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On the night of her 36th birthday, again and again

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on February 15, 2019 Published on February 15, 2019

Thoroughfare Existential philosophies and pop cultural mnemonics jostle for space with cheap puns in the new Netflix show image courtesy: netflix   -  Courtesy of Netflix

Russian Doll’s razor-sharp writing focusses on the dilemmas of living in an eternal time loop

What a curious time this is to be a student of philosophy. Statesmen increasingly resemble pantomime actors while actors ( such as Matthew McConaughey in True Detective) channelise Friedrich Nietzsche and Heidegger to tell their stories. Shows such as The Good Place and Forever — both comedies based on the afterlife and the mathematics of good and bad deeds — are placing philosophical dilemmas up front in their narratives. What’s more, they’re trusting audiences, holding nothing back while explaining the theoretical underpinnings of these plots. Earlier this month, Natasha Lyonne (who plays no-filter convict Nicky Nichols in Orange is the New Black), upped the ante with Russian Doll, an eight-part Netflix series she co-wrote (alongside Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland), produced and starred in, writing and directing the season finale solo.

Exceptional writing makes Russian Doll by far the most rewarding of the so-called ‘puzzle box’ mysteries of the last few years (apart from The Good Place and Forever, this sub-genre includes the likes of Legion, Homecoming and so on). It follows Nadia Vulvokov (played by Lyonne), a software engineer stuck in a time loop, reliving the night of her 36th birthday again and again after dying at the end of each iteration. Netflix released the show on Groundhog Day, a hat-tip to the 1993 film of the same name — a Bill Murray classic about a man cursed to relive the same day over and over again.

Both of these stories are a conversation on the concept of eternal recurrence — the idea that we are doomed to live the same lives ad infinitum, that everything and everyone in the universe is stuck in similar loops of their own. This idea has been documented in several belief systems around the world, including India, since before Christ. In Western philosophy, Nietzsche popularised it in the book Thus Spake Zarathustra. Albert Camus took an oblique approach in his book-length essay The Myth of Sisyphus, asking readers to contemplate the plight of the titular Sisyphus, cursed to roll a boulder up a hill every day, only to watch it roll down at sunset. Milan Kundera began his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by confronting eternal recurrence, and Nietzsche’s conception of it, head-on. Fyodor Dostoevsky discusses the concept in a section of his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.

What, then, is the primary takeaway of such a belief system? For starters, there’s the problem of assigning value — if everything has happened before, and will inevitably happen again, how can we call, say, the 13th iteration inherently more valuable or memorable than the third? And, therefore, how can we assign inherent value to anything at all, even literal life-and-death situations such as the kind Nadia encounters repeatedly through the course of Russian Doll? This is a subversion of the Nietzschean idea of eternal recurrence as something that automatically assigns value or “weight” (Kundera counters this with the concept of “lightness”) to events through repetition. As Kundera says in the first chapter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, there is a big difference in a Robespierre (the ideologue who sentenced thousands to the guillotine during the French Revolution) coming along once in an epoch, and a Robespierre who “eternally returns, chopping off French heads”. Kundera wrote, “For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”

Initially, Nadia, too, faces difficulty assigning value to the things that are happening to her, especially when a tricky staircase kills her a few times in quick succession. But as she grows more comfortable with the constraints of the situation, Nadia’s wit and wisdom allow her to overcome this, as well as sidestep the “aura of nostalgia” Kundera so fears — at no point during the night is she operating under a straight-up death wish, despite knowing that she’ll die the morning after. “The universe is trying to f*** with me, and I refuse to engage!” she says at one point. Nadia’s “lightness” is not the nostalgia-driven frivolity that Kundera feared; in the context of the show, it is wartime wisdom.

Russian Doll is also concerned about what eternal recurrence means to a person’s legacy. When Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), another person stuck in a time warp similar to hers, he is in despair. Alan fears that going through the motions of the day, he will forever be unable to make things right with his girlfriend, who has fallen out of love with him and is sleeping with an obnoxious man simply because he’s not Alan. But Nadia, despite her many flaws, is a really good friend to him and helps him rethink the value of his own life — even if it’s stuck in a time loop like hers. And like Sisyphus, we see Alan deriving worth and contentment in his daily uphill trudge, fighting the inevitable.

These are just some of the cool things that eternal recurrence allows the show to do. We also see the characters expand their modes of thinking even as they’re trying to figure out what the time loop means and how it can be halted. Nadia, a genius programmer, seeks mystical intervention in one scene, while returning to her machine logic roots (to explain the time loop) in another, saying, “This is not good or bad. It’s just a bug. It’s like if a program keeps crashing, you know? The crashing is just a symptom of a bug in the code.” Lines such as these make Russian Doll the epitome of cutting-edge television writing, where existential philosophies and pop cultural mnemonics jostle for space with cheap puns (the best kind) and, remarkably, a whole new kind of capital-E empathy.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

Published on February 15, 2019
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