The Rules of Russian Doll and New Worlds

In a world loaded with content and brand new stories constantly streaming through our devices and living rooms, it’s getting more and more rare for a crowd of people to watch the same show at the same time. But every once in a while, the magic of loving a story, and getting to talk about the story with other people who love the story, can still happen. It’s happening right now in our office over the Netflix show, Russian Doll, about a woman named Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne, who finds herself stuck in a time loop, like the record of her life keeps skipping. Sort of? It’s hard to say for sure what it’s ultimately about but that’s part of it.

When people first started talking about Russian Doll, I was sure I would never be a part of the conversation, largely based on the font they chose to advertise the show. I assumed from the title and the harsh red letters that spelled the title out that it was a show all about espionage, some amplified version of the Alias episodes where Sydney Bristow dons wigs and kicks people on and off airplanes.

NOTE: The only spoiler here is to say that I was totally wrong about everything I thought the show was about. Also, even now that I have watched every episode, there is still a good chance that I am wrong about everything I think the show may be about. (Check back next week for a spoiler-full post of our working theories on what the show is trying to tell us about humanity.)

Whether or not you decide to join in on the Russian Doll fun, its’ existence in the world offers all of us some reminders of how stories and worlds work. The questions we might ask as we watch this story are the same ones we might ask when we enter new challenges and new environments:

What are the rules here?

A large part of the fun of Nadia’s story is figuring out the rules of the story-world. You have to ask a series of questions about the world: Can miracles happen here? What powers do people have? How does time work? Are there benevolent or malevolent forces at work in this world? The search for rules is true in every story but it’s particularly felt in Russian Doll since Nadia is working to sort the rules out for herself. Essentially, she is beating the internet commenters to the work of figuring out what the show means, walking viewers through all the possible explanations of the way her life is unfolding. It’s not unlike what we all do in new offices, new cities, new families.

Can the rules change?

We know enough these days to question whether or not our stories will twist on us. We’re less sure whether or not we can trust the rules of the story to change part-way through or to hide until the final revelations. As a general rule, we have less trust in rules. We wait to figure out whether the narrators of our stories are reliable, even when we are the ones telling our own stories, a question that Russian Doll deals with directly. We wonder which details are worth our attention, whether they are hints or distractions. I still don’t know, even at the end of the series, whether there’s anything to learn from Alan’s fish or from the state of the fruit in the deli. In the worlds of our daily lives, we wonder this same thing: Are we focusing on the wrong things? Are we giving our attention to the right storylines? Are we missing some giant truth that we won’t know until it’s too late and too much time is past?  And more importantly, are the rules always going to be the same?

If Russian Doll has anything to teach us about the real worlds we find ourselves in, and the real rules we are working and living by, it’s that the only way rules and worlds change are when we name them and break them together. I think. Maybe?