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SYFY WIRE Religion in Genre

Russian Doll and pop culture purgatory

By Emma Fraser
Russian Doll

Reasons for time loop narratives can range from a science experiment gone awry to a cosmic lesson in hubris. Reliving the same day over and over with no obvious solution is a special kind of torment that will have the subject questioning why it is happening to them. Life is a lot more nuanced than simply ticking a box marked right or wrong, but the purgatorial nature of this experience often leads to a deep dive into the soul.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, so when Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) repeatedly wakes up in the same bathroom with the same Harry Nilsson song in Russian Doll, her investigation is not focused on the so-called sins she has committed. At no point does she consider that this eternal loop experience occurs because she is a bad person, or this is some form of purgatory.

Detailed spoilers for Russian Doll ahead.

Russian Doll
Purgatory as a concept in Roman Catholicism dates back to at least the 12th century. In literature, one of the earliest depictions is in Dante’s 14th-century epic poem, Divine Comedy. The second part is entitled Purgatorio, in which Dante must ascend Mount Purgatory in order to reach the Earthly Paradise at the summit. This journey is a spiritual one exploring sin and virtue through suffering and penance; lessons are imparted in order to cleanse the soul. It is a morality quest with a glorious reward at the end.

Skip forward over half a millennia and this state of limbo where the dead are confined between worlds is a common location in genre when dealing with vampires, witches, and demons. Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow, The Vampire Diaries and most recently Chilling Adventures of Sabrina all utilize this space, often to hide something or someone that is required in the land of the living. A foggy wooded area draped in shadow with monsters roaming is one popular depiction that sees loved ones stuck, unable to move on to the next place or return to earth. Rules and parameters vary from show to show, but a feeling of hopelessness often accompanies these trips to the other side.  

Russian Doll
When Lost aired between 2004 and 2010, a common and much-maligned theory about the island centered on this notion of purgatory. Each person who survived the plane crash had done something in their life that could be considered a sin; this magical island undetected to the rest of the world with its polar bears and smoke monsters seemed like the perfect location for soul purification. The final moments of the last-ever episode did little to quell this theory, as the survivors of Flight 815 reunited in a church bathed in glowing light. It also didn’t help that the closing credits featured plane debris imagery suggesting the island was indeed this halfway point between heaven and hell. The island as purgatory is a misreading of Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s finale, but the notion of penance before you can progress in the afterlife is a pop culture staple.

Purgatory is not a place in which a person (or their soul) is meant to spend eternity, rather it is a transitional location intended to cleanse after completing a series of challenges. The time loop narrative is, therefore, a perfect set-up for a purgatorial-like test, but Nadia’s existential detective work is quick to dismiss this as a potential explanation.

In Preacher, while she waits in purgatory, Tulip (Ruth Negga) endures her childhood trauma on a theater-like stage, before getting pulled back into the land of the living. As with Tulip, Nadia experienced a parental loss at an early age, which impacted her world view in a major way. Notions of good and bad are blurred, which also explains why Nadia rejects Alan’s (Charlie Barnett) “we did something bad” theory outright. Alan, like Nadia, is stuck reliving the same day, over and over, but he has an entirely different perspective when trying to explain the cause. For him, good and bad are rigid concepts; this is a punishment for something they did rather than a random experience thrust upon them.

Missing media item.Before she realizes this is not a solo adventure, Nadia comes up with plenty of theories as to what might be causing time to reset; ranging from the drugs she smoked to the location of Maxine’s (Greta Lee) party. Maxine’s apartment used to be a Yeshiva school, so Nadia assumes that maybe because this used to be a sacred Jewish space, the building is haunted. But as the Rabbi (Jonathan Hadary) explains to Nadia’s ex John (Yul Vazquez) in Episode 3, “Buildings aren’t haunted. People are.” 

She turns her attention to the art installation in the bathroom door that looks like something you would find in a mystical cave on a quest; she suggests to Alan it could be an “incredibly dense gravitational field that’s gaining consciousness and is now deliberately f*cking with us,” but Alan is quick to point out that his bathroom does not have the same trippy feature. Sometimes a door is just a door.

Instead of a test, Nadia views this trial as a messed up prank, repeating this notion of the universe f*cking with her. The theory that she and Alan are somehow the same person is one she would rather engage in than Ethics 101. In “Superiority Complex,” Alan offers up his less out there supposition, suggesting this is “purgatorial punishment for being a bad person,” which is in direct conflict to his later assertion that he is a good guy. Nadia wants to know what he means by “bad guy” because in her mind “there’s Hitler and then there’s everybody else.” She asks her birthday party guests to give her the gift of telling her when she has been a bad person and is pretty happy with the response.

Russian Doll
To Alan, she outright dismisses his theory as “simplistic,” claiming it is narcissistic to believe the universe shares his moral code; however, later in the same episode, she talks to her godmother Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) about notions of good and bad. Or rather she asks Ruth if she was going to die today, would she feel at peace with her life? Ruth answers yes and no, which could read as an avoidance of the question, but instead, she demonstrates why she is a good therapist. She explains that two incompatible ideas can exist at once including good/bad, life/death and yes/no; peace is the acceptance of contradicting notions. Humanity is much more nuanced than those who end up in heaven and hell. In fact, rather than purgatory, Nadia later notes this scenario is more like hell, as being attached to someone else is her “personal nightmare.”

When Alan remembers his first death — when he threw himself off his building — this leads him to believe they are in fact dead or that the loop started because of him, putting a moral judgment on his actions. Again, Nadia rejects his theory but rather than dismiss it outright she utilizes her expertise as a video game designer by suggesting they have a bug in their system. Time and morality have relativity in common; both time and morality are relative to experience. Of course, there are laws that govern us all, but one person’s good is another’s “eh, that’s not so bad.” On the surface, Nadia and Alan don’t have a lot in common beyond their time loop journey, but they are the perfect existential adventure companions. Morality is a key component for him, she believes there is a more ‘scientific’ reason.

Faith and science are often positioned as opposing factors —  see Lost and The X-Files — but they can co-exist. Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are compatible because they are in opposition to each other. Alan at no point professes a particular religious belief (John is Catholic, Nadia has Jewish heritage), but he does look to solve this problem with a Christianity-based solution.

Russian Doll
In Dante’s Purgatorio, Dante is accompanied by Italian poet Virgil as they climb the various terraces, which reflect the seven deadly sins. The final terrace is lust, in which Dante must walk through a wall of flames to reach the Earthy Paradise. When Dante falters, Virgil reminds him that his one true love, Beatrice, awaits him. In Russian Doll, Beatrice (Dascha Polanco) awaits Alan, but instead of purging his sins for her, he instead needs to let her go and accept his role in what went wrong with their relationship.

This is not a case of good and bad, but an examination of how we must accept our failings to move on. He is not vanquishing a sin in a traditional Biblical sense, but owning his flaws, accepting this is not all on her and realizing there is a way to exist beyond the pressure he puts on his body and mind. This is not about getting to the Garden of Eden, but living with the person he is on earth. In a way, Alan has been through purgatory but it isn’t the allegorical journey Dante envisioned.

Russian Doll
Faith can mean a lot of things. Nadia is a natural cynic, which is part of why she can’t get on board with the purgatory notion. Alan sees things as good or bad or as a success or failure — his posture is not the only rigid thing about him. Together they make the unlikeliest of bedfellows, nevertheless, they both learn a lot from each other throughout this existential adventure. The final episode is inconclusive in the exact cause of their connected loops; we still don’t know if they are alive or dead as the timelines merge. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if this is purgatory, as the exhilarating and joyous parade in those final moments is very much heaven on earth.