The Last Thing He Wanted ending explained - because it is very, very confusing

Gabriella Geisinger
Photo credit: Netflix

From Digital Spy

To fully explain just what happened in The Last Thing He Wanted, you have to read the book. (It's okay, we've done it for you.) Written by Joan Didion, The Last Thing He Wanted was adapted for the screen by Ree Dees (Mudbound) who co-wrote the screenplay with Marco Villalobos.

Unfortunately, the duo couldn't make the lauded source material come to life with any of the same eloquence and sharpness that Didion did, or make her blossoming denouement happen in any effective way. In fact, the storytelling was so confusing, nothing short of reading the novel will help – even though Rees took liberties with the plot.

So we did, and it helped! Now we're able to tell you exactly what happened in The Last Thing He Wanted. Warning: if you haven't read the novel or watched the film, steer clear of this article! You can read our spoiler-free review of the Netflix film instead.

Photo credit: Netflix

The Last Thing He Wanted begins in the early 1980s, during El Salvador's political crisis, with Elena (Anne Hathaway) and her friend and co-worker Alma (Rosie Perez). The two escape the Central American country by the skin of their teeth when paramilitary forces storm their press office.

In 1984, Elena's desk (which reports on Central American political unrest) has been 'frozen' by the powers that be and she has been moved to Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign trail. She goes grudgingly but uses the time to interrogate people – in particular, secretary of state George Shultz (a real person, now aged 99) – about weapons smuggling to Nicaragua.

While travelling, pictures are slipped into her hotel room which show her father with some guns in an undisclosed Central American country with the note 'Close to home? Back off'.

Photo credit: Netflix

After being lambasted by her boss for chasing the wrong story, Elena gets a call: her absent, gun-running father Dick (Willem Dafoe) is in the hospital. Without an explanation, she walks out of her job and heads to Florida to take care of her father. But Dick has a big deal brewing and pleads with Elena to complete it in his stead.

She acquiesces, perhaps out of a desire to get the scoop she was chasing before being reassigned and gets on a plane to a mysterious location. It turns out to be Nicaragua.

Elena delivers the guns, hoping to get the million-dollar payday her father promised. Instead, she's given suitcases of cocaine. She decides to stay and find the story instead of getting back on the plane.

The man running the deal at the airstrip calls himself Jones, and he takes her by car to a secondary location. She manages to get the upper hand, hijacks the car and leaves Jones in the wilderness.

Photo credit: Netflix

Meanwhile, in Washington DC George Shultz is getting conflicting advice from an American Ambassador, Treat Morrison (Ben Affleck) and senate aide Mark Berquist. They discuss the strategic leaking of information to Elena.

It doesn't seem like a decision is made. Even we're a bit fuzzy on what happens, but what we do know is that Shultz has a soft spot for Treat.

Back in Central America, Elena drives to Costa Rica and calls Alma. Alma tells her that the man Dick said was his partner, Max Epperson, doesn't exist but there is a man named Bob Weir who turns up in places right before major political catastrophes – including the attack on their press office in the early '80s.

Photo credit: Netflix

Elena manages to get to a hotel in San Jose but is soon tracked down by one of her father's associates (played by Mel Rodriguez) who provides her with a passport and ticket out and instructs her to take a particular taxi.

But while this happens, Treat sits down with Shultz. The two share apple pie, yep, and cryptically discuss the plan to make Elena the fall-guy for a fake assassination plot that will allow the US government to continue supplying excess arms to Nicaraguan contra fighters (and thus support Iranian interests) and also… might get Treat elected president one day? It's very weird, and all wrapped up in a metaphor about eating pie with a fork vs a spoon and was not in Didion's original text.

She is dropped off at the airport, but while in the queue at the airport, her taxi driver rushes in and tries to give her the bag, revealed to have one of the packs of cocaine inside. She shakes him off, claiming her name is Elise Meyers (which is what is on the fake passport, her real passport having now vanished), and boards the plane to Antigua.

Photo credit: Netflix

There she runs into none other than Treat. The two have a brief affair, but soon it's cut short when armed fighters attack the hotel and try to assassinate Treat (or so we're meant to believe, but we learn later that these assassins were funded by Berquist).

Elena escapes, thanks to the sudden appearance of Jones (Edi Gathegi). Once clear, Jones explains how her father was being set up as a patsy, and now Elena has taken his place. On a call, Alma tells her about a French operative who is investigating the same thing she is.

For some reason this spooks Elena, who runs... back to Treat. She is placed, by Treat presumably, in a dilapidated hotel run by a randomly placed Toby Jones. She lays low there, Treat telling her not to come to him again as it isn't safe.

Photo credit: Netflix

But Elena can't help herself and her talent for sniffing out a story is piqued. While snooping, she finds Berquist's business card hidden in the hotel manager's drawer.

Soon after, she realises that Bob Weir has arrived and she also realises that the man her father referred to as Max Epperson is actually Bob.

Fearing for her life, she runs to Treat. He hides her, and the next day he details the plan of her escape. First, however, she has to go back and find her notes and film to bring with her back to the states which prove the US has been supporting Contra fighters.

Elena obliges, but back at the hotel is caught in gunfire – Jones appears again and Elena hides from him. When she comes out, she finds that her notes and film (which she uncharacteristically left out on a random shelf while wandering around the clearly disturbed hotel) are gone.


Despondent, Elena wanders down the bluff. Then Treat calls her name. She turns and he shoots her twice in the chest. Elena tumbles off the bluff. Her fall is narrated by Treat, sometime later, describing 'what happened' to the press.

His version of events is that Elena was the assassin all along and that he shot her in self-defence.

We also see Alma as she types out Elena's story, presumably making her the sometime narrator (though the voice-over is Hathaway), with the notes that Jones had stolen from the hotel.

Photo credit: Netflix

One major change from the novel is Elena's murderer. In the book, there actually is an assassin. He is still a plant, part of a scheme of the right-wing US government, and in the novel he kills Elena and wounds Treat. The movie also frames Treat as someone almost wilfully ignorant of what would happen, but Rees has made him the trigger man.

Despite the confusion of the film, we still recommend reading the novel. Its sharp, staccato prose crafts beautiful imagery and the thrills are earned.

The Last Thing He Wanted is available to stream on Netflix.

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