Russian Doll, Fate, and Stoic Acceptance
The Netflix original series Russian Doll tells the story of Nadia, a video game programmer who repeatedly dies through a hodgepodge of unfortunate and inevitable circumstances. After each death, she wakes anew at the same point in spacetime: a bathroom during the night of her 36th birthday. After her first rebirth, she denies that she has died. Over time, she rationalizes her experience through a series of rapidly shifting explanations: drugs; a form of insanity she inherited from her late mother; magic; spiritual mysticism.
None of these possibilities explains Nadia’s problem, but Stoic cosmology might. “Stoic cosmology depicted a deterministic universe that ran through repeating but predetermined cycles” (Miller,119). In addition to this cosmology, Stoicism counseled self-control, detachment, and acceptance of fate. Nadia is clearly not a Stoic, but another character, Alan, perhaps is.
Alan too experiences repeated deaths and rebirths, but unlike Nadia, Alan embraces the circularity of death. Reliving the last day of his life exactly as it occurred during the first iteration, Alan exercises each morning, adorns himself with spiffy clothes, and listens to self-help mantras. Most tragically, Alan visits his long-term girlfriend (to whom he plans to propose) only to be dumped each day. Finally, he boards an elevator, which inevitably plunges him to his death.
Alan embodies the Stoics’ existential goals, as explained by Miller: “The goal of a good life was to attain tranquility, or peace of mind, which the Stoics regarded as true happiness. Reaching this goal required understanding and reconciling oneself to the divine (and inevitable) order of the universe, and also training oneself… to become inured to physical pain and indifferent to a host of potentially overpowering and disquieting emotions… above all—the fear of death” (119). With near perfect predictability, Alan knows what will happen next. He has conditioned himself to hardships, in part, because he knows precisely what those hardships are. Rather than working against them, he follows a fatalistic routine. Truly, Alan has no fear of death. In the elevator, he calmly tells Nadia, “I die all the time.”
Nadia faces the possibilities of death with far less acceptance. She is avoidant, cleverly evading death by taking the fire escape rather than stairs and refraining from using her stove due to fear of a gas leak. Nadia’s self-preservation instinct largely motivates her attempt to understand her place in the universe. Upon waking after she and Alan fall to their doom in the elevator, she searches for him with determination and zeal. Her fears engender cold-hearted analysis that neglects her emotional core. In lieu of inner peace, she attempts to reach an understanding external to herself. When positing the possibility of alternate dimensions, for example, Nadia slices open a seemingly rotten orange to reveal the pulpy, bright, and lush innards. This point—equally poetic and metaphysically rich—could only arise from the thinking pattern of someone overcoming a strained relationship with fate.
Alan, on the other hand, seems to have reached the peak of Stoic acceptance: embracing life’s circularity and rejecting a fear of death. He goes about his day—the worst day of his life, as he calls it—submitting to fate. Though his mantra says, “I am in control,” Alan acts stoically, as if control of events outside his mind is an illusion. If he has any control, he does not avoid death, but rather uses this mental control to reach a state of immanent surrender. Perhaps this aspect of his character best exemplifies Epictetus’s aphorism, “On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use” (4).
Though Nadia does not intuit this piece of ancient wisdom, her contribution to Alan’s life is significant, as are the ways she benefits from her relationship with Alan. Though they are quite different, they feel compelled (admittedly, not to the same degree) to work together to make sense of their metaphysical mishap. Their ability to understand each other’s realities without forsaking their own framework of belief yields the show’s satisfying outcome.
RK Taylor is a Pittsburgh-based writer and educator.
Epictetus. Enchiridion. Dover Publications Inc., 2004.
Russian Doll. Created by Natasha Lyonne, 1 Feb. 2019. Netflix.
Miller, James. Examined Lives: from Socrates to Nietzsche. Picador USA, 2012.