“I’m deeply cracked from a combination of Talmud and LSD,” says Natasha Lyonne, flicking a cigarette in her hand from the couch of her Los Angeles home, where she’s been chatting by Zoom for over an hour. She is attempting to explain the underpinnings of her show Russian Doll, a metaphysical mindfuck she writes, produces, and stars in, whose second season recently dropped on Netflix. Based on a character Lyonne had long imagined — essentially a hard-partying, alternate-reality version of herself named Nadia — the series explores the nature of life and death, goodness and regret, of memory, ghosts, family, and the New York City she loves. It is both extremely personal and universal. And also, because it’s Lyonne, it’s fucking hilarious.
Without Lyonne’s vast swath of experiences — an intense early education at a Jewish yeshiva, where she learned about the Torah and the Talmud; time as an East Village junkie, seeing how much of that education she could forget — she probably wouldn’t have had the range for, or the interest in, building such an intricate, multi-planed universe. In fact, it was in rehab that she became deeply interested in the metaphysical aspects of existence. “The thing that was most challenging for me, getting clean, is that you’re supposed to rearrange your relationship to earthly things, so that you’re not constantly being like, ‘Oh, let me go smoke dope,’ ” she says. “Where a lot of people find comfort in church, I started reading a lot of science books, and finding comfort there.” She devoured Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. “It just made me walk into the world differently and think about all the things that I didn’t know, which felt very grounding.”
In Russian Doll, Lyonne revisits these themes with the help of a very qualified writers room (“these fucking brilliant women, just fucking Ivy League geniuses”), creating a show that questions not only the world but also our place within it. If Season One was largely based on the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, the time travel that defines the new episodes comes from physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. “It’s really smacking wide open this idea of ‘What if the nature of time is not as we experience it?’ ” Lyonne explains. “It’s just fun as hell.”
With all her accumulated expertise, we asked Lyonne to drop some knowledge on building the show’s world — and understanding ours.
How Time Travel Works (or Doesn’t)
It’s really just asking the question of “What is this thing that I would go and change? What is that butterfly-effect event that I’m looking for?” We [in the writers room] thought a lot about, what would the rules be? Is it just a “kill Hitler” season? And it’s like, well, of course, we all want to kill Hitler. But assuming we could make that machine, would you actually be able to do things like that? Nadia’s not actually the center of the universe, she’s just another bozo on the bus. For her and [fellow time looper] Alan, it really feels like the most you want to have them be able to do is handle their own case in a way, or at least try and fail to handle their own case but come away with a deeper understanding of what it is to be alive on the other side, having walked through that epigenetic footprint that was mapped onto them in a way where now they see their own trip differently, so that they can possibly be set up to enjoy the ride. It is pretty philosophical — therapeutic by way of quantum physics and high concept and multiverse, and time travel, and death loops and all these things.
Addressing the Big Questions
“How do we know we exist?” I think the bigger question is “Does it matter if we don’t?” That sort of speaks to [the idea of us living in a] multiverse simulation as well, which is where, as a storyteller, I philosophically deviate from something that truly ends in magic. Because in a way it doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter if the concept of karma is not real. Does it not seem that it would still be a life better lived to do unto others [as they would do to you]? Is it not helpful to think that it’s better to not be a total fucking piece of shit in your daily dealings, and expect to have a lovely life and people that care about you? Probably wise to show up with some empathy in a life, even if life has no meaning. Even if none of this is anything, we’ve still got to go through it.
Essentially, I guess the questions that I’m always talking to my friends about, or in the books or movies that I’m curious about, are what is the game? And do we have the game all wrong? And why does it cause us suffering? And it’s, of course, because we live in this material world — I don’t mean financial; I mean, we actually are of this world. Whether we can see past it or beyond it or whatever doesn’t change the fact that we all have bills, and relationships, parents, and we’ve got these weird bodies that we carry around and stuff. So there is no idea that actually will take you past all those things in the day [you’re] in. So, I think it’s a show that wants to pose those big questions without getting into full magic. Because if [the characters] stay in their lives, hopefully altered in some tangible way that they can actually do something with them, that’s not full magic, you know?
More Than Soup for the Soul
I’m 42. I don’t know if exercising is really going to make much impact on my vibe. I’m just big hair and sunglasses. It’s not [like] I’m running marathons or something, I’m doing low-level calisthenics. [But] not doing that for a solid week, it makes my body feel rickety. And if I just stand up and do these stretches and a little fucking jog or whatever, I’m going to have a better night’s sleep and wake up the next day and be like, “Guess whose pants fit?”
I think that the condition of one’s soul is not dissimilar. The less I treat that thing and the more I say, “Do I even exist?” . . . [If I’m like,] “Well, fuck it, I’m not participating at all, fuck this whole thing they call life,” I still have to be alive and have an experience that is increasingly disconnected and dejected and nihilistic. And I might feel really cool doing it — like, “Boy, is this a tough aesthetic” — but ultimately, in my experience, somewhat sadder and [more] lonely for it. At the age I am, I don’t find that aesthetic to be quite so hip as I used to anymore.
“Probably wise to show up with some empathy in a life, even if life has no meaning. Even if none of this is anything, we’ve still got to go through it.”
Evidence There’s a Metaverse
Maybe I come at all of this from more of a spiritual level. In my experience, if I’m in a really shady mood, I come out of the house, I’m in a rush, and I go to hail a taxi, and it’s raining, and there’s no taxis there; and now I’m walking in the middle of the street, turned backwards to traffic, just looking for taxis, and I’m getting poured on; and I pull out my phone, and I try to click on Uber, but the account just doesn’t work; I ordered the car, but it didn’t even come, and so now I’m on my way to the subway; but there’s fucking yellow tape there for some reason, that [entrance] is closed, [so I have to] walk three blocks over here. Now, I may as well just walk the full distance. I don’t know what happened, but it’s officially a shitty fucking day. Another day, I just walk outside. Everything’s there, I’m making the deli guy laugh while I’m ordering my coffee. I walk out the deli, boom, there’s a taxi. I actually get [to where I’m going] a little bit early, and something funny happens outside the building right before I walk in. I don’t know what that is, but I do think that it’s curious. It seems like at any moment there’s multiple universes you can tap into and that’s going to shift how your day goes.
String Theory Explained, Sort Of
It’s possible that we’re just not seeing things correctly, and that our entire sense of the history of the universe is incorrect. I think that [string theory] really is, essentially, opening up a possibility that the world as we know it is not quite so limited. From there, it becomes a question of what we can do with all that information, what it’s going to mean for the future of existence as we know it. There’s a lot of questions now about building quantum computers and stuff, which would be a measure of fallout. I mean, I’m ultimately the wrong person to be asking about these things. You’d be better off asking scientists.
On Where We Go When We Die
I’m some schnook from the block or whatever, but I’m collaborating with people who can really wrap themselves around these concepts more tangibly. Do you have to fucking sit with some angel of death and play chess? Is it [like] Albert Brooks [in Defending Your Life] and you’re going to be looking down at your fucking mistakes? Do you have to run into your fucking parents in the afterlife? I am genuinely spooked by a lot of these concepts, so I’m just curious to go swimming around in them and see what’s what.