a day in the life

How Do the Rules of Russian Doll Compare to Groundhog Day?

Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll. Photo: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images/Courtesy of Netflix

In case you’re not aware, Russian Doll is reminiscent of Groundhog Day. Oh, you’ve heard that comparison? Of course you have, because if you’ve read anything about Russian Doll, then you’ve also read at least a little about Groundhog Day. Check out any article written about the new Netflix series — posts about the series’ trailer, reviews, think pieces — and just count the number of words until you spot a mention of Harold Ramis’s classic 1993 comedy. (In this one, the magic number is ten.)

The shorthand makes sense: Co-created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler, Russian Doll stars Lyonne as a woman who keeps dying, then resetting to the night of her 36th birthday party again and again. Groundhog Day features Bill Murray as a conceited TV weatherman who’s stuck living February 2nd over and over, regardless of whether or not Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow. So, both stories are built around time loops and share themes of growth and rebirth. They both also make smart use of pop songs to underline all the repetition: When Lyonne’s character resets, it’s to the sounds of Harry Nilsson; Murray’s character wakes up every morning to Sonny & Cher.

But how does the actual experience of Lyonne’s Nadia Vulvokov compare to that of Murray’s Phil Connors? How similar is the time loop in Russian Doll to the time loop in Groundhog Day? How do the rules and logic of the former stack up against the latter? Let’s discuss.

In Russian Doll, death is a must.

Death is inevitable. It’s true for everyone, but especially true for Nadia. After she gets caught in a seemingly infinite loop, it’s only a matter of time before she’s hit by a cab, or falls down the stairs and breaks her neck, or blows up in a gas explosion, or chokes on a chicken bone, or falls down the stairs and breaks her neck again. Eventually, she will reset back to her party, and in order to reset, she has to die, no way around it.

That’s not the case in Groundhog Day. Though Phil Connors dies plenty — by his own count, he’s been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned — his time loop doesn’t require him to tap out. From what we glean in the movie, whenever the alarm clock flips to 6 a.m., it’s instantly the morning of February 2nd again, whether Phil was just in his room at the local bed-and-breakfast or on a slab in the morgue.

Russian Doll’s time loop doesn’t run like clockwork.

As mentioned above, the cycle in Groundhog Day operates on a very particular schedule: Every time it hits 6 a.m. on what should be February 3rd, the calendar flips backward. In Russian Doll, Nadia does seem to be confined to a roughly 24-hour period, but her loop can reset at any moment within that span. There’s no hard time when the reboot always kicks in — it happens as soon as Nadia dies, and she can die by falling headfirst into a sidewalk cellar in the middle of the afternoon, or by falling headfirst into a sidewalk cellar sometime in the evening. (Those things really are a menace.)

Nadia isn’t alone in her loop.

For most of Groundhog Day, Phil Connors doesn’t have a true confidant. He tries to explain his situation to Andie MacDowell’s almost unbelievably decent Rita — the TV producer with whom he’s falling in love — but even when she does take Phil at his word, she has no memory of their conversation once the cycle starts over again. There’s no one else in Punxsutawney who’s aware of the time loop.

A few episodes into Russian Doll, though, Nadia realizes she’s got a counterpart. In a free-falling elevator that’s sending them and a few others to their doom, she meets Charlie Barnett’s Alan Zaveri, a tightly wound creature of habit who’s treated by everyone around him like he’s got the word “FRAGILE” stamped on his forehead. Alan’s trapped in his own loop, and while his circumstances are a bit different from Nadia’s (instead of a birthday party, he’s reliving the night that his long-term girlfriend breaks up with him), the rules are the same. As soon as he dies, he’s immediately alive again and back in his bathroom.

But there’s a twist: When Alan dies, Nadia dies, and vice versa. So when he has a bike accident, she’s suddenly a victim of another gas explosion. Their fates are intertwined. It’s not an ideal scenario for someone like Nadia, who prefers to keep a cloud of cigarette smoke between her and the rest of the world.

Every Russian Doll reset is (maybe) its own little universe.

This rule is a little less clear, but it’s worth considering. After a particularly traumatic death experience where Nadia’s surrogate mother, Ruth (played by Elizabeth Ashley), confuses her with a burglar and shoots her, it occurs to Nadia that every time she and Alan respawn, they might actually be appearing in different universes. So that timeline where Nadia’s been shot and killed still exists somewhere, even after she’s popped up in the next timeline. “Fifteen times Ruth has grieved for me,” Nadia tells Alan. “In 15 universes, she’s alone.”

This is just speculation on Nadia’s part, but the theory seems to be proven in Russian Doll’s season finale, in which she and Alan end up in different timelines and have to help each other. (The idea of multiple universes, or universes within universes also works nicely with the imagery of a Russian nesting doll, so there’s that.) As far as we know, there are no alternate universes or timelines in Groundhog Day; judging from what we see onscreen, all of the movie’s events appear to happen on a single timeline that just keeps hitting a snag.

Nadia and Alan’s world starts to literally fall apart.

Every morning in Groundhog Day is a clean reset. No matter what Phil’s done the previous day, or who he’s done it to, everything reverts back to the way it was the morning of February 2nd. Phil’s personal purgatory hums along nicely, with no interruptions. Not so in Russian Doll: As we get deeper into the show’s eight episodes, more and more consequences crop up. Plants start dying, fruit begins rotting on the outside, mirrors disappear, pets and people just vanish, and Nadia and Alan’s deaths become more violent and disturbing.

By the end of the season, the recurring gag of Nadia tumbling down the stairs is long gone. Instead, her body fails her in ways that become increasingly surreal: She goes from seeing a vision of her traumatized childhood self and having a heart attack, to suddenly coughing up blood and shards of glass while the younger Nadia looms ominously over her. There’s no clear explanation for all of the chaos, but it definitely feels like the reboots are causing the universe(s) to break down.

The only way out of a time loop is self-improvement.

Now we get to the strongest similarity between Russian Doll’s time-loop premise and Groundhog Day’s. As Jen Chaney pointed out recently, the new show and old movie are both stories about people learning to better themselves, and the only way for Phil, Nadia, and Alan to escape their time loops is by making themselves available to other people.

Phil Connors starts as the kind of guy who refers to himself, a Pittsburgh TV weatherman, as “the talent.” He’s someone who looks down on the small-town life of Punxsutawney and sees all of the locals as yokels. A few thousand reboots later, he’s become a genuine member of the community — changing a tire for a group of elderly women, catching a boy who falls from a tree, and carving ice sculptures for the whole town to enjoy. When he’s finally free of the loop, he says he wants to live in Punxsutawney permanently.

In Russian Doll, Alan’s an obsessive who refuses to acknowledge that while he’s been busy trying to maintain his routines, he and his girlfriend have grown apart. Nadia’s incapable of getting close to anyone else for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the belief that she’s not worthy of intimacy. (How could she be, if she thinks she’s to blame for her mother’s mental deterioration and death?) Alan and Nadia break the death spiral by owning their past behavior, seeking closure with people around them, and by saving each other’s lives in separate timelines; Nadia talks him down from a literal ledge, and Alan pulls her out of the way of a speeding cab.

When it comes to their resolutions and the big-picture messages of self-improvement and openness, there’s a good deal of overlap between Groundhog Day and Russian Doll. But the details and approach are different enough that if you watched them back to back, you wouldn’t feel like you’re stuck on loop.