Nomadland is a journey of healing for its protagonist Fern (Frances McDormand) and the movie’s emotional ending marks an important milestone in that journey for her. The Chloé Zhao movie picks up shortly after the death of Fern’s husband Bo, with whom she had previously lived with in Empire, NV.
Once Fern loses her job after Bo’s death, she decides to pack up her belongings and live a nomadic life on the open road in a van. The movie follows her as she takes on different jobs around the country and meets people along the way.
Coincidentally, Nomadland ends with Fern going back to her roots, even just for a moment. The final shots of the film see her returning to Empire to visit the factory she used to work at and the home she previously shared with her husband. She bids a farewell to the one static location that holds a place in her heart before she packs up on the road again. Here’s a look at what that means.
Nomadland‘s opening title cards reference the true story of Empire, Nevada. In 2011, the US Gypsum plant shut down after 88 years in the town. About six months later, Empire became something of a ghost town and the zip code was discontinued. The situation Fern faced is based in reality, as Empire was a real town that did essentially shut down. The entirety of Empire’s residents had worked for that plant. But the organization couldn’t survive the recession of the late 2000s, so they were forced to close.
When the plant shut down, residents were forced to vacate in order to find work. As of 2016, just a handful of citizens remained. Empire Mining Co. purchased the town that year and partially reopened it. The company only employed some of those residents, which meant that things still were never the same. While Fern is a fictional character, her journey represents the real residents of Empire. They, too, considered the town their home and likely felt lost when it shut down. The real residents of Empire were forced to become nomads just like Fern.
David is one of the characters Fern meets out on the road and it’s clear from the get-go that he is taken with her, so much in fact 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 life with him and his son’s family. She takes him up on her offer, but when David asks Fern over the holidays to stay for a longer period of time, she doesn’t do so. Instead, she lives the next morning without saying goodbye, indicating that part of her journey has come to an end.
On the surface, that seems like a heartless and foolish action. David was clearly in love with Fern, and she didn’t even give him the decency of a proper goodbye. Staying with him would have provided her with a loving relationship and a roof over her head. But that’s not what Fern needed at this point in her life. Fern never really processed the death of her husband, Bo – that’s what her cross-country journey was for. Bo’s death was more than just the loss of a husband for Fern, as it also signified the loss of the man and town that made her feel at home. So while she clearly cared for David, he could never be Bo. Fern couldn’t see herself settling down for another man after losing Bo, so her only answer was to leave.
Nomadland‘s ending sees Fern returning to Empire, NV. The timeline of the movie isn’t completely clear, but it’s implied that Bo died shortly before the events of the film. Fern spent all that time avoiding fully coming to terms with Bo’s death. And near the end of the film, Fern has runs into Bob, who is something of a leader in the nomad community. They have a heart-to-heart about the people they lost – his son and her husband. Bob shares 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, the community sees the passing of a loved one as more of a “see you later”.
That idea is likely what inspires Fern to return to Empire one last time. Fern’s relationship with Bo in Fern 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 — that’s not what her lifestyle is about. But when Bob helps her to change her frame of mind when it comes to saying goodbye, Fern finally feels ready to bid farewell to Bo and Empire. After all, goodbyes aren’t really final.
Nomadland is the epitome of the saying, “Home is where the heart is.” As evidenced from her interaction with her sister, Fern was born with a 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, the town wasn’t really her home — it was Bo. It’s also why she wasn’t able to settle down with David and his family, because it would be disingenuous to her true spirit. Nomadland shows that Fern is truly happiest on the road. She meets some of her closest friends and experiences boundless beauty. That’s something she would’ve never been able to experience if she lived in one place. It goes to show that home isn’t the same for everyone. Home is whatever the person makes it. Nomadland just goes to show that happiness comes in a different form for everyone. Once Fern finally made peace with Bo and Empire’s departure, she was finally able to return to her home – the open road.