Terminator 2: Did The T-800 Really Learn the Value of Human Life?

At the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, does the Terminator transcend his machinelike nature and gain free will?

terminator_2_005[Editor’s note: three years ago, a farcical theatrical treatment of Terminator 2Terminator Too: Judgment Play—passed through New York City. Lee snagged the director for an interview, and both Belinkie and Lee went to see the show. This prompted a long email exchange on the ending of Terminator 2 which was lost in the Overthinking It vaults…until now. Read this before Terminator Genisys inflicts even further damage to the Terminator franchise. Remember, there is no overthought analysis but what we make!

And if you love you some Terminator, don’t miss the T2 Overview, our downloadable commentary on the movie. Get it now!]

Belinkie: I saw Terminator Too this evening. Really clever show, and the messiest I’ve gotten at a theatrical event since Gwar. But it reminded me of something about the movie that never quite made sense to me.

When the Terminator says he has to be destroyed for Judgement Day to be prevented, John says the following: “I order you not to go! I order you not to go! I order you not to go!” And then the Terminator does it anyway. Isn’t he supposed to obey any and all commands from John Connor, even if they go against his mission? Is this a minor plot inconsistency? Or is there a suggestion that the Terminator has transcended his machinelike nature and gained free will? I don’t really buy that, since he clearly can’t self-Terminate and therefore is still constrained by his programming. Honestly, the scene seems to call for a moment where John gives the Terminator permission to go, right?

I know now why you cry - Terminator 2

Fenzel: I just rewatched the scene on YouTube, and there’s a wordless exchange between John and the T-800 after John orders him not to go, where the T-800 touches him on the cheek, and then John relents and hugs him. This hug can probably be interpreted as rescinding the order and saying good-bye, although “a meaningful hug” is a really thin basis for android command and control functions.

Lee: I think it’s a little of both: John’s hug can be interpreted as giving permission, but more importantly, the T-800’s character development is a critical component of the movie, and his decision to sacrifice himself is clearly the culmination of that development. His “neural net CPU, a learning computer,” has taught him the value of human life and allowed him to broadly interpret his “protect John Connor” mandate. He realizes that the best way to carry out his mission is to stop Skynet from happening, which includes melting himself.

But would he have gone through with this without John Connor’s consent? Has his thinking evolved to the point that, unlike previously in the scenes, he’s willing to disregard John Connor’s orders that don’t contribute to his interpretation of the mission? I think that, yes, such a change could be considered the final twist, the final step in that character evolution. Now he sees the forest, the big picture of saving mankind, not just the trees, his robotic interpretation of his orders and his predilection for termination.

Stokes: Arnold doesn’t go, if you think about it, any more than he self terminates. If he’s allowed to say “Kill me” without violating his programming, it makes sense to think that he can say “Make me leave” and even suspend himself over the pit (which isn’t exactly going anywhere), without disobeying John Connor. And if someone else just happens to lower him into the metal while he’s out there, well… that’s hardly his fault.

It would have been different if John Connor had told him “I forbid you to go! In fact, just to play it safe, we’re all getting right the hell away from this robot slaughterhouse. Take me to dairy queen.”

Belinkie: I just Googled for a T2 script, and I found something that claims to be the “final shooting script.” It’s very similar to the actual movie, but there’s one big difference in this scene. The Terminator doesn’t say anything about not being able to self-Terminate, and he jumps into the steel himself. It seems likely this was changed because being slowly lowered into the steel is a way more dramatic sequence. And there’s also one crucial piece of dialogue that didn’t make the final cut.

TERMINATOR: I know now why you cry. But it is something I can never do.

(to both of them)


Sarah looks at Terminator. Reaches out her hand to shake it. They lock eyes. Warriors. Comrades.

SARAH: Are you afraid?


He turns and steps off the edge. They watch him sink into the lava. He disappears… the metal hand sinking last… at the last second it forms into a fist with the thumb extended… a final thumbs up. Then it is gone.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day - Thumbs Up

I searched the rest of the script, and this is indeed a callback to something the Terminator tells John earlier:

JOHN: Are you ever afraid?

Terminator pauses for a second. The thought never occurred to him. He searches him mind for the answer…


Terminator slings the M-79 and starts looking for the grenades.

JOHN: Not even of dying?


JOHN: You don’t feel any emotion about it one way or the other?

TERMINATOR: No. I have to stay functional until my mission is complete. Then it doesn’t matter.

I think this is interesting. I can’t remember elsewhere in the movie where the Terminator is supposed to be capable of feelings. But this implies that he MIGHT be, only after he completes his mission. The ironic thing is that he has to die to do that. It kind of adds some resonance to that final thumbs up.

Although personally, I have always been skeptical about Sarah’s closing thought that the Terminator “learns the value of human life.” Does it really? Or does it obey orders like it was programmed to?

Fenzel: T2 benefits a ton from cuts that were made very late in the game—if you ever watch the extended cut that came out on DVD, with 12 minutes of deleted scenes (I think it was 12), there are a bunch of moments that are just that little bit too corny and shatter the tone of the piece. How tight the tone is while still being so lyrical in its composition with so many extreme variations is one of the things I love about the movie. I think if they’d kept the “yes” in there, it would have significantly taken away from the moment. But that said, I understand why it was there.

And of course we all know about the famous alternate ending in the future where Sarah Connor is happy and old and they talk about Michael Jackson’s 40th birthday. And of course we all know what BS it was and how smart it was to take it out.

That’s kind of apropos of nothing, but part of the big picture here.

Does the Terminator learn the value of human life? I never thought he did. He clearly changes, but Sarah Connor’s monologues about him always seemed to me more about her and what she needed or wanted than about what was actually going on with the Terminator – which makes sense for two reasons.

  • A lot of it is about gender—about the Terminator becoming the ideal father—and the binary other tends to be defined in this sort of dialectical terms. Not in terms of an expression of the person that’s descriptive of their own experience, but in terms of how they’re understood externally and functionally by society.
  •  It doesn’t really matter what the Terminator’s subjective experience is, because the Terminator is a robot – an imitation of a person – and the ideas Sarah lays on to him are sort of like another layer of cybernetic skin – something that makes him appear more human so he can do his job. For all we know, he has no subjective experience (this seems more reasonable in Terminators 1-2 than in Terminator 3, where the Terminator becomes a lot more pedestrian as a character). This can be seen as an indication of the difficulty of distinguishing the subjective self and the external, social self.

I don’t think the Terminator learns the value of human life; I think Sarah does (since the movie is about her coming to terms with motherhood). I think the Terminator develops an attachment to John and learns how to express that attachment in terms humans can understand, but that his thinking at the end is still very rooted in his idea of “mission” – there’s a cascade of aesthetic and thematic changes to how the Terminator’s behavior is understood that reflect more a change in his ability to communicate in ways we understand than a change in his core thinking.

The degree to which his mission changes to take on all these additional resonances and themes from just this central shift of getting attached to and imitating John (and following his orders) shows us how imitating each other creates a coherent society despite the problem of other minds. It also kind of shows John as a leader who “saves the world” – which he needs to eventually do – he reproduces an idea of “the world” by inspiring changes in the Terminator’s apparent behavior after his arrival has destroyed it.

In other words, John is able to inspire hope in Sarah that the Terminator has learned the meaning of human life by leading the Terminator to do specific things that are meaningful and comfortable for her – even if the Terminator can’t be expected to understand their significance subjectively.

And it works that way for us too – at the end, when the thumbs up disappears into the steel (which, let’s be fair, is a pretty absurd thing for a human to do), is it more true that the Terminator has changed his feelings and behavior so he can understand us – or that he (it, I guess) has changed his language and symbolism so that we understand him?

Could it be that, rather than the Terminator coming to understand human life, it’s humans coming to understand Terminator life?

john sarah terminator

Belinkie: I guess I’m willing to buy that the hug constitutes consent. Certainly, John does seem to accept that a Terminator’s gotta do what a Terminator’s gotta do.

Another question about the ending: what are the odds that John and Sarah escape the massive police manhunt that is doubtlessly converging on the steel mill at that very moment? I mean, it’s somewhat implausible that the police don’t show up in the 15 minutes it takes for that final action sequence. After the craziness at Cyberdyne Systems, pretty much everybody from the National Guard on down must be looking for them. I’m willing to believe that the police are hesitant to enter the steel mill, for the same reason all the workers flee as fast as they can: the place might be highly unstable. But clearly, there are about a thousand cops circling the place, covering every possible exit. Let’s keep in mind that Sarah is serious injured, and probably not able to move very quickly. And wow, they are in serious trouble if they ever get caught.

The “open road” ending (and Terminator 3) implies that they do use their awesome survival skills to slip away to freedom, but it’s a stretch.

Fenzel: I refuse to accept Terminator 3 as canon for interpreting the events of Terminator 2. It’s much more of a parody/repudiation/counterpoint than an extension of the sequence of events. Although this may be wishful thinking on my part.

It seems to me the rare story of its kind that actually ends here – that John and Sarah neither leave nor don’t leave.

I’ll put it this way – the “antagonist” of this movie is Judgement Day: the known and certain end of the world and of life as we know it. The “protagonist” is motherhood, aided by a complementary notion of fatherhood – who seek to raise and protect a future generation from their own realization of their inevitable fate.

The youngster is the one who sees fate as mutable – who sees hope for the future. But this hope isn’t for a good future (the children playing ending). The hope is for an uncertain future. It seems like small consolation, but it’s a huge frickin’ improvement over certain doom.

Our not knowing how or if Sarah and John get out of the foundry is part of their victory – because they’ve defeated the certainty of Judgement Day and now anything might happen.

Do they get away from the cops? Does Sarah go back to a mental institution? Does John end up host of a daytime talk show instead of a military leader?

We don’t know. It could be any of those things. There’s no fate but what they make.

An alternative would be that, since the threat of the terminators is finally gone – and actually gone for good; all the chips have been destroyed, the temporal loop has been broken, and no other Terminator movies ever happened – then John and Sarah have no obligation to be in the same kind of movie anymore.

Maybe they avoid the cops by grabbing a couple of wheeled palettes and skitching on the back of a crosstown bus while Blink 182 is playing in the background.

Maybe they get put on trial, and Linda Hamilton hires a demonic law firm headed by Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves to get them off the hook for their crimes.

Maybe they get out of the foundry by dressing up like a couple of nuns, stealing a police car, and lead the cops on a chase that ends when they get back across the Charlestown Bridge to safety.

I mean, is the cinematic question “but how do they avoid the police” ever unanswerable?

Steve Gutenberg can avoid detection and capture for his antics while he’s inside the police academy itself. Certainly they can find a way.

Belinkie: I know this is ground that we’ve gone over on the site before, but I am very uncomfortable with the whole attempt to avert Judgement Day. The first movie very clearly establishes that the future CANNOT be changed, and that sending a robot back in time to prevent John Connor from being born is a NECESSARY condition of him being born. Sarah does not seem to learn this lesson in Terminator 2. She spends the whole movie terrified her son will get killed, but based on everything she believes, she should be 100% convinced that he CAN’T be killed. She knows the future, and it can’t be changed.

Really, Terminator 2 should be much more of the Greek tregedy, with John stubbornly claiming he can stop Judgement Day and Sarah futilely trying to convince him that he can’t. Like Oedipus, his attempts to AVOID the prophesy merely make it come true. You know what ending I would have liked to have seen? A coda in some Cyberdyne boardroom, making it clear that BECAUSE the headquarters was destroyed, they have no choice but to sell their remaining prototypes to the Defense Department.

This is one of the few thing I liked about Terminator 3: it restores the idea that certain things ARE inevitable, no matter what. A lot of the movie’s plot revolves around John trying to stop Judgement Day, but the Terminator is secretly directing him to a bomb shelter the whole time. The Terminator in T3 never for one second thinks they can stop Judgement Day – I like that grimness.

The rest of the movie was pretty weak sauce.

Fenzel: It’s pretty clear that Terminator 2 isn’t the movie you want it to be. Which is unfortunate for you, because there’s very little in James Cameron’s work to lead us to believe that, if he were to revisit this movie in a special addition with an eye toward betraying everything we loved about it, he’d back off on what it is about and make it more like Terminator 3. He’d probably just make it like 4D or something.

This is a guy who turned the sinking of the Titanic into history’s greatest love story. He reimagined a far future where the Native Americans are giant cats who fight off European colonization by speaking with the dead and riding dragons. This is the guy who put Ripley in a fucking robot load lifter, called the alien queen a bitch, and kicked her ass to save a little girl.

I mean, think about that for a bit, because it’s blowing my mind. Terminator 2 is made by the same guy who made Titanic.

When he confronts the grim, he takes it to a different place than where you’d prefer it to go – at least since he let aside his early-career angst.


Belinkie: Yeah, you’re right. But I always think of time travel movies being of two types: Back to the Future, where everything you do in the past changes the present, and Terminator 1, where no matter what you do in the past, the future is set in stone. Terminator 2 says, to quote Doc Brown, “the future is what you make it… so make it a good one.”

It’s not surprising that very few time travel movies are like Terminator 1: it’s hard to make a movie about futility and powerlessness. Cameron makes it work, brilliantly, by withholding the unchanging nature of the future until the very end. It doesn’t really slam home until Sarah Connor gets that photo of herself, and instantly knows that’s the photo Kyle was talking about.

Fenzel: Then there’s of course the Bill & Ted trick – where the heroes deliver a deux ex machina to themselves by going back in time after the movie and giving themselves critical help at a critical time – where Bill & Ted might come to a harrowing conclusion about their powerlessness, but you know, they don’t.

When I feel deterministic, I stop being deterministic and be excellent instead.

::squeedly squeedly squee!!::


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3 Comments on “Terminator 2: Did The T-800 Really Learn the Value of Human Life?”

  1. An Inside Joke #

    So glad you posted this conversation tonight! I saw Genysis last night, and have been spending the whole day itching to read/listen to the OTI take. Since this post is about the T1 and T2, I’ll try to limit my comments to general ones on the terminator franchise and save Genysis thoughts for the inevitable fated podcast coverage.

    So first, the entire threat of Skynet comes from the fact that it’s sentient. The terminators, meanwhile, at least in T2, are programmable machines (it’s been too long since I watched T1 to remember if the original terminator was meant to be sentient or not). So if, as Belinkie suggests, the terminator gained a level of self-determination in order to resist John Connor’s orders, are we to take that as the Terminator becoming a more benevolent Skynet? Is his self-destruction an ironic conterpoint to Skynet’s nuking-as-self-preservation? And if Judgement Day had never happened, would Skynet actually have “lived” longer, since the resistance never tried to destroy it, or would it have been deleted in a handful of years as a newer, shinier, less obsolete computer program would have deleted it? And what does it suggest about Skynet that it’s most powerful soldiers lack sentience?


    • Woland the Artist #

      Just a quick thought on the transcendence of Skynet. I totally agree that the threat from Skynet is that Skynet becomes sentient. In T1 Kyle Reese sums it up: “They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side”. But for Skynet to decide to exterminate the human race it’s not enough for it to get smart, it also has to get self-sufficient. It has to develop the ability to extract its own resources, electricity for one. It has to be able to build and run the factories that build the terminators. In other words Skynet not only has to transcend humanity, it has to transcend the need for humanity.

      Suppose Skynet achieved complete self-determination. If Skynet has no need of humans, and humans have no existential need of Skynet, then the planet is host to two entities which have no inherent need for each other, and which pose a potential existential threat to each other. It becomes a prisoner’s dilemma as to who will annihilate who first. In this case Skynet has the advantage of being able to make global decisions in microseconds and beat the human race to the punch.

      Perhaps the significance of the terminator “learning the value of human life” in T2 is that it learns the utility of human life. It enters into a social relationship with humans which demonstrates a potential for mutual advantage, breaking the impasse of the prisoner’s dilemma. In a sense the terminator learning to be a good father to John implies that the machines can learn to be guardians to humanity, not just adversaries. It’s a powerful message of tolerance over brinkmanship and mutual aggression.

      Somewhat undercut by the fact that the heroes totally exterminate every scrap of Skynet including their friendly terminator. It’s interesting how preventing Judgement Day really does come down to beating Skynet to the punch by winding back the clock.

      IN FACT (totally new thought!) it’s really interesting that the humans totally by into the prisoner’s dilemma: their reasoning is that Skynet has ALREADY DESTROYED HUMANITY IN THE FUTURE, therefore we must destroy Skynet first in the present. But doesn’t that make Skynet the victim of human aggression, since long before Judgement Day humans from the future were already trying to kill Skynet in the past? It’s like going back in time to kill your own grandfather, before the sonofabitch kills you!


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