The many worlds theories of 'Russian Doll'
Review by Peter Hulm
Russian Doll has set off a webstorm of speculation about what its story means, from "What is 'Russian Doll' Actually About?" in The Atlantic to "What Does the Ending of Russian Doll Mean?" at IGS (clever publicity-mongering by the producers for Netflix). Just try Googling "what does russian doll mean netflix".
Don't believe the information that Google has 8 million responses for you. But you might go first to page 10 to find the Jewish Journal's description of it as "a Manual for Spiritual Growth" and "splendidly Jewish" like New York bagels and kosher pickles (really!).
Seriously, though, the JJ review is smarter than that. Refinery 29 describes it as one of the "recent great comedies about the afterlife" (do we really need another one?) in addition to The Good Place and Forever (answer: we need this one).
But let me give you another, postmodern take on this eight-part, short-episode, all-woman-created series that (God knows how) is supposed to go into a second and third season.
The message: all the apparently conflicting explanations are there to confuse you and screw with your head while the narrative goes merrily forward. They're just as deceptive as the variations in story we see every few minutes.
"Russian Doll" is not just a reference to the main character, "potty-mouthed" Nadia (meaning hope in Russian) Vulvokov (a fake Russian-type name and I won't say what word it is supposed to evoke: she suggests Volvo in a dislexic version).
But back to the story (spoilers all the way down).
In Russian Doll we learn that if the universe is meaningless and God is dead, life can still be interesting, intriguing, even hilarious.
Every character in this series by Amy Poehler and friends is a delight, from Natasha Lyonne as the star, to Greta Lee as her best friend, Charlie Barnett as the slow-burning male lead who turns out less boring than he appears, Yul Vazquez as the ex-boyfriend (less of a jerk than he appears), Jeremy Bobb as a licentious academic with more to him than it first appears, Brendan Sexton III as the mysterious Horse, the homeless man Natasha befriends and is last seen wearing a deer head.
There's even a touching cameo late in the series by Burt Young (remember Rocky's brother-in-law?). Elizabeth Ashley, as Nadia's psychotherapist aunt, has some of the most significant lines.
Only Dascha Polanco is denied the chance to show her sympathetic side (and there's a reason for that: explanation later). P.S. Refinery29 has a good slideshow with their bios.
Anyone who has seen Russian Doll know that it at first seems a version of Groundhog Day (1993). The Netflix original was given its premiere on 1 February 2019, the day before the year's celebration, just as the film had its first showing two days after, some 26 years before. But the title tells you it is not a repeat. It suggests that layers of meaning will peel away to reveal something different underneath, till episode 8 gives us the unvarnished truth.
So Nadia keeps dying and coming back in front of the restroom washbasin (no obvious symbolism here) looking in the mirror (this is significant) at her 36th birthday party. Then something happens shortly afterwards to off her.
The song that plays on her return is Harry Nilsson's Gotta Get Up. Lyonne told Refinery 29: "Harry Nilsson for me has been a lynchpin figure as a lineage to someone who knocked on death’s door and, in his case, didn’t make it.” Nilsson died in 1994 of a heart attack after years of drug abuse, and Lyonne herself underwent open-heart surgery after her own drug abuse problems, the website notes.
One fan on imdb has listed Nadia's deaths in order:
She is struck by a taxi while crossing the street; hits her head and drowns; falls into a basement grate (twice); falls down the stairs (three times) [— both reminiscent of the traps in her video game]; falls over the staircase rail [likewise]; crashes in an ambulance; freezes to death; is killed in an elevator free fall; dies from undetermined cause (not shown); is blown up in a gas explosion (twice); is shot by Ruth; is crushed by falling air conditioner; suffers anaphylactic shock caused by bee stings; chokes on a chicken bone; suffers a heart attack; dies via undetermined respiratory problem; dies from undetermined cause (bloody nose); dies from undetermined cause (coughs up glass shard).
I haven't found any message in the sequence (but keep reading). I think it's just the comedienne's version of Hollywood's "meeting cute" trope for couples. She doesn't meet any man cute. But at least she dies in unexpected ways (nod to Six Feet Under).
It takes some time before we can recognize how the story is developing beyond an even more obnoxious version of Groundhog Day, i.e. that she is in a time-trap (cf. the multiverse theory) or video game, remarkably similar to the video game Nadia is said to have designed.
Another fan on imdb has even listed all the similarities to video games:
- Nadia and Alan are repeatedly distracted from their mission with incidental issues, just as side quests in role-playing games distract the player from the main quest.
- Non-player characters on the storyline reset every time one of the "players" (Nadia/Alan) dies and respawn from their last checkpoint.
- Alan provides different responses to his conversation with Beatrice or Nadia when offered an Israeli joint: a reference to the ability to choose different dialogue choices in role-playing games, with the different responses leading to different results, as occurs.
- Nadia is a video game developer for Rock and Roll Games (a parody of Rockstar Games), and Alan is seen playing Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Early on, in episode 1, Nadia declares that it's like she is in The Game, and she is Michael Douglas! (a deft deflection from the obvious Groundhog Day similarities). The Jewish theme also comes in early. Nadia queries whether it is sacreligious to hold a party in an old Jewish school turned apartment block. "Isn't it supposed to be sacred or something?" she asks. Her best friend points out: "In New York real estate is sacred." The aunt tips us off early that Nadia feels responsible for her mother's death.
But what's with all the rotting fruit and dying flowers?
As Ariano Romero at Refinery29 has noted, episode 6 takes us through a world of rotten deli produce, and episode 7 (The Way Out) we learn that time is relative, but they cannot see the way the fourth dimension (time) plays out in the protagonists' three dimensional world. When Nadia cuts a rotten orange open, "It's still ripe!", Alan exclaims. "Time is relative to your experience," brainy Nadia explains. "We’ve been experiencing time differently in these loops. But, this, this tells us somewhere time, linear time as we understand it, still exists."
Russian Doll is a lot cleverer than simply giving you one explanation to work out. Alicia Jo Rabins of the Jewish Journal highlights the "the trappings of the sort of Jewish history that’s threaded through the streets of the East Village: a birthday party in an old yeshiva building, now an ultra-fancy hipster loft encased in subway tile; a synagogue on 14th Street — at its center an old, bearded rabbi who was a couple of blocks away all along; and the [Kruger rand] necklace Nadia wears throughout the series, which represents not only her lost mother who left it to her, but her Holocaust survivor grandparents, who lost faith in paper money and trusted only gold currency".
Natasha Lyonne herself is the grand-daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors, though Hungarian rather than Russian, and was expelled from a yashiva for selling weed.
But looking for a single correct explanation ignores the sequencing of the narrative and the rule of suspense that explanations coming later are more important than those earlier — or at least throw into question viewers' (and usually the protagonists') earlier presumptions, as here.
Thus we learn first that Nadia is involved in a Groundhog Day repeat. So maybe this sassy New Yorker is as grumpy and insensitive as the Bill Murray character. But she seems surrounded by friends. Maybe we twig, maybe not, that this is about companionship and learning to be nice to people, not just sex with an(y) improper stranger.
At first Nadia thinks the joint her best friend Maxine has given her is to blame. Natasha Lyonne has had a well-publicized history of drug problems, and the series gives us a clear picture of the wild mental world of the inveterate drug user. She gets two different explanations of what was in the joint: cocaine, and an anti-depressant given to cancer patients. In this series, the episode titles mean something: here "The Great Escape". Nadia is convinced that her experiences are hallucinations and the cause is either the drug or she has gone crazy.
When Alan enters the picture, he offers a punishment theory of their fate, which fits his rule-bound life choice but not hers.
At a certain point however, she breaks her neck, and the nesting-doll theme comes into play, as Sabrina Rojas Weiss notes in her savvy review on Refinery29, even finding Nadia's cascading red hair and big eyes similar to the shape of a matryoschka doll.
Her interpretation: "The big, boisterous, seemingly reckless first Nadia breaks open (by breaking her neck), to reveal one who's a little bit more careful. That one breaks, and she's slightly more introspective. With each death, she seems to think more and more about her actions, their causes, and their consequences."
From this point, we see more and more scenes from Nadia's childhood with her mentally disturbed mother (Chloë Sevigny!). In her thoughtful article, Gilbert observes that in the sixth episode, Nadia gives Horse the last gold sovereign from her Holocaust-survivor grandparents, telling him that the necklace, her only inheritance, is “too heavy.” She also points out that "her reality gets smaller and smaller as people and things begin to disappear".
Also, the bug in the computer game code that Nadia fixes in episode 2 keeps the character suspended in time rather than animated.
Contrasting Alan with Nadia, Gilbert writes: "The pets that both characters are attached to — a park-dwelling bodega cat and a loner fish enclosed in a tank — feel like external representations of their inner selves."
Episode 7 is entitled "The Way Out", while the final half-hour (episode 8) is "Ariadne", which refers to the Greek princess who helped Theseus escape the Labyrinth. But both Alan and Nadia are obviously Ariadnes for each other, as the final scene makes clear.
Matt Fowler at IGN even suggests that the maze is not the reboots but life itself, which the two protagonists have to learn to help each other navigate. The find themselves walking towards a Fellini-line climactic parade led by homeless Horse (we have just seen him wearing a papier-mache deer's head with the vagabonds) and Nadia joins the ensemble passing two other versions of herself going in the opposite direction (see photo at top).
Vanity Fair confirmed with co-creator Leslye Headland that the Fellini echo was deliberate, Natasha's suggestion, as well as recurrent references to Tompkins Square Park, once a counter-culture hangout but now gentrified. Headland told thrillist she sees the parade as an "acknowledgment that this has been a performance, which is how I interpret those Fellini endings."
If it's meant to be a return to the real world, reality is much odder than you might think, and more like a parade than existential puzzle game.
Horse's place in the drama seems to be a holdover from the days when the New York park that is the focus of much of the action was a bohemian and open space. A prominent sign in episode one announces it is closed in the evenings. His place in the parade wearing a deer's head proclaims his embrace of the moment. In episode 6 he tells Nadia he prefers casual acquaintances to closer relationships, and passing strangers to all others. "I'm glad I lost everything," he declares. "People can't even pick me out of a line-up because they don't remember me. I'm a shadow, man."
At the end of the episode all the mirrors vanish, and Nadia recognizes "I don't want to do this alone" while Alan remembers his first death — throwing himself from the top of a building. In Episode 5, Alan accuses her, when she was pissing off her ex, of breaking up his marriage and failing to meet his daughter. Nadia retorts: "The amount of guilt — I'm surprized you are not a Jew."
Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic has reminded us of how much Leslye Headland's dramas revolve around people trapped in prisons of their own making.
She also remarks how tightly the best television drama has become lately, in this case eight 25-minute episodes, each with its own mini quest (I'd put Hanna and The Punisher into this list of jam-packed series).
Note that in Russian Doll, in contrast to real life, repetition makes Nadia more aware of the significance of her experiences and other people. If the series has any message, it is this: repetition need not be psychologically deadening, if you always remain alive to the moment.
In her second Atlantic article on Russian Doll, Gilbert perceptively records that the emergency code word Nadia shares with her aunt is "record player" (i.e. a repetition device), and the codeword for getting into the drug dealer's den is "Jodorowsky's Dune", a famous psychedelic/psychodelic film project that became "the greatest movie never made" and the title of a 2013 documentary about it.
Again (I'm drawing on the always magnificent Gilbert), Nadia's first encounter with Alan is in a bodega when he has drunkenly decided to kill himself. She notices him but does not help him. This "bug in the code" of her life splits their reality into continual loops, she decides. They can only break out of the loop when they help each other.
The red-patterned scarf and white blouse are visual keys to the final episode. Alan panics when he realizes the Nadia he sees in the bodega is not the Nadia from his timeline who remembers everything (she has her black shirt). "You could die permanently," he pleads with her, remembering her first-episode fatal encounter with a taxi.
The scene immediately switches to white-bloused Nadia and drunken Alan in the same shop. Then it goes back to black-shirted Nadia and red-scarfed Alan, vice versa, and back again, as they try to save each other. Sidenote: her apartment has a photo-poster entitled "Life is a Killer". Alain red-scarf knows that she is suspicious about her 36th birthday because this was the age her mother died, and he saves her from the death taxi.
Kathryn VanArendonk at New York Vulture records their key exchange when she persuades Alan not to throw himself off a roof: "You promise if I don’t jump, I’ll be happy?" he asks her. "Absolutely not," Nadia replies, "but I can promise you that you will not be alone." "OK," Alan says agreeably.
Walking back to red-scarf Alan across the road, Nadia says: "It's wild how they don't hit you when you look both ways" — perhaps a comment on the failings in her other lives.
In her last death, as VanArendonk underlines, Nadia's child self appears before her and learns "She’s still inside you" in answer to her aunt's question about whether a young girl who wants to live survives inside our self-destructive heroine.
"The theory that Nadia’s ongoing loops are part of a simulation her brain has created to help her process her trauma and 'complete' her recovery is an enticing one," VanArendonk adds. But I don't think you need choose one explanation over another. The variations are like those of a video game. There's only one way to get things right.
Episode 7 ("The Way Out") offers most of the clues we need to work things out. Nadia offers us the "bug in the code" theory, the loops idea, the time and relativity concepts, plus the many worlds theory of cosmology adapted (loops from the various worlds can link up). Plus we get to see Nadia as a child and her guilt over abandoning her mother to live with her aunt, who has been seeing her currently "chasing down death at every corner", after being a little girl who wanted to live.
In this episode, too, we learn why Nadia is obsessed with Emily of New Moon, by the author of Anna of Green Gables, who probably committed suicide at 67 taking a depressive overdose.
Episode 8 gives us some answers. Alan spontaneously pleases Nadia's friend (Rebecca Henderson) at the party in her dispute with Nadia over adopting mastiff puppies by reassuring her that Nadia approves and he is given a scarf containing "good karma". Nadia receives a clean white shirt to wear after Maxine has thrown a drink on her for trying to leave the party being thrown for her 36th birthday. Nadia then tries to console a neighbour whose wife died of cancer with "Life is like a box of timelines." (Take that Forrest Gump).
The split screens of different timelines (from the first and last episode) come together with white-shirted Nadia and red-scarfed Alan joining the parade, first walking past each other until they appear together.
It's a great series for watching the episodes in reverse order, too, and picking up the clues as you go. But what dimension do those rotting vegetables and fruit live in? You tell me. They're not in the parade, so far as I could see.