For hope during the pandemic, watch Russian Doll

Netflix’s 2019 show gave us the perfect meme for our coronavirus quarantine, but it offers so much more.

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Illustration by Ruth Tam

On March 26, my fourteenth day of social distancing, I forgot what day it was.

Like millions of Americans, I was working from home, isolating myself from society, using new phrases I had never uttered before. Self quarantine. Social distancing. Flatten the curve.

I was padding around my apartment in thinning leggings, trying and failing to complete a to-do list. I had legitimately forgotten the day of the week until I opened Twitter to see a tweeted picture of actress Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Volvokov, the acerbic main character in Netflix’s Russian Doll. Eyes wide, hair ablaze and cigarette aloft, she was the perfect meme. “Thursday,” her remarks were captioned. “What a concept.”

The captioned screengrab was especially popular that day, despite the fact that it is tweeted every Thursday by an account whose sole purpose appears to be reminding people it’s Thursday. This week, though, the comments suggested the post was more.

28,600 users faved this tweet, making it the account’s second most popular in its yearlong history. And as self isolation dragged on, the meme continued to surface every Thursday, playing out a truth we could still dress up like a joke.

In Russian Doll, cavalier Nadia is trapped in her own revolving door reality where she continually dies and restarts her life on the night of her 36th birthday. A year ago, I first watched Nadia doubt herself, rage against the world and search for answers. Now, rewatching the show during the pandemic, I’m on the other side of the glass.

Mere weeks ago, days had inherent meaning. Mondays were tolerated. Wednesdays were achieved. Fridays, celebrated. But for 35 days, my world has totaled the square footage of my apartment. My calendar is no more than a grid of blank squares. What is a day anymore? A week? Thursday? What a concept.

Living during a worldwide pandemic has magnified every distressing emotion — apathy, uncertainty, frustration, fear. The Russian Doll meme is now the perfect complement to anything I once considered secure. Schedules, what a concept. Employment — what a concept! Healthcare: What…a…concept. Safety: What! A! Concept!

In the scene that’s become Twitter famous, Nadia goes further than her meme. Thursday, she clarifies, “may never come again.” Like so many bits of dialogue from Russian Doll, this feels both excessively macabre and during this pandemic, painfully literal — for Nadia, who keeps returning to the same Sunday, and for me, who is often wondering what will come after this. Even if the stay-at-home orders are lifted, a vaccine is developed and this chapter in history is closed, a Thursday in our future may not resemble a Thursday from before. For every day the virus finds a new host, lives are lost and futures are fundamentally altered in ways we cannot forecast.

In the second half of season one, Russian Doll evolves into something far richer than an illicit, feminized Groundhog Day. By episode four Nadia discovers a clue to her recurring death: A man named Alan, who also keeps dying. Their lives cross, looping around each other and back again. Over and over until they understand who they are to one another. But, not before things take a turn for the worse.

Russian Doll then transitions from a girl-about-town comedy to a near horror as Nadia and Alan’s eternity becomes perilously limited. The range of themes present –abandonment and forgiveness, addiction and control, psychosis and sanity– give way to many interpretations. But it’s in the show’s stunningly humanistic finale where its most timely message pushes through: We need each other to live. And, while our own existence is at risk, there are still divine moments that deserve our time: saying hello to a stranger, making a neighbor laugh, sharing good news, saving a life.

Before she began dying over and over again, Nadia lived life the way I did pre-pandemic: stubbornly independent, emotionally guarded, in denial of how much she needed others and how much others needed her. To leave her strange purgatory, Nadia tries and fails to escape on her own. It’s only after she realizes her responsibility to others, and acts on it, that she escapes death.

In rewatching Russian Doll, I wanted to see this pandemic through the eyes of a character so unphased by her isolation, her detachment is immortalized as a meme. Instead, I found Nadia as she’s meant to be remembered: A lighthouse for another lighthouse.

In a decisive moment, when Alan asks Nadia to promise he’ll be happy if he chooses life with pain over death, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely not,” she says through tears. “But I can promise you that you will not be alone.”

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Writer, Illustrator, Public Radio Producer | ruthtam.com

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