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Lessons to take from Russian Doll in 2020
Russian Doll was one of 2019’s best new shows, taking a common time loop premise and turning it into an existential adventure. Purgatorial punishment was given new meaning with Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) at the helm, dismissing the notion of this being an issue of morality. Trying to piece together the reason she is doomed to repeat the same birthday party over and over leads her on a quest covering spirituality and an unresolved matter from her childhood. A refreshing portrayal of a personal crisis told within the framework of a familiar narrative made the dilemma at the heart of Russian Doll feel relevant as a reflection of the uncertain landscape of the last few years.
A year after its debut, the central premise takes on new meaning as we live through social isolation and sheltering in place in an attempt to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Now every day feels like we are living in a time loop of our own, repeating the same activities and struggling to see how this all ends. As I write this, it is impossible to know how long this will go on — any timeframe seems arbitrary at this point. Unable to go out and socialize beyond virtual hangouts, television has become the main source of entertainment. Netflix has even had to reduce the quality of streaming in Europe to take the pressure off the internet service as more people watch via this platform. A plethora of new shows are available, but I have been thinking a lot about Russian Doll over the last few weeks. It is also Natasha Lyonne's birthday month, and instead of making her a chicken, I will look at the valuable lessons that can be gleaned from the "neverending night" that Nadia experiences.
Created by Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, and Amy Poehler, the eight tightly paced half-hour episodes make for a satisfying rewatch — something I have done several times over the last year. On the surface, Nadia’s sardonic wit acts as a form of protection, but her level of care toward other people who are suffering or in need cannot be hidden by her one-liners and sunglasses. As we shift to this new normal, it is clear that as a community we have to look out for each other; whether it is picking up essentials for a neighbor who cannot leave their home or donating to local businesses, food banks, or medical supply campaigns.
Nadia gives the impression she is trying to solve her time loop conundrum, but altruistic acts without a clear link to her overall predicament litter the series. She dies while in the midst of helping those she loves such as her godmother, who has a gas leak, and Horse (Brendan Sexton III), a homeless guy who Nadia freezes to death next to one night in the park. On the next loop of this day, she ensures he gets a bed in a shelter so he isn't doomed to repeat that death.
The introduction of Alan (Charlie Barnett) at the end of Episode 3 adds another layer to the conundrum at the heart of Russian Doll; Nadia is not alone in these time loops. Their fates are tied together, but the approaches they have been taking to this scenario vary greatly. Alan is a man of habit and routine, who speaks daily affirmations to give a sense of control. Instead of trying to figure out the why of his predicament, he instead relives the break-up he experienced on the original version that kicked off the whole loop. When he actually makes it through the night he stays in playing video games and eating delivery; he was self-isolating before this whole process even began. His solitude is detrimental to his mental health. The introduction of Nadia into his life destroys his routine, but it saves him.
Nadia, on the other hand, is incredibly sociable — even if she is prickly — and it is hard not to be wistful for her daily bodega routine and crowded birthday party. Television is a distraction from what is going on in the real-world but it is also a reminder of interactions and social events that are no longer possible. A predilection for pushing people away, Nadia sure does enjoy the company of others, as well as her cat. The disappearance of Oatmeal kicks everything off, but this is also a good reminder of how vital pets are at the moment.
The theme of existential dread permeating every moment in Russian Doll is something that haunts daily life, shifting into a literal shadow as the death toll rises every day. Images back up the terrifying statistics — body bags stacked in refrigeration containers, key workers with inadequate PPE, and endless obituary photos. Now I FaceTime my mother every day, not only because she lives alone, but also to check on her health. Death is everywhere in a way most of us have never experienced. This permanent state of fear bubbles beneath the surface of every conversation and trip out of the house to exercise or purchase essentials. People who can’t work from home for myriad reasons forego personal safety each time they step outside. In Russian Doll, death is a specter looming behind every staircase, sidewalk cellar door, and taxi cab. And while it isn't as swift as Nadia's repeat demise, this foreboding presence is how it feels to live in the midst of a pandemic.
The concept of time is becoming somewhat arbitrary (I thought today was Wednesday, it is not). The "Thursday! What a concept!" Twitter account has over 35,000 followers and almost exclusively tweets this screencap quote. Nadia's birthday party is on a Sunday so Thursday is no longer on the list of days she experiences. When Alan's friend asks him if he wants to come over for dinner on Friday, he responds, "Whenever Friday happens, I'll be there." Again, this is highly relatable as the only dinner get-togethers currently happening are over Zoom and Google Hangouts. Taking a slightly different quote about the days of the week, co-creator Hyland tweeted this now incredibly apt moment.
However, if Nadia can figure out her existential adventure, then we can take this optimism into believing that days will begin to have meaning again.
Curmudgeonly but with a heart of gold, Nadia claims her "personal nightmare" is her fate being linked to another person. It is inescapable as she is doomed to repeat this day until she can save Alan — he will, in turn, save her —and right now our fate is tied to every person we know and strangers we have yet to meet. Be like Alan and stay inside; be like Nadia and reach out (but without touching) to someone in need — it will help us get through these dark times.