What’s it about?
Mark: Russian Doll is the story of a cynical bohemian programmer who dies on her thirty-sixth birthday and winds up in a funky time loop where she has to relive that evening over and over with no end in sight. Her task is to figure out what the hell is going on and get off the merry-go-round. Along the way, she meets a fellow traveller, Alan. They team up to solve their existential problem. They don’t reveal the cause of the problem, but they do find the solution.
Mark: Let’s go wide first and then start narrowing down to the particulars. Did you guys like this series? If so, why? Were you unmoved? If so, why?
Jax: I’m going last because my reaction was slightly different than yours.
Mark: How do you know? I could’ve changed since yesterday…
Jennifer: I started out hating it. In the first two or three episodes I was like who is this cynical… yeah, she’s funny, but why do I care? I got about halfway through, then there was this twist. Okay, that’s interesting, there’s a new person who’s experiencing the same scenario. By the end, I was a little confused. There was a parade. I was starting to warm up to her but I wasn’t quite sure why. I ended up going back to the middle and rewatching it and then I had a completely different experience. I honed in on some specific things they were saying and tried to get to the underlying philosophy, the message they were trying to say, then got a new respect for it. So I ended up really liking it.
Mark: Is the message underlying? At some point, it was explicitly stated.
Jax: I’ve seen it twice. I saw it when it came out and I liked it then. I thought it was hilarious. I could relate to the character in certain ways but had a problem with the ending. I was confused by the ending. Why are they all at a carnival? I couldn’t understand the reason for the homeless guy being there. My second time through, I had more or less the same reaction: I really like it and I think I understand the ending better. But I didn’t have any wild shifts. I didn’t start out hating this character.
Mark: I saw it when it first came out, it was recommended to me. I rather enjoyed it but it was a light watch so I just enjoyed it on the level of a situation comedy. The second time around I paid more attention to some things, but I was not as moved by it as I thought I would be, even though the story is a giant metaphor. And I sort of like the metaphor. Some critics say the metaphor is stronger than Groundhog Day but I found it weaker because the punchline of the metaphor was different. Do you remember Groundhog Day? What that character gets out of being stuck in the time loop is a bit different from what our character gets. I certainly don’t think this could go on beyond one season because I thought the end was the end. The situation had resolved itself unless I missed something in the imagery that opens.
Jennifer: The mystery was solved at the end. What’s it going to be next time? We know how it works.
Mark: We know the solve. Do you guys want to talk metaphorically about what this time loop is about?
Jax: Nadia dies on her thirty-sixth birthday, at her birthday party. Every time she dies, she wakes in the same place – a bathroom at the birthday party. She keeps dying and doesn’t understand why. The first time she dies she sees a drunk guy at a bodega dropping sauce everywhere and ignores him, like you do in NY at a bodega at midnight. It turns out that this guy is a person she is supposed to connect with. She keeps dying until she figures this out. He keeps dying as well. His original death is suicide, and he had killed himself that night when he was drunk because his girlfriend broke up with him. He was going to propose marriage that night. The metaphor is they have to keep dying over and over until the two of them figure something out about themselves. The simplistic message is they needed to help each other, and their deaths would be resolved. It is more layered than that.
Jennifer: The metaphor is the Russian dolls, they’re getting more introspective, coming from different belief systems, need to understand each other’s belief system to shed off the next doll layer. That is one of the big metaphors. The other one is probably the video game, dying over and over. She is a video game programmer.
Jax: She created a video game that Alan, a gamer, tells her requires only one person to solve the problem, nobody else can help, and it’s impossible to survive. You keep dying over and over. She says that’s not true. When she plays the video game, the character keeps dying in this trapdoor. In a hilarious way, one of the ways she dies in real life is walking down the street and a trapdoor opens up and she dies in it.
Mark: There are definitely a lot of parallels. I found it a metaphor for being stuck. Many people would resonate with the idea of living life in a pattern like that, they’re doing the same things over and over again. They can’t seem to break out of that pattern. The solution she offers through the drama of the piece is you can’t do it alone, you can only do it with the help of others. We’re here to help each other out of their little loops. Unlike Groundhog day, which is about being the best person you can be. I like that message better even though this one has its own type of beauty.
Jennifer: If you take what their different philosophical beliefs are; she is scientific, she calls it a bug, he calls it a moral issue, asks what they did wrong. They need each other philosophically to figure out how to get out of it. Through meeting him, she’s able to open up. It’s that introspection where she begins to realise she’s holding onto the guilt of her crazy mom. In a way, they did help each other. It wasn’t in the more shallow way of saying hello in the bodega so much as how exchanging their ideas got them out of it. What they were missing is that they don’t just need each other, they need philosophy. They need to combine a scientific approach to morality.
Jax: What was the inciting incident? Her mom died when she was thirty-six. This is Nadia’s thirty-sixth birthday. You have to ask, what starts this time loop. Why are we coming into this story at this time? She has a terrible fear she’s going to die, almost like a death wish/fear. She doesn’t think she’s going to live past thirty-six. That’s why she’s such a hard drinker, partier. There’s this joint she thinks is laced with cocaine, but it’s actually laced with ketamine. They even explicitly state later that ketamine is scientific evidence it helps with depression. That’s a nice hook. Maybe it was the joint that started the whole thing.
Mark: She’s in a time of crisis and dealing with her own mortality and confronting some buried emotional issues that have kept her chronically afraid and avoiding confronting life. Both Alan and she are polar opposites as characters. They’re the perfect odd couple combination that you want to see in writing. They do share a common characteristic. He’s OCD because he’s terrified and she’s chaotic and bohemian because she’s terrified. They’re both avoiding life and trapped in their own prisons. One of the creators of the show is a playwright who’s written a couple of plays about this phenomenon, being trapped in a prison of your own making. You guys both look at this as a deep exploration that doesn’t conflict with the objectivist idea of how to break a loop or a habit or being stuck in life. In this respect, you have to explore your own life, introspect, because the child in you is still affecting you. If you don’t explore that facet of your world and make friends with that kid and introspect enough to know that emotional part of yourself, you’ll end up damaging yourself. Do you think there’s a crossover?
Jennifer: Yes, but they don’t go far enough. They leave it kind of open at the end, but I don’t think it was far off the mark.
Mark: Natasha Lyonne was nominated for a few Emmys. I wonder if she met Leslye Headland on the stage. Do you guys know what the relationship with Amy [Poehler] and Leslye, the other co-creators of the show is?
Jax: They picked the show up after it was dropped. It might have been too edgy for network TV, so they wanted to get it on streaming. They were committed to making sure all the creatives were female, especially the director.
Mark: That is changing. I first noticed the change in 13 Reasons Why. Most shows seem allergic to having women directors and I’m glad Hollywood is losing its chauvinistic cast. The first time I’ve ever worked with a woman director of photography is on Rust. I was happy to see that shift in Hollywood consciousness. You miss out on 50% of that talent if you don’t look there because you’re a chauvinist pig. We like the metaphor of the Russian doll, the layers of humanity you have to peel back, and the loop being stuck in life.
Russian Dolls metaphor
Jax: Every time they die, Nadia wakes up at a party in the same place, but every time she comes back, something is removed from the set. There’s a fishbowl at Nadia’s that has two fish in it…
Mark: It’s at Alan’s and it’s a Chinese Fighting Fish. It can only be alone.
Jax: There’s a fishbowl at the party.
Mark: I didn’t notice that. You have to watch multiple times to catch all the elements.
Jax: I didn’t catch it the first time around. The two fish become one fish. Alan has a Chinese fighting fish. After one of his deaths, there’s no fish.
Mark: Explain this!
Jax: I will! At the party, there are less and less people. The last time she dies and comes back, there’s not a door in the bathroom and all the artwork is gone. Only one person, her friend Maxine, is there. Their worlds are getting smaller and smaller every time they come back, like the Russian dolls. They have to remove all that noise and get to the essentials of what they need to solve the time loop. That is another metaphor for introspection. Have to keep going until you get to that one thing that’s stopping you living.
Jennifer: Also it’s a great story device to create a sense of urgency and raise the stakes. Because they were losing everything in their life, it was a case of urgency.
Mark: Does anyone in any article you’ve read discuss the fruit? I’m not sure what it’s about, I was hoping it would be answered in season two. I thought it was the space where time is still continuing even though we’re trapped in a loop in one part of it. It feels like the rest of life is rushing past.
Jax: There’s always a fruit bowl constant and every time the fruit is rotting more and more.
Mark: It’s the ticking time clock, you see things disappearing. You’re getting down to the person himself where there’s nothing to distract them.
Jax: Interesting chat remark about the tree in Atlas Shrugged that got struck by lightning it had been dead for years. Interesting analogy.
Mark: So, do we like Nadia?
Jax: She would be able to drink me under the table. In what respect?
Jennifer: Do you like her Mark
Mark: Sort of. I’m interested in the problems she’s having. The way Natasha acted it made me curious about her as an actor, is this autobiographical piece that’s more or less her in crazy circumstances. I decided to try to watch one of her films, a film she co-wrote and acts in. A horror film called Anti Birth. She is pretty much exactly Nadia in that. Crass. Gets impregnated when she’s stoned and drunk and isn’t sure whether she’s had sex or not. She was in the middle of sorting that out when I shut it off, I couldn’t take any more. This is her, this bohemian being. I’m not a big fan of the bohemian way of life. Hitler was a bohemian, and look what it did for him. There are reasons for that. It’s a type of adolescent rebellion to me. It’s not real rebellion, it’s an attempt to shock and be different on a superficial level. That whole vibe permeated the party, every molecule of that party and her being. It just doesn’t appeal to me as a human being. Everything is frivolous, jaded, and cynical. Even sex. Come with me I’ll blow you. Nothing matters.
Jax: I was watching that with my daughter. I had forgotten the part where the guy gets up and he has a reverse strap on and walks away.
Mark: It’s not risque or rebellious. It’s not really interesting and it’s not funny. It’s sort of sad and gross. It’s not hip. Why do people consider that hip?
Jax: What I don’t like about it was this very casual…
Mark: …casual approach to everything.
Jax: I think that’s part of the theme of the show. There are things you should be taking seriously. When you don’t take the pain of another person seriously, when you don’t take your pain seriously, you are bound for self-destruction.
Mark: This is true. I should feel for her because they have a literal save the cat moment from the beginning of the show. The whole show she’s looking for this cat she loves, Oatmeal. I think that is supposed to bring me into her, but it never did. I know she has to evolve out of what she is and change into something better. I was never able to get on her team.
Jax: There wasn’t any scene in the entire series that got me teared up. I enjoyed it but it didn’t get me in the gut.
Mark: I’m chalking it up to not being able to relate to that bohemian world and what it represents. She has real trauma. Does the real trauma come too late? We find out she feels guilty over doing something very noble, that any objectivist would see. She chose life over dependency on her mentally ill mother. She had to survive and she chose her life over her mother’s and her mother passed away as a result of this. That’s a tremendous burden for a child to have, and I would probably have been on her side and forgiven her almost anything she did if I knew that burden earlier.
Jax: I wasn’t able to immerse myself in Nadia as a character because her mannerisms were pretty gruff. I swear like a trucker so it’s not like I had any issue with that, but the way she walked. Very manly New York. I wonder if that is done on purpose to fly in the face of what we consider to be stereotypical femininity. Does she put that on to ward people off from getting close to her? It made me question and introspect more about what is it that I consider to be femininity.
Mark: I need to get on board with her earlier so that crassness wouldn’t just grate on me all the time. There’s a line in a Marlon Brando movie, The Wild Ones where someone asks him what are you rebelling against… ‘whattaya got?’ It’s an adolescent way of behaving. It’s immature and not fun to be a companion with for seven or eight episodes. Unless you see some reasons for it early on, it becomes unintriguing after the first few cuss words and the first few times she promises to bang someone without knowing who they are.
Jax: The show could’ve brought in the scene with the mother earlier, at the market with the watermelons. That’s where you see her as a child, so vulnerable. You see the mental illness. The trunk is filled, it’s like … more watermelon.
Jennifer: They could’ve brought that in earlier for the audience, but the way they structured it, we were discovering the reveals about her as she was experiencing it. So it would’ve been premature because she hadn’t gotten to that yet. It’s a tricky thing.
Mark: So it would’ve been inorganic to put it in any earlier?
Jennifer: It would’ve messed up the way they structured the show.
Mark: Did you guys have clips you wanted to share?
Jennifer: There were some moments of philosophical truth with other characters. The first is a clip when Alan is starting to explore what happened with his girlfriend and she’s gone out with another guy.
Clip: “I’m the hole where a choice should be”
Mark: At least he’s a self-aware prick
Jennifer: It was almost out of character for him to say that.
Mark: Did you really feel that was out of character?
Jax: I didn’t think so. He’s a literary person. He’s a lit prof.
Mark: Yes, he’s a literature professor and I think he’s a cynical, but honest in a very cynical way guy. It didn’t surprise me that he would say that. I’m a douchebag. He’s already given in and given up. He’s probably one of the worst characters in the whole piece because he’s aware of how awful he is and how little he cares about anything. The other people are just trying to figure that out.
Jennifer: Is there anyone like that in Atlas Shrugged?
Jax: I think that’s who Betty Pope is to Jim Taggert.
Mark: A distraction. His neurosis can pretend it’s not there through the being of somebody else.
Jax: It’s almost a reverse perspective. For Jim, that could be anybody. It could be Lilian. When Cherryl comes into the picture, because she doesn’t play along with being soulless, it drives him bananas and makes him want to destroy her as a result of it.
Jennifer: And eventually he does.
Mark: Total social metaphysician. That makes me wonder, is Nadia one? She states something that is true. I don’t consider myself a social metaphysician but you need people to help you out of ruts. That seems to be a self-evident fact. Are there objectivists who would consider that a social metaphysician’s point of view, that you need people to help you out?
Jax: It’s gotten better over the decades as objectivism has been studied better, but this whole concept of, as an objectivist you should not need any other person to complete your life. There’s a difference between living for the sake of somebody else and trying to find your validation in the identity of another person. There’s a difference between that and leaning on people and being able to talk to people, going to therapy. It’s difficult to introspect. I think this is what the whole story of Russian Doll is about. These people don’t start introspecting until they see mirrors. Until other people hold up mirrors. That goes to Atlas Shrugged as well; John Galt holds up a mirror to people so they see what they truly are.
Mark: I find that analogy interesting as things begin disappearing in her life, so do mirrors. Why do you think that is? They’re both looking into mirrors, every time they come back, but they’re not looking into the mirror
Jax: I don’t know if you can take the narcissist analogy. Narcissus was doomed to look in the mirror. They need to not see who they are at that moment so they can truly see who they are in reality. That’s my take.
Jennifer: They had to find it inside, that’s why she coughed up the mirror piece.
Mark: That’s right.
Jax: I missed that.
Mark: That’s when she met with the daughter, gave her the book that influenced her life, in an attempt to save this child’s life, and then this mirror came up. She was dying choking on the mirror.
Mark: He’s in the same boat as Nadia. He’s as chronically afraid as her, but for different reasons. He has to stop controlling and let go and release, and she has to start embracing things in her life. They have opposite issues but both lead to the same spot. They have the same emotional narrative, they both overcome fear, and use each other to help them respectively overcome their obstacles. Very yin yang.
Jennifer: The yin yang setup is important for communicating how universal this is. It doesn’t matter what your issues are, when you get stuck in these loops, we are all afflicted by this in some ways.
Mark: what else guys?
Sense of life
Jennifer: We have another clip. She’s meeting with Ruth and confesses she feels guilty about her mom’s death.
Mark: That’s beautiful. That quote almost made me cry. I remember that being one of the few moments that really moved me in the story. Episode seven, we get all that beautiful pro-life stuff at the very end. In the end, it makes this worthwhile because that’s the thrust of it. For all the insanity… she is trying to find herself and that she’s worth it. She’s a self-destructive person and she’s self-destructive because of all the guilt and anguish she feels. That’s a big load for somebody to take on.
Jax: We found an atlas shrugged quote that resembled this.
Jennifer: Reminded me of ayn rand’s sense of life speech, one of my favourite quotes from John Galt’s long speech.
“You still retain a sense—not as firm as a memory, but diffused like the pain of hopeless longing—that somewhere in the starting years of your childhood, before you had learned to submit, to absorb the terror of unreason and to doubt the value of your mind, you had known a radiant state of existence, you had known the independence of a rational consciousness facing an open universe. That is the paradise which you have lost, which you seek—which is yours for the taking.”Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged (p. 1058). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Jennifer: This is the moment, Ruth is showing her, going back to the paradise that she was when she was the innocent child, hopefully, and looked at the world, and her mom was still someone she could have a relationship with. She’s trying to get her back to that. I think that’s what John Galt’s doing to the world when he marks that speech. It’s within you. You just have to remember it.
Jax: There’s a quote that Ruth says to Nadia which is interesting from an objectivist point of view. “Holding two incompatible ideas in your head at the same time and accepting both of them–that’s the best of being human. Yes, no, good, bad, life, death.” I agree with the spirit, but I don’t agree with the wording. I think this is something we can have an edge on in The Strike, taking this kind of dialogue and turning it into what it should be philosophically.
Which Russian Doll Nadia’s manly trait should we also give to Dagny in “The Strike?”
Next week’s episode will be Atlas Shrugged versus The Night Of.
This isn’t an exact transcript. Most of the discussion is covered, but there are a few omissions and some paraphrasing. Please let me know if you spot any errors. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @PlnetPellegrino. You’re also welcome to get in touch if you’re a non-native English speaker and you want help understanding something.