How Netflix’s “Russian Doll” Helps Us Process Death

My wife and I watched the entirety of Netflix’s popular new show Russian Doll this week — not hard conisidering outside temps were below zero several days running and there are only eight episodes in season one.

As a pastor who serves dying people, helping them and their loved ones make meaning out of suffering and death, I found this show especially intruiging. Very few TV shows or movies tackle existential angst head-on because most of us would rather avoid the topic. This one does it with smarts, style, and humor. It disarms our unwillingness to face death and engages our philosophical/spiritual/mystical side while avoiding tropes and cheap certainties.

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Without revealing spoilers, the premise of the show centers on the story of a woman who dies on her 36th birthday. She regains consciousness and realizes she’s come back alive a few hours prior to her death. She then dies again. And resurrects. And dies, and resurrects — in a continuous time loop. Only the time loop varies, presenting different events and death scenarios for the protagonist, Nadia. She spends the entirety of the first season sleuthing for clues as to how and why she’s experiencing time in this way.

It’s a little like the 90’s movie, Groundhog’s Day, but darker and deeper. And utterly intriguing.

The first time Nadia died shocked me, even though I understood the show’s premise before watching it. The death was violent and sudden. After viewing the first episode, I told my spouse I didn’t know if I could keep watching. I like to be able to anticipate violence and the show has no interest in that kind of comfort.

However, by the end of the second episode, the death scenes became absurd — as if the writers were like, “We’re not going to minimize the abhorent nature of death, but now the shock’s over and we’re going to laugh about it together and explore topics we leave out of polite conversation.” They had me.

I can name very few shows that successfully take an audience to that place, especially so quickly. Wit comes to mind, but Russian Doll employs intrigue, mystery, and the satisfaction you get from opening layer upon layer of a matryoshka doll.

Photo by Yomex Owo on Unsplash

When I hold conversations with people who are close to death, many are willing to talk intimately about both their joys and their immediate fears, regrets, and hopes. Those obviously vary depending on the person, their age, their spiritual framework, and how they’re dying — but there are a few generalities.

Overall, what brings people the most comfort and joy in the face of their mortality are successful relationships. Not just with lovers, but with their children, their friends, their understanding of God, their various community circles, and so on. What causes the greatest suffering is broken relationships.

Other common wonderings include: Why am I dying? Did I do something to deserve this? Is there meaning or purpose to be discovered in my suffering? What do you, pastor, personally believe comes next?

Save for the last question, Russian Doll considers all of these. So, while most people think about such things on their deathbeds, the show asks us to ponder these questions while safely held within the scope of a darkly humorous storyline. Why do we die? Why do we live? Do we deserve life? Death? Is there meaning in suffering? Can we forgive those who harmed us, and can we forgive ourselves for harming ourselves and others?

I always ask people on their deathbeds if they have unresolved issues they want to talk through, because the need to forgive and be forgiven hangs heavy on the dying if they carry unsettled guilt or anger. Many people want some hope of resolution or healing — whether that comes in this life or during Whatever Comes Next.

Forgiveness — of self and of others — is a major theme in the show. Given that the main character has multiple chances to seek forgiveness and healing, it forces the audience to look at our own One Chance Life to examine if we’ve missed opportunities to do the hard inner work that keeps us from living to our fullest.

The very best book I’ve read on forgiveness is The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu. Ken Wilson and I discuss their work in our book, Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance in relation to systemic injustices.

Fear also plays a starring role in Russian Doll. Not fear of death, as we might assume, but fear of life. Fear of being alone. Fear of being fully known and fully loved. Fear of releasing control — admitting we can’t be in charge of the actions, abuses, and abandonments of others. Fear of relinquishing our selfish base instincts. Fear of missing something important. Fear of harming others in the same ways we, ourselves, have been harmed.

Sound intense? It is. But it’s also savvy, fun, and extremely well written and acted. So, if you’re up for a tv show that will start the kinds of conversations that could ward off some end-of-life regrets, give it a go. It won’t lead you to any certainties or quaint answers, and it doesn’t tie up all the loose ends (at least, not at the end of the season, which could easily stand on its own). In fact, the questions it asks about the possible multiverse and nature of existance might leave your head spinning a bit.

But in a good way.

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Co-Author with Ken Wilson of Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, and co-pastor of Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor, a progressive, fully-inclusive church. Queer.

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