Just putting it out there right away: we are only discussing the ending to the original Terminator. We will not be discussing the timeline-shattering implications of T2's "There's no fate but what we make" ending. Nor will we be discussing the auto-correcting time paradoxes of Rise of the Machines.
As for Terminator: Genesys…you know what you did. And you should be ashamed of yourself.
But even focusing solely on The Terminator, where do we even start? Between the high-speed car chases, the gun fire, that exploding 18-wheeler, and the nightmare fuel that is the Terminator's endoskeleton, there's a lot to take in at the film's ending. We guess Reese's death is as good a place as any to launch this discussion.
After a desperate chase through a factory assembly floor, the Terminator and Reese square off. Grievously injured, Reese is overpowered by his mechanical foe. Yelling at Sarah to run, he jams his last explosive in the Terminator, blowing it in half—and killing himself in the process.
Can we just take a moment to point out how great Reese's death is? It lacks all Hollywood schmaltz. There is no long-winded speech cradled in Sarah's arms before breathing his last as Sarah delicately closes his eyes with a gentle stroke of her finger tips. Nope. His death is a sudden, unexpected, violent end. And in a film where death is so thematically important, that's just pitch-perfect.
Reese's death is important for Sarah's character, too, as the event instantly removes the last support from her life. For the first time in the film, she finds herself alone and forced to fend for herself. Heck, even Ginger was there for support when Sarah was dumped at the film's beginning, and she didn't have a bit of shrapnel lodged in her leg then.
Well, at least the Terminator's been defeated, right?
Ha ha. Wrong.
Like any good movie monster, the Terminator returns at the last moment to finish the job he started. Lacking legs, the cyborg can only crawl after Sarah, and so begins the slowest, crawliest chase ever. Thinking on her feet, Sarah traps the Terminator beneath a hydraulic press and turns on the machine. Her final words to her pursuer: "You're terminated, f*cker!"
Sure, that last line is a little too Hollywood, but it and this scene show Sarah's character development. When we first met her, all she could do was run and hide in the Tech Noir nightclub. Her survival was completely dependent on Reese and the police officers protecting her. Here, injured and alone, she manages to defeat the implacable Terminator with only her wits, her determination, and an industrial-sized hydraulic press.
While this final confrontation is the clearest sign of Sarah's development, other moments leading up to it have also clued us in. For example, there was the time she pulled an injured Reese from the wrecked truck, and there was her refusal to leave Reese to face the Terminator alone. Oh, and let's not forget the time she kept Reese from giving up by going full-on drill sergeant: "On your feet solider!" No meek and mild waitress there.
In these moments, we see the birth of Sarah Connor, the legend who will teach John Connor how to fight and win against the technological apocalypse to come.
On a Horse With No Name
Actually, it's a Jeep, but when we catch up with Sarah again, she's traveling through the desert. Here, her transformation to the Sarah "Legendary Mom Warrior of Futuretown" Connor is even more apparent. She's also accepted the role she'll play in future history and has begun a series of audio recordings to teach her unborn son, John, about all that's happened.
Here, she's dressed in more casual, neutral attire, and her hair is freer. She's got a dog for spotting terminators, which shows that she took Reese's lessons to heart. Finally, she's cradling a gun in her lap. Or maybe it would be more accurate to call that monster a hand cannon?
Sarah also shows herself to be worldlier than she was. She begins to learn Spanish, and when the kid says that his father will beat him unless she buys the picture he just took, she spots his hustle right away.
The big reveal of this scene, however, is not that Sarah is pregnant with the future leader of humanity, John Conner; it's that Reese is the father:
SARAH: Should I tell you about your father? Boy, that's a tough one. Will it affect your decision to send him here, knowing that he is your father? If you don't send Kyle, you can never be. God, a person could go crazy thinking about this. I suppose I will tell you. I owe him that.
In Terminator, we discover that time is cyclical. Reese was sent back to the future to protect Sarah from the Terminator so that John could be born. But if Reese had never been sent back, then there would be no John to protect, right? It creates an infinite time loop.
Now, we're not going to get into the theoretical implications of time travel and grandfather paradoxes because we want to make this headache-free. The takeaway is this: if time is cyclical, then it cannot be changed. If Sarah found a way to prevent the Terminators from ever being, then Reese would never be sent back. No Reese, no John, and so on.
Sarah understands this and has accepted her fate:
The boy speaks in Spanish.
SARAH: What did he just say?
OLD MAN: He said there's a storm coming in.
SARAH: I know.
It's a bit on the nose, but that storm obviously symbolizes the turbulent future awaiting Sarah, John, and the rest of humanity. It can't be avoided. Yet despite knowing how difficult the future will be, Sarah leaves the gas station determined to confront it head-on, as evidenced by the way she drives directly into the oncoming storm. She has chosen not to run and hide, and Terminator ends on this change in Sarah's character—and with the promise that humanity will ultimately succeed against its own technology in the future.
Ultimately, it's a happy ending for such a dark film. Granted, there's an entire robot apocalypse standing between the characters and their happy ending, but we're counting that ending.