The following contains SPOILERS for the end of John Wick: Chapter 2, which you would know if you read this piece’s headline which, again, is “Whose Marker Did John Wick Receive at the End of Chapter 2?”
The John Wick franchise is like an infinite string of dominos. A bunch of jerks murdered the dude’s puppy in the first film — not even his dog, his puppy! He’d only had it for like a day, you monsters!!! — and that set off a chain of violent events that reaches its zenith in John WIck: Chapter 4. One of the cool things about this franchise is the way each movie builds off the previous ones; coming out of retirement to achieve puppy-related revenge in John Wick directly leads to an old friend returning to demand John pay back a debt in John Wick: Chapter 2. John’s choice to kill that same old friend in Chapter 2 forces him to go on the run in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, and so on.
You can say these movies are just over-the-top action for its own sake, but that’s not true. Okay, the over-the-top part is true. They are over the top, in the best way possible. But John Wick doesn’t enjoy his violent escapades the way we do; he’s pretty much been paying for them nonstop since the start of the first film. Violent retribution in these films are like ripples in a pond, forever expanding outward.
Except for one element that, as far as I can tell, was introduced and never paid off.
It’s the scene embedded below from the end of John Wick: Chapter 2. John (Keanu Reeves) has committed the ultimate no-no in this world: He killed someone on the grounds of the Continental, the lavish hotel that caters to the criminal underworld of the John Wick-iverse. At the start of the film, Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio), demands John Wick repay a debt to him by committing a murder on his behalf. Then, after John fulfills their deal, Santino tries to kill John to tie up loose ends. When John comes after Santino in response, the latter takes refuge inside the Continental, knowing John cannot harm him there. When John arrives, Santino announces his intention to take an extended staycation. (Can you blame him? The steak looks incredible.) John decides ah the hell with it and shoots Santino in the head, right in front of the Continental’s manager, Winston (Ian McShane).
And so in the final scene of John Wick: Chapter 2, Winston announces that John is now “excommunicado,” meaning that he can no longer avail himself of the weapons and services of the Continental Hotel, or any other affiliated underworld business. Before Winston sends John on his way, he gives him two things: A one-hour head start before the excommunicado begins, and a marker.
“You might need this down the road.” Winston tells John.
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Markers in the John Wick universe are symbols of a debt that must be repaid of above all else. When Santino comes to John demanding he repay him, he presents him with one of these markers; years earlier, Santino had helped John retire from his life as a hitman. In exchange John had given him a marker. So Winston handing John a marker in this scene is no small thing.
“We look at markers like a blank check,” John Wick series director Chad Stahelski told me in a recent interview. “A marker means, ‘You’re giving me your soul.’ Like it’s good for one life — you risk your life, you take a life, you save a life. It’s good for one life.’ Stahelski says he and original John Wick writer Derek Kolstad evolved their marker concept out of real-world “challenge coins,” which are bestowed upon members of the military and law enforcement organizations for outstanding service.
“It’s a very old school mentality,” Stahleski explains. “But a lot of these kinds of occupations still have them. And in the stunt world we had a friend pass away between John Wick 1 and 2, and we all had [challenge] coins [made]. And we started talking — I was working with Derek Kolstad on the script — and I’m like ‘We gotta have these things. We gotta have markers.’ Well, markers are cool, but what does it mean? And we started it off kind of like a commemorative thing, but then it ended up being like a blank check, worth one life. Take it, save it, give it, whatever. It’s one life.”
But the question still remains: Whose life was wrapped up in the marker at the end of John Wick: Chapter 2? Amongst John Wick fans, there is some debate about what this marker even represents. (Google “John Wick 2 marker” and you’ll see what I mean.) Winston did not reveal whose marker he gave John, and it could have potentially belonged to several people.
It could be a totally blank marker John could use if he encounters someone later down the road. It could be a marker that John holds on someone else, and that he had previously asked Winston to hold on to for him. Or it could be the completed marker between Santino and John that becomes so important to the plot of John Wick: Chapter 2. The marker was evidence that John only committed the crucial killing in Chapter 2 to fulfill this debt, and he theoretically could have used it to prove he was acting on Santino’s behalf.
But whatever Stahelski and Kolstad had in mind when they made Chapter 2, they never explained it in John Wick: Chapter 3. And in fact, the first few scenes of Chapter 3 involve John retrieving another marker he needs from the New York Public Library; that one turns out to represent a debt that a character played by Anjelica Huston owes him. So I asked Stahelski: Who is connected to this marker?!?
“That’s a good question, man,” he replied. “We took it from the standpoint that Winston owes him a solid.”
“We thought,” Stahelski continued, “it’d be cool if the final farewell from Winston to John was ‘Okay, just so you know how much of a father figure I am, I’m going to give you a blank check in case you need it. But only call it in if you need it. And that’s where we left it.”
Without spoiling John Wick: Chapter 4, this mysterious marker doesn’t come up there either. Which prompted me to ask Stahelski a follow-up question: Is this marker still floating out there somewhere, waiting for John to cash it in?
“Well, Winston’s an interesting character,” Stahelski notes. “He’s always got an angle. So I think that Winston thinks John did cash it in — on the rooftop in [Chapter 3].”
So, to recap that scene: In Chapter 3, John Wick is declared excommunicado, and essentially has to go on the run from the entire criminal underworld because of a massive bounty placed on his head. At the same time, the “High Table” (basically the bosses of all crime in this universe) fire Winston from his gig at the Continental, finding him not sufficiently loyal. John swears a new oath to the High Table and is sent to kill Winston, but instead teams up with him; the High Table then “deconsecrates” the Continental and send waves of goons (in a charter bus with their High Table logo stuck to the side!) to kill them both.
Then the High Table offers a parlay to Winston: Kill John Wick and get your job and hotel back. Winston agrees and shoots John, who falls off the roof of the Continental to the street below. But Winston deliberately shoots John in his kevlar suit, and so John survives to seek more revenge in John Wick: Chapter 4.
To Stahelski’s mind, the way that Winston carried out this “killing” — in such a way that it was sure not to kill John Wick — was his way of paying back the marker.
“He helped John,” Stahelski says, “but not in the way John would have wanted. But it was the only way out. I’m fascinated by the idea of dilemma. Choices are always what define character, not skills. So we constantly, in every scene, we’re trying to put somebody in a bad choice. If you watch John Wick [Chapter] 4, hopefully every scene you go ‘There’s no good choice here.’ So yes, John needed help in 3, and Ian gave it to him. Just not in the way he wanted.”
So there you have it. Of course, none of this was explicitly spelled out onscreen. There’s always a chance Stahelski and his writers could change their minds, and use that marker in another John Wick movie, or even the upcoming spinoff Ballerina. You never know when a good marker might come in handy.
John Wick: Chapter 4 opens in theaters on March 24.
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