Russian Doll, Majora’s Mask, and the Endless Horror of the Time Loop

If the past few years are any indication, people love time loops. And why not? Forced repetition and simmering rage make natural comedy, and we never met a recyclable concept we couldn’t love for at least a little while. 2019, though, seems determined to test that love: both the time-loop Netflix dramedy Russian Doll and the slasher sequel Happy Death Day 2U arrived in February — the former on the day before Groundhog Day — while a VR Groundhog Day sequel is set for later this year. The concept speaks to us as only fictional crises can, capturing our imaginations through a combination of existential angst, wish fulfillment, and the ultimate assurance that everything is okay.

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Introspection is practically baked into the very premise of the time loop. When you’re dealing with an eternal recurrence, at some point you don’t have much else to do but to reflect on what choices got you to this point, to contemplate your place in a universe that has marked you out specifically for Sisyphean torment — it’s why these stories function so well as character and actor showcases.

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray (character name irrelevant) gets to do the glib, deadpan thing that Bill Murray does, sure, but Happy Death Day’s Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a sorority girl turned investigator, gets to freak out and scream at people, guiding us through a rubberfaced emotional panorama that suggests the final girl by way of Jim Carrey. Russian Doll’s Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne, buried under a curly mane of red hair) swaggers around New York while hunched in a black blazer, rasping questions with an accent that turns “cockroach” into a three-syllable word and lighting cigarettes with a lighter strung to her belt via one of those retractable reel doodads people use for their keys; the Columbo name-drop early on does not go amiss.

A Blessing and a Curse

Anger, pain, acceptance, what have you. Time loop characters go through all these things but tend to land in the same place: self-improvement. Tree, while on the run from a slasher in a baby mask (her college’s inexplicably creepy mascot), comes to recognize how much of her behavior has been acting out in the wake of her mother’s death and vows to cut it out. Nadia learns to let people in and begin helping others, starting the process of reconciliation and healing with the ones she loves. Bill Murray gets a lot more appreciative and a lot less snarky about the whole groundhog thing and, uh, decides he wants to live in Punxsutawney forever — a terrifying prospect if you imagine, as I like to, that everyone in town ended up there in exactly the same way. For what edgier facets these stories might contain, they tend to end up at a kind of gooey, Hallmark-y center where the protagonists figure out how to play nice, and the appeal of the time loop lies somewhere in the inherent comfort of that well-worn journey.

They are not, of course, comforting in the traditional sense. For the Endless Eight episodes in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or Space Dandy’s “There’s Always Tomorrow, Baby, the time loop represents everyday monotony, the skull-crushing same-shit/different-day quality of the summer vacation or the hometown. Tree’s loop is predicated on being murdered again and again by her babyfaced tormentor, while Nadia is essentially murdered by the cosmos itself with the aid of bee allergies, gas leaks, falling air conditioners, and a malevolent set of stairs. The time loop is, as its captives’ multiple outbursts will attest, most often depicted as a hellish prison for the mind, and they’re all desperate to break out.

But conceptually, time loops are also freeing. They take the common fantasy of wanting to retry some social situation for an outcome other than embarrassment, and they run with it. To whatever degree our fiction is self-reflexive, allowing us to explore fantasies, concepts, and themes that speak to us in relative safety, time loops have a similarly distancing effect. They pluck a character or two out of time as the Chosen — or, perhaps, the Cursed — to carry knowledge of their predicament. In turn, they’re gifted with a world free of consequence because they know it’ll all loop back around again, no one else the wiser. Hedonism here we come.

Try, Try Again

But as characters set their minds to getting out and getting better, they start to benefit from the time loop. With so much time on their hands, they’re able to pursue multiple avenues of inquiry. Tree, in an attempt to solve her own murder, crosses a name off her list when each of her own deaths proves a suspect innocent. The episodic format of Russian Doll takes particular advantage of this fact, sending Nadia down various dead ends that might be the cause of her personal purgatory: a joint laced with who-knows-what, the potential haunting of the building she parties in, and others, while she accumulates more knowledge with each reset. She learns about her ex essentially through trial and error.

The try-again nature of the time loop is most apparent in Edge of Tomorrow, where Tom Cruise’s William Cage does not start out as an action hero despite having the sort of generically macho name that suggests biceps the size of a baby’s head. Instead, he works for it. He trains over and over again under Emily Blunt’s time loop veteran, because he’s got time in much the same way Bill Murray has time to learn piano and French. Combined with the genre’s tendency toward self-improvement, the time loop fantasy makes the comforting statement that is so core to its appeal: self-improvement is really damn hard. Hard to the point where, for Tree, Nadia, Bill Murray, and Billy Cage, becoming a better person is essentially a supernatural undertaking.

Exploring their psychological hang-ups requires multiple tries after they’ve been plucked out of time by an uncommonly attentive god and put through a wringer meant to, among other things, beat the jerkish self-absorption out of them once and for all. Maybe you the viewer oughta be a better person, but also who’s gonna seal you off in a time loop to get that done, to untangle the whole mess of your past and your personality as a kind of cosmic therapy? They’re the opposite of instructive in that way. When Nadia gets her hair cut to denote the “new” her, it grows back. No shortcuts.

“You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”

If we see something a little aspirational in the more fantastical elements of the time loop, we also appreciate its recognition of everyday trouble: that life is hard, and we’re gonna fuck up a lot. Time loops even presume it, because if the characters did it right the first time they wouldn’t be in a time loop at all. Before you’re Tom Cruise, you’re Will Cage getting horribly maimed over and over again. Tree gets stabbed. Nadia falls down the stairs, into a manhole. Gets hit by a car.

There’s more: in showing us the repeating situations as well as all the different permutations that might arise out of a single word change, a small gesture, or an otherwise insignificant action, time loops repeat back to us the sheer complexity of what we’re dealing with. Not only is it hard to be a better person, it’s hard to be a better person with so much stuff going on around us. In The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the goal isn’t to get blank-slate hero Link to be a better person, but to save the world and help the people around him. The clock is literally ticking in Clock Town, with a bug-eyed moon looming above to blast the world into ash on impact, and it’s impossible to stop the first time around.

Like the journeys of all time-loop characters, Link’s quest outright requires the multiple resets, the accumulation of knowledge over multiple runs. It’s like every tough video game in that way, only it builds that conflict into the very premise and the very systems you use to progress. You move forward piece by piece, and when it comes to the sidequests, many of them intersect as you try to learn people’s routines. Events happen concurrently. You save who you can before you move on.

Though it ends neatly, the game is about staring futility square in the face for hours on end, recognizing that the world isn’t set up for perfection. Maybe you can learn the patterns eventually, but at what cost? How many tries? Certainly not the single try that you, the player and/or viewer and/or reader, have got. So it is with other time loops. How does Nadia know that stove is gonna explode without the benefit of the time loop?

Fear of the Unknown

If so many time loops comfort us by asserting the difficulty of what it means to be a better person in this world, the horror film The Endless inverts the premise. Its protagonists are two brothers who, as kids, lived with a supposed “UFO death cult” that planned to engage in ritualistic mass suicide. Now grown, the brothers return to the site of their upbringing to find everyone still there and still just the same, as if they haven’t aged at all. Around the camp, they find people outside the cult trapped within time loops, cursed to die again and again at the hands of some unknowable cosmic horror. So, too, will the cult. But the cult welcomes it. They embrace their coming death, as well as their eventual resurrection.

They can’t leave, but why would they want to? It’s as though the characters in other time loop media had decided to remain, to find comfort in the monotony because as long as you know what’s going to happen, you can plan around it. Build a life, multiple lives, around that certainty. The idea entices one of the brothers, because in their lives outside the cult, they struggle to hold down jobs and relationships, to make rent or buy groceries. Joining the cult and worshipping their god would finally provide some kind of certainty. In an intriguing inversion of the usual Lovecraftian concepts, The Endless presents unknowable cosmic horror as totally knowable; it’s everything else in the world that’s an unknown factor.

Though the cult’s existence is a clear metaphor for something like complacency, it also maps neatly onto whatever lessons we might take away from the more comfortable facets of time loop stories.The parts that flatter our personal struggles and our character, encouraging a sort of complacency even as the stories relay people attempting to break out of it. After all the fantastical obfuscation where the rules kind of end up as mush — here is the specific town you should live in, this is the specific person you must rescue instead of that one — the most coherent points left are just that life is hard and so is learning not to be an asshole. We get to watch and feel good about a person’s interior journey without the messy part where it reflects back on us.

We’re increasingly inundated with feel-good media designed to give us the warm fuzzies amid a world on fire. . But as various time loop stories demonstrate, the ideas that speak to us don’t necessarily say what we need to hear, however nice they may feel. Making us feel good about ourselves and our choices is far from the same thing as having the answers for how to finally face the unknown.

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