By Meghalee Mitra
If you were reborn today, then what would you do differently?
Russian Doll, Netflix’s newest eight-episode series, centers around Nadia, who dies on her 36th birthday, and is forced to relive it while stuck in a seemingly unending time loop, and “staring down the barrel of her own mortality”. In each of her rebirths, she sets out to identify the factor responsible for the apparent glitch in the Universe. Like Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors, it explores multiple realities occurring all at the same time; how different actions lead to different conclusions. Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne (the show’s creator), tries hunting down the specific life event that sent everything downhill. Was it her friend Maxine’s weird joint? Was it hurting her ex? As she scrutinises her life, we are confronted by all the decisions we have ever taken for granted.
In episode five, “Superiority Complex”, Nadia says that every time she dies, she opens a parallel timeline where her loved ones are grieving her. This indicates that all the choices we make, or more importantly, don’t make in our life, are playing out on a different plane of reality. Somewhere in the multiverse, I did not cancel that month-long pending coffee date, which made me lose a friend. Somewhere else, I have effectively surmounted my fear of public speaking and am a debating champion. Somewhere, all the small decisions I did not think meant anything, are playing into full-scale, life-altering scenarios.
Faring a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, Russian Doll also adeptly establishes that the trajectory of our lives are set in motion through the snowballing of our own actions. We are responsible for wherever we end up. Like another popular-on-Netflix title, The Good Place, Russian Dolltoo begins with a narrative surrounding the lack, or limitations of free will. Nadia has no control over how she dies. But as the series progresses, we witness the power of individual actions, and their broader impact on the conclusion of our life. This merits the question: Are we brushing past the availability of choices in our lives, while blaming everything on predestination and the will of a non-existent God?
In an absurdist comedy about this existential quest, we are the Russian Doll, speeding through life with blinders.
Image Credits: Netflix
While binging on this eerie comedy series, I overheard the dialogues of a WhatsApp video playing on my mother’s phone. While I was watching Nadia consider how one of her choices may have killed her mother, I was also eavesdropping on my mom watching the WhatsApp forward where adults said “I love you” to their mothers for the first time ever. The women on her mobile screen were a combination of surprised, shocked, and suspicious, but all were intensely happy to feel a connection with their offspring. On looking up, my mother said, “I can’t believe these children have spent 20 years without saying they love their mother. I mean, how does that work?” Evidently, the people on screen and I had made two different choices – small, but significant – and ended up creating starkly different familial atmospheres.
In Russian Doll, Nadia can choose from an infinite combination of actions, but only one that leads her to her five-star redemption.
In several episodes, Nadia tries to be better to her ex, John, the man whose marriage she “blew up”. She realises that she committed a grave moral wrong in never getting around to meeting his daughter Lucy, despite his repeated appeals. How many times have we stood friends up? Cancelled dates? Bailed on people either to hang out with a different bunch, or because we just did not feel like it? What if I told you that these actions would have repercussions that affected you? Often, we find it easier to dismiss bad choices, because we don’t see a concrete consequence that directly affects us. If Nadia didn’t meet Lucy, then she would be upsetting John. That is something she could live with, because it did not matter to her. But when decisions such as these put her Universe in a “funk”, constantly forcing it to reboot, then making amends becomes imperative. Shouldn’t we be holding ourselves accountable, even if some Nolan-esque universal force isn’t?
Written and directed by Leslye Headland, Russian Doll makes us revisit and revise our life choices. Los Angeles Times writes, “It’s a video game narrative in which the game kills you and sends you back to the beginning… and you get better, maybe, at not being killed.” But real life does not come with a life count that refreshes after every 30 minutes — unless you’re a cat, this is the one chance you have got at life.
Maybe this change can begin by actively asking for help from your friends or peers. As Alan remarks about the game that Nadia helped design, we may have made our lives into an “impossible game with a single character who has to solve everything entirely on her own. That’s stupid.” Maybe we can start by being more conscious about our dialogue – about our Yeses and our Nos, and putting more thought behind them. Every time Nadia’s timeline is set back to the bathroom at her birthday party, Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” starts playing. It is a signal to keep trying, to make better choices, to keep making amends until our past sets us free.
In Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, every step of Stefan Ritman’s life was subject to two paths, controlled by the audience, with only one combination ultimately leading to a five-star review. In Russian Doll, Nadia can choose from an infinite combination of actions, but only one that leads her to her five-star redemption. Here, at least she is seemingly in control of her own destiny. In an absurdist comedy about this existential quest, we are the Russian Doll, speeding through life with blinders, oblivious to the butterfly effects we set in motion.
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