Groundhog Days and Russian Dolls

Joe P. O’Brien

It’s not exactly breaking news that we may well be living in a computer simulation. If the number of computer-simulated worlds that’ve been created is increasing exponentially toward infinity, so the logic goes, we’re probably already inside one.

But just because a scenario is highly probable doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept as reality. I get it. I have a hard time accepting this idea myself. The logic seems retroactive. Besides, reality usually feels too real to be fake, even when it feels too fake to be real.

Of course, logic can be illogical in a simulation. In a simulation, time can flow in all kinds of directions. And if fake reality were the only kind of reality we’ve ever known, how would we tell the difference between real reality and fake reality—if there even was a difference?

The first character to get stuck in a time loop was probably Jimmy Childers of Malcolm Jameson’s 1941 short story “Doubled & Redoubled.” Jimmy relives the same day over and over as the result of a witch’s curse. A lot of good things initially happen to Jimmy that day, but because he can’t move forward in time to fully appreciate the fruits of his fortune, his existence becomes torturous.

In 1973, Myron Castleman of Richard A. Lupoff’s short story “12:01 PM” repeatedly relives the same hour, even after dying. The narrative implies, though never confirms, that his loop is the result of some kind of physics-related time disfigurement.

Twenty years later, Bill Murray played our most famous time-looper, Phil Connors, in the 1993 Harold Ramis film Groundhog Day. There’s nothing in the film’s text that explains why Phil keeps reliving a Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. But because he starts the story as a curmudgeon and only escapes his loop after gradually learning to become a kind person, we assume it’s the work of an invisible karma dispenser.

In general, Groundhog Day was lukewarmly received by audiences and reviewers upon its release, and there weren’t really any high-profile time-loop stories popping up in its wake. Then as the 21st century turned, Groundhog Day became regarded not just as a classic story, but the foundation of an entire genre.

In 2005, Roger Ebert revised his original 3-star review of the film and canonized it as one of the all-time Great Movies. He wrote that “its genius may not be immediately noticeable,” and acknowledged that he fully appreciated it only through time and repetition. The following year, the National Film Preservation Board selected Groundhog Day as one of the films to be preserved in the Library of Congress, despite the Washington Post’s 1993 prediction that it would never receive that particular honor.

In the 2010s, the number of time-loop stories has snowballed, and most of them are ultimately nutshelled as “Groundhog Day meets (another famous movie).” In 2011’s Source Code, Jake Gyllenhaal repeatedly experiences a train bombing in order to catch the culprit, and the film was labeled “Groundhog Day meets Speed.” When Tom Cruise dies and reboots over and over while battling hostile aliens in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, it’s “Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers.” Happy Death Day is a 2017 horror movie where Jessica Rothe keeps reliving a birthday where she’s murdered by a mysterious slasher, so that’s “Groundhog Day meets Scream.”

Just before Groundhog Day 2019, Netflix released Russian Doll, a 4-hour series that, as far as I’m concerned, is “Groundhog Day meets my life.”

I realized while writing this thing that I rarely discuss my pop-cultural obsessions during psychotherapy. Which is strange, because I've had hundreds of hours of psychotherapy and hundreds of pop-cultural obsessions in my life so far. But Russian Doll resonated with me so profoundly that this past February I just had to talk to my current therapist about it.

I told him how I'd been burrowing down countless internet rabbit holes, reading other viewers' theories about this mind-blowingly surreal and tantalizingly mysterious show—partly because I hadn't been so infatuated with a TV series since Lost, and partly because I needed distractions from my staggering depression and the terrifying conviction that my marriage was dead. Of course, obsessing about the troubles of fictional characters generally makes me obsess more about my own troubles, so this particular coping mechanism tends to create some pretty harsh feedback loops.

The two lead characters in Russian Doll get stuck in some pretty harsh feedback loops too. The kind where you keep dying and resetting your timeline like an avatar in a glitchy video game. Our heroine is Nadia, a raspy East Village firecracker with a prickly but tender heart, played impeccably by Natasha Lyonne. Nadia's kindred spirit and time-loop companion is Alan, a suicidally hypersensitive sphincter-clench endearingly played by Charlie Barnett. As in Groundhog Day, it’s never explicitly shown why these two people keep dying and re-spawning. But because Nadia is a software engineer, she likens their situation to the continuous crashing of bug-infested code that must be fixed in order to run properly again.

Aside from their spiraling fates, Nadia and Alan share self-destructive streaks, spiky defense mechanisms, patterns of avoidance, and susceptibility to emotional temper-slips. They're also kind and charming enough to deserve love, sympathy, and salvation. I like to think so, at least. I see a lot of these two in myself.

I can't say I've ever repeated the same day over and over, or that I've died and re-spawned again and again like a video game character. What I do know resoundingly well is that recurring feeling of being caught in a circular crash-and-burn pattern, where it seems like everything’s disintegrating around you, and nothing’s progressing, until eventually your primary objective must become How do I escape this agonizing purgatorial prison of the soul?

I want to say I'm more of a Nadia than an Alan, but the truth is I'm probably way more of an Alan than I'd prefer to admit.

I read some fan theories proposing that Nadia and Alan both have Borderline Personality Disorder. Then I read the Wikipedia page for Borderline Personality Disorder and recognized a lot of its symptoms. I'm always desperate for diagnoses that can explain my life a little better.

I told my current therapist how I went from reading the Russian Doll subreddit to wondering if I had BPD, then I asked if he thought that seemed like a plausible diagnosis for me. He was like, "I can see why you'd think that, but I can't say how accurate that diagnosis would be."

Later, in a separate conversation, he suggested that even if you think someone has a certain condition, it may not be best not to offer a diagnosis to that person explicitly. They might have a harder time accepting it than if they come to that conclusion themselves.

In episode 5 of Russian Doll, Nadia asks a therapist named Ruth: "If you were going to die today, would you be ready for it? Would you be at peace with your life?" Ruth says: "Yes and no." Nadia wants to know how one can come to answer that question with only a "yes." Ruth replies: "Holding two incompatible ideas in your head at the same time and accepting both of them... well, that's the best of being human: Yes / no, good / bad, life / death."

Inspired by Ruth’s paradoxical wisdom and my own therapist’s ethical equivocation, for the past few months I’ve been operating under the premise that I both do and do not have Borderline Personality Disorder, and I’ve attempted to calibrate my behavior accordingly. As a result, I haven’t felt depressed in months, I’ve been far happier, more confident, less anxious, and my marriage has never been better. In other words, I’ve levelled up.

In the early-to-mid 2000s, when I was in my twenties and living in the East Village, I kept seeing Natasha Lyonne. We didn't hang out or anything, but we both happened to haunt the same bar below an apartment building where two of The Strokes lived. Natasha was usually even more intoxicated than I was, sometimes angrily, so when I saw her I resisted the urge to tell her how she stole my heart in The Slums of Beverly Hills.

That was also the same era of my life when I last attempted suicide—though it was not the last time I contemplated suicide, nor the last time I had a near-death experience. One night in 2005 I deliberately swallowed too many pain pills, then fell asleep, woke up, vomited, fell asleep again, and woke up again, relieved that I woke up alive, and regretful that I tried to die. To this day I wonder if I actually did die that night.

Watching Russian Doll continually brings me back to that time of my life, for better and worse. Aside from the omnipresence of cell phones, the East Village of this show is exactly how I remember it: a diverse cast of druggy weirdos, bathed in red light, hanging at parties, grooving to music that sounds like a Serge Gainsbourg album fucking a lava lamp.

Part of my enjoyment from watching Russian Doll is seeing Natasha Lyonne back in that world. While the character she plays seems to be possessed by the same kind of demons that possessed her in the previous decade, it makes me extra-happy to see that in reality—our reality, at least—she has gone from troubled young actress in a death spiral to the star, co-producer, co-writer, and co-director of one of the most riveting TV series in recent years. In other words, she’s levelled up.

I’ve watched all of Russian Doll at least three times now. As you’d expect re-watching a show so densely packed with mystique, mythology, and puzzling ambiguity, I’ve perceived things I overlooked the first time, just as Roger Ebert did with Groundhog Day. Like how important food and mirrors are to the story. There’s one thing, however, that I’m almost positive was different the first time around

The very last scene—I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say it involves a phantasmagoric street parade, and the song that plays on the soundtrack is “Alone Again Or” by the band Love. For some reason, I only noticed this song was on the soundtrack the second time I watched Russian Doll. The thing is, “Alone Again Or” is a song that, for various reasons, going back to that pivotal early-to-mid-2000s period of my life, has carved out a very large and distinct section of real estate in my psyche. It’s the kind of song I’ve heard hundreds of times, but I still remember practically every time time I’ve ever heard it. So if it played in the final scene of a series I’d become obsessed with, I feel I should’ve remembered hearing it during my first viewing.

Yet I could’ve sworn that the first time I watched the last scene of Russian Doll, the song that played was much rockier. Something by Alice Cooper, maybe, or the New York Dolls. So maybe my memory is faulty in this regard. Or maybe the minds behind Russian Doll have continued to tweak their work after its release, like Kanye West did with The Life of Pablo. Or maybe I’ve just found myself in a new timeline where Russian Doll has a different soundtrack.

When I finally level up to the point where I make my own “Groundhog Day meets” project for Netflix, I’m going to keep revising it indefinitely, just to further mind-fuck my audience.

If it turns out we’re digital creations and not, as we’ve always assumed, organic human beings, we couldn’t just adapt to that paradigm shift right away. Surely we’d need time to, shall we say, process that information. And surely we’d resist any overt diagnosis that disputed the humanity we’ve grown accustomed to throughout all our years of existence.

It might be easier to embrace more contradictory truths: We are real, and we are artificial. We are human, and we are digital. We are alive, and we are dead. We keep on dying, and we keep on living.

Our dreams, our stories, and our mythologies help us understand complicated truths we can’t quite compute in our normal states of mind. Our minds lie, as Alan says in episode 8, and lives are hard to change. But thanks to all the Groundhog Days and Russian Dolls, the impossibilities feel more possible every day.

Joseph P. O’Brien founded FLAPPERHOUSE magazine and served as its managing editor during its five-year run. By day, Joseph works in a public library and lives in West Orange, New Jersey, home of America’s first movie studio. Joseph was born in 1981 and died in 1993, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2011, 2016, and 2018.

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