Russian Doll: Why Do We Get Stuck Obsessing Over the Rightness of Every Choice?
** Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of Russian Doll**
If Russian Doll Season 1 captured the dislocating grief of the pandemic and the need to bear witness to each other’s realities as a way to counter that grief, then Russian Doll Season 2 captures the lingering disorientation and pain of a traumatic event and the difficult, lonely paths out of it.
Russian Doll Season 2 catches up with its characters, Nadia and Alan, four years after the events of the first show. Still alive, still friends, they seem to be doing well. Nadia is celebrating her fortieth birthday and caring for her godmother Ruth. Alan is dating. Together, they’ve built a tradition of celebrating Nadia’s birthday with each other, just in case the universe tries any more funny business. They look out for each other. Life is good.
Yet both characters are still papering over deep, unresolved trauma and pain.
As the narrative unspools, they are asked to come to terms with their past—and with their present. Nadia—as in Season 1, her story dominates—confronts both her personal and familial past. The daughter of a woman with severe mental illness, and a Hungarian Jew whose family fortune was stolen leading up to the Holocaust, Nadia is keenly aware of how things might have been different. When she is thrown back in time, and given the chance to live as her mother (and later, as her grandmother), she decides to seek out and confront the people she believes to be responsible for her misfortunes—only for them to tell her that no, they’re not responsible at all.
On one of these occasions, Nadia (this time as herself) confronts a man—an old flame of her mother’s in the 80s, now living in a sparse basement apartment in New York City—who tells her that in trying to recover her lost fortune, she is chasing after a “Coney Island.” As a child, he visited Coney Island with his family. His father contracted polio, and suddenly, family life became a lot harder, a lot poorer. The “Coney Island” is the one thing that if we changed it, everything would have been different. Maybe the man Nadia confronts would have been richer. Maybe Nadia would have been richer. Maybe Nadia would have been happier. But it’s a “Coney Island,” it never happened, and spending time torturing herself about what would have happened is not, in the end, a productive or rewarding way to live.
Alan, like Nadia, is given the chance to peer into his family history, in his case experiencing the life of his grandmother (a Ghanian woman, Agnes) as a graduate student in engineering in East Berlin, 1962. As Agnes, Alan observes her routine carefully: baths, trains to work or social life, regular meetings with an apparent love interest named Lenny. A precise and careful individual by nature, Alan is overjoyed by the chance to just follow Agnes’s routine, without any obligation to act. As he argues to Nadia, he is obligated not to act, as even the slightest change to the past could irrevocably change the present. Being present in the moment, without any fear or doubt about the choices he is asked to make, is a relief. For a long time, he is very happy, just observing.
Until, one day, he isn’t. Alan learns that Agnes’s friends have planned an escape from East Berlin, tunneling under the wall; Agnes has provided them with maps and cover. Alan is suddenly sick with fear. Should he prevent Lenny and the others from escaping, potentially saving their lives? Or should he refuse to act and let them escape, knowing they may die in the attempt?
Alan doesn’t know. He hesitates, worries, finally decides to appeal once more to his friends not to attempt the escape, and rushes to the tunnel—only to find he is too late. They’re gone, leaving Alan distraught over his possible failure to protect his friends, and over his deeper failings as a human being.
Alan’s indecision and fear here, his need to get things right, picks up on themes from the first season. In that season, Alan traced and retraced his steps, refusing to acknowledge that the path he was on (literally as well as metaphorically) was destroying him. For Alan, the certainty of knowing where he was going outweighed the need to heal. Only towards the end of the season does Alan, with the help of Nadia, finally gain enough clarity to explain and reflect on his actions:
I thought if I worked hard enough, if I kept putting the time in, if I put my head down and did everything right, this aching, gnawing feeling of being an absolute failure would just—would just go away. And now I’m stuck with a body that is broken and in a world that is—that is literally falling apart, and a mind that—a mind that wants to kill me.
Perfectionism drives Alan throughout the first season, to the point that even when facing his own death, he chides Nadia for letting ash drop from her cigarette onto his counter. Yet to keep up this perfectionism, Alan is required to “put his head down and do everything right,” barreling through physical, social, and psychological obstacles, obsessing over the rightness of every choice. At last, Alan is losing himself, mind and body—yet he presses on anyway, driven by a powerful fear of being an “absolute failure.” A viewer without experience of mental illness, especially anxiety or obsession, may find this phrasing a bit hyperbolic. An absolute failure, really? But the fear of failure runs deep, pushing us away from human actions towards other more dangerous or self-destructive choices, lest we fail to get things right.
Alan’s fears find partial resolution as Season 1 concludes, as he bears witness to Nadia’s troubles, and she bears witness to his. Their friendship takes the edge off that driving, breaking need to avoid absolute failure. But deep obsessions are not erased in a day, and as Season 2 opens, Alan is still grappling with the hold that perfectionism has over his life. That need manifests first in his indecision over Agnes’s friends’ escape, and then in his regret and guilt over failing to prevent the escape through that same indecision.
Near the end of Season 2, Alan—still wracked with guilt over his indecision, and anxiety over whether Lenny and his friends lived or died—revisits this choice. He finds a pocket dimension beneath the New York subway, and there is his long-dead grandmother, working at an engineering problem. His grandmother greets him, but consumed with his guilt, Alan is not paying attention. He interrupts, immediately asking what became of Lenny. Faced with the same choice, the chance to help her friends escape or not, what did Agnes do? What was he, in the same situation, supposed to do? Key to Alan’s guilt is his conviction that there is one right decision; he does not simply want to know what happened, he wants to know—he needs to know—what was supposed to happen, whether he took the correct path, or the wrong one.
His grandmother’s response confounds him: “I helped him get out. There was no other way it was supposed to happen.”
On the brink of tears, swallowed by his guilt, Alan replies, “So I got it wrong. I just want answers. I just want to know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being this way.”
Agnes pauses, as if taken aback. Then she steps forward:
Agnes: You are just like me. We can’t spend our lives so scared of making the wrong move that—that we never live at all. Don’t be so afraid to live.
Alan: Yeah, I killed myself, so—I don’t really know how to live with that. It all seems just so much easier for everybody else. Am I wrong?
Agnes: My perfect baby boy.
Alan, like Nadia, is consumed with the “Coney Island.” But Nadia’s “Coney Island” concerns the wrongs of other people—her mother’s boyfriend, her mother, her grandmother, the Nazis. For Alan, the “Coney Islands” are his own wrongs—his failure to prevent his friends’ escape from East Berlin, and (in Season 1) his own suicide. Consumed even now by a desire to know what is “supposed to happen,” a need to avoid making mistakes, Alan finds the realities of (perceived) errors in his past impossible to live with.
Alan’s need for certainty may be particularly sharp, yet any of us who have lived long enough can empathize with the pain of reckoning with old regrets and uncertainties, wondering whether we did the right thing or knowing that we didn’t, and being unable to change it. Part of growing older as human beings in a broken world is grappling with
the rending pain of re-enactment(“Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot)
Of all that you have done and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue
The clearer we come to see and understand our own actions, the heavier we feel their moral weight, and the dangerous potential that every choice may not help, but harm. Faced with this complexity, the urgency to “just know” is sharp indeed, as for Alan.
Yet, often, there is no answer. This does not mean that our actions do not matter. For Alan, and Agnes, helping (or hindering) friends from leaving East Berlin during the height of the Cold War is a significantly weighted decision; of course such actions matter. But there is no way to tell which course of action is right, certainly not before the fact and likely not afterwards either. Human activity is vastly complex and gray, with many overlapping motivations, actions and reactions, and unpredictable avenues.
Navigating such a complex web of choices is, for some people, easy. Nadia is one. She throws herself heedlessly, in this season as in the last, at ethical dilemmas that would paralyze Alan, confident, overconfident, in her independence and strength.
Alan does not navigate choice easily. For him, every decision, every route he takes, seems so terribly weighted that in the end, not choosing is a relief, as in his initial days reliving Agnes’s experience in East Berlin. Keenly aware that other people do not experience life this way, Alan is frustrated by the difficulty he experiences, first apologizing for it—“I’m sorry, I’m sorry for being this way”—and then admitting that it “just seems so much easier for everyone else.” He agonizes over decisions that other people make easily. Other people inhabit the lives they are building, but Alan cannot build a life because he hesitates to take the “fragile, makeshift, improbable roads” (LeGuin, The Dispossessed) that comprise human experience.
I want to be unexpectedly personal for just a moment. I resonate deeply with Alan. I too have often felt as though some things very difficult for me are “so much easier for everyone else,” and I don’t always understand why. Making decisions about my professional work—about what I do and when I do it, who I network with and how, and what kinds of support I ask for and receive—is hard, and I find myself asking people to spell things out that I suspect nobody else needs spelled out. Making and keeping friendships is hard too, as the connections that other people seem to make by accident do not come easily to me. I too want to know whether I have chosen the right road or the wrong, afraid that I may do something I believe to be right—and then find it, in the end, a “thing ill done.” Like Alan, I too look back on my choices and fear that I always “get it wrong.” I hesitate, where friends and colleagues move forward with confidence and a willingness to try new things, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
Agnes does not respond to Alan’s plea with answers, but with love: “My perfect baby boy.”
When Alan scoffs, she gently repeats herself: “Didn’t I tell you? You were too young. I will tell you again. My perfect baby boy.”
Alan’s concerns are, on some level, legitimate; it is good that he wants to protect his friends. But he has taken those concerns too far, turned them into fears, and let himself be paralyzed waiting for an answer which will not come. The solution to such anxiety and obsession is not an(other) answer, somehow magically more certain or reliable than any of the answers which has come before. We are, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, never told what might have been.
Whatever answer there is, then, is only love and affirmation. Agnes, faced with her grandson’s cynicism and despair, his exhaustion over relentless pursuit of answers that seem to come readily to other people (or that other people don’t need at all), Alan’s grandmother gives him the only thing she can: her love, unconditionally.
Agnes’s gift to Alan returns to the truth of the first season, that we cannot will ourselves out of difficulty alone; we need other people to bear witness to our reality, to affirm our value and worth as human beings. I worry sometimes that we Christians put too much stress on reminding each other of our own sinfulness and brokenness before God, and not enough on reminding each other that we are beloved of God, and of each other. Francis Spufford writes in his book Unapologetic of the “human tendency to f*ck things up,” to make choices that (whether intentionally or not) lead to pain, for ourselves and others. Yet, as Spufford notes, we are all well aware of this tendency. Like Eliot, we have found that the very things we thought we were doing well turned out to be harmful and wrong. We fear that we may make a similar mistake.
Perhaps what we need more than a reminder of our own missteps, errors, and sins is the reminder that we are beloved by God, made in God’s image, tucked under God’s wings. We also need the love and support of our communities—not only spouses (so frequently the go-to source for love but, critically, not at play in Russian Doll, as none of the characters have a partner or spouse)—but also close family members and friends.
An easy conclusion to the kind of indecision and anxiety that haunts Alan does not exist. The concern that we must find the right path or else we’ve failed is a deep-seated fear and may sometimes prove more disruptive than simply acting; it is an obsession that, combined with the belief that making a way in the world is “so much easier” for others, proves sticky, and hard to wrest loose from.
Indeed, the ending of the show is itself inconclusive. Agnes and Alan are interrupted as Agnes’s coworkers return. Quickly, she urges him upwards, along a staircase through a brilliant blue light. Where Alan goes, precisely, is unclear. He returns to New York; he keeps up his friendship with Nadia, he sits with her through the death of somebody close to her. He seems at peace.
But no resolution is offered, other than Agnes’s love for him, her insistence he is her “perfect baby boy.” Perhaps no other resolution is possible. Some demons, the second season of Russian Doll suggests, we wrestle with all our lives. We may get the upper hand, we may find new ways of quieting them and moving along, but at the end of the day, we need to trust in the love that we share with our friends—and the love that God has for us, shown through Christ—and move forward, one step at a time, always upwards.
Russian Doll Season 2 Content Warning: language, smoking/drug use, some sexuality (including a woman giving birth), and treatment of mental illness. See IMDB Parents’ Guide for Season 1 content warnings.