In “Russian Doll,” Neglecting Your Neighbors Could Kill You

Despite its speculative premise, the show is about what we owe to each other in the real world

The dead don’t stick around in New York. The rapidly-changing city is so aggressively unfriendly to ghosts, that there is a popular movie from the ’80s whose premise is that a couple of nerd bros create a tech start-up to eradicate the city’s spirits — a particularly offensive move in the midst of an epidemic. When I think of New York’s dead, I can only think of the versions of ourselves that rattle around like spare change in our ribcage. I imagine they go about their business with the same disregard to the world’s tumult as they did when we lived them, like the dead in Rilke’s First Elegy, who go on without hearing us. This is to say: I do not think there are ghosts in New York. I think they have been Busted, and that they live in the only rent-free residence in the city — our own heads.

A real New York ghost story, then, is one in which we’re haunted by our own pasts. Instead of possession, we have self-obsession, which is arguably more deadly. And a real New York exorcism, ironically, is one in which we let in other spirits: the people around us and their own restless dead. In Natasha Lyonne’s new show Russian Doll, her character, Nadia, is in the grip of her past selves, leading her again and again to her own death, until she accepts help in acknowledging her ghosts and helps someone else do the same.

A real New York exorcism, ironically, is one in which we let in other spirits: the people around us and their own restless dead.

The show begins in an old East Village Yeshiva which has been, like the Jewish Daily Forward building before it, converted to luxury condos. It is there that Nadia, finds herself reliving the night of her 36th birthday — and dying every time. (And then waking up, alive again, in the same damn bathroom with the same damn song playing.) Her first assumption is that the building is haunted, but when she recruits her ex to speak with a rabbi who might know more about the history of the building, the rabbi tells him, “Buildings aren’t haunted. People are.”

Cut to Nadia, receiving a prayer of protection from Shiphrah, the rabbi’s assistant. Nadia doesn’t know her prayers, of course, so she asks what they mean. Shiphrah smiles: “Angels are all around us.”

Both bits of wisdom imply that it isn’t that places retain vestiges of the dead and that if people are haunted, the only way to give up the ghost is by letting in other spirits. If spirits enter the plane of the living, it is because we ask them to show up for us, either in the form of unconscious ruminating or conscious plea. Russian Doll, however, suggests that we don’t need the intervention of celestial bodies to save us — we can do the work ourselves.

In this same episode, Nadia does her first bit of angel work herself. She trusts Horse, a homeless man in Tompkins Square Park, to cut her hair before curling up beside him, two warm bodies for the night, only to freeze to death. It is also in this episode that Nadia, after coming to life in the bathroom again, makes her first order of business guarding Horse’s shoes for the night so he doesn’t leave the shelter. Angels are all around us; Nadia sits a vigil to keep him safe as he sleeps.

But then, twist: there’s another looper, Alan, with whom Nadia has not so much a meet-cute as a meet-grim in a plummeting elevator. She’s able to find him in the next loop only because she notices people and her surroundings. In the elevator, she picks up on his tick of fiddling with a box that we later learn contains an ill-fated engagement ring. She also notices the logo from the box on the window of the store that sold the ring, and after the salesperson won’t tell her his name, she notices the store’s fake-Yelp review icon and scrolls to find his name and his haunts. Tracking him down doesn’t depend on fortuitous coincidence — she just needs to pay attention to others and what’s going on around her.

Nadia and Alan come to realize that they are looping back through time together and dying at the same time, and must work with each other to address and survive the traumas of their pasts. Along the way, they discover how their looping timelines result in a deteriorating world: fruit rotting from the outside, vanishing fish, vanishing people. But even for those of us who live life linearly, our world also deteriorates. The city itself suffers through crumbling infrastructure that makes getting through the day that much more difficult for everyone, and people do vanish. The plagues of the city appear like Easter Eggs throughout the show: HIV-AIDS and the apartments the dead left behind to be snatched up by the wealthy; the neglect of the elderly; the neglect of gig workers; the Tompkins Square Riots and displaced squatters; displaced Holocaust survivors and Jews in general.

As the episodes wear on, it becomes apparent that the show asks us to not only care about the protagonists, but also the residents of the city they live in, and by extension, the city itself. If others vanish every time they loop, then the lives of others are implicated in their actions. You could say New York is a “character” in the show, as the cliché goes, in the sense that New York is not merely a setting, but a personality with agency that can be affected by others, and that suffers or thrives accordingly.

Nadia and Alan’s deaths become more gruesome and more alarming the closer they get to the heart of their trauma, and the closer they get to each other. No longer do they cooly reboot after a slapstick demise — they have twin heart attacks. Nadia coughs up bloody glass, and Alan keeps killing himself. But when they finally confront their own traumas and heal enough to survive one last death, they wind up in opposing timelines, tasked with saving the other from the deaths that started the loops. They don’t “fall in love” at the end, and the show isn’t a zany rom-com where the time loop is merely an impediment to a heterosexual success story. Instead, the time loop forces them out from their deepest layers of isolation and sadness and gives them an opportunity to rely on people other than themselves, or even their lovers, to heal trauma.

Russian Doll stages a paradox that is true for lovers as it is for any residents of a city in struggle: we need one another to heal, but we need to be working on healing ourselves in order to show up for one another. It’s that first step that is so hard — being well enough to let others in — especially in a city as notoriously individualistic as New York.

‘Russian Doll’ stages a paradox: we need one another to heal, but we need to be working on healing ourselves in order to show up for one another.

In a city that doesn’t always change so much as it metastasizes, the cost of living is as high as our worries, making it harder to be responsible for one another and easier to feel like the only person in the world, out only for survival. “What I do is my business,” Nadia tells Alan. “My body, my choice,” she jokes, before leaving to go have unprotected sex with a professor who, in a previous loop, opined on how we lost a generation of artists to AIDS, a trauma that he can only experience as a thought experiment. HIV would not be a death sentence for either affluent, insured character, but it was and remains a public health crisis for those left behind. Non-looping Nadia does not realize, third wave feminism aside, that what she does with her body is not only her business.

“Buildings aren’t haunted. People are.” The show itself is haunted by gentrification, as the characters themselves haunt a neighborhood where the homeless were violently evicted from the park and squatters from their residences. The characters in the show talk around gentrification (the Yeshiva condos, the AirBnB value of Maxine’s apartment, “Remember littering? Remember Dinkins”) in the way real life participants in gentrification often do, as a regrettable yet unavoidable occurrence. But as the show points out, feeling guilty does nothing to help anyone. Material support and embodied presence do.

Russian Doll isn’t a didactic show, nor does it make directly political statements. John Maus’ cover of “Cop Killer” may drone in the background of one scene, but in another, the dialogue drags through the flat delivery of an actress who is the real life daughter of a famous artist. In other words, the show doesn’t pretend to be immune to the charms of wealth and power even as it wears its anti-establishment references as a badge of cool. Then again, how many of us know our bodega guy’s name, let alone have his number saved in our phone, as Nadia does? The way the show proposes we care for one another — by turning our attention outward, beyond the couple and into the community — does have political implications, especially in a city as densely thrown together as New York. Russian Doll argues that we are implicated in each other’s lives, and that to avoid that responsibility is a kind of death. If you go down, we go down.

‘Russian Doll’ argues that we are implicated in each other’s lives, and that to avoid that responsibility is a kind of death.

Paying attention to what really grieves us, paying attention to lovers and strangers alike, is a form of care that asks us to take responsibility for others. “Take care of yourself,” Alan’s elderly neighbor asks of Nadia. The word “care” shares an etymological root with “curiosity,” suggesting that to care for something or someone is to have an openness towards difference. The danger of gentrification, as Sarah Schulman laments in her book, The Gentrification of the Mind, is not merely in how it displaces people and homogenizes cities. Gentrification eliminates the possibility for “the daily affirmation that people from other experiences are real.” Nadia walks by Alan in the park for several loops before they notice one another, unaware of the city’s warning to ignore others at your own risk.

The New York that Russian Doll imagines is, in the end, a city of people who recognize one another and promise to keep showing up for each other. It’s the only promise that can mitigate the displacement and poverty gentrification leaves in its wake. This message is more leftist than liberal: we must care for one another, but that means there is work to be done and there are reparations to be paid, not merely feelings to be resolved.

In their final loop, Nadia and Alan pay kindnesses towards the strangers who have become familiar and pay their dues to the homeless who are at risk of slipping away from life, as they themselves once were. Alan’s suicidal gift to Horse of the wedding ring and wallet is a proposal of care, of mutual aid. The show ends with a parade of the park squatters and various past Nadias, because in real New York, no one is the center of the universe, not even the people time traveling. In the end, Nadia cannot promise Alan happiness, as he asks her. She can only promise her presence, that he will not be alone.

You don’t have to know a person or even love them to invest a moment of care in their well-being. Even if it isn’t a political show, Russian Doll makes a political ask: be aware of your surroundings, your city, your own ghosts and the ghosts of others, so you can be available in some way to those around you.

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