Back at the beginning of February I compulsively watched the whole of Russian Doll in one day.
I loved it. I loved Nadia, and Alan. I cared about what happened to them. It broke my heart and mended it, both.
I’m still thinking about it – partly because it seems so relevant to what I’m writing at the moment. So this is likely to be another long ramble.
At the time I compared it to Bandersnatch – which I enjoyed but more as a clever game, than as a cathartic experience. I laughed at Bandersnatch. I cried with Russian Doll.
Purely based on the story, there shouldn’t be quite that gap. The heart of the Stefan Butler story is his mother’s death – that should be equally moving. Maybe it’s partly that the writers ceded so much control to the viewer – the mulitiplicity of possible endings simply reduces the emotional impact. It becomes too much like a computer game or a clever narrative trick.
In Russian Doll, the story is controlled by the writers – and we know that there’s a fictional transformation of real lived experience at the heart of the story – at least in part about Natasha Lyonne’s own second chance at life. So it was experienced, at least by this viewer, as a real emotional journey.
There have been a string of articles about the current vogue for time travel, time lapse, recurring loops in our fiction (as if it’s a new thing, ignoring the long history of the genre, including various fairy stories, Rip Van Winkle, HG Wells, Dr Who, Groundhog Day, Anya Seton novels – there’s bound to be a list on wikipedia) and relating it to our desire to escape from our current timeline. And maybe there’s some of that to it, but for me it’s more personal.
Nadia and Alan’s stories were personal, not political. They had lives, they had histories, they had other people who cared about them – and that helped us to care about them too.
Mostly they had reasons to want a do-over of their personal stories. There was a therapeutic theme. Nadia was haunted by her younger self. And that younger self survived – she did what she had to in order to survive. The pep talk from Nadia’s Auntie Ruth, who was also a therapist, was all about reminding Nadia about how much she loved life. That was how she overcame the self destructiveness which was there in the story from the beginning. It was convincing to me how she blamed herself for her mother’s death, and how her memories were distorted by guilt, and by that child’s eye view.
But it wasn’t just about Nadia relying on herself. Her fierce independence was part of her problem – those strong defences. And for Alan too. The redemptive part of the story was about how they saved each other. Even the relatively minor point where Nadia went downstairs with the help of her friend, facing her fears of mortality, was very moving.
And Nadia stayed herself – she was still full of acerbic wit and funny and hard edged, not a watered down and colourless version.
That’s the other thing – as well as all that emotional depth it was also very funny. The best comedy (I’m thinking of Fleabag too, now) also deals with the most serious stuff. It chimes with my personal preference, of laughing at the darkest traumas and fears. Whatever works.
And the Russian Doll image is a great metaphor for the therapeutic journey. Keep on shrinking the doll and each layer is still the same, we still keep repeating the same mistakes, maybe sometimes we manage to do things a bit differently, and maybe interdependence has something to offer the most fiercely independent people.
At one point Nadia says to Alan (I paraphrase), “It’s still shit, but you won’t be alone.”
It’s a hero’s journey I can relate to. Going inside, facing the broken parts, and getting back up and trying again. Most of all, not having to do it on your own. That there’s redemption to be found through helping each other.
I recently asked my stepmother “Why are there so many photographs of me in that ugly brown knitted dress with the orange trim?” Most of the photos are in black and white, I think, but I can still visualise the full horror of the colours. Not my choice, certainly.
“Oh,” she said. “It was the only dress you could put on without help. No buttons. No zip. So you insisted on wearing it all the time.”
One of the hardest lessons of the past couple of years has been having to let other people help me. I’d really like to let the universe know I’ve learned that one now…
So there’s a lot for me to think about here, as I’m writing this memoir, or a fictionalised version of it. (I still haven’t decided).
Mostly it reassures me that it’s worth writing. Russian Doll was clearly inspired by Natasha Lyonne’s personal experiences – and on the surface I have very little in common. And yet, to repeat the Jeanette Winterson insight, it was transformed into a story which had meaning for me and many other people who didn’t share those experiences.
So there’s no need to water it down – in fact it matters to keep the particularities. They’re what make a story interesting and new and unexpected. It’s the underlying emotional threads, the human condition stuff, I guess, which makes it universal. We are all broken in our own way, we all have our own experiences of grief, our own fears of mortality.
What seems to work for me is that perfect combination of honesty and humour.
If you haven’t watched Russian Doll, you might by now guess that I would definitely recommend that you do so. If you have, I’d love to know what you thought of it. Even if you disagree.
Can I bear the risk of them spoiling what seemed almost perfect to me?