One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Ending Explained

This article contains references to abuse, prejudice, and murder

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest brought author Ken Kesey’s counterculture vision to life, but its ending was anything but straightforward. Based on the novel of the same name, the film was released in 1975 to overwhelmingly positive critical praise due in large part to director Miloš Forman’s brilliant handling of the difficult subject matter. The movie was hugely successful at the Academy Awards and became only the second film to win all five major categories (and its legacy grew in the ensuing decades, including earning a spot on the AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies list).


The film was a perfect storm of content and execution, and though it is best remembered for its performances from the likes of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, its star-studded cast was only one small part of the equation. Randle McMurphy was one of Jack Nicholson’s great anti-hero roles, but the character was merely a cog in the massive machinery that made up Kesey’s multilayered story. While the surface-level tale of rebellion within the institution was present, the real intrigue of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was what bubbled underneath the surface. Characters were a clue, and the key to understanding the film was through perspective and symbolism.

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Billy Didn’t Leave With McMurphy And Chief Because He Was Afraid Of The Consequences

Although the shy Billy Bibbet spent the bulk of the film being domineered by the overpowering personalities of his colleagues, the youngest character on the ward was an important part of the story. Despite being one of the ward’s many voluntary cases, Billy was unable to make a decision for himself. Although actor Brad Dourif would become synonymous with horror later in his career, his defining turn as Billy Bibbit was one of the film’s most unsung aspects. Billy had spent the entire film undermined by Nurse Ratched and she was the source of his troubles, by proxy.

Billy’s real problem was the relationship he had with his domineering mother, and her seemingly omnipotent and watchful eye would eventually lead him to his demise. Billy wouldn’t leave with the other two because he was too frightened of the consequences (even though he would have faced no punishment since he was a voluntary case). Unlike Chief and McMurphy who were committed by the state, Billy could come and go if he wanted but was too terrified of Nurse Ratched, and his mother, to ever counteract a directive from them. Billy was a symbol for those who could leave the oppressive system but were too afraid to be contrary.

Why The Hydrotherapy Console Was An Important Symbol

The book and movie versions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were filled to the brim with symbolism, though the film wasn’t quite as explicit with its messaging as Kesey’s original vision. One of the more subtle images from both versions was the hydrotherapy console, the appliance Chief eventually used to free himself from the ward. McMurphy was shown attempting to lift the heavy device, and it took everything Chief had to lift the console and throw it through the window. While it seemed simply to be the most convenient method of escape, the actual history of hydrotherapy gave it symbolic value.

Although hydrotherapy was one of alternative medicine’s more innocuous treatments, there was an extensive history of the practice being used to treat mental health conditions in the 19th and 20th centuries. Before one of the saddest goodbyes in movie history, Chief remembered McMurphy’s idea and put it into practice. The treatment was designed to “free” patients from their afflictions, and Chief ironically used it to free himself from the ward, which was the real source of his pain. Chief was capable of his escape act all along, but it took the arrival of Randle P. McMurphy to teach him just how big and strong he really was.

RELATED: Where To Watch One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Nurse Ratched Represented The Status Quo & Mainstream Ideas

Ostensibly the villain of the film, Nurse Ratched spent the entire story finding subtle ways to torture and punish her charges on the ward. Although she was merely an instrument of a much larger institution, it seemed as if she took particular pride in being as rigid as possible. Ratched’s character was filtered through the perspectives of the men on the ward, and she never acted as the tyrant she always seemed to be. Although she was a despicable villain that never got what she deserved, she was also a symbolic figure for something much larger than herself.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was as much a film about psychiatric hospitals as it was about society as a whole, and Nurse Ratched represented the status quo. She embodied the mainstream ideas that governed American life, and her desire to mold the supposedly sick men in her ward was that status quo going on the attack. Figures like McMurphy couldn’t fit into Ratched’s polite society, and she eventually changed him for the worst. For Chief, Ratched prejudices derived from the fact he was an Indigenous person that existed outside of her vision of crisp civility.

Why Chief Killed McMurphy

Following McMurphy’s attempt to strangle Nurse Ratched, the ward’s resident troublemaker became the victim of the system’s final punishment, and he was lobotomized. McMurphy was a rare movie hero who actually lost in the end, and in that the film fulfilled many of its strongest symbols. McMurphy represented counterculture in the face of established societal structures, and his defeat made him a martyr in the eyes of Chief. Upon realizing that his newfound friend had been lobotomized, Chief smothered McMurphy with a pillow before making his grand escape from the ward.

There was no cruelty in Chief’s act, and in his own way, he freed McMurphy from the bonds that had kept him down. Chief was inspired to escape by McMurphy, and when he saw that his friend could not come with him, he gave Randle his own form of escape. Besides being a heartbreaking finale, it also exhibited the final philosophy of the story and encapsulated the idea that the system might be unbeatable. The other best films of the American New Wave were similarly dour, and they managed to be more inspiring because they didn’t have the typical Hollywood endings of films past.

RELATED: Why McMurphy In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Is A Perfect Protagonist (& Nurse Ratched Is A Perfect Villain)

The True Meaning Of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s Ending

The ending of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was just as challenging and symbolic as the rest of the film, and it was also something of a twist as it essentially revealed that Chief was the main character when he put an end to McMurphy’s suffering. Although Kesey’s idea of comparing counter-culture to the struggles of the Indigenous peoples of the United States was a bit problematic, there was symbolic value. The shots of the ward going back to normal showed that the status quo had won in the end, but the images of a wounded Nurse Ratched proved it was possible to defeat the system.

MORE: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Movie Vs. Ratched (Which Version Is Better?)

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