THiNC. is a website that goes way, way, way, out of its way to find crazy weird movies that are worth thinking about. Some are emphatically heart rending. There are some that cause you to hurt, but you don’t even know why. And yet others are time loops that you just have to be on your A game just to understand what the heck just happened. All are worth our time. But the topic of today’s conversation is definitely the latter. Russian Doll is the new show from Netflix that you could enjoy on just about 42 different levels. There is the mechanics of the show, that are confusing as all get out – and might be worth it just to put the pieces back together again. There is also the emotional storytelling that hides beneath its gruff exterior. And then there is the larger moral and overarching idea driving this thing like a steam punk steam engine, all the way to its final conclusion.
Now, one of the glitches here, is me wanting to dive super deeply into the internal workings of a story that should definitely not be spoiled. I mean, I’m happy you are here, but if you stay, and you haven’t watched this entire eight episode series before reading below this trailer here…then you and I are done. FINISHED. Do you understand me? Sure, lurk. Sure read beneath my warnings. But our BFF status is over. I’ve rescinded that offer. We are done! So, watch this trailer, then head over to Netflix, and watch the show. It’s only going to take 4 hours out of your life to make it through the entire thing. And then let’s talk about it below in the comments.
See? Worth seeing. It’s a crazy mindjob movie that investigates the inner workings of life, the universe and everything here on planet earth, and when we are done we will definitely come away with a pretty good idea about what it might all be about. Now, how should we walk through this crazy crazy timeline of a movie. Well, lucky for you, I took copious notes. So copious, I’m kinda worried this walk through may just capsize this website. But I will try and keep the details succinct and to the point.
In Russian Doll’s 8 episodes, there are 22 deaths, (which, if you know absolutely anything about numerology you are scratching your chin and going… huh… HUH?!?) and I’m going to outline what happens in each life, and then we’ll talk about what it all means after we are done doing that.
Detailed Walkthrough of Russian Girl
The series kicks off with Nadia, who starts off at her birthday party – and her cat is missing. She hangs out with Mike, a professor (who turns out to be extraordinarily important), and they go to her apartment and sleep together. Nadia sees her cat Oatmeal across the street, but she is hit by a car trying to get to it.
The repetition of the party really throws her off, empty. When she connects with Mike she says, “I was going to go home with this guy, but now I just feel profoundly empty.” And she comes to the conclusion that she may just be dead. She ends up finding her cat, but while she’s sitting with the cat, it disappears, and then she falls into the ocean and dies.
Nadia talks to Maxine, and tells her that the universe is trying to crush her. But Maxine tells her she’s a cockroach, that she’ll never die no matter what. Thinking that this is just a bad trip, she calls War Dog trying to find out more. The next day she goes to a code review (I have got to say, having sat through hundreds of code reviews, screenwriters have no idea what happens in said sessions). She heads over to War Dog’s place and tries to find out what is in the drug. After, she falls down a freight elevator.
Immediately upon returning to the party, she leaves and heads to War Dog’s place, and uses the password “Jodorowsky’s Dune” to get in and talk to Dr. Daniel. And when she does she finds out the drug is actually ketamine. Afterward, she falls down the same freight elevator.
“Don’t offer me that” Nadia says to Maxine. “There’s ketamine in that.” And then she summarily falls down the stairs and dies.
“This is the movie The Game, and I am Michael Douglas.” Down the stairs she goes again.
“I gotta figure out how to get down these stairs!” And she dies going over the railing.
Maxine informs Nadia that they’ve done ketamine before, and that it can’t be an allergic reaction that she is experiencing. And, in a fit of pique, she does all the drugs, and all the booze at the party. She ditches the code review, and she heads to her second mother Ruth’s home. And the next thing we know, Ruth is putting her in an ambulance, heading to a psych ward. But the ambulance crashes.
Nadia begins investigating the history of the building. Maybe it’s haunted? But apparently it was a yeshiva at one point. So Nadia talks her ex-boyfriend into coming down to talk to the Rabbi about the history of the building. The Rabbi says something interesting,
“Mysticism teaches there is wisdom inaccessible to the intellect. You can only reach it through surrender, being nothing. Maybe Nadia is your way of avoiding nothingness and the abyss.”
And then the Rabbi, when asked if the building is haunted says, “buildings aren’t haunted, people are.” Which seems extraordinarily appropriate for all of us, but Nadia specifically. Nadia, magically makes it to the next night, when she chats with Horse, the homeless guy. He cuts her hair, and they sleep together on the street, where she freezes to death.
She realizes she froze to death and subsequently gives the greatest line of the entire series: “Look, I think a guy who gave me a haircut yesterday may have died tomorrow, and I don’t know how tomorrow deaths work when it’s yesterday again. I mean, is he in yesterday or does he even exist? I just don’t know how these deaths work for other people Maxine, so I really need to know.” And subsequently leaves John in the dust, because she’s too worried about Horse. Nadia then stays with Horse in a shelter, and watches his shoes for him. Is she beginning to change? Something is changing.
After her night with Horse in the shelter, she heads out. And she goes into an elevator for one of the best twists of the show. The elevator starts to fall, and everyone around her is freaking out, except for the guy standing next to her. And she says, “Didn’t you get the news? We are about to die.” And he responds with, “It doesn’t matter, I die all the time.”
Opens differently than every other life, instead of opening with Nadia at the party, it opens with Alan in his home. (Did you notice that Alan crosses paths with Nadia as she is looking for Horse?) Alan heads over to his girlfriend Beatrice’s apartment, where the recurring car crash is about to happen again. Apparently they were going to go on a vacation together, and just before they left, he was going to propose. But instead, she breaks up with him.
Alan goes and sees his mother, I believe?, and tells her that he proposed to Beatrice. And after previously heading into the elevator, he goes into the elevator, and finds Nadia there. And they repeat the same exchange, “It doesn’t matter, I die all the time.” And Nadia responds, “Me too.”
Starts with Alan again. And this time when he goes to Beatrice’s place, he begins with Mike. “You f%@!ed the Gingerbread Man?” Which, is a decidedly different tone than he attempted his previous life. (Can I just say right here that her dissertation on Updike and the suburban imaginary is hilarious. He’s most famous for his Rabbit series which is the story of the middle class everyman. Couple that with the suburban imaginary, and that is basically this film!)
But then Alan has an idea, if there are two, then maybe if he kills the other, then he’ll be free of this repeating prison? Simultaneously, Nadia heads to the jewelry story where Alan got the ring from and tries to game the woman behind the counter for Alan’s name. And during this encounter, the attendant says something interesting, “No one can do anything by themselves.” Nadia finds Alan’s name from the Yelp, no, I’m sorry, “Yep.” And then we cut to Alan chucking the ring into the river.
As this life restarts, Alan checks and the ring is still gone. Which, is a first for both Nadia and Alan. But when he walks through the apartment to leave, he fails to notice that his fish is gone. Signifying a new trend to the show – that things, from here on out, will begin disappearing in droves.
Alan heads over to Nadia’s party, and notices Mike is there, and he tells Nadia that they are stuck in a purgatorial punishment. Nadia’s rejects that idea because she says it’s too simple and way to narcissistic. But when she tries to get people at the party to tell her what is wrong with her, no one will. But Alan calls her bluff, and calls her out for wrecking someone’s marriage, and never going to meet Mike’s kid. Nadia goes to meet Ruth and they discuss holding two incompatible ideas in their heads simultaneously. And then Ruth has a gas explosion in her house.
Alan immediately goes back to the party, and tells Nadia that Mike is a bad person, but he is a good person. “Then why are you the one in purgatory then?” Alan then confronts Mike, and calls Beatrice. But then is hit by a car.
The two of them begin wondering if maybe they are both killed simultaneously or not? And Nadia heads to Ruth’s place, only to be shot by Ruth, thinking she was a burglar.
Alan starts noticing that things are disappearing from everywhere. And he asks Mike why Beatrice chose him. But his response was fairly intriguing, “Bea didn’t choose me. No one chooses me, I’m the hole where a choice should be. No one chooses me.”
Nadia starts to think that actually, instead of when they die, the story-lines repeat, and start over for everyone, now she starts wondering if the lines continue moving forward without them. Fifteen times they have grieved for me in fifteen different universes.
Alan realizes that it isn’t his job to punish Mike (Big idea? Little idea?). And Nadia decides that she is going to finally meet her ex-boyfriend’s daughter. But she chicken’s out at the last second, worrying about dying in front of her. The two meet up again, and wonder about dying simultaneously, as an air conditioner falls from the roof onto the two of them.
Nadia kicks this life off with a fantastically self aware quote, “I don’t want to be attached to anyone. I, at least, want the illusion of freewill.” Nadia and Alan talk at Alan’s place, and she finds out that Alan was a player of one of her earlier video games. And they discuss the concept of the Johari Window. (Who is this screenplay writer? Apparently a Johari Window is a self help technique created in 1955, for figuring out what one knows, and what one doesn’t know. What others know that you don’t know, and what everyone knows. I literally had never heard of it. So yay me!) A few minutes later they die from bees after Nadia says that would it make perfect sense that that is what would happen next.
Nadia and Alan decide that they would recreate his last night all over again. They visit Beatrice, then he gets drunk, and meanwhile Nadia was sleeping with Mike (Bea’s Mike of all people). Then, out of the blue, Alan and Nadia have sex, and Nadia takes Alan’s shoes, and gives them to Horse. And ultimately Nadia remembers seeing Alan in the little 5 and 10 store at their last original night.
“You need other people.”
“Other people are garbage.”
“Then forgive them.”
She chokes on a chicken bone.
The episodes begin with all the mirrors in the apartment having disappeared (Narcissism) – which also hearkens back to an implosion that Nadia’s mother had. And when Nadia gets to Alan’s place, he tells her that he finally remembers how he died the first time. He committed suicide after his break up with Beatrice. Threw himself off of his apartment building. Better yet, he remembers meeting Nadia at the store the first night, and she considered helping, but ultimately chose not to. And Alan realized he could have helped Nadia not get hit by the car that killed her the first time as well, but didn’t. Eventually Nadia sees her younger self standing there on the New York streets, and she has a heart attack and dies.
People are disappearing throughout the episode now. Lots of people. Nadia sees herself again, and has yet another heart attack.
Nadia beelines it to the deli, and while there, she has a flashback to her mother buying all the watermelon in the city. And then the young Nadia starts bleeding out of her mouth, and Nadia starts convulsing.
Nadia is constantly flashing backwards and forwards from her youth to the present. But her birthday party is totally uninhabited now. Everyone but Maxine is basically gone. When Alan sees Nadia, he tells her that he can’t leave here without making things right, and he advises Nadia to do the same.
Alan says to Beatrice, “I’ve been hollow the last few years, put the time in, did everything right, this aching feeling of failure would go away, and now I’m stuck with a body that is broken in a world falling apart. And a mind that wants to kill me.”
Nadia goes to see Ruth, and tells her that she killed her mother by telling her that she didn’t want to live with her. And because of that she was dead within the year. But Ruth makes tea, and talks her through the reality of her pained childhood.
Simultaneously, Alan says hello to Mike, and does his best to be totally cool about the introduction. But his nose begins bleeding everywhere. Cut to Nadia giving her ex-boyfriend’s daughter the book Emily of New Moon. And then Nadia begins spewing blood everywhere – pulling shards of mirror out of her mouth. And it’s then that the girl says, “She’s still inside of you” obviously referring to her younger self. “Are you ready to let her die? This is the day we get free.”
Everyone is back, and everything seems to be normal again. And throughout the ending of this show, they finally understand that they have to do whatever is necessary to keep each other from dying. In an interesting device, Alan, our Alan, the one we’ve come to know and love, is required to reach out to Nadia, the original Nadia that doesn’t know Alan, in order to keep her alive. And Nadia, the Nadia we’ve known throughout this entire show, is required to intervene on Alan’s part, in order to keep him alive. But hurdles are thrown at them over and over again because their counterparts do not know them, nor do they want to know them (which is partially how we got here in the first place).
Our Alan manages to stop Nadia from getting hit by a car. “Did you just save my life?” “Yes, I believe I did.” And then when our Nadia realizes that Alan is on the roof, ready to kill himself, she goes to talk him off the ledge. And Alan says, “If I don’t jump, will I be happy?” And Nadia responds with, “No, but you won’t be alone.” And after this, the celebrate Nadia’s 36th birthday party. The End.
Mind If I Interrupt a Second?
Ok, about 10 days have past since I posted this write up about Russian Doll. I think I’ve watched and reviewed 4 movies since finishing this series, AND YET, I can’t stop thinking about it. Why, you ask, would you be so obsessed? Great question, because at this point, I’m seriously considering going to see a psychologist to ask them exactly this same thought. It’s a pretty well documented fact that while working I draw, absentmindedly, while thinking about complicated solutions for problems I’m working on. This was the latest doodle I aloofly scrawled across my 11×17 sheet.
If you are wondering what it is – it’s a timeline – in a subway connections map layout, of the first 11 lives. Yes. Yes, I am insane. Ok, where were we? Let’s get back to it.
Yeah, But What Does It Mean?
Thinking back to Groundhog’s Day, I’m trying to remember if there was a moral to that particular story, beyond getting unstuck. Was it literally, live for others? Give the one you love the perfect date/day? Or was it, pursue all the most cliched hobbies ever in the hopes of wooing the woman you love? Which, is fine for a movie with Bill Murray in it. But, I’m thinking won’t work for Russian Doll. We have to have a larger purpose and meaning here – absolutely have to. And I believe this so much so, I’ve completely fabricated a few possible candidates as theories to help us explain the larger context of Russian Doll.
Time As Therapy Theory
Probably the easiest theory manageable for this movie is that time is a therapist for us all. That, in being forced to relive this particular day over and over again, Nadia and Alan were required to think back through their lives and to pay homage to the past. That we are to do this regardless of how we feel about our past, or even our future. And it is through this temporal therapy session that we let go of the pain of the past, and embrace the joy of today. And it’s through this ditching of our cosmic bondage and barriers that we only have a chance to live the rest of our lives.
Goodness As Gatekeeper
That we need to learn to love others, and to respect everyone. Even our enemies are worth our respect. That Alan and Nadia were the epitome of raw, unadulterated myopic selfishness at the outset of the show. But it was only through their learned selflessness, were they able to overcome the invisible barrier in time blocking their way.
It Takes a Village Theory
Basically this theory says that we have to look out for each other – that we are only as strong as our weakest links. That, by watching out for our fellow humans, we are able to be free.
The Alan/Nadia Link Theory
Or, we can take a microcosmic view of this movie and realize that through some glitch in time, the two of them were specifically linked in order to allow the two of them to help each other in order to truly learn the broader connections in this world that they have. That Alan and Nadia were the ones to neglect each other specifically, and that it would be Alan and Nadia who had the truly accurate view of themselves in this world. That by actively avoiding to help someone that was desperately in need of said help, locked them to each other for good.
My Larger Thoughts on Russian Doll
This movie had so many literature, and geek-dom, references that I was finding it extremely difficult to catch up. Phrases and concepts would regularly get written down just because I’d never heard of the term before. And if you guys want to push me for the theory that most accurately explains this movie? I definitely go with all of the above. (Oh, I see what he did there…) Nadia was a horrible person at the outset of this adventure. But now, come to the end of the show, she is regularly intervening on behalf of the homeless, saving whole neighborhoods from decimation via gas leaks. She’s constantly placing herself deep within Alan’s life in order to help keep him alive. Everything points to the fact that Nadia has made leaps and strides when it came to other people. While simultaneously working on attempting to work backwards through her past to learn what it was really was tying her down. And it was in this self reflective shelter of time that she was able to make peace with her mother. She was able to think selflessly about others. She was beginning to realize that it was impossible to live a solitary existence without the help of others. Not while staying sane anyway.
Final Thought on Russian Doll
I have literally started mapping out the paths and the divergences of Nadia throughout the course of the entire show. No idea if it will ever get done. But I’ve already got sketches of how it looks, and I’m already impressed… not to put too fine a point on it. I don’t know – did you enjoy it? Did you learn anything at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.
Edited by, CY