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From Groundhog Day to Russian Doll, the Inescapable Power of the Time Loop

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll.
Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll. Photo: Netflix

Spoilers below for Russian Doll.

In the Netflix series Russian Doll, Nadia, the firecracker of a protagonist played by Natasha Lyonne, dies in the first episode, then comes back to life. That isn’t a spoiler. It’s the premise of the entire series.

Again and again, Nadia leaves this mortal coil via various circumstances: She gets hit by a car, she freezes to death, she falls down some stairs and breaks her neck. But after each demise, she instantly finds herself back in front of the bathroom mirror at the 36th birthday party her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) is throwing for her.

Nadia — and, as we learn during the fourth episode, a fellow New Yorker named Alan (Charlie Barnett) — is stuck in a time loop, one that enables her to relive the same night but alter the course of events depending on the choices she makes. Her motivations change as the eight episodes progress, but what ultimately drives her is the desire to figure out why the hell this is going on. Why do she and Alan keep dying, and what purpose is served by their second, third, and 84th chances to start over?

That’s a question other protagonists have struggled with in plenty of other time loop-centered movies and TV shows. Groundhog Day is the most famous example, but there are others: The Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code, Run, Lola, Run, and numerous one-off episodes of television (see: the Twilight Zone episode “Shadow Play,” the X-Files episode “Monday,” the Star Trek: Discovery episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” and many others). With its constant reboots, The Good Place deals a bit in the time loop arena, although the characters don’t always die and come back to life, exactly, since they’re already in the afterlife. (Plus one of them, Janet, is technically a robot. But I digress!) Even video games can be described as time loop narratives, ones that cast the player as the protagonist who advances through as many levels as she can, until she dies and start over. There’s a reason that Nadia in Russian Doll happens to be a game developer.

What all of these storytelling experiences have in common, aside from low-key tapping into immortality fantasies, is that their main objectives involve saving something: the planet, other people, the main character’s well-being, or some combination of all three. Because Russian Doll is a more intimate story that engages with its time loop for a full eight episodes, it’s able to use the device to convey something more subtle and meaningful than usual about that all-too-human desire to finally get it right this time.

The primary goal of a time loop story in the sci-fi or action genre is usually straight-forward. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s William Cage must repeatedly battle alien invaders until he defeats them, breaks the loop, and saves the world. In that X-Files episode, “Monday,” Mulder has to figure out how to thwart a bank bombing, thereby saving his life and the lives of many others. In Source Code, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character has eight minutes — eight minutes that keep resetting — to identify the person responsible for a train bombing and try to prevent two attacks. (Sensing a pattern?) There are other side plots and subtexts that make each of these stories more complex than those descriptions sound. But generally speaking, these are works of fiction in which a hero has to crack a time loop code for the greater good.

There are certainly elements of that formula in Russian Doll. As Nadia elects to make different choices, other people, like her surrogate mother Ruthie (Elizabeth Ashley), start getting tugged into her orbit of fatality. Eventually she realizes that the crowd at her nonstop birthday party is thinning out, as friends are seemingly being eliminated from the timeline, perhaps permanently. Like the Cruises, Duchovnys, and Gyllenhaals before her, she needs to solve the puzzle of her time loop so she can make sure that others, in addition to herself, continue to get the chance to live.

But — and maybe this is why Netflix released Russian Doll on Groundhog Day weekend — the series ultimately has more in common with the movie Groundhog Day, because its time loop provides an existential avenue for Nadia and Alan to seek self-improvement and a deeper understanding of life’s purpose. In case all the repeated mirror imagery didn’t get the message across, Russian Doll is, first and foremost, about self-reflection.

Groundhog Day deals with that idea in a much lighter, comedic way, presenting Phil Connors (Bill Murray) as a selfish, snobby jerk who only learns to appreciate life, kindness, and Andie MacDowell after experiencing the same February 2nd thousands of times in a row. The takeaway from Russian Doll is similar: Nadia and Alan realize they can’t break the time loop without each other, which is another way of emphasizing, as Groundhog Day does, that people need each other to survive.

But while Russian Doll plays some of its repetition for laughs — Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” is this show’s “I Got You, Babe” — it probes more deeply into dark, psychological territory. Before they can escape the loop, Nadia has to let go of her feelings of guilt about her mother’s death, and Alan needs to release himself of the hopes and dreams that he’s pinned, perhaps unfairly, on his girlfriend Beatrice (Dascha Polanco). Neither gets the chance to go back and re-do those relationships from square one. That’s not how life works. But the universe does keep the needle spinning in the same groove long enough for them to have conversations that help them reach clarity on their issues. Those conversations, the show implies, wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t keep dying and being reborn.

I mentioned the universe a second ago, but what is actually responsible for the time loop that entraps Nadia and Alan? Is it God? A glitch in the Netflix source code? Beyoncé? (It could be Beyoncé. I mean, she can do anything.) The series never explains exactly how it works, only that what ultimately disengages it — and again, spoiler alert — is for Nadia and Alan to save one another from the initial deaths that triggered their cycle. You could conclude that the time loop’s existence proves there is a higher power at work, guiding humanity experiences. But the choices that Nadia and Alan make also have an obvious impact. Maybe that’s why time loops hold such narrative appeal: They make the case that destiny and free will coexist. No matter what your own personal belief system, you can buy into the idea that the loops serve a function, either to guide someone toward the future they were meant to have, or to show them that they could take themselves there all along.

Personally, I find it most satisfying to read Russian Doll as a commentary on addiction. As Nadia and Alan keep trying to figure out why they’re both trapped in this time loop — and why they keep dying at the exact same moment — they realize they are loosely connected by their neighborhood, their common acquaintances, a shared appreciation of video games, and unprocessed psychological baggage that they need to face. But they never acknowledge the obvious: that both of them are addicts.

Nadia is constantly smoking, and lest we forget that’s a dangerous addiction, Russian Doll reminds us in the final episode, when Alan’s older neighbor (played by Burt Young) urges her to quit. Alan has a drinking problem that he has sometimes manages to overcome in the loop, but not always. Both of them also have “addictions” of a less dangerous sort, too. Nadia avoids commitment in relationships, while Alan does the opposite: He overcommits so hard to Beatrice that he suffocates her. She becomes his drug of choice.

There’s a well-known quote that is regularly and erroneously attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” A little Internet research suggests that it wasn’t Einstein who said this; the phrase may have stemmed originally from addiction literature. A version of it appears in texts published by Narcotics Anonymous and the Hazelden Foundation, the alcohol and drug treatment organization that eventually merged with the Betty Ford Clinic.

That’s really what addiction is: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The time loop forces Nadia and Alan to see the true insanity in that behavior by presenting it in its most blatant form. It’s what also, finally, compels them to do the thing that’s hardest for an addict, or a non-addict, to do: break the cycle and, as they do in the final scene of Russian Doll, march to a totally new rhythm.

Trapped in the Time Loop, From Groundhog Day to Russian Doll