nothing remaining within him but the will to act. The ultimate why is expressed in these four words: “Because I choose to.”
It is within this enlightened state that Neo makes the ultimate sacrifice, something that Smith, a being of anger and hate, could never do nor understand. “Everything that has a beginning has an end, Neo,” says Smith, echoing the words of the Oracle. Realizing the inevitability of what is to come, Neo stops fighting. Suddenly, Smith is baffled and fearful.
Smith: “No, no this isn’t right. This can’t be right. Get away from me!
Neo: “What are you afraid of?”
Smith: “It’s a trick!”
Neo: “You were right, Smith. You were always right. It was inevitable.”
They both possessed the power to fight each other forever, but Neo laying down that power is something Smith could never do. It is a choice he doesn’t understand and he cannot see past it. Remember Neo’s role as the Christ. Remember the divinity of karma and of unconditional love, which itself is a Christ like quality. Neo’s divine love for humanity manifests itself as willful self sacrifice. In the moment when Smith, driven by some little understood impulse, drives his hand into Neo and begins absorbing him, Neo is calm and serene. He is ascendant. What began with a merge ends with a merge.
This moment ties into the idea of the Shadow Self – the part of the psyche that goes unrecognized by the conscious mind. Only by facing it and joining with it do we become fully realized individuals. Ursula K. LeGuin’s famous story A Wizard of Earthsea is defined by this idea. At the finale of that story, the wizard Ged willfully joins with his Shadow and becomes a new being. If I might indulge a more nerdy reference, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World cheekily incorporates this subject when Scott walks out of the final battle arm in arm with Dark Scott and comments, “He’s a pretty cool guy.” Neo, by willfully joining with Smith transforms into a new being. Smith clung to his role of darkness, he didn’t choose or understand this process, and so he is destroyed. But the new being of Neo remains and ascends back to the Source, where the path of the One ends. His purpose as the Christ is fulfilled.
The Fourth Age
Just like in The Lord of the Rings after our hero’s journey is over a Fourth Age for the Matrix begins. The machines and humanity are finally at peace and those minds who seek to be disconnected from the Matrix will be freed. We even see that machine’s have lost some of their dogmatic insistence on purpose. Sati is able to create a beautiful sunrise for Neo, simply because she chooses to. Just pure sentiment.
The genius of this ending is that it doesn’t tell us that everything will be perfect forever. The Architect questions, “Just how long do you think this ‘peace’ is going to last?” And the Oracle replies, “As long as it can.” After everything we’ve learned so far, knowing especially that the Matrix is cyclical in nature, we can infer that things will eventually repeat. But that tiny bit of ambiguity at the end perfectly caps off the trilogy.
This isn’t an invitation to make more movies. The film is making a statement about the nature of the world. Being able to contemplate what that means will always be more satisfying than watching it unfold. This is why Warner Bros. rebooting The Matrix is such an egregious insult. Again, just like in The Lord of the Rings (“The last pages are for you, Sam”) the implication of more to come is what grants the ending its profundity. It is a moment of perfect beauty when Sati asks, “Will we ever see him again?” To which the Oracle replies: