Editor’s note: this blog contains spoilers for Russian Doll
You’re going to keep coming back until you get it right. While this commonly understood definition of karma is both reductive and inaccurate, it does point us in the right direction. In Eastern traditions, karma has a role in reincarnation, whereby we reincarnate until we achieve enlightenment, but its official role is more subtle and complex. Karma is more linked to actions and deeds: the intent behind the actions, and the consequences of those deeds.
How much choice we actually have behind our actions is a matter for debate. After all, how much freedom do you really have to make choices over and above your psychological conditioning? We often wonder why we do what we do, often fooling ourselves into thinking we have more agency than we really do. We can, looking back, feel like characters in a computer game, responding via unknown forces in an environment we had no choice in creating. Buddhists refer to believe our world to be like a video game: they call it samasara and argue that it is simply an illusion, and that we, in it, are asleep at the wheel. “Buddha” simply means “awakened one” – he was simply a guy who woke up to the dream.
Becoming aware of our conditioned responses to the world and overcoming it to achieve more choice is at the heart of psychotherapy. What Freud called the “repetition compulsion” keeps us repeating unconscious and unhealthy patterns over and over again until we become conscious of them (waking up). These unconscious patterns ensure that we stay miserable, often making those around us miserable too. The key in psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious: in Buddhism it’s to wake up from samsara.
Netflix’s recently released Russian Doll plays with these ideas brilliantly, eliding ideas of karma and depth psychology in its dramatic arc. Both protagonists have a death wish – Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia seems to be pursuing a long slow suicide through chain smoking and abundant substance misuse until the a drunken stumble into the street rather speeds up the process. Alan, played by Charlie Barnett, elects the more direct route by jumping off a roof. Both return, over and over again in front of their respective bathroom sinks, like two lost characters from a surreal and contemporary spin off of Groundhog Day. When they meet for the first time on a plunging lift, they realise they have a few things in common.
On the surface the two are nothing alike, yet find themselves sharing the same karmic loop. Alan resurrects and masochistically goes back to experience the failure of his relationship again and again, while Nadia continually spurns intimacy in exchange for unfulfilling sexual trysts and copious amounts of alcohol and cigarettes. These unlikely partners in crime are left to support each other to find a way out of a cycle of resurrection and rebirth in a world that starts to disintegrate around them.
The solution, for both of them, is letting go. While Alan’s task as a secondary protagonist is a bit more stripped down (he has to let go of his girlfriend), Nadia’s is more complex. While she can certainly be described as having psychological troubles and clear attachment issues, her mother clearly had a psychotic condition. While most of us owe some (most?) of our psychological dysfunction to our parents, Nadia carries the emotional scars not only as a witness and object of her mother’s irrational and frightening behaviour, but of the necessary choices she had to make to survive it. We are how we are because of the ways in which we survived our childhoods; when we can’t change the programming of those survival mechanisms that we get into trouble.
As a games coder Nadia would understand the concept of “programming”. Russian Doll plays on the tropes of gameplay (die, reset) in a way that resonates with the concept of lila, or the world as an illusion of “divine play” - in Indian philosophy. Much Eastern mysticism sees the separate egoic self is an illusion that keeps us away from the divine self or godhead within us all. The totalistic nature of Alan and Nadia’s self-involvement is all consuming – keeping them separate from others who wish to reach out to them. They have to let go of their trauma-based self-involvement before they can help each other, but they are too unconscious to do so.
It is only when the unconscious becomes conscious and you are prepared to meet the challenging pain that comes with that realisation, can you let go. Only then can you wake up to the life force of love and interpersonal intimacy, rather than the attraction of death. Samasara here is the same as the repetition compulsion – both are illusory conditions that keep them from being free. Karma here resonates with the return of the repressed – intentions and actions cannot be made freely until the repressed trauma is acknowledged and released.
In the finale, the conscious versions of Nadia and Alan attempt to shake their unconscious counterparts awake. Through familiar cinematic winks, (note Alan’s neckerchief and Nadia’s frilly blouse which distinguishes them from the sleeping versions of themselves) we watch how they succeed in saving each other before disappearing into a Bacchanalian parade. The death wish has been shattered and the karmic debt has been released. The compulsion to repeat has been vanquished, and so they are no longer characters in a game.
It didn’t have to be thus. Nadia was in a much deeper sleep than Alan, and was almost lost to her slow sleepwalk towards death. Her failure to wake would have been more bitter, if more realistic end. But Russian Doll isn’t realistic. Rather it winks at the viewer in that final Bacchanalian scene – telling us that it is a modern myth, and a damn good one too. Myths have resolutions so those of us watching them have a map to use in our own lives - the key to getting out of our own repetitive game.