Warning: Major spoilers are ahead for the ending of Netflix’s I Am Mother.
At first glance, the plot and characters of Netflix’s smart, indie sci-fi thriller I Am Mother make for an entertaining watch. But once you start to delve deeper into how everything is more connected underneath the surface, the entire picture comes into focus.
I Am Mother (streaming now) is about a robot called Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) who is left to repopulate the earth after the apocalypse, using embryos to create and then raise a human child simply called Daughter (Clara Rugaard) alone in a bunker. But when a mysterious Woman (Hilary Swank) shows up at the bunker, you might start to wonder if Hilary Swank's Woman is sort of related to Daughter.
Daughter, for her part starts to wonder if Mother lied about the existence of life outside the bunker and who really ended the world. The movie then turns into an all-out fight for the future of humanity with Mother and Woman trying to win Daughter’s loyalty. But once Daughter begins to piece together the truth, she chooses herself instead of Mother or Woman, locking herself alone in the bunker with her newborn Brother and destroying one of Mother’s droids that raised her. But if she knew who Woman actually was, maybe she would have chosen differently.
While I Am Mother leaves the ending of the story a bit vague, upon closer examination the theory that Woman was actually one of Mother’s first experiments becomes clear. As we learn during the movie, it was actually Mother who ended the world, because she's not just one robot, but rather one A.I. consciousness streamed into every single droid on the surface that decided kill off all humans and start over. The A.I. spent the next few years hunting down all other humans to finish the job and Mother has been trying to create and raise the perfect human who would restart humanity in the most worthy way. Daughter was actually the third experiment, and the human bones in the incinerator that Daughter found was the second experiment. It later becomes clear that Woman was the first, but why was she out in the world instead of in the bunker?
Earlier in the movie, Woman told Daughter that she had been adopted by a couple who had survived the apocalypse. She had lived with many other humans in the mines and tunnels, but they had all died by the time Woman met Daughter. We never hear Woman talk about her own birth parents — because they never existed.
We don’t know how/when/why Woman escaped the bunker or why she doesn’t remember it, but perhaps this was all part of Mother’s first experiment: to let Woman grow up in the world and see what kind of person that experience makes her. And throughout the movie, Woman shows her true colors: she kept making choices that were selfish or for her own survival. She lied and did whatever it took to save her own life, at the expense of others. Woman even chose to live on her own in the wasteland instead of staying in the bunker with Daughter. She displayed none of the nurturing or selfless or “worthy” characteristics that Daughter did.
On the flip side, Daughter gave up her own freedom to stay behind to raise her newborn Brother that Mother had just created. She cared for others more than herself, as evidenced by her willingness to let a complete stranger like Woman, a total unknown danger, into the safety of the bunker. Mother decided that made Daughter the perfect human, and it’s why Mother allowed Daughter to destroy that droid that attempted to control her and stay in the bunker to raise Brother on her own. The A.I.’s experiment finally succeeded, and it no longer needed Woman, a failed experiment, alive.
So, when Woman finds a tracker in her bag, placed there by Mother, and one of the droids begins asking why she thinks she was able to survive, we know her fate is sealed. The shipping container door closes, Woman presumably dies, and another failed experiment is destroyed.
The theory that Woman is the first experiment by Mother is also supported by the fact that Woman looks like an older version of Daughter. While that may lead some to believe that Woman is actually the future version of Daughter, it’s actually more likely that they’re just clones of each other and Daughter will eventually look like Woman when she grows older.
The huge cache of embryos at the bunker are human, but perhaps they didn’t all come from a human — they were created in a lab by Mother, derived from the same DNA. Woman and Daughter’s embryos were “related” in that way, making them sisters (the way Mother's fourth experiment is Daughter's brother). The real tragedy is that if Daughter had known the truth about Woman’s relation to her, she probably wouldn’t have left Woman alone to die out in the world.
But she’s got bigger fish to fry now: she has to repopulate the world with all those embryos in the bunker. Good luck rebooting humanity, girl.