The Strays Ending Explained: What Cheryl’s Choice Means
While Martello-White told Radio Times The Strays is based on a real-life story of a woman who denied the fact she had two Black children, it’s much like Netflix’s The Watcher in the fact you have to take the “true story” aspect with a pinch of salt.
What Happens at the End of The Strays
When Carl and Dione arrive at Neve and Ian’s home, things effectively turn into Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Like the unhinged boys who attack a middle-class family in Haneke’s 1997 movie and its American remake, Carl and Dione are playing a sick game of cat and mouse. After taking them hostage and forcing them to sing “Happy Birthday,” it’s implied that both of the children Cheryl abandoned have faced severe psychological trauma, hence Carl’s throwaway comment about being “sectioned” by the government due to his mental health, and Dione saying she’s paid off an unknown group she dubs “the Meanies.”
Although Carl and Dion refer to Cheryl as “mummy,” even they know they can’t just slot into her new life. As Neve says earlier in the movie, Ian would never have raised two Black children as his own, after all, what would the neighbors think? Ian’s words might’ve been hollow, but the disgust he shows that Cheryl tried to buy her own children off (even asking for a divorce) suggests he doesn’t harbor the same internalized racism she does. Still, it’s an interesting commentary on middle-class Britain, and while no one in The Strays is outwardly racist, there’s the awkward undercurrent that Carl and Dione stick out in this privileged setting. In the dramatic charity gala scene, especially Dione and her vibrant dress physically stands apart from the white crowd of mustachioed partygoers.
Ian says he’s hired a Black girl at work, almost like he’s ticked his box, or reached his quota, on diversity, while the school caretaker tells Carl the only color that matters is the one on your football shirt. Even Cheryl herself refuses to discuss her Black heritage, making it clear her shame isn’t just because she ran out on her kids 18 years ago. This narrative has also been implicitly passed down to Cheryl and Ian’s kids. For instance, there is a scene of “Neve” disapproving of Mary’s hairstyle choices, which reveal her heritage.
Ultimately, it’s Cheryl who ends up being the villain of The Strays thanks to her own internalized issues. Even though a delivery driver arriving looks like the perfect opportunity for Cheryl to signal for his help, the exact opposite happens because she knows the perfect life she’s dreamed of is impossible to achieve until she can come to terms with herself. There’s a sad mirroring of what Cheryl did the first time around, as she leaves her children and presumably won’t be heard from again.
The Meaning of The Strays’ Ending
Despite being billed as a horror, there isn’t some Us-inspired twist. Carl and Dione do not replace Mary and Sebastian. Instead Cheryl/Neve has abandoned all four of her children, making them each the titular strays. As the quartet of kids stare blankly out to the audience, there’s the poignant track of Lord Kitchener’s “If You’re Not White, You’re Black.” Sadly, Cheryl’s white-passing children will never be “white” enough for her or, perhaps, the world the audience also lives in. This loops back to Cheryl’s opening where she says she’s not been offered the same privileges in life due to the color of her skin.