Reload last saved game: mental health, video gaming and the fantastic in Netflix’s “Russian Doll” (2019)

Self-isolating, Beata Gubacsi re-watched Russian Doll and caught a few things she missed the first time. (The blog post contains spoilers and mentions suicide.)

Netflix’s Russian Doll featuring Natasha Lyonne

As we are dealing with the severe disruption of our routines, and the anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic, browsing Netflix and discovering new shows can offer some comfort and entertainment at least for a few hours. I used this time to watch a show I thoroughly enjoyed again: Russian Doll (2019) with its loveable characters, witty dialogues, dark humour and popular culture references is immersive, moving and thought-provoking. In this blog post, I will discuss how gameplay mechanics alongside science fiction and horror tropes are instrumental in depicting the trajectory of dealing with trauma in Russian Doll (2019).

The show begins with Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) turning 36, staring at her reflection in a bathroom mirror, or she puts it “staring down the barrel of her own mortality”, before joining the celebrating crowd of her massive birthday party. The dark colours, lack of lighting, claustrophobic cinematography is dissonant with the occasion and immediately draws attention to Nadia’s underlying sadness and loneliness. She keeps joking with death, suicide and her own self-destructive recklessness to the point that the freak accident that kills her the first time does not even come as a surprise. What is more surprising is that she finds herself back in her friend’s surreal, gloomy, womb-like bathroom with a gun doorknob.

As she keeps dying, and running out of logical explanations for her “respawning” (reappearing in video games after being killed), she turns to more fantastic interpretations of her perpetual birthday party from haunting to parallel universes. The show follows the specific logic of time travel narratives: the time-loop is recurring theme in science fiction and speculative fiction, from Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843) to Ground Hog Day (1993). The Science Fiction Encyclopaedia explains this type of narrative in the following way: “When memories of past circuits of a time loop are permitted, there is the possibility of transforming the imprisoning circularity into an upward spiral, a learning curve.” In this sense, Russian Doll could also offer some insight into the phenomenon of “mental time travel”, which is an exciting interdisciplinary field of philosophy, psychology and neurosciences. Bridgit Murray in “What makes mental time travel possible?”, a recap of Endel Tulving’s address at APA’s 2003 Annual Convention, provides information on the background of Tulving’s theory, and explains chromesthesia as “a hypothetical brain/mind ability or capacity, acquired by humans through evolution, that allows them to be constantly aware of the past and the future.” She summarises the benefits of mental time travel very similarly to typical science fiction or speculative fiction narratives:

“Over time, said Tulving, people discovered that recalling past events helped them learn what to avoid and how to behave in the future–its key feature, he said. In social relationships, for example, it enabled them to distinguish friends from foes; in the occupational and food-gathering arenas, it helped them to develop tools that worked well and to discard ones that didn’t.

The higher-order process of chronesthesia, he explained, allows people to update information critical to surviving, thriving and dealing with changes in their world. In addition, it aids semantic memory by attaching personal stories to facts, giving people’s experiences temporal and emotional dimensions, which make them more believable.”

After meeting Alan (Charlie Barnett), who is the complete opposite of Nadia with his compulsive controlling of every single thing in his life from his past time to his relationship, is stuck in the same loop, they began to bond and figure out what is happening to them. What seems to connect Nadia and Alan is video gaming. Nadia is a software enginner/game developer who created a legendary video game “that everyone has played between the age of 18 to 35” for its difficulty and complex level design. Alan is shown to play video games when he is stressed to re-establish a sense of control over the challenging events of his life: he plays Nadia’s “impossible” video game initially for comfort but as he keeps dying in the game unable to solve the puzzle, he becomes more and more frustrated. Dying in video games most of the time has no consequences, the player can reload their last saved status and continue, knowing what they should do better next time. Nadia seems to make one of her earlier games exploiting this gameplay element: one of the levels, the one Alan could not figure out, can only be completed if the player dies enough times to know the level inside out and try everything to solve the problem. Playing this game together is the turning point of the show where they begin to understand what they are supposed to do to get out of the time loop and they begin their own respective quests. The show gets darker after this point, and their reality begins to resemble a malfunctioning video game: their friends and pets begin to disappear, the ghost of Nadia’s past, her younger self, “glitches” into her present like the “creepy little girl” – a common occurrence in horror across media. Nadia’s trauma of hereditary mental illness and the generational trauma of the holocaust appears as a Gothic trope of cursed lineage, and inevitable fate running in the family.

In the final episode the timelines get entangled, the screen splits – similar to split screen mode of multiplayer games – and we see two Nadia-Alan duos. In one of them the Nadia who has already resolved her trauma meets the earlier version of Alan who’s on his way to commit suicide. In the other, the later version of Alan saves the struggling Nadia who still has to come to terms with her childhood loss. In these episodes the juxtaposition of Nadia and Alan becomes more prominent. One of the central motives of the show is mirror and reflection: one of Nadia’s theories is that she is Alan, and in a way she is right. Nadia and Alan become each other’s reflection which helps them grounding themselves while dealing with the unusual situation which challenges their sense of self, mental health and future.

Rosemary Jackson’s in her seminal work Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion (1981), notes the significance of sight, vision and visibility to the conceptualisation of fantastic literature:

“The term paraxis is also a technical one employed in optics. A paraxial region is an area in which light rays seem to unite at a point after refraction. In this area, object and image seem to collide, but in fact neither object nor reconstructed image genuinely reside there: nothing does. This paraxial area could be taken to represent the spectral region of the fantastic, whose imaginary world is neither entirely ‘real’ (object), nor entirely ‘unreal’ (image), but is located somewhere indeterminately between the two. (19)

The motif of eyes, mirrors and reflections are also central to the development of self in psychoanalysis from Freud to Lacan and beyond. The following passage from Jackson’s book referring to Leo Bersani’s A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (1975) explains the show’s intricate relationship with both the fantastic and psychoanalysis perfectly:

“Bersani stresses the centrality of the mirror as a frequent motif in literature, as a metaphor for the production of other selves. A mirror produces distance. It establishes a different space, where our notions of self undergo radical change. It is ‘a spatial representation of an intuition that our being can never be enclosed within any present formulation – any formulation here and now – of our being’. By presenting images of the self in another space (both familiar and unfamiliar), the mirror provides versions of self transformed into another, become something or something else. It employs distance and difference to suggest the instability of the real on this side of the looking-glass and it offers unpredictable (apparently impossible) metamorphoses of self into other.” (87)

While the ending feels somewhat didactic, the message it conveys about dealing with mental health issues is very important: mental illness creates its own world with its own rules which might not seem reasonable or accessible for others. For this very reason, support and connection can be quite literally life-saving. As Alan’s friend says “nobody can do anything alone.” The show is the perfect quarantine watch: our days are repetitive and yet out of the ordinary, we begin to think about what is normal for us and others, what we can do better for ourselves and others.


Cited works:

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy. Routledge, 2013.

Murray, B. (2003, October). “What makes mental time travel possible?” Monitor on Psychology, 34(9).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.