There Will Be Blood’s final image, that of Daniel Plainview in exhausted triumph kneeling over the battered and bloody body of Eli Sunday, is one of its most famous. But you cannot understand the full scope of what that moment means without reconciling two other, disparate images: one is the red-faced and wild-eyed Daniel Plainview spitting venom at his son H.W. after he tells Daniel his plan to start his own company; the other is a much smaller moment, just 30 seconds of screen time. It is looking down at a father curled around his son on the floor as he strokes his child’s forehead, the intimacy of the scene so strong it feels as though we are peering behind the scenes.
The question then, even after the final devastating clash between H.W. and Daniel, is not whether Daniel ever loved H.W. or even whether he loves him still, because the answer to that is an unequivocal “yes.” Instead, the question is what has Daniel really been getting out of his relationship with his son, and what does his ideal version of that relationship even look like? And how does its unraveling inform that final moment?
Daniel’s relationship with H.W. is built upon choice, but specifically Daniel’s choices. When we first meet H.W. it’s at the site of what seems to be Daniel’s first successful oil well. The group of workers is small, only a handful of them, and H.W. is held in his father’s—his real father’s—arms at the side of the oil pit. His father crouches down and we see him dot H.W.’s forehead with a drop of oil, almost as if he’s being anointed.
After his father dies in an accident, Daniel makes the most important choice of the film. He chooses H.W. He creates his own family.
He adopts him as his own son, and P.T. Anderson makes it very clear to us that this original decision, despite whatever follows, was born out of love. We watch as Daniel bounces the crying baby on his knee, attempting to soothe his tears. He is already falling into his new role, one the next scene solidifies. The pair are seen traveling by train, off to who knows where, when H.W. reaches his tiny, infant hand up toward Daniel’s cheek. We see Daniel look down at this baby, his new son, with a softness in his eyes that we never truly see again. There is no audience to this moment, it’s just a father looking at his child as if nothing else existed.
How, then, do we arrive at their final scene together? How do we go from this, to a “bastard in a basket”?
Unlike other stories of men that rise to great wealth, their falling out is not because there has been some fundamental change in Daniel once he starts to succeed. This is not Citizen Kane or A Christmas Carol. As tender as his looks at H.W. are, when he survives his own near-death experience after falling down a mineshaft in the film’s opening, his first thoughts of concern aren’t for himself, but relief as he clutches the massive chunk of silver he’d just unearthed in his fist. “There she is,” he whispers, satisfied more by the fact that his find has not been lost than that he’s still alive.
As H.W. grows, his role in Daniel’s life changes. When we next meet him after their beautiful moment on the train, it’s a decade later. Daniel’s wealth has grown, and he’s giving a speech to some townspeople in the hopes of convincing them to let him drill on their land. As he begins to make the argument that his is a family company, it is only then that the camera pulls back far enough to show us that H.W. has been standing off to his father’s side the entire time. He’s stock still and utterly silent, which makes him look more like a portrait than a living, breathing boy. His role at the meeting is to help Daniel keep up appearances as the trustworthy family man. That’s not all he is, Daniel treats him as a partner, but the problem is that their partnership is the primary relationship Daniel is concerned with. When H.W. is playing the part of the son, when he’s on display for these strangers, he’s just a symbol.
This is clearly what helps give Daniel an edge over some of his competitors; H.W.’s presence makes him appear more relatable than the big corporations—after all, he seems to say, he’s just like you. When he promises that the drilling will bring better jobs, better roads, and better schools, you want to believe him because his son (we assume) will attend those schools. Daniel even goes so far as to say he encourages his workers to bring their whole families to the jobsite, though P.T. Anderson immediately undermines this when he plays those claims in voiceover while showing us a workers’ camp without a single wife or child in sight.
This is where we start to see how Daniel’s priorities are shaping his relationship with H.W. Instead of being a son first and a partner second, it’s the other way around. Daniel’s tiny family unit is clearly important to him, but he’s incapable of seeing the way he uses it to achieve his own selfish ends.
This disconnect is present even in that moment first mentioned above, when he holds him after H.W.’s accident. The image we see of a father wrapped around his son, cradling him in comfort, speaks to Daniel’s profound love of his boy. But what he’s saying here, the comfort he is whispering, is not, “It’s going to be okay,” or “Don’t be afraid,” or even “I love you.” It’s, “That’s enough, H.W. That’s enough.” As H.W. moans in an attempt to hear his own voice, Daniel says, “Can you hear me in there? That’s enough.”
The love is there, still, but the selfishness rises to the surface. He wants to soothe his boy, but he also, perhaps just as much, simply wants the moaning to stop.
About midway through the film, he says, “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.” This is the admission that ultimately foreshadows his final confrontation with H.W. and the dissolution of their relationship. When we flash forward again, H.W. is now a grown man and married, ready to take what he’s learned from his father and form his own company. This trope, of son separating from the father and ultimately leaving the father feeling betrayed, is given new life in P.T. Anderson’s hands, though. Daniel’s empire wasn’t built for H.W. He built it for himself, and has seen his son as his partner in it more or less since its inception. So the betrayal he feels is less about a loss of legacy, and more about abandonment.
In Daniel’s mind, if his son is not with him, then he’s against him. There is no middle ground, and there is no room to presume that Daniel could ever allow his son’s company to exist, let alone succeed. We get the sense that Daniel won’t just turn his back on his son, but that he’ll do everything in his power to destroy him as the competition.
And it’s after this moment, just after Daniel tries to convince himself that he never loved his son anyway (something we know without a doubt to be a lie), Eli Sunday reappears. Eli Sunday, the man that has not only stood in strange opposition to Daniel, but the man that forced him to admit the central flaw in his relationship with H.W.—that he abandoned his child when he sent him away all those years ago.
All of this is what brings us to the film’s bloody end. It’s an eruption of anger and even self-hatred as here, in his most painful and vulnerable moment, the living reminder that this pain may be his own fault appears at his doorstep. Rage at the memory of admitting aloud how he’d failed his son in the exact moment where he may have lost him forever pushes him to recreate the scene. It’s as if he’d been holding on to the pain of that moment all these years—decades—later, letting it fester until it could only explode at this most volatile instant. And as he kneels over Eli’s body, he is finally (as the last line of the movie states so clearly) finished. He is truly alone, as he once wished to be, with no family left at his side, no blood ties. Just blood.