PALM SPRINGS: How Early Loss Can Make You Afraid To Love Again

This article uses the new Hulu film, Palm Springs, to discuss early loss and later fears of love.

What gets you stuck in a time loop? A freak of quantum physics? The self-quarantine of COVID-19 in which one day seems like the last (or the next)? Or, could it be the cynical self-protective bubble that loss and fear of love creates? Palm SpringsMax Barbakow and Andy Siara’s endearingly creative, intelligent, sensitive, and hopeful film tells us all about this bubble, in the story of Sarah and Nyles; an unlikely yet perfectly matched pair. They find themselves at Sarah’s sister’s wedding. Day after day after day. Sarah because she followed Nyles into that cave, even though he told her not to. Because she “liked him” and he was in danger. The lesson? Caring about someone isn’t safe. Look what happens. At least that’s the conviction of those who’ve been hurt, scarred, or disappointed by love in the past. And, it’s hard to get out.

Palm Springs is a lesson in the effects of childhood trauma. You can get stuck in it, if you aren’t aware. Much like the time loop Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and Nyles (Andy Samberg) find themselves in; trying in every which way not to fall in love. What can we learn? About the mental “tricks” they use to survive past heartbreaks? Both have them, although Sarah’s losses are most apparent (her mom and a husband). Yet Nyles, clearly has his own. Fighting his feelings, he says, “it drifts away, just like they all do.” So, what are Nyles’s strategies? “Nothing matters.” And: “Ignore it, that’s my thing.”

Making Nothing Matter

Floating in the pool, as Palm Springs begins, a fellow swimmer and wedding attendee asks: “Good day?” Nyles’s pessimistic response? “Today, tomorrow, yesterday, it’s all the same [that’s stuck]. You?” His pool companion answers: “The day’s young. Ask me again at the end. Anything can happen.” And, at the end of the film, anything does.

But you have to grow to trust that what happens isn’t more of the same. And, Nyles doesn’t. He can’t. He’s been making nothing matter for a very long time. Why? Because everything mattered once or twice or maybe more times than that. But, over and over and over, it seems like someone leaves you. Falls away like ash through your fingers.

You can’t make it stop, so you seal yourself off. Like Nyles. Tell yourself nothing matters. No one matters. No one will ever matter again. You create a bubble around you, live in a cave. No one can enter. Then someone does, even though you yell, “Don’t come in.” Like, Sarah. As cynical as Nyles. And, attractive. Got to have a little company, right?

But nothing can matter, remember? So, Nyles won’t let anything come of it. It’ll just be a little fling. Hey, not so fast. Can’t even have that. Roy (J.K. Simmons) is hunting him down with bow and arrow. Cupid’s bow gone awry. Let yourself get close, open up desire, and all your mixed-up feelings come right back. Wanting love and not wanting it. That’s the trap. There, in the form of Roy, ready to kill him. Falling in love equals danger.

Roy & Mixed Up Feelings About Love

Who’s Roy? Well, he’s not exactly the “nothing matters” kind of guy. Sure, he seemed like it, years ago. Another cynical wedding attendee (“marriage is a bottomless pit of sorrow”). But he was just having a bad day. Nyles and Roy drank themselves into oblivion; added a little cocaine. And, (uh oh) Nyles let Roy into his cave. Because Roy said he didn’t want this day to end. But what kind of day was that?

A “making nothing matter” elixir kind of day that drugs, alcohol, or any kind of escape can seem to bring. From scary mixed up feelings about love. Sure, love can feel like a trap, some days. Or love can hurt. You want out (of those feelings). But Roy wasn’t as serious as Nyles. It was a momentary thing. We find out later, he really has a lovely life.

Even though Nyles feels safer in his time loop, Roy’s in a rage and wants out. Wants to see his little twins grow up. His own mixed-up feelings about love pretty much ruined it all. But Nyles isn’t just mixed up. He has shut down. All his feelings. And, Roy (who is all the desire and pain Nyles tries to run from) begins to break into his bubble.

Because of Sarah. No, it’s not easy. Nyles is a hardened guy. For reasons Palm Springs doesn’t explicitly reveal. Maybe his “father” used his virginal mom in the bathroom of a bar one drunken night; and ran away? Didn’t even know Nyles was conceived? Looks that way. (That “dad” he lost helps him in the end) … to find what he’s scared of.

Yet, before he faces his past, he keeps doing everything he can to fend off all his fears.

“Ignore It, That’s My Thing”

Nyles? He’s been alone (in his time loop) for many years. Except for his tormenter Roy, pursing him, reminding him of the dangers of feeling anything at all. Run, as fast as you can, away from all the rage about the past; plus, what you’re missing out on. What you really want. Pretend none of it matters at all. Nyles likes it that way.

At least he thought so. Now, meeting Sarah, when his “nothing matters” mantra doesn’t work, he’s got to have another strategy: “Ignore it, that’s my thing.” That’s part of the way he tries to find some inner peace: “Cheers!” “To pretending not to care,” Sarah asks? “I like that,” Nyles admits. “I know you do.”

Pop one beer can open, after another. Keep yourself anesthetized. Don’t let Sarah get under your skin. You tried to stop her, but she’s inside your bubble. Not too close now. Don’t open up. Especially, don’t remember your past. That spells trouble.

Sarah knows the past matters. Yet, she’s running from hers too. So, they dance a dance of back and forth, in and out. Closer, then away. Once, when she wants to know about his past. Thinks maybe he cares? Nyles says, No. There’s nothing. They fight:

“If you really want to know someone, you have to know the whole package,” Sarah argues. Holding a Twix bar, Nyles waves a piece: “This, the next bite, that’s all that matters.” Tearfully, she tells him about her marriage; walking down the aisle, she knew it wouldn’t work. It didn’t. “Ignoring all that would make me destined to repeat it.”

But, here’s the key to getting out of the time loop. The past matters. Sara is absolutely right. Repeating it (it’s leftover fears), that’s exactly where they’re both stuck.

Ignore It & You’ll Repeat It

What are they repeating? Not feeling wanted. Losing a mom when you’re little. Having no dad; one that left. Those are losses that scar you. That’s the Pandora’s box, hidden in the cave. That’s where Sarah and Nyles live. Sarah, with a sister and brother that have their mom; feeling like Cinderella. On the outside. It’s happened before. It’ll happen again. Right? They’re both pretty convinced. Better be careful.

But Sarah pulls at him. Nyles is vulnerable and doesn’t want to be. It’s been so long since he let himself feel anything. Beer after beer. Meaningless day (and sexual encounter) after another. He keeps telling her he doesn’t care (even though he does):

“When I say I’m sorry, it’s like I finished a beer and now I have to open another one (click of the tab). Now I’m not sorry anymore. Just a fleeting feeling. It drifts away, just like they all do.” She won’t let him off the hook so easily: “What do you mean … like they all do?” “Everything. Cheers!” He holds up his beer. Yes, to pretending not to care.

She’s got his number, but can she crack his shell? Maybe. First, Sarah needs to crack her own. She lives in a “nothing can matter” place, too. Especially since she feels she doesn’t. That’s where she’s trapped. Her sister, her brother, they matter. Not her. That’s what she believes. That’s what Nyles thinks too. Let yourself care and you lose.

But, then, Sarah and Nyles see magical dinosaurs near the cave as they’re camping on another one time loop night together, Nyles says: “Something new!” Sarah asks, “Are they real?” Nyles says: “Who cares.” Wait Nyles, love is real. BUT, if love is to enter the picture, relics of the past cannot be ignored. For either.

Not Feeling Wanted: A Complicated Dance

Sarah reaches for his hand. He takes it. A start. They make love. And, it’s not just sex. This makes it scarier for both of them. Nyles is opening up. Even though it’s hard to wake up “in here,” he tells her: “Going to sleep just got better. For Nyles. Not Sarah. But her look isn’t what he thinks. He feels rejected. She’s haunted.

She wakes up each morning with her sister’s fiancé, the night before the wedding. She must face her “nothing matters” jealousy of her sister. “It’s all meaningless, right?” Nyles is changing his tune: “I hope it’s not all meaningless … Pain matters. What we do to other people matters.” Not so easy for Sarah. Her sister has what Sarah lost:

A mother. Sarah’s stepmother. And soon, a husband. Sarah doesn’t feel she belongs anywhere. To prove “nothing matters,” she makes herself the black sheep, the problem child. Doesn’t see that she is loved. Because she doesn’t believe she is. Both Sarah and Nyles have the same ghosts. This keeps them stuck right where they are.

In love’s complicated dance, they both try to stay tough, without a care in the world, especially for each other. One big lie, if there ever was one. But all they can see is the other not caring. Always feeling they’re being left, they hurt each other.

Nyles tells Sarah they’ve hooked up “a thousand times.” Making their night not special. Sarah, equally hurt by his seeming callousness, says: “I’m getting out of this thing.” What thing? The hurt of not feeling wanted. The fear of falling in love.

She steps in front of an 18-wheeler. But, when you’re in a time loop, you just wake up the next day in the exact same place. Sort of.

What Does It Take to Get Out?

Sarah and Nyles try many ways to get out of the pain of their pasts. But the past is a time loop you’re caught in, day in and day out, if it’s not faced. They try deadening their feelings with “nothing matters; ignore it, I can survive without you, you know.” Even suicide. All about staying in the cave; that quantum physics box, where they’re stuck.

Yes, that box is like a coffin. And, it’s created out of fear. Fear of feelings. Of being unwanted. Not as good as. Being rejected. Jealousy. Losing love right when you need it.

Sure, Nyles says it’s only the next bite that matters, but that was one of his creative self-protective strategies. Just like Sarah’s: “I can survive alone, you know.” No needs for either of them. But, that’s another lie. Everyone has needs. And, when you push people away; ignore their feelings; steal what belongs to them without caring; that hurts.

It also makes you very much alone. None of these familiar strategies (to manage early losses) really work. What does, then? Well, Roy becomes a different voice. Marriage isn’t a bottomless pit of sorrow. Love can be savored. Things change. Priorities change.

What will change things for Nyles? A gentler, Roy tells him: “You’ve got to find your own Irvine.” Irvine is where Roy’s happy life is. “I don’t have an Irvine”, but Roy reassures him that everyone does. And, Sarah’s disappearance makes Nyles realize that she is his Irvine. He now knows he loves her. But, will he find her again?

Anything Can Happen (Even Love)

Anything can happen, even love. If you don’t tell yourself, in the voice of the time loop (remember, it’s the past): “Today, tomorrow, yesterday, it’s all the same.” Love is scary if love has hurt you. But if you don’t take the chance, you will stay stuck. Hiding in that seemingly “safe place” out of fear.  Nyles almost makes that mistake.

When Sarah tells him (after all her Quantum Physics research) that she’s figured out how to get out of the box they’re stuck in, he’s scared. That’s understandable. It means surrendering to an “explosion” and exiting directly through the loop they entered through, at exactly the right time. But, what does that really mean?

It means, making a change. Going with love. Admitting you’re scared, but trying anyway. Knowing that your mantra’s of “No one loves me. Everyone will leave,” aren’t really true. For Sarah, it means appreciating your sister, not competing. Taking in Nana’s (June Squibb) understanding of how hard it is to lose your mom when you’re young. And, not staying stuck in that loss.

For Nyles, it means realizing you’re an idiot not to be with the one you whose “whole package” you love. Forgiving your birth dad and letting him rush you to Sarah on his Harley. “Being cool with co-dependency.” Read: needing someone (Sarah has to admit that too). Being willing to risk your life (at least that’s how it feels) to love again.

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That’s the only way to get out of the time loop of old hurts and losses. By going back over the past; in slow or fast flashbacks; and coming out the other side. With someone you couldn’t imagine existed and don’t want to live without. (And, hey, don’t miss Palm Springs. I can’t do the deliciously quirky dialogue justice!)

This article was originally published at Sandra E. Cohen, Ph.D.'s blog, Characters On The Couch. Reprinted with permission from the author.