Russian Doll and the Loops of Compulsion
Wow, Lou, try writing about anything? Other? Than your mental health problems? I hear you cry, and I politely ignore you and write this article anyway. I’ve been watching Russian Doll over these last couple of weeks – which is ridiculous, really, because I could have gotten the whole thing done in an evening and had time to nip out for cat food afterwards. But honestly, rarely have I so uncomfortably identified with a character as I have with Alan Zaveri in Russian Doll, and I’m finally ready to take a prodding poke at this series as a whole and what it has to say about compulsion.
If you’re new at the Guignol – hello, welcome, I was recently diagnosed with OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – and you can read all about my experiences with the illness in my OCDiaries right here. I think we naturally look for reflections of ourselves in the popular culture we consume, especially if we’re self-involved mega-nightmares like myself. So when I came across Alan Zaveri (played by Charlie Barnett), the co-lead of Natasha Lyonne’s exquisite new Netflix show Russian Doll, it felt like TV was going “so, heard you got diagnosed recently. This one goes out to the girl compulsively counting to nine while filling the kettle!”.
Russian Doll revolves around Nadia (Lyonne), a brassy New Yorker (but then, with no shade at all, what else does Lyonne actually play?) trapped in a time loop, reliving the same days over and over again. A free-wheeling commitmentphobe, Nadia is chaos embodied – so it only makes sense that the one other person stuck in the loop with her is Alan Zaveri, a man utterly consumed by his need for order.
Any story that uses a time loop as a narrative device is one that is focused on the smallest of details by it’s very nature, and Russian Doll uses this hyper-focus to reflect the intense and intent compulsions that dominate Alan’s life. A man in his late twenties with an obsession with the routines that keep him safe, all of that is thrown into question when he faces an endless loop that sees him dying over and over again and starting in the same place every time.
But to Alan, initially, this isn’t entirely a bad thing – it allows him to get his day “right”, to exert utter control over the things he now knows are going to happen. The days that he relives exert impossibly discomforting change over his life – his girlfriend leaving him after revealing she was cheating on him with her sex-addicted PhD adviser – and he admits to finding some relief in finally getting to act out every compulsion and guarantee that things will run the way he wants them to. That is, of course, until he realizes that the very first death that kicked off his loop happened at his own hands.
There is a safety in control, a safety that a lot of obsessive-compulsive issues are built around maintaining. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a depiction of compulsive disorders that explores more than just the stuff that looks easy and goofy to people on the outside of the anxiety, but I think Russian Doll captures it down to the letter. Dennis is a character teetering painfully and constantly on the edge of losing control in the most catastrophic ways possible – his long-time girlfriend admits that she feels as if she has become his carer more than his partner, and fears letting him down will lead to serious damage because of his own unattended mental health issues. The constant looping of the story is so reflective of the claustrophobia and crushing repetition that comes with performing compulsions; the same day, lived over and over again, with no guarantee that this will be the time you get things right, or that it will be enough to keep you safe.
Russian Doll isn’t specific about the actual problems that Alan faces, but I don’t think it’s unfair to assume that it’s something on the anxiety-obsessive-compulsive spectrum. Barnett finds that coiled, grinding tension is his performance, but it’s the seriousness with which the show treats his issues that really makes this stick. Often, depictions of compulsions will go with the easy “look, they clean their hands a lot and put things at right angles to one another!”, which I understand, because it’s easy to depict and a cultural shorthand for a recognisable problem.
Really, Russian Doll is a focus on the exploration of those things we want to ignore – for Nadia, it’s a traumatic childhood, depicted with both great depth of emotion and great humour by creator Natasha Lyonne, who I honestly can’t say enough good things about. But Russian Doll pushes a little further, exploring how safety is constructed through compulsion, even at the cost of personal relationships and genuine happiness. Despite the fact that Alans’ life is rapidly and evidently falling apart because of his inability to let go, he is still clinging to those compulsions to maintain what he knows. Because it’s safer than giving in to what he doesn’t.
The climax of Alan’s plot comes in his acceptance of the fact that he killed himself – that he, to his mind, lost the ultimate control, and that all his compulsions weren’t enough to protect him. And it’s through this that he begins to find some kind of movement forward from the anxieties that have consumed him, with the show depicting his following breakdown and tentative steps towards something new with extraordinary tenderness and skill.
For me, the way Russian Doll explores the safety some of us can find in compulsions is the most powerful thing it pulls off. Instead of using those compulsions as a shorthand for uptight assholery, it depicts the painful, constant terror that comes from living in a state of trying to allay the fears that seem intent on consuming you. And, more importantly, finds the humanity in what that means for the people living within these endless loops of their illness. It doesn’t offer easy answers, but it offers something in the way of an even-handed exploration of where these compulsions come from and what they try to achieve. And for that, it’s already one of my favourite shows of the year.
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(header image via Vulture)