A Report from the Rebel Pilgrim Russian Doll Symposium

When three out of four people in our office fell in love with Netflix’s Russian Doll series, we decided it was only right to force the other quarter of Rebel Pilgrims to cave in and watch it as well. (Dentists, take note. Get that fourth dentist on your side.) There are ways we believe the existence of shows like Russian Doll can move us towards good questions about the worlds we live in and we wanted to have that conversation. 

We announced that everyone had a week to watch it before spoilers would be tossed all around the office and that we would be hosting a Russian Doll Symposium during a happy hour. We mixed a few Russian-inspired drinks and snacked on some mysterious Russian delicacies from Jungle Jim’s International Market, and let our theories fly. Here are a few of our favorite theories and conversations:

(Spoilers will abound here. You can’t talk about Russian Doll without really talking about Russian Doll.)

-We had all studied up on possible theories about what the show is about. One of our favorite ideas is that the show is a meditation on therapy. It’s about the way therapy can lead us through revisiting wounds, detecting behavioral patterns, or making changes. Our storytelling, even about ourselves, can shift as time passes. Of course, the presence of Ruth, a counselor and surrogate mother, lends a lot of support to this idea. We wondered if her voice was really sitting in a chair across from Nadia the whole time, as Nadia replayed the events of her childhood. All the action we see in the story was the working out of trauma and the resetting of her mind and body.

-Most of us saw the connection between Nadia and Alan as a representation of opposing forces in the world, like Order and Chaos. Though they are radically different, they are trapped together and need each other to be whole and free.  

-The show gave us a chance to talk about multiverses, how we might be swimming around in a world of possibilities greater than the ones we imagine. Even if it’s not a reality, many of us are haunted by the choices we didn’t make, the timelines we don’t seem to live in but wish we did. (For more on multiverses, check out this Radiolab’s episode.) 

-Nadia’s work as a game programmer supports the theory that the story is about life as a simulation or a video game controlled by another hand, where each move, each copy deteriorates.

-The show could also be used to talk about systems theories of family and communities. The way the world looks for relational balance and how we all play the roles we’ve been trained to play. Systems theory also accounts for how much an entire system can change when one person decides to break the rules.

(As a side note, we were also struck by how a piece of art could allow for conversation between people who like talking about all video game simulation and people who are game to talk about personal trauma. This should happen more often.)

As an outlier (and an Enneagram 4), I also have a working theory that Russian Doll plays as a rewind of the Seinfeld finale. They both operate around the story of the Good Samaritan. Seinfeld’s characters ignore the needs of the man on the street while Russian Doll’s characters are given infinite chances to help each other. It is a rewrite not just for the characters, but for television history.

Speaking of Seinfeld, we also ended up talking about Groundhog Day, Arrival, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, About Time, The Good Place, and Lost. We also discovered that Rachel McAdams has starred in at least three projects about time travel without ever being the time traveler herself. We have determined that she is the Constant.

And speaking of constants, we have a lot of questions about the character Horse and believe he may be the key to a second season.

Our overall symposium conclusion was that it’s pretty amazing a story can provide enough answers to satisfy a crowd while still raising long lists of questions.

Also, as a bonus discovery: Our office, and maybe yours, needs more conversation around things we love.