clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Palm Springs chooses human choice over divine intervention

It isn’t anti-religious or amoral, it’s just about personal responsibility

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Cristin Milioti gives someone offscreen a big, wide grin in Palm Springs. Photo: Christopher Willard / Hulu

[Ed. note: This story contains significant spoilers for the ending of Hulu’s Palm Springs.]

About half an hour into Palm Springs, after Sarah (Cristin Milioti) has lived through the same day a handful of times, she decides she’s figured everything out. “Maybe it’s a karma thing,” she tells fellow time-looper Nyles (Andy Samberg) as they’re eating burritos. “To get out of this, you have to be selfless, and then you’re free.” That evening, as she’s standing in her bridesmaid dress at her sister’s wedding, Sarah puts her theory to the test. She interrupts the couple’s vows to whisper a long confession to her sister. As she concludes this act of selflessness, a tremor shakes the proceedings, as if to underscore the grandeur of the step she’s just taken.

In another time-loop story — say, Groundhog Day or Russian Doll — this would be the climax, a sign that the protagonist had achieved the necessary emotional growth and could now be freed from their temporal prison by whatever cosmic force put them there in the first place. But in Palm Springs, things don’t work that way. Whatever Sarah or Nyles learn about themselves as they continuously loop through the same day in Southern California, that knowledge alone isn’t enough to return them to their original timeline.

Because the Palm Springs characters eventually rely on hard science rather than divine intervention to get them out of their loop, it may seem as though the movie is utterly unconcerned with morality. The only thing keeping these characters trapped is their ignorance of advanced physics; once they’ve learned the science that underpins their bubble, there’s nothing stopping them from leaving, regardless of how much personal growth they’ve undergone.

But that read misses a crucial element of Palm Springs’ moral arc. The characters are in charge of their own exits. But in order to get out of the time loop, they have to become the kinds of people who will actually make the choice to leave a safe place where they have infinite freedom, as long as they accept that their decisions don’t matter.

This dynamic is illustrated most explicitly with Roy (J.K. Simmons), the third participant in the time loop. Nyles draws him into the loop after getting a little too literal about Roy’s drunken declaration that he’d love the evening’s revelry to continue forever. Initially, Roy responds to his predicament with rage and violence, sadistically torturing Nyles with countless excruciating deaths. But after he experiences the same pain at Sarah’s hands, he begins a journey of self-reflection, eventually coming to appreciate the quiet suburban life he’d originally been so eager to escape. The Roy who returns to the wedding at the end of the film is a transformed man who sees fatherhood as a gift, rather than a punishment. That leaves him ready to risk everything in order to get back to his family.

Sarah, for her part, enters the time loop adrift and unmoored. For a self-centered divorcée who ends up in bed with her future brother-in-law the night before his wedding, committing to learning enough about quantum physics to get herself out of the time loop may not seem like an arc of personal growth, particularly since it seems to start as a way of avoiding a growing emotional attachment to Nyles. But as a character who’s been more likely to run away when things get hard rather than face her problems straight on, committing to a tricky, prolonged research project is a massive development, one that ultimately lays the groundwork for the emotional growth she needs to return to Nyles and offer him a chance at a real relationship, out in the real world.

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti sit on the side of the road in handcuffs in Hulu’s Palm Springs. Photo: Hulu

And though we’re never explicitly told who Nyles was at the start of his journey, it’s easy to see him as a besotted boyfriend blown off course after he discovered his girlfriend cheating on him. Ultimately, he takes solace in his parallel universe where nothing can truly be a surprise, and everything resets at the end of the day. In meeting and losing Sarah, he’s forced to contend with the possibility that some things are worth taking risks for. He learns that not knowing what comes next is as much a gift as it is a curse.

In all these journeys, the active choice to leave the loop is the key moment of growth. It’s a way for the characters to take control of their destinies, rather than waiting for a cosmic power to weigh in. Like many existentialist works before it, Palm Springs recognizes that morality doesn’t need to be externally imposed in order to shape our lives. We don’t need a cosmic scorekeeper determining when we’ve truly learned our lesson, or grown enough to leave. Contrary to Nyles’ original assessment of his predicament, we need to reject the idea that, sans some divine power charting our course, nothing matters. We need to recognize that the meaning we find in our lives is the meaning we actively bring to it.

Palm Springs forces its protagonists to take charge of their own moral development, to figure out when they’ve learned their lesson — and what lesson needed to be learned in the first place. It’s a far more challenging task than what’s put before Phil in Groundhog Day or Nadia in Russian Doll. And it more closely reflects what each and every one of us goes through in our daily lives.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon