An all-female cast of creators forge a new, collaborative narrative from familiar materials
We all know the classic narrative Joseph Campbell referred to as the hero’s journey: the lone (almost always male) hero embarks on a quest of honor/duty/family in which he must battle monsters and impossible odds, ultimately coming face to face with his own inner shadow and true identity — which is a process he must face alone. Then he returns home to a joyous reunion, or saves the girl (or dies, which in some mythologies is another form of celebration and reunion). Through this process, the hero is reborn. Think the Odyssey, Django Unchained, King Arthur’s Quest for the Holy Grail.
This has been the key narrative of western ideology for millennia. You could say we’ve become accustomed to it.
Which is, I’ve come to conclude, one of the reasons that Netflix’s new series Russian Doll feels so comfortingly familiar — and yet so entirely new.
There’s no doubt that the show follows a hero’s journey through resurrection and rebirth. But there’s a big, juicy twist: the hero can’t do it on her own. She needs the help of someone else — someone who needs her help. She has to collaborate.
Something very old, and yet very new is happening in this show.
Russian Doll is lousy with mythological archetypes and spiritual symbology which cue us in to what’s happening along the hero’s journey. Yet, unlike so many of the shows’ presecessors in the arthouse genre, Russian Doll doesn’t require you to untangle the mythological ball of string its handed you in order to construct meaning out of the story (Pan’s Labryinth, I’m looking at you).
You just feel it. You know the moral of the story in your bones. It’s exactly what Alan’s friend Farrah says, because the show slaps us across the face with its message constantly:
Nobody can do anything by themselves.
So it doesn’t really matter if you don’t catch all of the baptism and resurrection and archetypal references, because you get the gist either way. But if you’re willing to take the time to look, and peel back the folds, Russian Doll is a carnival house of mythological references which illuminate the story, and deepen its meaning.
There’s a cunninglingus double entendre in that metaphor somewhere. Which would be particularly appropriate, given this show’s all-female cast of creators.
Yes: Russian Doll is worthy of deeper examination because of its endlessly unique approach to classic tropes, and because of the skill with which its cast and crew masterfully execute a pitch perfect performance. It’s also worth noting that this show is one of the most female led and created shows of its caliber to date, and the deeply personal way in which its creators have approached the show offers a notable and fascinating study.
Executive producer Amy Poehler is a writer and creator at the absolute top of her game; between the two of them, Amy and her longtime cohort Tina Fey have produced some of the funniest, most poignant, and most scathingly and accurately critical social commentary of the last two decades (30 Rock, Parks and Rec just to start). The autobiographical input of one of a kind Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is The New Black), and the all-female cast of writers and directors surrounding her, have created a petri dish for an entirely new kind of creative expression.
I loved Amy’s explanation for why she selected an all-female team on Good Morning America. “Well, you know, we just figured we were surrounded by so many talented women, it would be a shame not to hire them.”
There’s no crusade here. Just a powerful, talented woman who’s attracted an incredible pool of talent that identifies with her work — which, it shouldn’t surprise us, is made up of women.
We’ve seen what masculine-framed storytelling looks like for so long. Now we can finally see what feminine storytelling looks like — in the hands of the masters. And, as a writer and a nerd who’s long bemoaned the boy’s club of the nerdly artistic industries, I have to say that in my opinion, Russian Doll is everything I could hope it to be.
But at the end of the day, what I find most fascinating about this show isn’t the gender of its creators, buts its archetypal symbology — what it’s doing that’s familiar, what it’s doing that’s new, and that magical place where the two intertwine.
So take a plunge into the world of symbology with me for a few, and yes: here there be spoilers.
The ferrywoman to the land of the living
Spiritual practitioners of many secs would tell you that repetition is a form of meditation — and in the repetition of Nadia’s resurrecting in the bathroom of the party, there’s one thing which stands out as consistent across all timelines: Maxine.
Sweet birthday, baby,
Maxine says as soon as Nadia walks out of the bathroom, and hands her an Israeli joint. Each and every time — even the second to last trip, when there’s no furniture or doors or people, and it’s just Maxine and her “Gotta get up” dance.
Maxine stays or goes on adventures in different timelines, but she’s always there to greet Nadia, and it’s always Maxine’s party, and apartment — it’s her domain. It’s Maxine’s vaginal, cosmic void artwork which glows in the bathroom’s custom door, which Nadia must face again each time she dies except the last.
It’s impossible, in this context, to not see Maxine’s distinct and exotic blue eyeliner, makeup, Cleopatra-esque jewelry, and lotus flower blue gauze blouse as reminiscent of an Egyptian god. I’ve pondered which she could be — perhaps Ma’at, whose feather peoples hearts are weighed against after death to determine their soul’s next passage. She could be Isis, or Hecate, or any number of underworldly gods — she could even be a manifestation of Shiva, a lover of herbal enlightenment. The point is that Maxine is clearly an archetype of the ferryman (or ferrywoman, in this case) between the land of the dead and the land of the living.
Maxine is trying to help Nadia be reborn — hence the continual assertion, Sweet birthday baby — she’s trying to remind Nadia that she’s been reborn, but Nadia doesn’t understand until the very last time. More on Maxine’s role in Nadia’s resurrection a second.
The triple fates
We also have Maxine’s friends Lizz and Lizz’s partner Jordana, who together have a bit of a three sirens, triple goddess of fate thing going on (picture the three witches in Disney’s Hercules who all share one eye). Maxine is the ferryman, and the most demanding of justice (“If nobody eats my chicken I’m going to kill myself”); Lizz, with white hair dressed in black and white, is both resilient and vulnerable and offers us a model of a well actualized and balanced person; and Lizz’s partner Jordana is a colorful, dryad-like muse who shares her energy generously. Together they try to shephard Nadia into rebirth — until they can’t anymore.
What does Maxine say to Nadia in her vacant apartment before her last death, when Nadia begs Maxine to come with her?
Clearly, decisively, and with cosmic knowing, she says:
Nadia has to finish the journey without the help of the guardians. It’s a mortal’s journey, after all. The only person who can help Nadia is another broken mortal hero.
The Maiden, Mother, and Crone
Beyond the three fates, we have Nadia’s adopted mother and therapist Ruth as both the Oracle (who is hilariously ineffective with Alan, a delicious break in the troupe) and as the Crone — a healthy reflection of what Nadia could become, if she embraces life and allows herself to grow and mature through helping others.
Ruth comforts Nadia as she confronts her mother’s death.
When I say the Crone, I’m talking about the third aspect of the triple mother goddess Maiden, Mother, Crone, who represent the feminine life cycle. The Maiden is marked by beauty and potential; the Mother by creation; and the Crone by wisdom and nurturing authority.
The triple goddess is a fundamental aspect of archetypal femininity (insert any number of Jung or Campbell references here), yet it’s not one that’s ever explored with the traditional hero’s journey. Probably because that journey is usually told as a masculine one. Nadia’s, obviously, is not.
Nadia connects with the Crone, the Mother, and the Maiden along her journey. Confronting her history with her clinically unstable mother is Nadia’s great anguish — she must “fix” her constuct of the Mother, but she also must confront her own childhood self — the Maiden. And it’s this image — of her childhood self — which asks her, finally:
Are you ready to let her die?
Then pronounces, as Nadia dies for the last time:
This is the day we get free.
Nadia must let her own mother die, so that she can accept life. She must accept death in order to move the cycle forwards, into her own Maidenhood which was stolen from her, so that she can develop into the creative Mother and wise Crone herself. So that she can live.
MIA: Knight in shining armor
If we do have a Paladin archetype — or a white knight, if you prefer — Nadia’s ex, John, is the most likely candidate, but ironically, this is the one character that really just doesn’t fit into Nadia’s journey. At various turns Nadia reconnects with John, and even calls on him for sudden and bizarre favors — she’s essentially begging him to white knight to her aid. He calls her out on this behavior pretty soundly, both before and after he acquisces, and he trudges off unceremoniously.
In another instance, Nadia has sex with John but then freaks out when he assumes it meant they were getting back together, and we realize that the hindrance in their relationship is Nadia.
The Paladin, then, summoned by Nadia out of bad habit, stalks off resentfully into the horizon because Nadia won’t respect his agency and whole personhood.
Not exactly the prince from Disney movies, but perhaps far more accurate. And more humanizing.
Color symbolism abounds in Russian Doll, particularly around the palette of black, red, and white. Nadia’s shirt at the beginning of each new start is black, but as the story progresses and Nadia begins to get a handle on her situation, she changes into a red shirt. The red shirt stays around until her very last resurrection, when something notable happens.
Ecstatic that the door, mirror, people, and everything else are back in their appropriate place, Nadia breezes in to greet Maxine (“Sweet birthday, baby,”), telling her they were good enough friends not to lie to each other, and that she was leaving the party.
What the fuck??
Maxine says, and storms over and dashes her full drink into Nadia’s face. They look at each other, and then: they laugh.
Maxine offers her a new blouse, “and then if you still wanna go, you can go.”
The new blouse, of course, is white.
“Too much pirate?” Maxine comments.
It’s a baptism if I’ve ever seen one. Maxine douses her head with water, breathes on her, then dresses her in white. I mean: come on.
Meanwhile, Alan, in the same timeline, encounters Lizz and Jordana at Maxine’s party as he looks for Nadia. Even though they just met in this timeline, Alan pauses before leaving Lizz, and he tells her that Nadia always meant to tell her that she regretted telling Lizz not to adopt those Mastiff puppies, and that Nadia thought she would make a great mother — a callback to an earlier episode in which Nadia was asking her friends if she was a bad person.
It was a gift, that Alan gave Lizz — and a gift to Nadia. Lizz immediately starts to cry, and says how much that means to her, and introduces Alan to Jordana, who promptly hugs him lingeringly, then puts her red floral scarf around his neck.
“This has good karma,” she says, kissing his cheek.
And just like that: Alan is also baptized. More blessed, in his case, and we might take the red scarf as a sign that Alan is a little further behind in his journey than Nadia, but the point is the same: Alan is no longer cursed. He is blessed.
The Green Man
At the very end of the show, a baptized Nadia and a blessed Alan go out in search of one another, only to find their old, self-destructive counterparts with no memory of their many shared experiences. In two separate, simultaneous timelines, new Alan and new Nadia succeed in saving old Alan and old Nadia from self-destruction. Then the two pairs wander down the street, into a tunnel, on into what some internet reviewers are calling a “hobo party”.
The revelry — presumably made up of the city’s homeless — is a parade of grotesque masks and gouls in red, black, and white, led by a pair of papier mache stags.
One of these stags, we know from seeing earlier, is Nadia’s homeless friend Horace. Nadia and Horace have a variety of meaningful encounters; in several instances Horace is found keeping Nadia’s cat Oatmeal safe, in one they huff paint together and Horace talks about building the Dark Web in the 90s, in one Nadia guards Horace’s shoes at a homeless shelter so they don’t get stolen so Horace won’t freeze to death. In nearly all of them, Horace begs to cut Nadia’s hair.
I can help you,
In the one episode when Horace does cut her hair, she looks into the mirror Horace holds up for her and proclaims:
I look like my mom.
Horace states who he is pretty clearly: he’s a free agent who’s chosen not to participate in the technological society around him. He’s dangerous, and wild, and also kind, and nurturing — depending on the intentions of the person before him. Horace is the wild stag — he is Cernunnos, Pan, he is the Green Man: unseen yet ever present, an ancient part of the unacknowledged landscape.
Horace also takes Alan’s wedding ring at one point, at Alan’s drunken offering, and takes Alan back to his lair where his friends relieve Alan of his wallet and valuables before Nadia swoops in to retrieve him.
But Horace doesn’t give back Alan’s things. He helps Nadia and Alan in the same way: he helps them shed their old identities.
And in the very end, it’s Horace who both Alan and Nadia follow, through the vaginal overpass tunnel, and — as Nadia grabs a torch from someone in the crowd — into the light. Nadia and Alan are both reborn as their new, knowledgeable, baptized and blessed selves; following the Green Man, they’ve become wild, and free.
The lord and lady of the wood
In the so-called pagan cyclical calendar Wheel, there is a divine dance of the masculine and feminine. In springtime, the Lord and Lady (i.e. Maiden) of the Woods meet, court, mate, and marry, before the Lord descends into the underworld to guard the portal while the Mother gestates. At midwinter, the Lord sacrifices himself in order to be reborn through the Mother, who nurtures the infant through the rest of winter with the help of the Crone. Then it all starts from the top again.
Now, I don’t think that many of those elements are here in Nadia and Alan’s stories, but there is an undeniable quality to the way their seasons of personal development are linked. They depend on one another — and not in a predominantly sexual way. Alan and Nadia’s procreation is much more expansive than human reproduction. It’s a procreation of healing; of regeneration.
As female-created works like Russian Doll fall more in to common practice, I think it’s so important for us to be creative, and expansive, and not reductive, about gender roles. If the rise and fall of third wave feminism have taught us anything, it should be that simply replacing one reductive, black and white modality with its opposite is not productive. Just telling the same story with all the genders swapped doesn’t move us forward.
What Russian Doll does, however, is to move forward, from a feminine perspective, into a world which requires mutual participation, and assigns equal value to our heroes’ journeys. This isn’t just a flipping of the script, as I think we probably saw with The Last Jedi (which I still like for lots of reasons). No; this is a story about co-creation, and co-healing.
I have immense gratitude for talented creators like Amy Poehler and Natasha Lyonne, who have the courage to draw from the past — from our collective unconscious — to tell stories that create a new path forward. A path which aims for balance and healing, not for power and dominance.
It’s such good storytelling, you don’t even notice that there’s no female nudity.
Funny how that works.