In the seventh and penultimate episode of the first season of Russian Doll, Alan and Nadia make important connections, and life begins to collapse. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Russian Doll.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of grief, child abuse, death, depression and anxiety, and suicide.
It’s not lost on me that both what I’m watching here and then reading over on Mark Reads are packing an emotional wallop that feels frighteningly targeted. It is as if the universe conspired to get me to finally talk about what I’ve been suffering from this last year and a half by sticking both Russian Doll and The Shepherd’s Crown into my life at the exact same time. There are two things here that are so pointed, so specific, that I, for one, feel CALLED OUT. Why is this show so LOUD and so RIGHT?
I now see why it was so important that Nadia work as a software engineer. If her theory is correct—and I really think it is, based on what we see in “The Way Out”—then time “broke” when a bug worked its way into the system. In this case, on that very first night, Alan and Nadia crossed paths, and Nadia’s instinct told her there was something wrong with Alan. But she ignored it, and moments later, she was struck by a taxi at the exact moment that Alan threw himself off the very building she was just in. Is this a case of determinism, not morality? Was Nadia always destined to help Alan and save his life (and vice versa), but because she didn’t listen to herself, she broke the world off into a repeating loop? Are each of these loops their own universe, or is the world replaying itself in order to repair the bug introduced in Ferran’s deli?
I don’t even know if I necessarily need the details of this answered, though. I love speculative fiction, y’all, but the main reason I enjoy it is because you can take the absurd and the fantastical and the weird and the strange, and you can tell the most realistic, human story imaginable. I love trying to figure out the logistics of this, and I have faith that there really is an internal logic that the writers are using. Even if there isn’t, though? Russian Doll is telling such an incredible, personal story that the framing device almost doesn’t matter. As messy and chaotic and uneven as LOST was, it was one reason I couldn’t stop watching it. It was a speculative fiction show that often crafted such incredible character arcs that I found myself less bothered by bad worldbuilding or lack of resolution on the mysteries.
Which is only to make a superficial comparison, for the record. This show is so much tighter than that one, LMAO.
After that final scene, I feel pretty comfortable stating that once Nadia and Alan figured out that they needed to repair the elements in their loops that had caused this bug, Nadia went after the wrong thing to repair. I believe that’s why she saw herself as a child. Time, the fourth dimension, is relative to us and how we perceive. So wouldn’t it be possible, in a world where Nadia and Alan created a “bug” in time, for time to suddenly be able to present Nadia with the version of herself as a child? Throughout Russian Doll, we’ve heard from Nadia and Ruth about how difficult Nadia’s mother was and how this affected Nadia’s upbringing. Thus, it was surprising to get to actually see it here, as Chloë Sevigny BRILLIANTLY gives life to Lenora. I have so many thoughts about what the show gives us. I’m sensitive to portrayals of mental illness due to stigma, but there’s so much representation here of a spectrum. And as someone who had a mentally ill mother who was deeply abusive… whew. THIS WAS A LOT. We can see that Lenora loves her daughter. We can also see that Lenora failed Nadia SO MANY TIMES. And throughout it all, Lenora never sought help for what she was going through. Sound familiar? I believe that is intentional, that the writers wanted us to see what Alan was refusing to acknowledge about himself and then showing us someone much further along their path of denial and refusal.
And yet, this isn’t what Nadia pursues. If anything, she is in denial herself, refusing to acknowledge that the source of her greatest pain is her mother. I say that acknowledging that she did go to Ruth in order to talk about this, but I feel like that scene is more about her trying to repair her relationship with Ruth. Or at least it ends up being like. However, within that conversation was one of the two things that stung the most. There’s a moment where Nadia says that she abandoned her mother, that she betrayed her for what she did as a child that got her taken away. But that’s not the thing she focuses on. I think Nadia could have dealt with this different had there been a different fate for Lenora. But a year after Nadia was sent to live with Ruth, Lenora dies. And Nadia cuts me to the bone when she says she believes she killed Lenora, and that in the end, did it really matter that Nadia wanted to live if her actions killed Lenora?
I so terribly relate to this sort of causal responsibility manifesting in Nadia, and I know now, watching Nadia struggle with this, that it’s absurd. She didn’t kill Lenora. Maybe Nadia’s actions set Lenora on a path, but unless Nadia herself caused that death directly, it’s on her. I am typing this here because I need to accept it myself, because I have tormented myself for months because of a similar decision: If I hadn’t broken up with Baize at the beginning of last year, would he still be alive? Who fucking knows. Maybe I’m wrong about life, and we’re all fated to do specific things, and there’s nothing we can do to break that. Maybe if I had chosen things differently, he still would have died the same way. I vocalized this to my new therapist in one of my first few sessions, though, and she said something that was eerily reminiscent of what Ruth said. (Who is also a therapist???) She told me that I ended the relationship because I wanted to live. I wanted to feel alive again. I don’t think she’s wrong. And of course it still hurts that things ended as they did, but I can look to this show and see a reflection of myself in it. I can see why this logic is so harmful to myself by watching it hurt Nadia as Ruth consoles her and encourages her to find the spark of life within herself.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, there is a beauty in the sadness of much of this story. Again, I find myself just enamored with Alan and the way his character is written, and once more, Charlie Bennett’s performance broke my heart. If Nadia’s loop is broken, then Alan’s is broken for one primary reason: He doesn’t value himself. In his apartment, as Nadia is explaining what she thinks is happening, he comes to his own conclusion. If he really did kill himself in that first loop, why? It wasn’t just that Beatrice cheated on him or that she broke up with him on the eve of a vacation. Those were circumstantial factors, yes, but after all these loops, Alan has realized why he was brought to this place. He wouldn’t let himself get help. Why? Because he truly believed he did not deserve it.
He says something in this episode that also broke me: He thanked Nadia for being the most selfish person he had ever met because it changed his life. In this, there is the acknowledgment that you can be selfish and value one’s self, too. There is a beauty in thinking highly of yourself if it makes you have self-worth. And it’s what Alan hasn’t had this entire time. My truth is that Baize was easily the most selfish person I have ever met, and he changed that part of me. I got help. I’m on my second therapist now (my first left her practice), and I am doing this because I have to care about myself. Aggressively so. I don’t think I would have done that without him.
It’s touching, too, to see Alan give himself and Beatrice closure. He does it in such a graceful way. There’s room for Beatrice to admit guilt over what she’s done, but he also lets her go, admitting that the best thing for both of them is for Beatrice to just be herself. Without him. God, that moment when Mike shows up… it’s just so, so different from all the previous interactions with Mike. IT’S GROWTH.
This is the day we get free
I’m drawn back to Nadia’s story. In the flashback, Lenora’s compulsive behavior is responsible for her seeking out every watermelon in the neighborhood and turning her diet (and Nadia’s) into all watermelon, all the time. She utters this the first time she gets in the car: “This is the day we get free.”
Which is exactly what happens when Younger Nadia finally speaks to Nadia. (I am curious what the logic is for Maxine breaking this wall, though. I get Younger Nadia doing so, but I was shocked when Maxine said she couldn’t leave her loft.) Again, I believe this is because Nadia hasn’t dealt with the real root of the problem. Her mother is still inside of her, tearing apart her insides. So how is it that this upcoming loop—as I assume that’s what this line is referring to—will be the one to free them? I feel like Alan resolved his conflict; will he help Nadia?
The video for “The Way Out” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
Mark Links Stuff
– You can now pre-order my second YA novel, Each of Us a Desert, which will be released on September 15, 2020 from Tor Teen!
– Not only that, but my very first pre-order campaign is now live for North American readers! If you submit proof of pre-order, you can get a limited edition print that comes with the book.
– If you’d like to stay up-to-date on all announcements regarding my books, sign up for my newsletter! DO IT.