Main Ending Explained
At the bottom of the ocean, Selene finds the “entity” that continues to resurrect her after each death. The screen cuts to black, and then we see a car traveling through a dark forest at night.
A child in the backseat of the car holds Octo, the plushie squid that you may be familiar with if you played through the haunted houses segments earlier in the game. In the background, Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Öyster Cult plays on the car radio.
The child says “Mom, do you see the White Shadow?” moments before the radio begins to fizz out with static. The camera turns to the radio, which is dialed to the signal 107.7. The car’s clock also reads 8:36 PM, and the outside temperature is 52 degrees Fahrenheit.
Trivia: Each of these motifs (the song, the numbers, the scenery) show up throughout Returnal, but the numbers 8:36 are especially prevalent. They first appear at the end of Act 1 as the news broadcast of Selene’s apparent return from Atropos is played at 8:36 AM. Selene is also said to have lived for 63 years and eight days after returning to Earth, which, backwards, is 836. The meaning of 836 can be interpreted in any number of ways, but a few Internet searches suggest that its most common interpretation among Numerologists is something along the lines of “your prayers have been received, be ready to receive rewards”, or just general good luck and good fortune.
As the driver (revealed to be Selene, or someone who looks just like Selene) looks up from the radio, she narrowly spots an astronaut in the middle of the road. Braking hard and spinning the wheel sharply as to avoid hitting the astronaut, she loses control over the vehicle, which crashes through the railing of a bridge and into the water below.
The car sinks to the bottom of the river, and the scene skips forward a few moments to show both passengers unconscious in a car now filled with water. A mysterious entity, presumably the one we saw earlier, appears and shines a bright red light on Selene, waking her up.
Selene attempts to grab the child’s hand, but is sucked out of the car by the mysterious entity before she can get a grip. The child is presumably left in the interior of the car at the bottom of the river.
A final underwater shot of the water’s surface is interrupted as a thick foggy mass appears to block out the screen, cutting the shot to black before Returnal’s title card appears on screen and the credits roll.
In it, Selene returns to the car that she left underwater in the previous ending. This time, she’s teleported to a strange void where she finds a skeletal alien sitting in a wheelchair. The alien looks up at Selene just long enough for the two to make eye contact. Well, eye socket contact if you want to get specific about it.
Then the alien leaps up and weak-handedly attempts to strangle Selene, who cries out “I told you to leave me alone!” before pushing the alien off of her.
The alien calls out for Selene, revealing itself to be Theia (but only if you’re playing with subtitles turned on). If you didn’t pick it up earlier in the campaign, Theia is Selene’s mother, who appeared in several earlier haunted houses. It’s clear now that Theia is a point of guilt for Selene.
The camera zooms into Selene’s head, and we now see things from her perspective. She looks down at her hands, then turns left to see the oncoming car that we saw in the first ending. It’s apparent that we are now seeing things from the perspective of the astronaut that the car narrowly swerved to avoid.
We skip to an underwater shot from the perspective of Selene, who is now trying to swim to the water’s surface. The screen fades to white, then cuts to black, and we hear Selene gasp the final word, “Helios.”
What It All Means
Returnal leaves us with more questions than answers. Its true ending seems to suggest that Selene is both the driver and the astronaut that runs her off the road, which further suggests the existence of parallel realities even on Returnal’s version of Earth.
Further, we see evidence throughout Returnal that, at different points in time, Selene is clearly both guilty about the loss of her child and of her mother. We already know that Selene’s mother is Theia, who we encounter in the secret ending, but it’s also highly probable that Selene’s child is named Helios, which is also the name of Selene’s spaceship.
Once more, we’re not entirely sure that there’s a concrete way to tie everything together. But it’s not difficult to theorize that Selene not only exists in different iterations across several dimensions, but that the entire world of Atropos is one extended dream sequence woven together out of the traumas experienced by each of those different Selenes.
Furthermore, Scout Logs throughout the campaign suggest that Selene (rather, astronaut Selene) is guilty about leaving her family behind on Earth to venture off into space. It’s also suggested that Theia herself was once an astronaut from the “Apollo Era”, who may have shown a younger Selene photos of herself fully kitted out in astronaut gear. All of these bits could potentially explain the guilt that Selene feels related to Theia, who she would have presumably left behind when going off to explore space herself. And based on the motif of the wheelchair, Theia may not have been in good enough health to live long enough to see her daughter return.
You could take that train of thought even deeper: if Theia was the original astronaut, and Selene saw images of her in full astronaut garb, then it’s also possible that Theia is the astronaut in the middle of the road, not Selene. In fact, you could theorize that Selene was so traumatized by the loss of her mother that she began to hallucinate, even so far as to completely imagine the astronaut in the road and the child in the backseat asking about White Shadow.
A few things are consistent no matter how you interpret the endings: the recurring crash on the planet’s surface is clearly a stand-in for the real car crash that’s central to Selene’s trauma, the “White Shadow” represents an astronaut in the middle of a dark road, and the Abyssal Scar represents the bottom of the river which is the car’s final resting place.