Russian Doll, a Netflix series released last month, follows a woman as she lives and dies over and over. Every time she dies, she comes back to life in the middle of her own birthday party. The life she comes back to is the same in certain respects but not in others. Without giving too much away, the fracture point is eventually revealed to be a moment when she missed the opportunity to help somebody else—an omission that led to her death and to the death of another person. She will keep on living through this time loop until she finds a way to set it right.
Narratives of living and reliving your life resonate for many reasons—the genuine wish to be able to do something over, the fun of getting to try out different things to say without any real consequences. But there’s also the way certain past events, particularly though not exclusively traumatic ones, can create a kind of constant present for us, a break in our experiences that means we no longer feel time in the same way. (Back in 2015, when Black Mirror was the streaming-on-Netflix show to talk about, I thought its most successful episodes were also the ones dealing with time.)
And, finally, there’s a real sense of vulnerability that comes when you see a person clearly, or at least think you can see a person clearly, as she passes through, again and again, a particular stage in her life, as if intervening at this one, fraught moment could clear something out of the way for her. A time-loop scenario cuts the trapped person off from others, but also allows her to get to know them in a different way. And even though there isn’t really a way to get life right—though there are, of course, many ways of getting it wrong—the time loop sort of does imply that there was a critical moment, that everything went wrong then, that setting it right is all that is needed.
In her book Transformative Experience, L. A. Paul argues that certain experiences simply cannot be judged in advance, like marriage and parenthood. She analogizes such experiences to becoming a vampire. Your friends have become vampires and, while they acknowledge the tradeoffs, wouldn’t become human again. “Life has meaning and a sense of purpose now that it never had when I was human,” they tell you. But consulting your friends isn’t really as helpful as you think, Paul continues:
For, after all, you cannot know what it is like to be a vampire until you are one. And if you can’t know what it’s like to be a vampire without becoming one, you can’t compare the character of the lived experience of what it is like to be you, right now, a mere human, to the character of the lived experience of what it would be like to be a vampire. This means that, if you want to make this choice by considering what you want your lived experience to be like in the future, you can’t do it rationally. At least, you can’t do it by weighing the competing options concerning what it would be like and choosing on this basis. And it seems awfully suspect to rely solely on the testimony of your vampire friends to make your choice, because, after all, they aren’t human any more, so their preferences are the ones vampires have, not the ones humans have.
Accepting that some choices really are transformative requires a shift from viewing yourself in the third-person to looking at yourself in the first; understanding that parenthood might mean discovering you have become a person you did not want to be, but who you now enjoy being. The language of choice—being ready to have a child, and so on—slots parenthood into a type of “personal fulfillment and self-realization.” Similarly, marriage involves a promise about the future that has to accept we have little control over the people we will be in the future, separately or together, and that the promise made is made against, even in defiance of, this knowledge. (And in Russian Doll, the people most directly affected by the time loop are people poised on transformative thresholds: the birthday in which you become older than your dead mother ever was, a marriage proposal, the encounter that could have but did not save your life.)
One can imagine a version of Russian Doll in which the reset was not a series of birthdays but rather first dates, each ending badly in its own way, each resetting to see if it could be done correctly this time, the opening line at dinner going a little differently, the outfit switched up. A looping narrative is really about choices—which ones matter, which ones don’t—but only the looping person gets to exercise the choices that will affect everybody else and cause them to act differently. First dates are fun (for some) because they do not yet contain any clear consequences, only endless potential; a wedding is an occasion in which all our potential choices collapse into one decision. This future, whatever it means, is the one that we choose.