Things soon get stranger as Selene flashes back to a time when a mother and a child were driving in the car you’ve just seen. The mother certainly looks like Selene. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays on the radio as the child asks if the mother sees the “White Shadow.” Soon thereafter, the radio starts to cut out, which distracts the mother long enough to ensure she doesn’t see a strange figure dressed in a vintage astronaut suit standing in the middle of the road.
The mother swerves at the last minute to try to avoid the figure, but she crashes through the side of the bridge and into the water below. The mother is not able to pull the child from the wreckage and is soon pulled away (possibly by the creature). We see someone swimming away from the wreckage, but since it’s in first-person, we can’t quite tell who it is. In any case, fog soon fills the screen. The implication here seems to be that Selene is being pulled through the time loop once more.
One of the more popular early interpretations of this ending suggests that the events of Returnal are all a dream. The idea behind that explanation is that Selene was obsessed with her work, was in a terrible car accident partially caused by fatigue, and has essentially imagined her journey through Returnal as either a dream formed in her dying moments or some way to cope with what really happened by replacing the events of this accident in her mind with a grand adventure.
There is some evidence to support that theory. We know that Selene was obsessed with her work and that her own mother was also consumed by her profession. We’ve also seen glimpses of that astronaut figure throughout the game, and the mysterious signal that inspired Selene to explore Atropos was simply known as the “White Shadow.” Put it all together, and you’ve certainly got a compelling case for some kind of dream scenario.
However, aspects of that story don’t quite seem to add up. If this was all a dream, then how do you explain the other “false” endings we saw throughout the title which saw Selene return to Earth only to be thrown into the loop again? If she’s imagining all of this, then what was the trigger that eventually caused her to discover what “really” happened? Also, how do you explain the radio cutting out so strangely, the true identity of the figure in the road, and the timeline of when Selene is supposedly having this dream?
Could it be that the accident threw Selene into a kind of purgatory where she is forced to confront her final moments as a form of punishment? That would certainly help to explain the theme of the game’s difficulty and cover up a couple of other loose ends. However, it turns out there’s another ending in Returnal which opens up some new possibilities…