Tenet Timelines

The movie Tenet makes use of nonlinear storytelling in its purest form: the main characters literally “zig-zag” through time within the bounds of a two-week period, as illustrated in the “stacked timeline” below. This is my attempt to make sense of the timelines as well as some of the essential mechanics of the storyline after an initial viewing. The timeline below is by no means precise (hence no metric indicators on the time axis), but I do believe that the shapes are basically correct.

Timeline Legend

  • Red: The Protagonist’s (John David Washington) Timeline
  • Blue: Neil’s (Robert Pattinson) Timeline
  • Purple: Kat’s (Elizabeth Debicki) Timeline
  • Gray: Andrei Sator’s (Kenneth Branagh) Timeline
  • Black: The Universe’s (i.e., laws of physics) Timeline
  • Labeled Circles: Key Movie Events (see below)

Key Movie Events

  1. The opera house in Kiev is sieged. The Protagonist is unwittingly saved by Neil, who sports his backpack with red lanyard attached (face not seen).
  2. The Protagonist and Neil break into the penthouse suite in India by bungee jumping, and learn of Sator, who is communicating somehow with the future.
  3. The Protagonist meets Kat and Sator in London, and agrees to steal plutonium for Sator.
  4. Neil and the Protagonist break into the Norwegian vault by crashing a plane into it, and are met by a mysterious masked character: (A) The protagonist fights with the mysterious figure, who is actually himself traveling backwards through time. (B) Neil simultaneously struggles with the Protagonist who has flipped back to going forwards in time, then realizes who he is, causing him to warn the current version of the Protagonist to not inadvertently kill himself by killing the mysterious figure.
  5. (Told in flashback by Kat) Sator and Kat have a massive fight on a yacht in Vietnam when Sator offers to stop blackmailing her if she agrees to never see her son again.
  6. The Protagonist and Neil steal the plutonium (which actually turns out to be the last piece needed to assemble The Algorithm) and are tricked/manipulated by Sator to give it up, especially when Kat’s life is threatened with a gunshot wound and radiation exposure.
  7. The climax events of the movie: (A) The Protagonist and Neil take part in a huge offensive to take hold of The Algorithm before the bad guys can set off a homing beacon, alerting the enemies in the future to where it is so that they can set it off, destroying the past. In a final act of heroism which we see from The Protagonist’s perspective (but actually is carried out after their final exchange, offscreen), Neil descends into the hole where The Algorithm is so that he can unlock the gate and take a bullet for The Protagonist. Once again, the lanyard on the backpack gives this fact away. (B) Simultaneously, Kat and Sator have returned to Vietnam to relive an important moment alluded to earlier. Sator wants to have one last enjoyable moment before telling his henchmen to set the homing beacon for The Algorithm. He thinks he’s interacting with the Kat from the original event, whereas the Kat who has been experiencing all the events of this movie up to this point has actually snuck onto the Yacht, and her mission is to have him die without it setting off the homing beacon.
  8. After the film’s resolution, The Protagonist saves Kat from being killed off as a loose end. As a rule of the Tenet organization (to be founded by The Protagonist in the future), all who see The Algorithm must be killed off at some point (hence the cyanide pill test at the beginning of the movie for those who would be admitted to the program—they need to demonstrate that they are willing to die for a good cause) so that they can’t be interrogated in the future and reveal the location of The Algorithm in the past. The Protagonist violates his own organization’s rules by saving her, and the two of them become the only main characters to live beyond the events of the movie.


  • To understand the implications of the zig-zagged timelines, you have to take them at face value, which is to say that for much of the movie, there are other “copies” of the main characters going around doing things which you don’t know about. For example, around the same point in time corresponding to (1) on the timeline, there’s one copy of The Protagonist and Neil at the opera house, but at the same point in time, there are two copies of The Protagonist and three copies of Neil, all running around the place where the climactic battle for The Algorithm happened. Similarly, around the time of (4), there were five different copies of The Protagonist running around, with three of them within just a few feet of each other in that Norwegian vault.
    • You don’t have to think too hard about this to see where issues of free will might come up, as they mention at the start of the movie (e.g., “If I see my future inverted self do \(\chi\), then can I just choose to do \(\mathcal{Y}\) instead? In that case, why did I see my future self do \(\chi\)?”) The movie kind of brushes this off with the phrase “what’s done is done” as well as what seems like a pseudo-compatibilist philosophical argument, but that would be fun to discuss beyond the scope of these notes.
    • It also follows from the zig-zag timeline lengths that while the entire movie takes place within the span of about two weeks, the different main characters age different amounts during this time. For example, The Protagonist appears to age about six weeks during the course of the film, whereas Sator only experiences/ages about four weeks’ time.
  • Alongside the bi-directional, piecewise main character timelines, it may seem trivial to include the linear universal timeline at the bottom. However, it’s actually really important to think of each character’s timeline in terms of how it relates to the universal timeline. For example, in the movie, they claim that inverted people will experience physics (e.g., friction, sounds, heat transfer, etc.) in a backwards, counter-intuitive manner. But, if the universal timeline were pointing to the left instead of to the right (that is, if the universe itself were inverted), then it would be the opposite—those moving forward in time would be the ones experiencing the weird physics (The notion of inverted heat transfer, etc. as a result of inverted entropy/time perception is a bit bogus, but still a cool idea for the film)!
    • This is what the nameless enemies of the future wanted to accomplish by activating The Algorithm; they wanted to reverse the direction of the universal timeline so that the people of the future could travel in the other direction, back to a time before the Earth was ruined by human mismanagement.
    • Now imagine the universal timeline reversing direction, zig-zagging like the main character timelines. In the movie, they claimed that touching your alternate, inverted self (without a protective suit on) would result in your spatial-temporal annihilation. If the whole universe inverted, then everything would fold back on itself for just this sort of annihilation, spelling catastrophe for anything to the left of the universal folding point and presumably leaving an empty space for the future to occupy in their newly-inverted timeline.

All in all, very cool movie! For me, it wasn’t quite as emotionally fulfilling as most of Nolan’s other films, but was still a blast in its own right.