Available to Hulu subscribers in the US since July 2021, Palm Springs only just arrived on Amazon Prime Video in the UK last week – and already, audiences across the pond are going crazy trying to tie-up this sci-fi romcom’s loose ends! Director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara have left Palms Springs fans with plenty to mull over: Did Andy Samberg’s Nyles and Cristin Milioti’s Sarah actually escape the time loop? Did J.K. Simmon’s Roy escape, too? Why do people keep saying “Shukran”? And what’s up with those dinosaur sightings?
But the most burning question of all concerns Nana Schlieffen – everyone’s trying to figure out how she’s connected to the time loop that Nyles and Sarah are trapped in, and what this could mean for the movie’s wider narrative. So, let’s weigh up the three major theories about Nana and see if we can’t put this Palm Springs mystery to bed one and for all!
The three main theories about Nana Schlieffen
Like I said, there are three main schools of thought when it comes to Nana Schlieffen’s true role in Palm Springs – and all of them revolve around comments she makes that hint that she might also be caught in the same Groundhog Day-like cycle as our main characters.
The first theory is barely even a theory at all; it postulates that Nana – like every wedding guest other than Nyles, Sarah and Roy (to the best of our knowledge, at least!) – isn’t part of the time loop or even aware of its existence. Instead, she’s just a sweet elderly lady with a penchant for making unwittingly enigmatic statements that can easily be interpreted in different ways.
So, according to this theory, when Nana tells Nyles she’s been to more weddings than he can imagine, she just means that (as someone who’s long in the tooth) she’s quite literally seen a lot of different couples tie the knot over the years. Similarly, when she says she expects Sarah will be leaving and wishes her good luck, all she’s saying is that she doesn’t expect Sarah to stick around for long now that she’s performed her maid-of-honour duties, and (sensing Sarah has finally found some sense of peace) is wishing her the best for the next phase of her life.
As theories go, it’s not super exciting, but it does work.
The second theory is a bit more exciting. It argues that Nana Schlieffen was aware of the time loop on some level – with the consensus being that this is because she’s stuck in it herself!
Certainly, Nana’s cryptic comments give the impression that she knows the score. Her reference to attending countless nuptials throughout her lifetime and her apparent insight into Sarah’s escape plan all point to Nana being intimately familiar with what’s really going on (and on) in Palm Springs. How Nana Schlieffen found herself inside the desert cave that houses the time loop vortex is admittedly a bit of a headscratcher, but this minor quibble is hardly a deal breaker.
Then there’s the third and final theory, which is, well…a bit bonkers. It’s a convoluted bit of business (you can read about it in more detail here) but essentially, it hypothesises that Nana and Sarah are actually the same person! Proponents of this theory break down into two main camps:
- Those who argue that Sarah was displaced in the past after breaking free of the time loop and wound up marrying her grandfather and becoming her own grandmother (ewww).
- Those convinced that Sarah emerged from the time loop in the present day and lived until a ripe old age before she somehow re-entered the time loop to re-experience the events of Palm Springs by posing as her own grandmother.
Yet despite a supposed preponderance of “clues” (such as Nana revealing that, like Sarah, her mother died young), neither of these theories really stacks up – largely because Nana isn’t Sarah’s grandmother! It’s easy to miss, but a line of dialogue early on confirms Nana is part of Sarah’s brother-in-law Abe’s family, not Sarah’s. Could Sarah be Abe’s time-lost grandmother, instead? Maybe. But that’d also mean that her affair with Abe resulted in her sleeping with her own grandson (in her past, his near-present) which adds an extra layer of icky I’m pretty sure the filmmakers weren’t shooting for here.
And even if we rejig the second part of this two-pronged theory to fit the established facts, it still doesn’t make sense. If the older Sarah is only masquerading as Nana, how come nobody calls her on it? How could the older Sarah possibly slot into the Schlieffen family’s lives – either on the wedding night or decades earlier – without it raising any eyebrows?
Bottom line? Sarah and Nana can’t be the same person.
So which theory about Nana Schlieffen is right?
At this point, it’s worth noting that Barbakow and Siara strived to make several aspects of Palm Springs ambiguous – I mean, we don’t even know for certain that Nyles and Sarah’s escape plan worked! Rather than providing definitive answers, Barbakow and Siara would rather we focus more on what the film has to say about relationships, commitment, and learning how move forward with your life.
Nevertheless, I do think it’s possible to conclusively solve the Nana Schlieffen conundrum.
Right off the bat, I’m going to discount the theory that Nana is an older Sarah, simply because it doesn’t stand up to even mild scrutiny. That leaves us with either the first or second theories – Nana has nothing to do with the time loop, and Nana is part of the time loop, respectively – and on paper, there’s not much separating them; they both make perfect sense.
Based on the evidence, though, I think Theory #2 is the winner overall. There’s a subtle emphasis to the scenes with Nana that’s hard to ignore and suggests she plays a bigger role in proceedings than is immediately apparent, and her remarks (especially her farewell to Sarah) are so knowing that it seems impossible that Nana isn’t privy to the time loop.
Now, I don’t have the faintest idea how Nana wandered into the time vortex cave; what matters is I’m positive that she did – and that, unlike Sarah, Nyles and Roy, she has no desire to leave the loop… not yet, anyway. The way I see it, Nana knows she’s probably only got a few more years left, so once she found herself caught in the time loop, she decided to take advantage of this opportunity to spend a bit more time with the people she loves before she finds her way out again.
The wedding night is what Roy would term Nana Schlieffen’s “Irvine” – her little piece of paradise where she can be content for a while – and knowing this adds a whole new emotional layer to her few brief scenes.
So, now that we’ve crossed off Palm Springs’ biggest mystery, we can collectively move on down the list to consider the movie’s other big headscratcher: seriously, what is the deal with those dinosaurs…?