The New Rules of Dying and Repeating with 'Russian Doll' and 'Happy Death Day 2U'

These two properties bring new wrinkles to the idea of time loops.

Happy Death Day U

What if someone gave you the opportunity to change the events of your life? Would you use your newfound abilities to live a life of leisure or would you be devastated to relive one brief fragment for eternity? Russian Doll and Happy Death Day 2U have shattered the rules for time loops by examining the ramifications of dying and repeating.

Spoilers for Russian Doll, Happy Death Day, and Happy Death Day 2U follow.

There is a template for time loops, and that would be none other than Groundhog Day. The original Bill Murray film about a weatherman who is stuck living the same day repeatedly. Screenwriter Danny Rubin envisioned a story that asks, “if a person who could live forever if a person was immortal, how would they change over time.” Groundhog Day plays this cosmic irregularity for laughs. Besides finding a way out of the time loop, Bill Murray’s Phil Connors uses his time to woo Andie MacDowell’s, Rita Hanson. That proves a lot more difficult than it sounds. Groundhog Day was not the first time loop movie, but it is the most recognizable in popular culture.

The rules that Phil Connors has to follow have been used for countless time loop stories, and they are:

  • Phil is in a time loop. Every day he wakes up in his bed, and it is February 2nd.
  • There is no way out of that day (as far as that concerns the protagonist)
  • Each repeat can be different, and the world will act in kind to these new developments.
  • He remembers everything from the previous loop(s), even though everyone else will have forgotten
  • He can die, but he will still wake up in that bed on February 2nd.

How Russian Doll Stacks Up

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) is celebrating her 36th birthday party. It is a birthday she has reservations about, and now her fears have come to pass. Despite the lovely party her friends Maxine (Greta Lee) and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson) throw for her, that same evening Nadia gets hit by a taxi cab while looking for her cat. Low and behold, Nadia is suddenly in front of the bathroom mirror at her birthday party once again. She doesn’t remember dying, but she feels a strong sense of deja vu. Her first mission is to find out what the hell is going on until it becomes apparent that she is stuck in a loop. Russian Doll is about a journey of personal growth that will always repeat on Nadia’s birthday, but there are also other elements that differentiate it from Groundhog Day.

The first way that Russian Doll is different; Nadia will die, and that death will repeat the day. The death isn’t always the same time of day either. Death has a way of eating at your psychosis or at least that is what Russian Doll would have us believe. She begins behaving in ways that are a lot more about self-preservation than she was used to. That would also be because Nadia also only has a set number of resets. Time is not infinite for her, and her answers need to come fast. Phil Conners would be stuck in that loop forever if he didn’t change. There have been estimates that predict in time in the loop as 33 years and 358 days. Nadia doesn’t have that luxury.

And A Happy Death Day 2U

Teresa ‘Tree’ Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is not having a good day. It is the day after her birthday, a birthday she relived many times in Happy Death Day. That film saw Tree stuck in a time loop, repeating her birthday, and being killed by the same baby mask-wearing killer at the end. What changes for Tree is that she has a period of personal growth similar to that of Phil Connors. Part of her bad attitude stemmed from the death of her mother while the other part of her attitude came from her sorority and the people she associates with. The continued deaths allow her to see life in a new light and evaluate her relationships.

Tree’s escape from the time loop doesn’t just coincide with her changing attitude, but also solving the mystery of who her killer is. There are a few red herrings, but she discovers who was responsible for her death. Russian Doll and Happy Death Day 2U run on some of the same rules: Each time she dies she will remember the moments of that day,  she will wake up in a fellow student’s bed on her birthday, she will be killed every night, and she only has a set amount of resets. That same time restricting element is prevalent in the sequel as well. Happy Death Day 2U opens by following a minor character from the first film, Ryan (Phi Vu). Ryan is a fellow student at the University and his thesis project, a quantum mechanics machine, is the culprit to the time loops.  And this is where Russian Doll and Happy Death Day 2U merge.

What If… Alternate Universes

Both Nadia and Tree conclude that each one of their time loops might be an alternate dimension. Both properties consult the theories of Quantum Mechanics and Schrödinger’s cat. For a more in-depth video into the science behind these properties, this TED talk video does a solid job. Basically Nadia and Tree die in those dimensions and the consequences for those repeated deaths germinate the universe they exist within.

In Russian Doll that the world around Nadia is decomposing; she sees fruit decaying around her, objects that were once real don’t exist anymore, and even her friends are disappearing from existence. The first time Nadia suspects that something is up is when she witnesses the death of her aunt, Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley). She wonders if her aunt experienced that same death or could feel the ramifications of her death. She is running out of time, but she wonders what effect does her death have on all the different timelines.

In Happy Death Day 2U, Tree continues to feel the pain of her deaths. Long story short, in the sequel, she ends up back in the loop that kept her revisiting her birthday. The only way for her to escape this purgatory is to memorize a complicated formula for Ryan’s Quantum Mechanics machine. This means a  ridiculous amount of computations. Not only is Tree going to study, but she will also have to die a bunch of times. There is a great montage in the film that details many ways that Tree resets the day, but each time she does her body keeps a memory of the pain. There is only so much she can take before her body gives out.

Back to the Beginning

There are other ways Russian Doll and Happy Death Day 2U differ from Groundhog Day. Both protagonists end up having someone to confide in about their crazy experience. Russian Doll’s Alan (Charlie Barnett) is in the same loop as Nadia, and they both die and repeat on the same schedule. Their new found experience leads to the solution of their problem. Tree’s experience is a little less significant because Ryan can only commiserate on a looping day during the first few scenes of the movie. Once Tree returns to the loop, no one else exists that would know about her predicament. Another way both characters are connected is through the loss of their mother. Both protagonists attribute their situation in life due to an unfulfilled relationship with their mother. It is by finding closure to those relationships that both women can move forward in their lives.

And let’s face it, neither Russian Doll or Happy Death Day 2U work without their amazing female leads. Natasha Lyonne created an incredible character; a video game programmer that is determined to find a solution for her entrapment. The audience believes that Nadia could come up with this wild explanation for her time loops and her dry humor helps get her out of some uncomfortable conversations with the people who pop up in her life. Jessica Rothe has fast-tracked her career with her performance of Tree in both Happy Death Day films. It looks easy how she can be incredibly mean in one instance and then sentimental in the next. Her character arc takes her through a full range of feelings; from fear and cruelty to sorrow and comedy. Both properties succeed because of the amazing women at the center of their stories.

Groundhog Day made the rules for what we associate as a time loop story. When trying to explain Russian Doll or Happy Death Day 2U to friends, it is likely that the explanation began with the phrase “Groundhog Day but…” That’s great, but by exploring the effects of their deaths of the world around them, Russian Doll and Happy Death Day 2U become more profound. I know profound is a crazy word to use about a movie that uses a baby as a college mascot and a Netflix series that uses Bathmophobia as a running gag, but hear me out. Science ends up being a big component of the two properties, and instead of just using the endless time to become a master at ice sculpture and win over the spouse of your dreams, Nadia and Tree contemplate their existence and the ramifications it has on those around them. Together, they have revived a genre in need of some new energy. Russian Doll has exceeded expectations and has become one of Netflix’s best original programs. Happy Death Day 2U uses its science to become less of a horror flick and more science-fiction. Time loops have been used for self-improvement, so it is fitting that the rules of time loops are improving.

News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.