Russian Doll — Make Your Characters Contrast
The concept for Netflix’s mindbending dark comedy, Russian Doll, is a simple one: a woman is forced to die and relive the night of her 36th birthday party in a seemingly endless cycle. The concept is great. It has a clear goal attached to a clear conflict, a sense of dread and, in some aspects, hints of humor. At the same time, it’s not what one might expect from a TV show. A concern quickly forms: how can you repeat the same problem every episode and keep the show interesting?
It’s a fair concern. I mean, it’s hard enough to keep a series with evolving circumstances interesting- how can you possibly maintain intrigue in a series where you have one character dealing with one problem in one setting? When considering it from this lens, this concept would likely better suit a movie, with it’s closest parallel being Groundhog Day. So now, the creators have a problem: how can they justify making this contained, movie-centered premise into a television series?
You need to have a character like Alan Zaveri.
We don’t officially meet Alan until Episode 4- halfway through the show. Until then, he’s literally a background character, one which you can only spot in a few scenes. So how does this seemingly insignificant figure become the crux of this show’s later episodes?
Well, through a couple of reasons, those being…
REASON 1: A Soundboard
The clearest reason for Alan’s inclusion is a rather simple one- Nadia needs someone to talk to. Though it’s entertaining to see her parade through scenes in which no one can understand her predicament, it becomes hard to gain any sort of narrative momentum. Moreso, this puts the entire pressure of the show on her as a singular character. To relieve this pressure and give her someone to converse with in a more natural form, the writers introduce Alan. He effectively serves as the narrative role of the ally in this sense, working towards a shared goal alongside the central character and thereby allowing them to voice their concerns, desires, etc. Without Alan, it would be incredibly hard to decipher what’s going on in Nadia’s mind- no character can truly exist for long without others to interact with.
REASON 2: A Fresh Perspective
Both Alan and Nadia face the problem of being stuck in a death-loop, yet their perspectives regarding this problem differ greatly. Up until we meet Alan, Nadia believes the death-loop is a simple “glitch in the system”. She thinks it’s the universe making some sort of mistake, and so all her solutions are built around investigating the world, rather than herself. This is sharply contrasted by Alan, who sees the death-loop as some sort of karmic punishment. Naturally, all of his solutions are built around moral explanations rather than scientific explanations. By giving Alan a separate perspective from Nadia, the writers effectively guarantee a number of existential debates between the two that naturally expand the possible explanations for the death-loop.
Because the characters have different ideas on what the problem is, they have different ideas on how to solve it. Nadia thinks that they can fix everything by thoroughly investigating their world, finding what links her and Alan, etc. Alan thinks they should seek out ways to atone for their mistakes, effectively forcing the ever-guarded Nadia to allow for vulnerability. Through this conflict, a variety of scenes are created in which a strong thematic and emotional dialogue is created.
REASON 3: A Unique Arc
One of the smartest things about Alan’s character is how, in many ways, he’s the entire opposite of Nadia. Early on, we see Nadia as independent to a near-toxic degree. She has barely any attachments to anybody, seems uncaring about who she hurts with her actions, and effectively travels through the world with reckless abandon. Alan, on the other hand, is hyper-cautious about every action he takes. He’s horribly co-dependent, puts the majority of his self-worth into the opinions of those around him, and generally believes there’s a distinct cause-and-effect structure which the universe abides by. Thus, both are forced to arc in different directions through the series by working together. Nadia must learn how to work with Alan and, in doing so, create a genuine human connection with someone beyond herself. Alan, similarly, must develop the ability to think for himself and accept a life imbued with elements of uncertainty and loneliness.
By linking these characters together in this thematic form, we get the incredibly satisfying finale in which both characters successfully completing their arcs. Such catharsis could only be achieved by giving Nadia and Alan their arcs which, though different in emotion, are intrinsically dependent on each other.
Without the inclusion of Alan’s character, I’m sure Russian Doll would still be a good show, but by having Alan involved, a variety of opportunities for conflict and conversation are offered to the show’s creators. By having a character who shares the same goal as the protagonist while maintaining a different perspective, attitude, and arc in relation to the goal, the show practically doubles it’s potential while maintaining it’s thematic integrity.