This The Lost Daughter article contains major spoilers for the ending. You can read our spoiler-free review of the Netflix film here.
When it comes to movies with similar story elements to The Lost Daughter, we are conditioned to expect a specific kind of immense, external tragedy—namely, that a child is lost through abduction or death and the parent must grieve and endure. The Lost Daughter, however, subverts these genre expectations. There is no tragedy in the traditional sense: Nina’s three-year-old, Elena, goes missing, but she is quickly found. Flashbacks hint that Bianca, the younger of protagonist Leda’s two daughters, may have gone missing during a day at the beach too, but we eventually discover that was not the case at all. Even Leda’s mysterious stomach wound, which we see in the opening minutes of the film before flashing back, has an unexpected explanation. When it comes to stories about parents and lost children, we are culturally conditioned to expect tragedy and, in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, we get it, but in a far more simultaneously complex and mundane way. The Lost Daughter suggests that, for many women, motherhood itself is the tragedy.
What Does The Lost Daughter Ending Mean?
The Lost Daughter begins near the end of its chronology, as we see Olivia Colman’s Leda stumbling down a dark beach, blood leaking from her stomach to stain her white dress. We don’t know what has driven her to this point, or what she might be searching for, if anything. She collapses, alone where the sea meets the shore. This is how we meet the film’s deeply complex protagonist.
What happened to Leda to bring her to this point: alone, perhaps dying, on a beach? This is the question more or less driving The Lost Daughter, but the film refuses to give an easy answer. There is a literal answer, of course: We eventually discover that Leda was stabbed by young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) after Leda confessed to stealing and keeping Elena’s doll. But the full answer is much more complex, and the film spends its entire two hours trying to give shape to it. Leda is brought to that beach by the “crushing responsibility” that motherhood puts on women in our culture.
Why Does Nina Stab Leda?
Nina’s hatpin attack is an externalization of what the film depicts as the suffocating weight of motherhood. Throughout the film, we see how much Nina is struggling, from Leda’s own sympathetic perspective as someone who has gone through it before. They share a kinship of those who share the same kind of lived experience—in this case, motherhood. Mother-to-be Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk), who is eager to become a mother herself but does not yet have the lived experience of motherhood, is quite obviously considered an outsider to this connection, despite the instances of nurturing she performs. From Leda and Nina’s perspective, Callie is choosing nurturing; it is not thrust, all-encompassing, upon her. Or at least it hasn’t been yet.
In the third act, when Nina comes to Leda’s house to get the keys for a future rendezvous with lover Will, she also comes to ask Leda a desperate question: This will pass, right? This weight. This burden. This demand to always be available for nurturing, with never enough help or time or space for anything else. “You’re so young and it doesn’t pass. None of this passes,” Leda tells her, and that’s what drives Nina to stab Leda with the hatpin, a symbol of femininity that Leda associates with her grandmother, into Leda’s stomach. She’s not mad about the doll, not really. She feels betrayed by this person she thought understood her, and by the realization that Leda may be right. That this won’t pass. Not ever. Not with the way society is structured, with different rules and expectations for fathers versus mothers. Not with the way society expects women to martyr themselves on the altar of motherhood, and not to have complicated feelings about the sacrifices that entails.
In this way, Leda’s wound too is driven by the crushing weight of motherhood, and the rage that both Leda and Nina feel because of it. The anger and frustration they feel over not having another option in how to be a mother, other than this all-consuming one. It is the quiet, sustained cruelty of motherhood as it is culturally constructed made tangible in a kind of violence that more people understand and grant weight to.
What Does the Doll Represent in The Lost Daughter?
Dolls are symbols of motherhood. Our society tends to give them to little girls as a way to practice and perform nurturing, just as their mothers are expected to do for them. From an early age, we condition our girls to be mothers. There is nothing inherently wrong with nurturing, of course—quite the opposite. The ability to nurture is hugely important to every society, and can be a beautiful and rewarding act. However, we disproportionately place the burden of nurturing on girls and women, expecting one half of the population to do all of the emotional labor for family, friendships, workplaces, and other kinds of community. When children are small and parents age, women are expected to care for them, and it is expected to come naturally and without complaint, as if giving girls dolls from the time they are small and telling us we should love them has nothing to do with it. As if every girl dreams of the same exact thing and, even if they do, that dream should be at the expense of all other dreams or parts of herself.
With the doll, Leda tries motherhood back on for size. She cleans the doll and dresses it in new clothes. When Nina asks why she took it and then kept it, she can’t explain her fascination with it; she doesn’t understand herself. It’s the same kind of confusion she has around her own identity as mother—not the love she has for her kids, but the relationship she has to the culturally constructed boxes we label as “motherhood” and trap women into. Perhaps, in keeping it away from both Nina and Elena, she is trying to break the cycle of forced nurturing, an act of punishment and mercy at the same time.
Does Leda Die at the End of The Lost Daughter?
The film ends with Leda sitting on the beach after having been woken up by the waves, talking to her two grown daughters on the phone. She laughs through tears as she speaks to them, peeling an orange like she did for her kids when they were young. This time, she is peeling it for herself; they don’t get to have a piece or demand a performance, though she has the option I suppose to offer them the latter.
In this moment and in others, Leda is able to enjoy motherhood too (an experience we have many depictions of in our culture), but at a distance and while still physically wounded and bleeding out in a symbolic representation of if not motherhood, then the wound that trying to escape its clutches cost her. We don’t know what will come of her, and that is intentional. Motherhood doesn’t end, not in The Lost Daughter‘s understanding of it. Leda couldn’t escape it even by running away, her return framed as something selfish in a way that most other movies would depict as the selfless part of her journey. As Leda sees it, however, the returning was the selfish thing; it was not driven by a desire to be a mother but by the love she has for her children. Just the fact that these two motivations are framed as partially distinct is a cultural subversion. “Poor creatures that came out my belly,” Leda says to Will as a description of her grown daughters. “You know, the bits I find most beautiful about them are the bits that feel alien to me because I don’t have to take responsibility for that.” She can love her children while hating motherhood.
In the end, it’s not clear if Leda dies from her stomach wound or not. I am inclined to believe that she does not, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? The wound is a real, tangible thing, but it is also so deeply metaphoric: a representation of the weight of motherhood that she will never fully be able to leave behind. In that way, Leda will have to carry it with her, for however long she survives. For now, as Leda tells her children, she is alive actually. She is her own person, mother and not, and she is OK.