(There are some light spoilers in this article, because frankly it’s impossible to discuss what works about Russian Doll without talking about some of the twists. If you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading. It’s so good it deserves to be viewed with almost no foreknowledge.)
It’s fitting that I watched Fury Road and Russian Doll in the same weekend (I also watched a lot of Terrace House, which is less thematically relevant). The movie and show have a similar approach to broken things, vocalized by Max near the end of Fury Road – you can’t just run away from the past. Sometime you have to turn around and confront it.
The other movie Russian Doll has been obviously and exhaustively compared to is Groundhog Day, which Sam and I just rewatched earlier this year and discussed the other night when he was over for some Goulash. There are arguably two ways to view the end of the movie. The first, as Sam originally suggested, is that Bill Murray is eventually able to trick a woman into falling in love with him, freeing him from the loop. I pushed back on that a little. He does have the aid of knowing how to make her fall in love, but he also makes the requisite changes to his actual person. We’ve seen him genuinely “trick” someone into falling in love with him already in the movie. This time around it may be manipulative, but he has become a different person top to bottom instead of putting a shine on something that remains rotten below. It’s absolutely open to debate the morals of his motivation, but he does genuinely change.
It’s important to bring up, because Bill Murray’s final day without the internal transformation could look like he successfully solved a puzzle, cracked a safe, etc. – basically, he did the right actions in the right order and that’s what freed him. “Unlocking the proper order” is something Murray tries earlier in Groundhog Day, and it’s something that Nadia’s (Natasha Lyonne) loop compatriot Alan (Charlie Barnett) tries at first as well. Unlike Nadia, who is having a general midlife crisis, Alan’s loop focuses on a particularly bad night in his life. He tries, at first, to fix it, to course correct his life using only this particular pinch point. What is the right order of things to say to stop this from happening? He has all the time in the world to figure it out.
It’s here that Groundhog Day and Russian Doll most seriously diverge. It’s nice to think that with endless trips back to the same day we’d be able to change our lives for the better, and as I said earlier I think within the confines of the movie Murray’s transformation is sincere. It’s a transformation, however, that happens without him confronting the past or the world around him. Firstly, WHY is Murray such an insufferable dick at the beginning of the movie? Secondly, when he gets back home a totally new man, is he going to just… be accepted? For him a lifetime may have passed, but to everyone else he left an ass and returns a beaming golden boy. I wouldn’t buy it.
We don’t arrive at any particular night in our life unscathed by the life we’ve led to that point. That’s what Russian Doll is focused on. “Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s already broken…” (I’m paraphrasing).
Which all sounds dour for a show that’s actually extremely fun and exhilarating, and which actually talks a lot about Groundhog Day after I promised myself I wouldn’t mention it nearly at all, because the thing about Russian Doll is it stands totally on its own. It’s a funny show, a deep character study, and an incredible piece of magical realism. Brilliantly the characters never focus on “how is this happening?” and instead focus on “what can we do to fix this?” They are presented with a puzzle, yes, but they recognize the puzzle is one of emotional and metaphorical components instead of a series of actions taken in the right order.
The loops themselves are also, brilliantly, not static. As they continue to loop back over the events time and time again things begin to decay. Pets and then people begin to disappear. Eventually the characters hypothesize (again, without ever getting into the nitty gritty) that they are the ones stuck, and the world is still more or less going. Again, the “how” doesn’t matter. The imagery (and superb acting) sell the horrible feeling of the walls tightening around them. They are stuck and they are to blame, and it puts the onus to fix what’s wrong on them – though they look fine they are actually the ones stuck in a decaying world. The “real world” has essentially left them behind, and will presumedly function fine with or without them.
Ultimately, Russian Doll works so well it’s hard to take apart successfully. I could run down the list of metaphors and smart decisions, but dissecting them robs them of much of their power – the show succeeds because of its complexity and the way its many elements play off each other. Listing out individual accomplishments (and again, there are so many) will simply reduce it to a series of “oh, that is clever” reactions, but, as with any good piece of art, it’s best to just go experience it for yourself, because the feeling it generates is meaningful, and poignant, and fun. So, you know, go watch it already, again and again and again.