The Ned Ryerson Conundrum
by Tom Armstrong
Ned Ryerson is an important character in the Twilight Zone of repeating days that traps Phil Connors in the film Groundhog Day. On the surface, there seems nothing particularly meaningful in the meetings between Ned and Phil. It seems simply that Phil must avoid a pushy salesman, and that we see over the course of the many meetings (most of which are implied, and may number thousands) the different strategies Phil uses to rebuff Ned's aggressiveness. On the final February 2--the one that takes effect--we are told that Phil has purchased every variety of insurance that Ned sells.
The question then is, "What does it mean that after thousands of meetings, Ned is successful in selling insurance to Phil?"
But, also, there is something very curious going on in the carefully written screenplay. And it is this curious thing which I find very hard to understand.
The curious thing is this: If we are to suppose that the events relating to Ned are there just for comedy's sake, they why--when the screenplay is so meticulously crafted--does the first meeting between Phil and Ned so closely echo the "pick-up" meeting between Phil and Nancy? Below, is the text of the first meeting between Ned and Phil, followed by the Phil and Nancy pick-up scene.
Ned greets Phil
Ned: Phil? Hey, Phil. Phil. Phil Conners. Phil Conners, I thought that was you.
Phil: How ya doing? Thanks for watching.
Ned: Now don't you tell me you don't remember me because I sure as heck-fire remember you.
Phil: Not a chance.
Ned: Ned! Ryerson! Neddle-nose Ned. Ned the Head. Case Western High! Ned Ryerson. I did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show. Bing! Ned Ryerson. Got the shingles real bad senior year almost didn't graduate. Bing! Again. Ned Ryerson. I dated your sister, Mary Pat, until you told me not to any more. Well?
Phil: Ned Ryerson?
Phil greets Nancy
Phil: Nancy? Nancy Taylor!?
Phil: Lincoln High School? I sat next to you in Mrs. Walch's English class.
Nancy: Oh, I'm sorry.
Phil: Phil Connors!
Nancy: Wow. That's amazing.
Phil: You don't remember me, do you?
Phil: I even asked you to the prom.
Nancy: Phil Connors?
Phil: I was short and I've sprouted.
Nancy: Yeah. Gosh, how are you?
Phil: Great. You look terrific. You look very, very terrific!
Phil: Listen. I've gotta go do this report. Um.
Nancy: Are you a reporter?
Phil: I'm a weatherman with channel 9, Pittsburgh.
Nancy: Wow. Gosh. I should have known. That's great.
Phil: But maybe later we could--
Nancy: Yeah. Whatever.
Phil: Stay...right...here. Promise me?
Phil: OK. I'll be right back.
Phil: Wish me luck.
Nancy: Good luck.
Now, it may not be immediately clear what the similarity is between these two conversations, so let me explain.
In the meeting when Ned greets Phil, Phil never recognizes Ned, though Ned provides three personal items of information: 1) Phil's full name 2) the high school Phil attended and 3) the name of Phil's sister.
The day before Phil succeeds in picking up Nancy, he goes to her and gets three bits of personal information from her: 1) her full name 2) the high school she attended and 3) the name of her senior-year English teacher. The next day, Phil confronts Nancy with his knowledge of this information to suggest that she must know him since he clearly, certainly knows her. Ned had confronted Phil in exactly this way! And there is no indication in the movie that Phil ever really remembered Ned from high school.
Question: Why did the screenwriters knowingly make these scenes so similar?
The Learned Behavior Theory: Phil is thinking of the meeting with Ned when he hatches his plan to seduce Nancy. Though it probably flies over most all viewers' heads, we are supposed to see that the seduction scheme is not something Phil dreamed up, it's something he learned. Thus, Phil never does truly recognize Ned, but Ned truly did attend high school with Phil.
The Twilight Zone Theory: Ned is doing to Phil exactly what Phil is doing to Nancy, which means that Ned, too, is living in a looping timewarp. Under this scenerio, Ned never really knew Phil, but learned about Phil on a prior Groundhog Day that Phil does not remember. Ned's objective? To "attack like a bull" in his aggressive effort to sell insurance. Indeed, it may be a skill of all successful insurance salesmen to use timewarps in order to sell their product. Perhaps what causes all the time-looping to end is that Phil finally buys the policies.
The Outer Limits Theory: Phil really did go to high school with Nancy, only he has forgotten. Ned didn't go to high school with either of them, but did have Mrs. Walch as his English teacher, in a class where he sat next to Mary Pat. Mrs. Walch has no recollection of ever being a high school teacher, but does remember seeing Phil giving the weather report in Cleveland, a place that he has no memory of ever having been to. When Phil tells Nancy his memories of high school, he thinks he is fibbing, but the reality (which he has forgotten) is that he did go to high school with her and this has refreshed her memory. This would explain why Nancy is so easily seduced, because she remembers Phil when he was a short high school student (though her recollection is that he was very tall) and has always loved him.
It cannot be proved, but I think the real answer is #2, Twilight Zone, and will be shown in the sequel to Groundhog Day, called Groundhog Day II- The Ned Ryerson Story, an Oliver Stone production.
Now for the question at the beginning of this essay: Why did Phil buy all that damned insurance on the last Groundhog Day?
The Let's wrap this thing up and go home Theory: A possible answer is that there was no other way to bring the Ned Ryerson subplot to conclusion. One choice, having Phil push Ned into oncoming traffic, might have been a good idea, bringing cheers from movie-goers, but if Ned is in a timewarp too, he would have survived anything. Having Ned greet Phil on the dance floor with his new wife, Mary Pat, might have worked, but this would have required Phil to come up with another pair of Wrestlemania tickets as wedding presents, and the screenwriters wouldn't want to be repetitious, all over again, one more time.
This leaves the "quick out" as the best choice: having Phil buy Ned off. But there is something quite unsatisfactory about this answer since buying lots of insurance that you don't need [Phil doesn't need insurance, of course. He's indestructible.] is not on a high order of accomplishment like the other heroic deeds Phil performed on the last Groundhog Day. Indeed, being a "soft touch" like he seems to have been does not feel like a demonstration of Phil's transformation like the other of his activities on that last day.
The Ned Wins Theory. Our mistake in thinking about the conclusion to the Ryerson subplot may be with identifying with the Phil Connors character in a movie that really belongs to Ned. If Ned is comfortably using the timewarp he is in to try to control events in order to sell insurance, he is truly a god, quietly manipulating lives in Punxsutawney. After thousands of days, Ned is certain to have tripped up at some point, allowing Phil to realize that Ned is sharing the timewarp. Phil would have had to have done the only thing he could: sign a Faustian contract (a kind of comprehensive-insurance policy) with this god but with the proviso that he gets to keep Rita. In exchange, Ned can date Mary Pat.
The Egolessness Theory. By this theory, purchasing regular, old insurance from Ned is of a piece with the other "good" deeds that Phil performs on that last day. It is not that Phil is being heroic; it is to be understood that Phil is giving to everyone what the other wants. He is acting without any ego whatever and without being judgmental of the desires of others. What does Ned want? Only to sell insurance, so Phil buys everything that Ned can sell to him.
Conclusion: Groundhog Day is, indeed, a great Buddhist movie. The Egolessness Theory is the correct one, and this will be shown to be the case again in the real sequel to Groundhog Day which will be entitled Seven Years in Punxsutawney with an egoless Brad Pitt assuming the Phil Connors role.