You would think that after an entire school year of Nietzsche, Meursault, Godot, Kafka, Hemingway, and Like Water for Chocolate in International Baccalaureate English would be enough absurdist discussion for a while, if not an entire lifetime. But Russian Doll, the extremely odd, extremely beautiful, and extremely thought-provoking delight, proved to be just that piece of existentialism I never knew I needed.
The sheer brilliance in the editing and cinematography is just the least of it: the message is what I find to be the most interesting. Particularly, the message that “it’s too easy to die that it’s hard to stay alive.”
The series is deeply absurd, with the protagonist running into death in the most unexpected, dark-humor ways — at times, it’s nearly the real life version of Dumb Ways To Die. It’s also deeply existential, with a beautifully-crafted dialogue on which parts of the numerous ways to die actually convey the essence of life. It’s a story about two equally unfortunate people finding their own meaning of existence, and somehow that’s incredibly grand and moving.
Time passes by linearly throughout the show, but the main character, Nadia, is stuck on the night of her birthday party — the recycled moments of her waking up in front of the bathroom mirror is a diametric symbol of death and rebirth. Nadia and the other protagonist, Alan, theorized that the seemingly eternal time-loop is a punishment for their mistakes during their childhood. Nadia wanted to leave her mother, and attributed her mother’s death to her own fault, after which she decided to push other people away to avoid any possibility of genuine connection that might end up hurting both parties.
But through the eyes of Ruth, Nadia’s life-long friend and mentor, it was never Nadia’s fault. She was a tiny seed buried in darkness fighting her way to the light. She wanted to live, and “it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”
As Ruth speaks arguably the most touching line of the series: “Do you still have that in you? I look at you now, chasing down death at every corner. Sweetheart, where is that gorgeous piece of you pushing to be a part of this world?” Nadia tears up, as would anyone who has felt the powerlessness of barely living, day to day.
Nadia is not a completely good person. Sometimes she’s not kind enough, or proactive enough, or friendly enough — she knows that about herself, so while she’s unforgiving of everything around her, that cynical attitude also extends to herself. She would appear tough, nonchalant, totally untouchable, absolutely inconsiderate, the consequences of which include a deep feeling of isolation and emptiness that can not be cured by the alcohol, or random sexual encounters, or an israeli-joint-highlighted birthday party.
Perhaps that’s her defense mechanism, of closing herself off from the world, thus eliminating the possibility of getting hurt and hurting other people. Or perhaps that’s who we all are — incompletely good — as a result of our tendency to avoid pain and discomfort. But may I suggest to you that the experiences of bruising, the pain inherent to love, hate, and betrayal are the most real, human things, and that when we insulate ourselves from the world, we lose parts of what make us human in the first place.
It Is Not The End
The ending is a beautiful moment. It has a quality that is as promising as Groundhog Day, but not quite Groundhog Day. The two protagonists reappear in front of their bathroom mirrors one last time and realize they are in different dimensions — the other person is back in cycle #1 and has no recollection of the death-defying adventures they shared together. Now, they have to look for the other person and convince them that all those hundreds of attempts at living and dying were actually real. As the screen splits in half, the audience witnesses a hopeful Alan assisting the turbulent Nadia, and a patient Nadia comforting the confused Alan. And as they walk through the winter New York streets, the two screens merge into one, with a renewed Nadia holding a torch, finally, again, pushing to be a part of this world.
Sometimes, the mediocrity of daily chores and the pressures from expectations can make life feel like hell, like purgatory on earth. Sometimes, the anxiety of being alive strikes blows to us that seem impossible to handle. But as Russian Doll reminds us, we are not alone in this world. We still have each other, can find each other, and save each other. Just like in the ending when Nadia and Alan march, joining Horse’s parade of monsters, passing the shoulders of their alternative selves — they have not given up on each other.
The world out there can be a vile one. A lonely one. A troubled one. One in which it’s hard to stay alive. But if we can all dig into our hearts, see ourselves for who we are, and learn to forgive and reconcile, maybe we can also let go of the cold, exoskeletal shells of protective covers; let go of the habit of keeping people at a distance; let go of the need to hide our insecurities and conceal our mistakes. In doing so, perhaps we might rediscover the fine world that is worth fighting for.
May this newfound hope and companionship in Russian Doll mean that the past moments of “I just want to die” are not the end.