Bad Times At The El Royale Explained- The Cal Neva Hotel, The Tape, Purgatory, And What It All Means
Intricate and precise, Bad Times At The El Royale is a heady morality play blended seamlessly with the best crime noir.
Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale is a masterclass in conscious symmetry. Every detail nuanced from the story is essential. The fable of seven strangers who meet one fateful night that decides their fates forever is indulgent and quietly bombastic. Brilliantly written, shot, and acted, it is for lovers of old school mysteries and modern fairy tales. If Quentin Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock wrote a movie together, it would look like this. Intentionally vague, the film leaves you with more questions than answers. Here are all those loose threads, including the hopeful ending.
Who was on the tape?
At the end of Bad Times At The El Royale Darlene tosses the mysterious tape into the fire. There are three reasonable schools of thought. If the dates of the events shown on the television are taken literally along with our known US history, the tape has either Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The date given for the events is 1969 as Nixon discusses Vietnam, and Miles tells the others that the tape was made about a year ago. In 1968 JFK was already five years dead. Both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated in 1968 during a celebration of sorts.
Both frequented a hotel on the California/Nevada line called the Cal Neva Lodge and Casino, which Frank Sinatra partially owned. Lee makes a point of saying Darlene would be interested in who was on the tape, which could be an indication it was MLK. On the other hand, Bobby is rumored to have had an affair with Marilyn Monroe(along with his brother) at the hotel. If you suspend reality and alter the factual timeline, JFK could be on the tape having an affair with Marilyn. He was a high profile man who allegedly had affairs at the hotel.
The hotel IRL has a huge shady past being funded and frequented by mobsters, including a rumored expansion bankrolled by Jimmy Hoffa. A conspiracy theory holds that Marilyn Monroe died in the hotel, not in her home and Bobby Kennedy had it all arranged. Lastly and most notable, there was a massive fire in 1937. Everything was rebuilt and the new casino did lose its gambling license after a famous mobster stayed and Sinatra attempted to bribe the commission. The FBI did surveil the hotel because of its criminal ties.
Who was Management?
Management in Bad Times At The El Royale is not the FBI as Laramie finds unexpected gear in his room. The blackmailers who were making and using the tapes were either President Nixon, who had a habit of spying without a warrant, the Russians because it is always the Russians, or mobsters who are well versed in extortion. Since mobsters owned the real hotel, it is most likely who spied and used the blackmail money as a creative revenue source. The only thing we know for sure is Miles was sending the tapes to a PO Box in Pennsylvania.
Who Killed Felix?
Most likely, the third member of the crew killed Felix. We never see his face, and he is never given a name. The three robbers split up, and only Felix and Dock know the plan to hide the money in the hotel’s floor. The newest crewmen could have followed Felix and shot him thinking he had the money in the bag. Since he didn’t know the plan, he would have no way to retrieve the money and run. Thus he killed Felix for no reason, and the money stays hidden in the hotel for Flynn to find later.
The third member of the crew was a much younger man. This rules out Miles, who would be too young at the time of the robbery, Flynn, who would have known where the money was and could have retrieved it before going to jail, Emily, Rose, and Darlene. It’s virtually impossible it was Laramie, which leaves enigmatic cult leader Billy Lee. He’s an opportunistic snake, so that wouldn’t be out of character. It is also possible it was some random dude, but this is Bad Times At The El Royale, so I refuse to believe anything is random.
Forgiveness is the key.
The only three characters to truly forgive someone are Dock/Father Daniel Flynn, Miles, and Darlene. Miles forgave himself by finding redemption in heroism. He lost his life and died on the state line, which symbolized Heaven and Hell. The moment Miles acts, he becomes the version of himself he wanted to be. He is a powerful, altruistic hero. An argument could be made he becomes an avenging archangel who finally realizes his purpose. That is why he dies on the line, not because he is both good and bad, but because as an angel he is above going to Heaven or Hell. The more straightforward possibility is he has done terrible things like spy on people, destroy his body with drugs, and killed in the war but his act of heroism balances the scale. All your sins and good deeds matter in Bad Times At The El Royale.
Perception is a lie and choices matter.
There are always three actions to choose between in Bad Times At The El Royale. The choices each character makes from which side of the hotel to stay, whether to choose red or black, what company to keep sends reverberations through the plot. Each character could choose to stay in California, Nevada, or not stay at all. They could choose red, black, or refuse to play Billy’s game. No decision is made in a vacuum and is entirely binary. Every choice has consequences.
There is always moral greyness, and there is where life and true morality happens. You can be an observer or an actor and occasionally both. The events of the night are often shown in three separate points of view. For example, when Emily kills Laramie, we see the shooting from Father Flynn’s/Miles’ perspective, from Darlene Sweets’ perspective, and Emily’s. Goddard deliberately does this to frame in the differing views.
Once you accept that how others perceive you doesn’t matter, everything falls into place. Each of the strangers has a secret or a lie that they are telling each other or themselves. Once they realize the secrets don’t matter and accept themselves for who they are, and fully embrace hope, they can complete their respective journies. Stripping away the vestiges of fallacy galvanizes each character forward. Some become the versions of themselves they want to be. Others revert to their basest motivations. Here is a breakdown of each character’s secrets and choices and how they affect their ark.
Lewis Pullman’s Miles is a damaged soul who chooses to isolate himself from the world by working in the hotel. He willingly chooses to spy on his guests and send the recordings to “Management.” He also consciously decides to hold one tape back because the man on the tape was kind to him. Miles is hiding the fact that he is a killer with a monster drug habit. As his flashback seems to indicate, he has killed people, may have gotten others killed through his inactivity.
He may be struggling with survivers guilt as well as PTSD from Vietnam. Miles did not kill 123 people for joy, but out of obedience to his superiors and to get approval from his folks. The choice he made then was to acquiesce his power. When Darlene forgives him for not picking up the gun and trying to kill Billy and the cult goons, he is finally able to reclaim his power and chooses to act. He fatally trusts Rosie, however, and she stabs him. Miles dies on the line between California and Nevada after Father Flynn forgives him. He finds peace in his decisions even as he loses his life.
Poor Jon Hamm is hardly in the movie, and as a result, we don’t know exactly which side of the line he stood. He lies about being a salesman as a cover for his FBI work. He appeared to be a buttoned-up officer of the law doing his job and trying to protect people. Laramie likely thinks of himself as a savior, but he was also a terrible misogynist and potentially racist. He makes inappropriate comments to Darlene about vacuum cleaners in the first of the film. The FBI man dies first, trying to rescue Rosie from her sister. He chooses to intervene with Emily and Rose even though his boss tells him not to get involved. He dropped his salesman act and behaved like an officer of the law. That choice leads to his death.
Father Daniel Flynn/Dock
Father Flynn and his bank robber crew, which contains coincidently three members, could commit a crime, stay on the straight and narrow or betray a crew member. Felix, Dock’s brother, chooses to commit the crime and stick to the plan. He is shot by the third man on the job but not before hiding the money. Flynn knows the money is in the hotel but does not remember which room it is in because of his condition. We know it was #5 because the three vertical windows shown at the beginning of the film are the same as Darlene’s room.
Flynn initially wants to drug Darlene to get access to her room but later teams up with her. He chooses a life of crime, chooses to lie about being a priest, and chooses to continue lying to help Miles as he lies dying. Flynn also is the first to act against Billy. It almost got him killed, but thanks to Miles, he was saved. Although he has done bad things in the past, he isn’t a bad person.
He is also losing his memory, which means his slate essentially is wiped clean, and he becomes innocent again. This could be why he is seen in white at the end. The memory of a man is more important than the man himself. With him losing his memory, Darlene’s memory of what he did for her will be all that is left. His choice to partner with her allows his memory to be untarnished.
Emily and Rosie
They are both victims who later become complicit. The two sisters were abused as children by their father, and it is heavily implied Rosie killed the family murdered in the news story. Emily tried to shield her sister from the abuse but wasn’t entirely successful. When Rosie first meets Billy, she is wearing her father’s boots on the beach. It is an odd choice unless she killed him and took his boots and bag as trophies. The girls did not choose the abuse, but they did choose to stay with Billy.
Emily knew he was dangerous and stayed with her sister anyway until it was too late. Emily chose to see her sister as an innocent even though she was already mentally ill. Her failure to see Rosie as more than an innocent child was her undoing. Emily tells Billy her sister was not violent before him. His fireside games possibly developed her devotion and homicidal tendencies. Similar to Charlie Manson’s cult members. Emily chose to protect Rosie instead of getting her help, chose to shoot Laramie, chose to trust Billy initially, chose to run with Rosie from Billy, and chose to play his game. All of these choices led to her death, as well as two other deaths.
Rosie, it could be argued, had no choice ever. As a child, she could not control what happened to her, and later she was influenced by her mental illness and Bill’s extreme mind control. She was a monster, to be sure, but she wasn’t a monster by choice necessarily.
The false God/cult leader Billy Lee presented himself as all-powerful. He needed his followers to see him as a deity. His secret was that he was just a dude, albeit a dude with a killer body, but a regular man. He chose to exploit the weak and abused. Billy was charismatic and manipulative. He chose to use those powers to garner an army of disciples rather than ignite a revolution of goodwill. After telling others for so long that he was a God, he began to believe it. This is why he chooses to go back for Rosie and chooses to terrorize the hotel guests. He doesn’t see the inherent danger in his game. He should have heeded his own advice and not played at all. The decision to create monsters and forget his mortality led to his fiery death.
Darlene is the most innocent of the group. Her backstory features a whopping load of sexual harassment and insecurity. Her manager belittles her all while trying to trade sex with her for better gigs. Darlene’s choice to refuse him causes her to be at the hotel on her way to job signing in Nevada. When she chooses to help Flynn retrieve the cash and removes her wig, she reveals her true self. It is a symbolic rebellion. She refuses to be defined by others from that point forward.
Her secret is nothing more than someone else’s imposed image. She chooses to forgive Miles and leaves with Flynn at the end. Flynn is a man losing his memory while she only wanted to be remembered. Darlene now finds joy in the signing itself and accepts who she is. Her acceptance of herself, Flynn, and Miles are what ultimately saves her and Flynn. Miles finds redemption.
What happens at the end of Bad Times At The el Royale?
Darlene and Father Flynn are the only two to survive the night. Presumably, they stuck to the plan and split the money. Everyone else lays dead in the hotel, which is on fire. Darlene sings in the theater without her wig, having shed her insecurities, and Flynn is last seen walking through the casino. That’s an easy answer. Here’s how it could have gone down…
They are in Purgatory.
The final meaning of Bad Times At The El Royale is more esoteric. If the seven strangers are all dead already, the evening at the hotel is their final test to decide their fate in the afterlife. Rosie, Emily, Lee all die after doing the wrong things. Rosie and Lee are straight psychopaths. Emily may have tried to do the right thing at one time by protecting her sister and rescuing her from the cult, but she kills Laramie and enables her sister’s killing. Miles is baptized by fire on the line between Good and Evil and may get a second chance at life.
Darlene never commits any sin beyond hating herself and aiding a criminal find his money. She doesn’t even look at the tape out of curiosity. She is rewarded for her charity, and acceptance of self by singing for an audience what she wants, how she wants to look for eternity. Father Flynn either lives his dream gambling and has fun until the disease takes him or becomes the man of God he pretended to be. He is seen dressed all in white in a casino. Flynn is the tester. He is God. Laramie is the only questionable death. He died trying to protect Rose, and we know very little about his backstory.
Drew Goddard’s noir thriller Bad Times At The El Royale is a polarizing movie. You either love it or hate it. I happen to love it. With rich symbolism, profound allegories, and gorgeous ambiguity, it is that rare blend of thoughtful and visually stunning. You can stream it everywhere right now.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.