Symbolism In Russian Doll
The thing about art in this style is that elements are usually symbolic of more than one thing at a time. This is critical, many things have different meanings when looked at through different themes, they are not mutually exclusive and one theme is not wrong because another is right. For instance the character “Horse” simultaneously represents of a homeless man, heroin addiction, and the god(s) of death.
The writers help us out a little by stripping away themes as the show / deaths progress, much like the titular russian doll. Some “themes” that are a little too shallow or nebulous to bother with such as the way that everyone is dressed up in many layers for the new york winter like Russian dolls. Conversely the theme of death is so all pervasive that it's almost not worth mentioning. Similarly things have varying importance as symbols, some being critical while others are not symbols at all. The show producers often give us some pretty strong hints that something is symbolic, for instance The Three Guys who are played by the same three actors when they appear as drunks in the Deli, Nadia's co-workers, and paramedics.
Below I try to break down the biggest themes I saw, and mention the symbols I saw connected to that theme. I make a special effort to try to connect symbols multiple times. There are also some things that get hammered on hard enough in the show that I'm pretty sure they are intended to be symbolic of something, but I don't really understand them.
Flipped Gender Stereotypes
Ok, This is less a theme than a production value. Most of the characters in this show are written to fit the stereo-types of the opposite gender in fiction. In a (much) lesser work Nadia would be a hard bitten guy with stubble, Alan would be the hapless romantic interest. Lets look at a few more characters:
Drug Use as Distraction and Avoidance
The theme of drug use runs thick through the first few episodes, and gradually falls away. Perhaps the overarching point is that drugs are a distraction from what is really going on, from what is really important. I really appreciate the way that the show neither glorifies nor vilifies drugs, but let's get into some of the details.
- The first time Nadia says “I think I know that guy” and Mike responds “worries me a bit”. If you read this interaction as being about Heroin (which Nadia has likely tried before. As she says “I have tried almost every drug ever” and she doesn't bat an eyelash at huffing paint)
- Giving up her necklace to Horse (loosing your possessions to heroin)
- Alan giving up all his money and his phone to Horse (loosing all your possessions to Heroin, again)
- Freezing to death in the park (a Heroin addict death)
Depression, Suicide & Indecision
I also want to check in with another great theory, which I think is incorrect. Nadia did not kill herself in a first, unremembered or denied, loop. It's a poetically interesting theory, but the “death counts” don't work out (15 is 15 for both of them) and when they are both transported back to the first death as guardians, Alan is guarding Nadia from a taxi. A huge thanks to /u/lumnr of reddit for his complete chart of deaths.
Video Game References
Nadia is a video game developer, and there is a lot that goes on that fits the theme of the series being videogame like.
Getting the book “Emily of New Moon” and bringing it to Jon's daughter closely resembles a video game “fetch quest”. once this is accomplished Nadia is able to move on to the next challenge.
Trauma & Self Worth
Greek & Jewish Mythology
- Charon, the boatman of the dead. This is perhaps the most obvious of his rolls. We see Nadia pay him with a golden coin (Something that is traditionally done in the mythos) and we also see him payed with a golden ring.) It's also worth noting that the modern greek name for him is “Haros” which sounds an awful lot like “horse”
- Thanatos was also a greek god of death, in his case the god of a peaceful death. Specifically the myth said that if Thanatos cut your hair with his sword, you would die peacefully the next time you slept. This explains the whole recurring thing with the hair cutting pretty well.
- Generic Psychopomp. A Psychopomp is a figure that leads souls into the afterlife, often in processions. Charon is a pretty specific one, but they also appear as a general class like nymphs. They are typically represented by animals, and the deer specifically is one that comes up regularly. Horse wearing the deer head at the end and leading a procession evokes this quite effectively.
Empty shoes traditionally symbolize death, particularly in greek culture. There is a fair bit of plot around Horse and his missing shoes.
- Lizzy is entirely dressed in white, the color of archangel Gabriel.
- Maxine is always dressed in blue, the color of archangel Michel. In the second to last episode she seems to understand approximately what is happening. She even threatens Nadia with more things disappearing using the line “maybe we could have a party in a sensory deprivation tank”.
- Ruth is frequently dressed in Red the color of Archangel Uriel, who is the angel of wisdom (something which Ruth frequently imparts)
To be fair, I don't seem to be able to find any gemetria values for $152,780.86 but it seems like an interesting angle to look at.
Putting it all together (or taking it all apart)
Nadia is terrified that she's going to be like her mother. This is the ultimate core of the her personality, and of the show. While she isn't actively suicidal, she "chases death at every turn", and has no enthusiasm for life. After her death in an act of gross negligence the universe/gods/show-writers start forcing her to unravel her core disfunction, and figure out why she wanted to die. Layer by layer she goes through her protective mechanisms and fears. Starting with her use of drugs as a coping strategy. The sequence on the stairs prevents her from feigning normality. We catch the first glimpse that she is afraid that she is like her mother when she freaks out about being called "crazy".
Oatmeal, her cat, is another false strategy for connection, and again is forcibly removed from her.
We gradually come to see that her resistance to any form of genuine romantic relationship is due to her fear that she is like her mother, and will cause similar emotional damage to any person she comes close to, particularly if she takes the position of a parent figure. This false image of self is finally broken when she is able to face Joh's daughter, and deliver the book that was meaningful to her.
Nadia resists this sort of self realization at every step, and is ultimately forced to confront these realities by any and all alternatives being removed.
The version of Nadia that goes through these changes can be viewed as her "soul", and it does this while forming a bond with Alan's soul. In the final episode Alan's soul is given the opportunity to save the still entirely masked and unresolved still-alive Nadia, and restore her desire to live by forging an emotional connection. In the final scene, the "soul" version of Nadia joins the procession to the afterlife lead by Horse, while the still-a-mess but still alive version of Nadia walks through the procession, and remains alive to grow and change.
Alan is in a loveless relationship. It is held together by his attempting to be "perfect" and maintaining a mask of acceptability. This leaves him extremely fearful and unable to make choices. When he finally does propose to his girlfriend and she rejects him, he kills himself. After his death the universe/gods/show-writers force him to work this out. First he simply tries to be "more perfect" to get get the proposal correct continuing to go through the motions over and over. When he finally learns that his partner has been cheating on him he finally begins to progress into expressing his own desires, initially with rage. When he finally throws away the wedding ring, it represents him finally coming to terms with the idea that he needs to find his own way and his own life, this is essentially a "save point" and the ring stays gone.
Alan continues struggling with the idea that life and reality is going to be messy, and involve some pain and rejection. When he is finally ready to confront the most painful version possible of his rejection by his partner, where she ultimately forms a family with someone else, and to do so with acceptance he completes his resolution. It's interesting to note that those who are rejecting him in this situation (Bea, and even Mike) actively care about him even as they are doing it, and Alan is able to see this.
In the final episode Nadia's soul is given the opportunity to save the still entirely masked and unresolved still-alive Alan, and restore his spark of life by establishing a connection. She doesn't allow him to retreat from his fear, letting him know there are no assurances of happiness. In the final scene, the "soul" version of Alan joins the procession to the afterlife lead by Horse, while the still-a-mess but still alive version of Alan walks through the procession, and remains alive to grow and change.