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Russian Doll Tells You Almost Everything You Need to Know About the Quantum Immortality Theory

What to know about the philosophy behind the show's trippy narrative

Amanda Bell

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the first season of Russian Doll.]

On its face, Russian Dollmight seem like another Groundhog Dayknockoff in the vein of Happy Death Day, but if you've watched this excellent new Netflix series already, you'll know as well as we do that this show is not gaming on some gimmick. Unlike others of its ilk, Russian Doll actually aims to explore some of the philosophical underpinnings that make its narrative possible, and it's all the better for it.

That said, Russian Doll is still a bit too busy entertaining us with Nadia (Natasha Lyonne)'s gutter-brained wit and all those gnarly death-and-reboot scenes to really flesh out the theories that inform its architecture, so gather around all ye budding existentialists and let's talk about a few of those concepts, shall we?

Russian Doll

First of all, the whole thing is basically a narrative example of the quantum immortality theory in motion.

Nadia speaks to the idea a few times throughout the show, though never in name. Consider the moment when she comforts Alan (Charlie Barnett)'s doorman by telling him that his late wife is probably alive and well in some other timeline of existence. Or when she weirds herself and Alan out with the thought that they really might be dying in some plane of reality every time they artfully kick the bucket and reset in their current consciousness, but they just aren't experiencing that end all the way through. That's basically quantum immortality in a nutshell.

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For those of you who aren't familiar with the theory, aka most of you probably, the theory of quantum immortality is that your consciousness is semi-eternal and since you can't witness your own death, you've never died ... but maybe you have. Multiple times, even. Ever had a brush with doom -- gnarly traffic accident, a slip and fall, e.g. -- and felt eerie about it afterward like, "Oof, that was way too close"? Well, the quantum immortality theory would have it that you maybe did die just then, but your consciousness shifted into a parallel universe timeline wherein you just had a close call and kept moseying along, albeit with a sinking feeling that will eventually evaporate over time. That would mean, yes, your family and friends are all busy burying you in that other plane of existence, but you'll keep going on and on until every alternative version of you has died (and then who knows what happens).


Russian Doll

Some quantum immortality theorists also believe that when you jump timelines, like Nadia did so often, there can be some physical manifestations of the new world that only you will perceive. Remember the scenes when she refreshes and finds that people and things in Maxine (Greta Lee)'s apartment are steadily disappearing but no one else seems to remember it being different? This is what they'd call the Mandela Effect, which you may have heard about before thanks to all those viral bits about the non-existent Sinbad Shazam movie and that Berenstein vs. Berenstainbusiness. Basically, the idea is that even the closest alternate timelines may have some small differences that could creep into view and make you realize something's amiss (and here you thought Stefan's choice between Frosties and Sugar Puffs in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch meant nothing).

The show also ties in the ancient concept of mysticism. As our new friend the Rabbi explains, the idea is that there's a higher knowledge that humans just aren't mentally and/or spiritually equipped to deal with. If we can somehow "surrender" to those unknowable principles -- like the fact that our three-dimensional vantage point is just a slice of the whole fruit -- we can all become a little more in tune with the real reality. That's a little more theological than philosophical, but it comes into play when Nadia fully gives into the idea that time is on a big loop and that the possibilities for conscious experience are infinite. She and Alan are then able to leap back and change the decisions that mucked up their progress in the first place and they end up on alternate timelines, trying to reintroduce themselves and everything they've learned to one another in hopes of bettering themselves and each other.

Russian Doll isn't the only series to explore these ideas, of course. Recent shows like Awake, The OA and Darkhave all tugged at similar threads before in their own unique ways. But it's certainly one of the better entertainment vessels to play into the quantum immortality concept, and the fact that you're still here reading this right now confirms that the show has done its job to tickle your curiosity about it.

Russian Doll is available to stream on Netflix.

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Russian Doll

Russian Doll