On Groundhogs and Redemption

“There is no way that this winter is *ever* going to end as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow…he’s got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.”

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I watched Groundhog Day (1993) for the first time ever in July. Going in, I knew the general plot—Bill Murray as Weatherman Phil gets trapped in a time loop on Groundhog Day; hilarity ensues. At the end of the film, though, while noting my enjoyment of it, I was struck by the unexpected realization that Phil has one of the most satisfying redemption arcs I’ve seen in media, and all because of how hard he has to work for it. 

A redemption arc—and I pause to define this on the off chance someone reading this doesn’t know—is when a character (a villain, an anti-villain, or just someone generally shitty) redeems themselves for their past actions throughout the narrative. It’s satisfying to watch since, as humans, we are prone to making mistakes, and we love a story where we can learn to be better. The most vital part of a successful redemption arc is making amends, when a character performs actions to undo, or at least address, the harm they actively caused in the past and its ongoing repercussions.

Do not speak to me about characters who do one nice thing and immediately die. That doesn’t count. Also do not speak to me about Kylo Ren—he doesn’t even hit that standard.

So, back to Groundhog Day. Phil is a jerk. He’s smug, he’s resentful, he’s mean to his new producer and long-time camera man. He isn’t pure evil—it’s not like he killed anybody or was an arsonist—but he isn’t a good person, either. So when he gets trapped in a time loop and decides to spend it doing bad things, it’s not a surprise to the audience. Of course the man who sneers at small-town folk is going to scrub for personal information to seduce women. Of course he’d perfectly time a robbery—this man’s head is so far up his own ass he treats it as a game. But it’s this banality that draws me to his character arc and makes his redemption all the better.

I find Phil is a character you can’t cheer for when he sucks, unlike famous redemption arc example Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. We don’t see Phil struggle to overcome an abusive family or understand the hundreds of years of war that lead to his place in society. He’s also not sixteen. But I like that in a character. I enjoy a character so frustratingly arrogant that I dislike them. It’s a compliment to the writing. Phil’s struggles aren’t grand and are entirely self-caused, in direct contrast to Zuko, but the act of seeing someone change, from hurting others & themselves to helping, is as satisfying as a story can be—even if it’s in a silly movie where a man really hates a groundhog.

“I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”

The narrative here is an active participant in Phil’s redemption; the great unknown that keeps him from moving on from February 2. I love its use as an unexplained plot device, as a universal force that only rewards improvement. In fact, it is the only demand for change that Phil cannot ignore. He can breeze past his colleauges, he can insult people under his breath, but no matter what he tries (and does he ever try), he cannot escape this demand. There is no path forward until Phil fixes himself and rights his wrongs. Groundhog Day says, “There is nothing more for those who refuse to change other than inescapable, self-inflicted bleakness”. And so, Phil must learn.

And learn. And learn some more.

Here we get to the crux of what delights me about his redemption: he doesn’t get it the first time he’s nice. It isn’t enough to decide to stop doing bad actions because a woman he’s into tells him to. And why would it be? The number of wrongs Phil commits are as innumerable as the times he relives Groundhog Day, and he must address each one, with thought and purposeful action. This goes beyond the harm to others, too—he has to address the harm he’s caused himself, through rejecting others, through snobbery, through the aforementioned head-ass shoving that stops him from enjoying a silly holiday about a rodent. It’s why seeing him learn the piano and to speak French is heartwarming: because it shows that he understands he has to improve himself, too, and, as anyone who’s had to try to do that, it is very hard work indeed.  

The movie also shows something not a lot of redemption arcs have, which is the inevitability that not every past action can be changed, even with hard work and good intent. Try as he might, nothing Phil does can save the homeless man’s life. It is inevitable whether if he is a selfish monster or a selfless hero. And he struggles with this—he wants the man to live. He wants to see the results of his hard work at self-improvement. How can he be a changed man if he cannot save a single life? What he cannot see is that accepting his lack of control is the improvement. It’s certainly a far cry away from a weatherman who refused to believe a storm would hit because he said it wouldn’t. The point of this plot thread is that not that every harm can—or should be—redressed. There are some things no amount of change will improve. There are some people who will, justly, never forgive you. 

To truly change, you must acknowledge this, and continue to fix yourself anyway. 

Mix that touchingly human arc with some great humour that can only come from a closed set and a very fake groundhog, and it’s no wonder why this movie is a classic. I doubt many other people go in to it like, ‘Oh boy, I can’t wait to see Groundhog Zuko’s arc again!’, but that’s definitely the attitude I’ll be carrying forward during any rewatches. To see a shitty person become decent, and a decent person become kind—that’s the redemption I want to see more of. After all…

“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life…standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

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