Russian Doll and the Game of Fate

Netflix and I are friends again thanks to Russian Doll and no thanks to the Fyre documentary. I binged most of the 8 episodes of Natasha Lyonne’s creation on Friday night and it was worth the lack of sleep! Here’s my takeaway.

Russian Doll (acted, written, directed, and co-created by Natasha Lyonne) is a show about real people that delivers on its supernatural premise. Nadia is a Russian American New Yorker in her mid-thirties who does whatever she wants. She is free, sleeps with whomever she wants, has lots of friends, and doesn’t seem tied down to anything or anyone. But pretty early on, it’s clear that she’s lost something precious and it isn’t just her deli cat Oatmeal. She dies swiftly and in the most unnecessary way. Moments later, Nadia is alive as ever and staring quizzically at her reflection in the mirror. So begins the cycle of Nadia dying over and over and resurrecting in a bathroom.

She returns to the scene of her birthday party. Friends embrace her and offer drinks without any idea of her terrible ends. “Happy birthday, baby!” her friend chirps once Nadia runs panicked to the kitchen. Nadia tries to explain what’s happening but it turns out it’s hard to articulate the perilous shit she’s going through. “You’re fine!” friends reply. Meanwhile, Nadia can’t stop dying.

It’s a really good device for exploring life/death outside of religious, new-age spiritual or moralist realms. It is fate as a game. Nadia is herself a programmer of popular video games. Alan, her partner in this repeating deaths mystery, complains that the game she programmed is frankly unwinable. Nadia protests and grabs the controller. She attempts to navigate around a pit of lava but fails. Life in her own hands, even if she designed it, is really hard.

I’ve been studying Hellenistic/traditional astrology. Unlike modern western astro, which is more psychological and character-based, traditional astro says here’s your fate and now decide how to navigate it. Or, as my teacher Sam Reynolds says, “Fate gives you two arms and one of them is your own.” That philosophy was rattling around in my head while watching the show. Is Nadia actually free if every action is driven by a need to avoid childhood trauma? Well, no. And to what extent do we do things out of a compulsion to fill some void or swerve around pain. The past especially outright denied, is a powerful indicator of future pain. It becomes our own personal horror and raging ghost. That’s why you’ll find that the most chilling scenes of Russian Doll aren’t those where Nadia dies. It’s childhood trauma re-awakened.

Russian Doll reminds me of another show centered on the philosophy of what happens after death -- The Good Place. But while The Good Place treats the afterlife like a theme park and morality as the car that gets you there, Russian Doll keeps the veil pulled tight. The loop of dying and repeating the same day is so mind-boggling that it puts Nadia firmly in the present. She searches for clues by confronting her drug dealer and consulting a rabbi. As she digs, parallel possibilities unfold in a day’s time. Reunite with an ex, fly into a rage, get fucked up, sleep the day away. With each choice, her situation becomes clearer although no less hard. It made me think that if we were forced to investigate the presentness of our own lives, we could uncover actual meaning.

But Russian Doll is not pedantic or sentimental. It’s funny and surprisingly moving and you end up rooting for Nadia to succeed against some pretty dire odds. At least she has Alan. Their fates become entangled in a way that doesn’t have them falling in love and even still manages to be one of the most romantic things I’ve seen on tv in a while.

So it’s good. The soundtrack is good. Watch it.

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