I, Tonya (2017) Ending Explained – Was Tonya Harding involved in the kneecap incident?

I, Tonya Plot Summary

Margot Robbie has been basking in the success of Barbie this past year. The film became one of the biggest commercial hits of all time. It can even be argued that along with Oppenheimer, Barbie drove viewers back to the theatres. Their collective impact brought Hollywood out of a lull that seemed neverending.

Robbie’s A-list status is permanently established. Henceforth, the Aussie actress will command a different kind of respect and authority. But no one is surprised by her success.

Ever since she broke out on the big stage with The Wolf of the Wall Street, Robbie has gone from strength to strength. First, it was portraying Harley Quinn, who has now become a superhero cinematic icon thanks to her. But undeniably, her acting credits got the strongest boost when she played Tonya Harding in the biopic, I, Tonya. That was a life-changing moment for Robbie, not just for her acting career but also for her production company. Craig Gillespie and Steven Rogers, the director-writer pair for I, Tonya, used various genre elements for the movie to make it as interesting as possible.

It is difficult to escape the predictability of the concept. When the subject is someone as popular and widely recognized as Tonya Harding – ironically, for all the wrong reasons – everyone has a fair idea of what happened. The shadow of that knowledge can engulf a project like this and suck away the joy of watching it unfold. However, that is not the case with I, Tonya. 

On paper, the combination would be nothing more than chaotic and a failure waiting to happen. But the creative dexterity and vision of Gillespie, Roger, and Robbie ensured that the resultant product set a golden standard for biopics going forward. Tonya Harding became an overnight sensation after she successfully performed the triple axel move during a competition in the 80s. After doing it once, Tonya did it again, becoming the only female professional skater to even attempt it in a competitive landscape.

However, Tonya’s career came apart due to her allegedly scandalous involvement in fellow skater Nany Kerrigan’s assault. The movie is an authentic biography, focusing on Tonya’s difficult life, impoverished origins, and her struggle to become the best figure skater in the world. 

Mistaking cruelty for compassion: a human flaw

LaVona (Tonya’s mother) hit Tonya, believing it to be an essential practice to ensure that she didn’t turn out to be “a loser.” In the film, she even goes on to say how she hated her own mother for not adopting such cruel behaviours. Her acerbic tone is surprising. LaVona’s portrayal in the film is spot on, as is evident by real-life interviews. But the phenomenon that compels her to “do right” by her kid is not a new one. Mistaking cruelty for compassion is a very human flaw. And it is inherent to the way we function. 

Most of the time, when you do something for someone, it is difficult to assess in that moment its true impact on that person. In LaVona’s reckoning, had it not been for her “cruelty,” Tonya would have never made it to the top. She kept saying how Tonya “skates the best when she feels like shit.” We saw a clever manifestation when LaVona paid someone to heckle Tonya right before her competition, going on to show her strong belief in this philosophy.

But when Tonya finally confronts LaVona for her harsh ways, the reality of the situation stares back at us. Tonya confessed that she also believed her mother’s dictum – that she skated the best when everything around her was against her. This perhaps forced Tonya to unwittingly make herself miserable to get the best out of herself. Of course, her abusive marriage and tumultuous relationship with LaVona were significant contributors. That was out of her control. But Tonya’s helplessness in that moment showed how it impacted her. 

A Sense of Injustice

Tonya keeps repeating the phrase “It is not my fault” throughout the movie. Whenever she is brought within the four corners of suspicion, that is her first retort. It is a powerful metaphor for the raw deal she got out of life. The flip side to this goes to the testament of Tonya’s character and flawed sense of accountability. But the movie does a remarkable job of evoking sympathy without mollycoddling the viewers. Scenes like the domestic abuse exacted by Tonya’s husband Jeff are against the background of a song that doesn’t go with the tone at all. In fact, it is contrary to what we see.

This is an attempt to showcase how violence was normalized in Tonya’s life by frequency of behaviour. She remarked once in the movie “You get hit all the time. You just have to deal with it.” Tonya was numb to the act of violence and its real-life consequences because she learned to live with it. Everyone around her, at every juncture of life, took a swing at her. LaVona and Jeff ensured that the rough approach did not seem abnormal to Tonya after a point in time. 

Another valid point that the film makes is the power of perception in media. In the sporting fraternity, individuals who exhibit certain traits are deemed “difficult” or “troubled.” They don’t quite fit in with the others or live up to the model citizen standards that society wants to aspire to achieve. Tonya is seen being told by one judge that since she comes from a fractured family, she did not get an appropriate score commensurate with her ability. The gist of what he said is that individuals who cannot be perfect examples in the public eye are ostracized.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around? For people who come from Tonya’s background, won’t she be an inspiration for them to fight through their troubles and disadvantages? Perhaps this is what irked Tonya in her career. Despite being the best skater on most occasions, she lost due to a perception of morality and values. 

Ending Explained: What exactly was The Incident?

Okay. So at the start of the movie, we see a caveat which says that the movie isn’t based on true events but versions of it. This formula specifically applies to “the incident,” which is when Shawn’s guys break Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. It was Shane Stant in particular who executed the attack, although Derrick had originally been hired by Shawn to do it. In December 1993, Tonya received death threats from an unknown person. The letter talked about “putting two in the back” of Tonya if she were to skate that day. The incident spooked Tonya, who remained off the ice for many weeks. 

This entire episode disrupted her rhythm and it was Jeff Gillooly who characterized it as a “psychological trick” from an opposing player. They all suspected Nany in particular owing to her rivalry with Tonya. But we learn after the attack that it was a fugazi. It was Shawn who had sent the letter, proudly bragging to Jeff that he did it because people didn’t take him seriously. Eckhardt was also the mastermind behind orchestrating the attack. 

The film accurately depicts the accepted version of events, wherein Eckhardt went beyond the scope of the original plan concocted by Jeff and Tonya. They wanted to send Nancy a death threat to mess with her head. Tonya had given up on the plan when Jeff paid off Shawn’s guys and nothing happened. The FBI found a note from a dumpster near Tonya’s house which had the name of the place where Nancy practiced – Tony Kent Arena – and also her daily schedule. Since Derrick and Shane were complete amateurs, they left a big trail of evidence for the police to trace.

The FBI caught wind of the plan days after the arrest and brought Tonya under investigation. It was never meant to happen and destroyed what would have been a great sporting career. Just days before the news broke out, Tonya won the national championships and secured a position in the upcoming Olympics. However, she went through unimaginable scrutiny in the lead-up to the Lillehammer Games. Her participation was shrouded in the Kerrigan controversy. But an even bigger setback awaited her on the night of the competition.

When it was Tonya’s turn to perform, the laces on her skating shoes broke. She came out to perform just in time but stopped midway, skating up to the judges to show her faulty equipment. They gave her time to adjust and Tonya did manage to put up a fight. But the incident clearly hindered her performance. Tonya finished 8th in the final standings and Kerrigan won an Olympic silver medal. 

Tonya Harding’s legacy in the aftermath

After the event, Tonya was slapped with a heavy fine and asked to do hours of community service. But the biggest knife to her heart was that she had to resign from the US Figure Skating Association and was banned from ever competing in association tournaments again. It was a life sentence for Tonya, who didn’t know anything other than skating. When the dust finally settled on the issue – or perhaps you can argue it never will – the lives of everyone involved were changed forever. 

The final clip of the film as the credits roll shows Tonya performing the triple axel move for the first time. It also marked the first occasion in the history of figure skating when any woman attempted and completed the move in a competition. Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” (performed by Siouxsie) plays in the background and I guess that is the highlight of the film: pure talent, hard work, and uncompressed determination to prove oneself.

It stands above all the craziness that came before it, all the instances of abuse and trauma, and the vitiated legacy of a world-class sportsperson who is perhaps a very flawed individual. And let me tell you; in spite of everything that happened and how people have seen Tonya Harding since the incident, no one can take away that moment from her. 

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