Why the Wooden Horse Is the Key to the Ending of 'Blade Runner 2049'

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie Blade Runner 2049, and discusses the ending of the movie in detail. Reader discretion is advised.

The original Blade Runner, released in 1982 to mixed reviews and modest box office returns, was a movie of totemic objects. Director Ridley Scott, along with production designer Lawrence G. Paull and art director David Snyder, conceived of a neon-hewed science-fiction universe filled with eye-catching items like Rick Deckard's hefty blaster, his sturdy whiskey glass, and the clunky, polygraph-like Voight-Kampff machine used to test subjects suspected of being replicants. But the most important prop in the film, the one that has inspired decades of debate even between its director and star, is the origami unicorn, which Deckard picks up in the film's final scene. Few props are so central to a movie's themes.

Clearly, Blade Runner 2049, the stylish new sequel from director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival), arrives in theaters with the hope that it will match (or potentially surpass!) the artistic highs of the first movie -- and even create the same spirited arguments that fueled the original's cult reputation. But does it also attempt to introduce its own cryptically symbolic animal figurine and use it in the finale to create a moment of whoa-dude-level ambiguity? Of course it does.

Instead of a piece of origami of a mythical creature, the twist in Blade Runner 2049 centers around a wooden toy horse. In addition to brooding, investigating worm farms, and looking very cool in a shearling coat, Ryan Gosling's K, the protagonist of the new movie, spends much of his screen time obsessing over this little souvenir, and you might leave the theater with some questions about it. Like, seriously, what's with the damn horse? Why is it so important? What does it meaaaannnn?

Blade Runner 2049
Warner Bros.

Though we first learn about the toy horse from one of K's memories, the vision is immediately called into question because he's a replicant. Any viewer of the original knows that replicants are embedded with memories -- the mind-bending novel by Philip K. Dick that inspired the first film is titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- but the plot of the movie hinges on the idea that K's childhood recollections might actually be real. It's a clever reversal: Instead of a story about a human who might be a robot, Blade Runner 2049 is a story about a robot who might be a human.

That human quality is rooted in a childhood flashback where K is playing with the toy but gets bullied by some other children. Desperate to preserve the horse, he hides it. When visiting an orphanage in the present, he discovers it in the same hiding spot, which inspires some heavy existential pondering. The horse has also a series of numbers etched on its feet -- 06.10.21 -- and they match the same date carved on the tree where the body of the replicant mother was buried at the beginning of the movie. It's a revelation that actually calls for the "BRAAAM" of composer Hans Zimmer's music.

Though the search to find and kill a replicant child is what drives the action, K's quest for a soul, which takes him on a journey from Los Angeles to San Diego to Las Vegas, is what powers the film's plot and inspires much of the dialogue. "I always told you you were special," says K's holographic girlfriend Joi at one point. That faith in the possibility of his own specialness, the Pinocchio-like dream of being a "real boy" that has informed countless sci-fi tales, is also what eventually brings him to the now haggard, T-shirt-sporting Rick Deckard. Could this gruff ex-blade runner be his father? At the very least, they share a love of growling and punching people. 

Blade Runner 2049
Warner Bros.

To simplify things, the answer to the "Is K actually the Deckard's son?" question is no. (At the very least, this differentiates the movie from the similar daddy issues dynamic of Ford's role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.) As the film thunders to its conclusion, which includes a thrilling fight in a car slowly filling with water, we get one last twist. K learns from the leader of the burgeoning replicant freedom fighter movement that Deckard's child was a girl. More specifically, his daughter is Dr. Ana Stelline, the kind-hearted woman who designs memories for replicants. K actually meets her earlier in one of the movie's more enchanting scenes.

That same beguiling tone returns as the film ends and Deckard reunites with his daughter, who must be kept inside because of an auto-immune condition that may or may not be real. The sentimental encounter is offset by the stark image of K slowly dying as blood pours out underneath his jacket and snow falls around him. Here Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who gives each meticulously composed frame a languid grandeur, echo the rain that falls around Roy Batty towards the close of the original. (To me, it definitely looked like K was about to die, though obviously there will be diverting opinions.) That constant twinning of plot points, creating nostalgic reverberations and deja-vu-like familiarity in nearly every scene, will either be your favorite or least favorite part of the sequel. It really depends on if you love getting lost in a somber blockbuster reverie. 

How does all this relate to the wooden horse? On a thematic level, it represents K's yearning for humanity, a soul, and freewill. He wants to be "born, not made." Also, like the film itself, the wooden toy horse evokes nostalgia. It turns out that the wooden horse memory is Ana's and that it was embedded in K's memory as a safeguard to hide her identity. The specific motivations behind that decision are a bit confusing and will likely become more clear after a re-watch or two. Perhaps, if this film truly follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, it's a detail that will be further teased out in director's cuts that arrive in the future. After all, it wouldn't be a Blade Runner movie if every piece of the puzzle fell into place on first viewing.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.