The 2021 film Nomadland depicts a trying, contemplative journey dealing with loss and healing for its protagonist, Fern (Frances McDormand) — here’s an explanation behind its emotionally resonant ending and what it all really means. The Chloé Zhao project picks up shortly after the death of Fern’s husband, Bo, with whom she had previously lived with in the now-ghost town of Empire, Nevada. Once Fern loses her job in the wake of her fresh grief (Nomadland is set in the aftermath of the Great Recession), she decides to pack up her belongings and live a nomadic life on the open road — all the way until the film’s very ending. As much as she’s forced into her on-the-road existence by external circumstances, Fern also takes on the journey as a sort of unspoken search for meaning — one where she opts out of the conventional society that’s cast her aside.


Nomadland follows Fern’s character as she works different jobs around the country and meets new people, many of whom are and/or have been in similar situations to her along the way. Loss, desperation, and an unrelenting, resilient search for hope are undeniably palpable forces within the period piece movie. Armed with stellar visuals, a heartachingly beautiful, piano-driven soundtrack, and subtle-yet-thoughtful plot developments and dialogue, Nomadland is one of those films that speaks volumes without explicitly saying too much at all. Its emotion organically transcends the screen for all of its 108 minutes.

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Ironically, Nomadland ends with Fern going back to her roots, even for a brief moment. Its final shots see her returning to Empire to visit the factory she and her husband used to work at, as well as the home they once shared together. She bids a farewell to the one static location that holds some sort of place in her heart before she packs up and hits the road once again, just like at the film’s start. Here’s a look at the partially-hidden meaning behind Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland and its powerful ending.

The True Story of Empire, Nevada

Nomadland empire nevada

Nomadland‘s opening title cards reference the true story of Empire, Nevada. In 2011, the US Gypsum (a company that mainly manufactures drywall and joint compounds) plant shut down after 88 years. About six months later, Empire became something of a ghost town and the zip code was even discontinued. The situation Fern faced is based in reality, as Empire was a real town that closed, subsequently forcing its population to end their lives as they once knew them and find a new existence elsewhere. The entirety of Empire’s residents had worked for that plant. Unfortunately, the organization couldn’t survive the recession of the late 2000s, so they were forced to close.

As of 2016, just a handful of citizens remained. Empire Mining Co. purchased the town that year and partially reopened it. However, the company only employed some of those residents, which meant that, even so, things were never the same. While Fern is a fictional character, her personal journey in Nomadland touches on the true story of Empire, Nevada — one that certainly didn’t have a neat or tidy ending in reality either. Many of Empire’s real residents were forced to become nomads just like Fern. They, too, likely felt lost and abruptly untethered from the lives they knew.

The Reason Fern Didn’t Stay with David

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in Nomadland

In the Nomadland ending, Fern decides not to stay with David — why? David is one of the Nomadland characters Fern meets out on the road. It’s clear from the get-go that he is taken with her, to the point that he’s willing to have her come stay with him and his family. Throughout the film, David tries his best to keep Fern by his side; he gets her a job down the road and he asks her to come live with him and his son’s family. She takes him up on his offer, but when David asks Fern to stay for a longer period of time, she doesn’t do so. Instead, she leaves the next morning without saying goodbye, indicating that part of her journey has come to an end.

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On the surface, it seems like a heartless and foolish action. However, it’s actually part of Fern’s brutally honest authenticity — which is likely part of what made many of Nomadland’s reviews call it a 2021 Oscar frontrunner after its release. David was clearly in love with her, and staying with him would have provided her with a loving relationship and a roof over her head. Even so, that’s not what Fern needed at that point in her life. As with the rest of the film, she was true to herself and what she needed to do based on the situation she was in. She clearly cared for David too, as she did all of her friends she met on the road, but not as a romantic interest.

For one thing, Fern never really began to process the death of her husband until Nomadland’s ending – that’s what her cross-country journey ends up partially lending itself to. His death was also more than that; it also signified the loss of the town Fern had seen as her home. She isn’t simply looking to “cure” all of the loss in her life during Nomadland’s timeline, or try to replace some of it with another man or another home. Rather, she’s looking to write a new chapter while moving forward on her own terms.

Why Fern Returns to Empire

Frances McDormand Nomadland

The movie Nomadland ends with Fern returning to Empire, Nevada. The timeline isn’t completely clear, but it’s implied that Bo died shortly before the film’s events. For one reason or another, Fern still hadn’t come to terms with the loss of both him and the Empire she once knew. Near the Nomadland ending, Fern runs into Bob, who is something of a leader in the nomad community. They have a heart-to-heart about the people they’ve lost – his son and her husband. Bob shares that he was able to accept his son’s death because of a common idea in their community. Rather than acknowledging death as a final goodbye, they see the passing of a loved one as more of an “I’ll see you down the road.” By treating and seeing life as an ongoing journey — one that’s cyclical in nature — loss isn’t as final. In fact, nothing is.

That idea is likely what inspires Fern to return to Empire one last time. Nomadland references how Fern’s relationship with Bo in Empire was the first time she put down both emotional and physical roots, and both were ripped from her suddenly. Her nomadic spirit meant that she wasn’t well-equipped to say goodbye at the movie’s start — that’s not what her lifestyle is about. But when Bob helps her to change her frame of mind about saying goodbye, Fern finally feels ready to bid farewell to Bo and Empire. After all, goodbyes and apparent ends aren’t really final.

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The Real Meaning of Nomadland’s Ending

Frances McDormand in Nomadland (1)

Nomadland, which is easily one of 2021’s best moviesis the epitome of the saying, “Home is where the heart is.” As evidenced by her interaction with her sister, Fern was almost born with a unique and nomadic spirit. She left home at the first chance she got and never looked back. Her home would never be one that consisted of four walls; even when she lived in Empire, she wasn’t anchored to the town — she was attached to Bo. And, of course, Fern’s return to Empire drives home that the past is truly dead — along with Bo and the town he loved. The ending also contains devastating visual symbolism for the toll the Great Recession took on so many Americans’ lives. Looper has astutely pointed out that Fern’s return in the ending “serves as a metaphor for the wreckage that the financial crisis has left in its wake.”

Still, even in stressful, hardscrabble circumstances — like her chronic lack of money throughout this Chloe Zhao-written/directed movie — Fern is most at peace (or on her way to finding peace) while on the road and untethered to one place. While roaming, she meets some of her closest friends, experiences boundless beauty, and gains the kind of emotional catharsis that only comes with time and experiene. As the Smiths lyrics tattooed on Fern’s co-worker’s arm conveyed early in the movie, home is something inside a person, and it certainly isn’t the same for everyone. At Nomadland’s end, once Fern finally started to accept Bo’s death and Empire’s closing, she was finally able to return to her home — the open road.

Where To Watch Nomadland Online

Nomadland ending

Those wanting to revisit the movie, or see it for the first time, can now watch Nomadland online. Though often cited as a 2020 movie due to a limited release at the end of that year, Nomadland officially debuted both in the United States and on streaming (via Hulu) in February 2021. Right now, the Frances McDormand-led drama can still be viewed with a Hulu subscription. Though Nomadland isn’t currently one of the movies that are available on/coming to Netflix, it can also be purchased on major streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, Vudu, and Apple TV.

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