A Season Underground: "Russian Doll" and Mental Illness




I watched the run of Netflix’s Russian Doll over a single night then went into the shower to cry for my mind, my body, and my people. I subvocalized “the life force,” or “a body that is broken.” I was tired, like giving myself a baptism. I reached out:

hey did you finish russian doll? i feel like it’s a message to high-functioning mentally ill people who live in the shadow of the possibility of total psychophysical collapse, calling on us to form associations of mutual aid and solidarity, as well as a commentary on our complicated biopolitical ‘class’ position as a kind of mental health aspirational middle class. i cried and cried and cried, i’ve never seen this represented before

She hadn’t finished yet. For now I’m still imagining that Russian Doll will be the rallying cry, or rallying murmur, of a new Identity or class or who-knows-what. I’m still imagining.

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My way of reading Russian Doll can’t, logically speaking, be the best way to read Russian Doll. Nobody makes a show about how the high-functioning mentally ill live in a fundamentally different world from the merely neurotic. But on my second time through that’s still all I see: No one except for Nadia or Alan can save Nadia or Alan, for all of the love and therapy and friendship, because no one else is in their social-material position. Nadia and Alan blend into the world of middle-class creatives and professionals (who are, of course, neurotic wretches), but its regularities and rhythms, the insistent gravitation that keeps you in orbit of a lifeworld even though you have, of course, gone half-insane in this late capitalist hellscape, aren’t theirs. You can stay here, but you can’t go home.

What world is theirs? For Russian Doll, it’s something like the space between Nadia and Alan’s beautiful Manhattan buildings and the cot in Tompkins Park where Horse, the local homeless man who too-conveniently hints at a middle-class professional past of his own, freezes to death. It gets almost alchemical: A broken Nadia wanders into Tompkins Park, and some natural force of sympathy lays her and Horse to sleep in one another’s arms, sharing body warmth and dying in the cold. A ferally drunk Alan wanders into Tompkins Park and asks for Horse’s hand in holy matrimony before giving him his earthly property and heading off to die. A renewed Nadia and Alan, over there at the horizon where the timelines meet, march to the sound of Horse’s drum in a parade or riot. Like every middle-class Identity built on communion with the wretched of the earth, it’s an almost unbearably classed fantasy — these nice things, I don’t really have them, actually people like me can’t really have things — inseparably mixed with something real.

To be a “high functioning” anything, let’s say, is just to know that you can work liberal subjectivity OK today but maybe not next week. A strictly finite talent for the long, merciless art of living in a house, speaking a language, and exchanging money, labor, goods, and services in that occult proportion that keeps you in circulation. We are probably past the last of our personhood already. We are probably running a credit line of brute executive function against minds and bodies that yield nothing anymore, depleted fucking soil. Some of us fall back on our families and renew ourselves. Some of us fall back on our families and don’t. Some of us fall into the hands of barbarism absent socialism, maybe making it back out and maybe not. Some of us have material recourse but die. It’s a weird “us,” built on material half-truths and asymmetrical feelings of symmetry — you won’t be shocked to learn intersectionality applies, and in particular the combo of middle-class roots and cis-ness is a hell of a good safety net — but I’ve made brothers, sisters, siblings in the mutual recognition of a season underground, and in the knowledge that we ate the pomegranate seeds.  I think we sense each other with a kind of instinct, even online, and find ways to find each other.

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Like Groundhog Day — and while we’re at it, like The Good Place Russian Doll is Kafka played on easy mode. Or maybe a revival of the old-school form of Jewish allegory (“Aggadah”) Kafka sublated, which already had a thing for stories about tactical negotiations with half-meaningful uncanniness.  In any case, it goes something like this: The universe is an uncanny hybrid of the allegorical and the mechanical, the personal and the impersonal, the lawlike and the arbitrary, the exact and the ineffable, and signal to noise ratio is terrible across the board, but both teleological and causal reason have their moments. If you’re very clever, very desperate, very unafraid, and very patient, then after a million years you learn to chain these patches of intelligibility together, put together a machine for living that’s a lot like personhood.

It’s a great form for modern storytelling, rich with humanistic warmth that feels earned since it lives within a basically structuralist world-sense. Like we are discovering the joys of agency, and the sorrows and comforts of its limits, for the first time. It’s also really fun, pulling together threads of syntax from magical realism, science fiction, absurdism, a detective story, a morality play, and a game show to spin solid yarns at what should be the edge of the sublime. There’s something different going on with Russian Doll than with its older, funner siblings though: Groundhog Day and Good Place use their gamey existentialism to accelerate some chill, accessible themes about human foibles, openness to others, and the good life to the point where they start showing a sublime structural edge. Russian Doll uses gamey existentialism to construct a chill, accessible edge to — for lack of better words — the sickness unto death, this agonizing contradiction, this sickness in the self, everlastingly to die, to die and yet not to die, to die the death.

Middle-class mentally ill life is not particularly psychedelic or sublime.  Even, maybe especially, if you make the sublime your business or vocation — if you make a living in, or live for, the ecstatically abstract or the indominitably concrete, in art or science or experience or philosophy. Your life pursuit of weird ideas and strong feelings might spring from the same neural or social divergence as what ails you, but when things get bad you build an operational distinction between noise and signal and you guard it with your life. It is your life. The floor is lava, nothing, silence, noise, bare matter, mere abstraction, neuro-social collapse. Everything swerves towards death or logistics. You’re a transcendental middle manager hiring yourself on a freelance basis. You’re a cop hailing yourself, maybe a chattily ironic Philip Marlowe type detective if you’re lucky. You’re a perfect metaphor for life-under-capitalism, or precarity, or the human condition, not by accident, which makes it hard to represent you without representing something else instead.

The first batch of reviews describing Russian Doll as a fun take on the human condition were bad luck. The second looked like carelessness. The third had me confused and making lists: Remember finding out that Nadia has a code-word for inpatient care? That Alan has chronic psychosomatic pain? That he keeps missing work? That Nadia’s executive functions are so burned out she keeps walking into traffic? You might not. It’s barely there, and honestly ambiguous. The honorable thing would be to chalk it up to the infinite mystery of the encounter between authors, work, and reader. “We’re so pleased that many different kinds of people see themselves in the protagonists of Russian Doll.”

I think someone is leaving bread-crumbs for their people. I am almost definitely wrong. I am neither a doctor nor an organizer.

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Most of my feelings, on a given day, aren’t valid. (I have my suspicions about yours, too.) I don’t think most feelings even want it that bad — it’s not hard to have a feeling and believe, or think, or feel, that it’s a less than apt relation to reality. Anger will fight you, for example, but if you push through it tends to the condition of a muscle ache with propaganda. I don’t know what makes Identity feelings so different. It’s like a weird cousin to Kantian universality: pain that insists that it’s a logically necessary feeling-in-the-mind of the material conditions limiting your personhood. Russian Doll hurt. Writing this essay hurt like hell.

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Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.

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