Russian Doll, a Confucian moral tale of how to be a good person

Helen De Cruz
Mar 5 · 5 min read

Russian Doll is a Netflix series that uses a Groundhog Day time loop trope. Two characters — the protagonist Nadia (a humane and sympathetic Natasha Lyonne) and Alan (a sober, sensitive performance by Charlie Barnett) are caught in a death time loop, dying over and over again as they are forced to relive the same day. I will here assume that you have seen Russian Doll as spoilers diminish the enjoyment.

The show is infused with a moral story about cultivating the self which is reminiscent of early Confucian philosophy (6th-4th century BC). According to Confucian ethics, our selves are partially constituted by our relationships with others. We react to those around us by adopting certain behavioral patterns. It is easy to slip into ruts, for example, to have a short temper and lose it easily, but then tell yourself, "I'm angry but that's just who I am". Maybe it is. Or maybe we let ourselves slip into a rut and have given in to anger where we could have chosen another path. How do we get out of ruts like that?

The answer, according to Michael Puett's interpretation of Confucius, is to adopt rituals (禮, li) that can break our ruts and that can transform our relationships to others for the better. We need to perform rituals often because breaking bad habits requires sustained engagement. Confucian rituals are not just religious rituals, but things we do in our daily lives such as having a family dinner, or greeting a friend on the street, as detailed by Amy Olberding here.

In Episode 1, we get to meet Nadia, who has fallen into bad habits, in part due to her traumatic past with an abusive and neglectful mother. She is rude, uncaring, and neglects her own health. Alan only appears at the end of Episode 3 as both main characters die in an elevator failure. His case is different. Alan has allowed himself to fall into the bad habit of focusing too much on himself and his own efforts in his relationship with his girlfriend Beatrice, leading to a denial that the relationship is failing.

Confucian ethics accepts that often things will not go the way we want them to go, and that the moral universe is inscrutable, "If we don’t know life, how can we know death?" In Mengzi, another early Confucian, this theme is even more pronounced — his philosophy is suited for cultivating virtue in the face of adversity and the unpredictability of circumstance. There are many things you cannot control, but you can control your reaction to them.

Mengzi argued that human nature is good, because we have within our hearts/minds four “sprouts” of virtue (the Chinese 心, xin, signifies both heart and mind, and refers both our intellect and emotional attuning). These include the ability to feel compassion, the feeling of deference, the feeling of a sense of right and wrong, and the feeling of disdain. But we need to cultivate those roots, much like watering and caring for little plants, if these are to become genuine virtues. So, for example, the feeling of deference can evolve into ritual (禮, li). The feeling of compassion can be cultivated into a sustained benevolence (仁, ren) toward other people.

Both Alan and Nadia have neglected their moral sprouts. Ruth, Nadia's foster mother, says this explicitly to Nadia. In Episode 7, Nadia confides in her foster mother that she feels guilty for her mother's death, an enduring trauma. Ruth says "Listen, you were this tiny seed buried in darkness, fighting to your way to the light. You wanted to live. It's the most beautiful thing in the world. Do you still have that in you? I look at you now chasing death down at every corner, and sweetheart, where is that gorgeous piece of you, pushing to be a part of this world?" — in Mengzian terms, Ruth sees the sprouts of goodness in Nadia and also recognizes that adversity and abuse have caused her to neglect them.

But even in her raw state of lack of moral cultivation, Nadia's moral sprouts are not completely eradicated. She cares (has compassion for) her cat Oatmeal and goes and looks for him when he does not return home after three days. Alan genuinely wants to make it work with his girlfriend.

When Alan and Nadia keep on dying and their world starts falling apart, they are forced to morally transform. Nadia finally makes peace with her past and abusive mother. Alan finally makes peace with his girlfriend, and shows genuine benevolence towards her in his final speech to her. The breakup is still painful, he does not want it, it is out of his control, but with his newly acquired virtues he is able to deal with it.

The scene where Nadia is finally transformed and walks out of the bathroom, she adopts the proper rituals (li) towards others and expresses benevolence. This transformation did not happen all at once. It is the result of a gradual process and can be seen in earlier episodes, for example, she guards the shoes of the homeless sage Horse at his shelter so they do not get stolen.

For the early Confucians, rituals are not empty, formulaic things where you go through the motions. They are to be done with sincerity and conviction of we are to transform bad habits, and help us to stand in good relationship with others. Amy Olberding likens li to dance, we use good manners to smoothe relationships with others much like we learn the appropriate dance steps

“etiquette rules aim at gracious and pleasing effect, as well as, most fundamentally, ensuring that one does not trod on the toes of others”

Nadia's use of good social etiquette, done with sincerity, is striking in her interactions with people when she leaves the bathroom in the final episode. In stark contrast to Episode 1 where she is rude and curt, she now greets the guests at her birthday party warmly. She hugs and high fives them. She also hugs her friend Maxine, thanks her for the party, and explains politely she needs to leave and find Alan, "I think our friendship can handle honesty". Maxine is not so gracious, however, and throws her drink into Nadia's face. But even then, Nadia shows restraint and makes light of the situation (though still asks "Why would you do that to me?"). She even looks left and right before crossing the street, an elementary form of li but a life-saver (as she dies being hit by a car in the first episode).

The contrast is striking as Nadia and Alan meet the uncultivated versions of the others, and need to prevent each others' deaths from happening. It's revealing to see that their methods of rescue are different. Nadia can help uncultivated Alan by simply being there for him when he contemplates suicide. But Nadia, still burdened by the guilt of her mother's death, is not receptive to Alan's many efforts, and he has to actually step in and physically save her from being hit by a car. This embodies yet another principle of Confucian philosophy, namely 智 (zhi), a kind of presence of mind, an ability to do the right thing in the right situation. This requires flexibility and discernment.

It's interesting to see these moral shows like Russian Doll and also recently The Good Place, which play with moral self-cultivation and purgatory (in the sense of a situation, not a pleasant one, where you morally improve).

Helen De Cruz

Written by

philosopher, associate professor

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