This post discusses the plots of Russian Doll, Maniac, and The Good Place.
I, like so many others, watched Russian Doll and loved it. Then I watched it again. And again. On the third watch, I wasn’t most surprised by the Easter eggs or inside jokes or hints at time’s relativity. Instead, I was charmed by smaller things, like the exchange in the finale when Alan (Charlie Barnett) asks his friend Farhan (Ritesh Rajan) if he knows where Nadia is. Farhan expresses his surprise that they know each other, to which Alan sheepishly replies, “It’s not like that. Well, just once, but it was casual, you know?” Farhan doesn’t react to this until Alan mentions Nadia’s cat. Then he says, “You really do know Nadia! Wow, this is so out of character for you! You’re like James Bond! Should I call you James Bond?” “What? No,” says Alan, in horror. “I’m not James Bond. I’m Alan.”
It’s a funny, spontaneous exchange that still preserves Alan’s slightly stodgy characterization. The scene sticks out because the viewer rarely sees Alan do anything but wait to see what happens next. He is content with dying over and over without trying to alter his circumstances, until Nadia appears alongside him and tells him she’s repeatedly dying, too. No wonder she changes him—if Alan is order incarnate, Nadia is the epitome of chaos. She barges into his life like she’s Jack Nicholson and he’s Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give. Like Nicholson, Nadia is raspy-voiced and has a knack for terribly unhealthy decisions; like Keaton, Alan’s a shy overthinker who keeps his feelings under a very tight lid. (He’s even got the pristine kitchen to match.)
Similar bonds form between Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill) in Maniac, and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Eleanor (Kristen Bell) in The Good Place. Like Alan, Owen and Chidi are orderly, in their own ways: Owen does what his family tells him, and Chidi is straitjacketed by his morals. All three male leads across these shows struggle with their mental health: In Maniac, Owen is diagnosed with schizophrenia, while Alan seems to have depression, Chidi anxiety. Annie and Eleanor, like Nadia, indulge in their vices as a way to deal with their respective traumas (survivor’s remorse, narcissistic parenting, and what I’d characterize as complex PTSD).
All the shows reference therapy in some way or another, and characters are forced to deal with exactly the kind of painful patterns one is expected to discuss in session. But just referencing therapy and calling it a day elides the many moving parts that exist around it. Yes, the therapeutic relationship can do wonders to one’s sense of self, but these three shows point out that friendships and romantic relationships, while no replacement for therapy itself, can be just as empowering.
Each member of these pairs is initially isolated in their self-absorption. Alan can’t admit his soon-to-be-former girlfriend, Beatrice (Dascha Polanco), is in pain, even as he leans further and further into her to make up for the hollowness he feels. Nadia doesn’t acknowledge her friends’ frustration with her, or how often she puts herself (and her heart) in danger. Owen thinks that his family and his schizophrenia will keep him from ever being happy, while the only companion Annie lets in is her sister’s memory. Eleanor refuses to see not just the pain and frustration of the people around her but also her own. Chidi does realize, on some level, that everyone hates moral philosophy professors, but his worries are so compulsive that they push away the people around him. Even when he notices this, he can’t stop. It’s only when these characters are forced to rely on someone else for their survival that they pay attention to the world around them.
In Russian Doll, Nadia’s adoptive mother figure, Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), talks about her work as a therapist as being a useful mirror against a common problem: We’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives. This convinces Alan that maybe, just maybe, therapy is worth it, in direct contrast to an earlier scene with Farhan, who urges Alan go to therapy by saying it worked for him and his girlfriend. Alan dismisses this: “I can do this by myself,” he says stubbornly. “No one can do anything by themselves,” say Farhan. The crux of shows like Russian Doll, Maniac, and The Good Place is that in order to help others, we have to get right with ourselves. In order to get right with ourselves, we have to see outside ourselves—and in order to do that, we need other people. Our survival depends on it.
A crucial moment comes in Russian Doll after Nadia kicks Alan out for touching her things while he tells her they need each other: They both realize there are no mirrors in their worlds anymore. By turning away from each other, they lose their literal mirrors, so they have to turn to their metaphorical mirrors: each other. (This is also a notable moment because Nadia actually apologizes to Alan, which might be the first time she apologizes to anyone in the series.) There’s a similar pivotal moment in Maniac, when Owen searches for Annie in her therapy-like sequences in order to warn her off the possessiveness of the depressed computer GRTA (Sally Field), even turning into a falcon to find her. When they appear in a therapeutic sequence again, it’s Owen’s schizophrenic vision that reminds them of who they really are. And in The Good Place, Eleanor’s sense of self starts to break down in Janet’s void when Chidi attempts to deny his feelings for her, forcing his hand. It’s when he kisses her (and acknowledges the intimacy between them) that they both become themselves again.
Despite the deep connections they later establish, the characters start out as total strangers. As Nadia tells Alan, they only live a few blocks away from each other, yet had never before met, and probably wouldn’t have, had it not been for the strange, surreal circumstances they now find themselves in. That’s what makes the pairings so fascinating: Who are these people to each other? Owen’s family pushes him into Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech’s experimental trial family, while Annie sneaks in; a connection is created between them when a vision of Owen’s brother persuades him to help Annie stay in the study. In the Bad Place, Eleanor demands Chidi help her after she makes him promise not to tell on her.
These three pairs act as mirrors to one another. Similar to therapists, they come into one another’s lives with totally different perspectives, the kind they’d never find in their everyday lives. Their unique friendships are not unlike internet friends, or even long-term or long-distance friends who you mostly interact with over the phone or online. These friends are perfectly placed to have an outside perspective of both you and your life. Because Farhan is regularly in the shit with Alan, and Maxine and Lizzy are with Nadia, it makes both Alan and Nadia more likely to ignore their friends’ pleas to take care of themselves.
In Russian Doll, it’s clear romantic relationships get in the characters’ ways. Alan uses Beatrice to give him purpose, using her to prop up his broken sense of self. Nadia has John (Yul Vazquez), whom she runs into at her birthday party six months after breaking up with him. At first, John seems to be a lifeboat in a sea of weirdness for Nadia, but soon it becomes clear how little he sees the real her, or rather how he only sees Nadia in how she reflects his narcissism and fear of being alone. For Annie and Owen, the peculiar fact of their therapeutic dreams being intertwined means that they end up in scenarios where they act as romantic partners, even though the characters seem to have no interest in a romance in reality. Annie is struck by how Owen’s character in her dream is a partner that feels like “someone you have known since you were in 7th grade”—which is to say, someone she can trust. (It’s also the one time she cracks a genuine smile in the series.) Meanwhile, Owen is obsessed with women in his past and present who he can’t seem to have. But his dreams help him realize that life with them would not be super-happy alternatives to his extremely lonely reality.
Then we have the only romantic pair in the bunch, Eleanor and Chidi—who need to fall in love because it’s important for their development. (While Nadia and Alan do sleep together, romance does not need to flourish for these two particular characters to be important to each other.) Chidi has to choose his love of Eleanor, which he does because he knows his not making a choice would hurt her considerably, while Eleanor has to become comfortable with being vulnerable, including trusting in someone who cares for her the way no one in her life ever has. This is also why Chidi forgetting her at the end of the show’s third season is so poignant—she is suffering the consequences of being vulnerable (losing someone), something she tried to avoid her whole existence. Since there are only four humans who have to rely on one another in The Good Place, making Chidi and Eleanor’s relationship romantic distinguishes their intimacy from that of the other humans (and Michael and Janet) in the group.
Fortified by these relationships, these characters also grow independently. Alan is honest with Beatrice, and Nadia lets her mother go in order to get free. Owen and Annie separate and achieve their breakthroughs on their own: For Annie, it means letting go of her sister. For Owen, it’s making peace with the schizophrenic vision of his brother, and letting the vision guide him as he saves the other people in the study from GRTA. Maybe love won’t save him, but knowing other people are relying on him might. As anyone who’s told someone they have feelings for them, it’s something Eleanor and Chidi each had to decide to do on their own. It’s about “what we owe to each other,” as Chidi says. What these shows suggest is that we owe each other to take care of ourselves, so we can recognize our ability to help others. That means breaking through one’s knee-jerk self-absorption with the help of someone you trust, and seeing how you can love and care for the people around you in a way that empowers you both.
If Alan learns to be spontaneous over the course of Russian Doll, Nadia learns patience. She stays with Alan all through his night so he doesn’t hurt himself. When they meet on his roof, he asks if she can promise him he’ll be happy if he doesn’t jump. “No, man! No way,” she says. “But I can promise you won’t be alone.” That’s good enough for him—and in some ways, it’s the best thing we’ve got.