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Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll.
Netflix

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Unpacking the video game twists of Russian Doll with co-creator Leslye Headland

The Netflix series is here ‘to entertain you, and push you a little off balance’

Turn back if you haven’t yet dug into Netflix’s Russian Doll. Carefully constructed like, well, a Russian doll, the layers merit being unshelled at their own pace.

All is not well in Russian Doll. Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) keeps dying, and each time she does, she resets to the same moment on the night of her 36th birthday. As she relives the same stretch of time over and over again — and dies in different ways — the shifting nature of the reality she’s found herself in becomes apparent.

[Ed. note: We’re getting spoilery from here on out!]

By the end of the season, Nadia has reached a temporary sense of resolution. However, mysteries still abound, as clarity with regards to old traumas and moving on is the priority rather than clarity of “the rules.” But to get a little more clarity from an audience perspective, Polygon spoke with Leslye Headland — who juggled the hats of writer, producer, and director on the series — about bringing Nadia’s world to life, as well as whether or not that reference to Rockstar Games is incidental.

Polygon: I read that Natasha initially brought you the idea for the show. What was that initial conversation like, and how much did she have already?

Leslye Headland: I remember that she and Amy had been working together on some form of a show about a woman that was at a party, and we were watching the party, and there was this restarting thing with it as well. With Amy, I remember talking so much about how we have infinite choices and yet our coding or our makeup or our psychology dictates our choices at the same time. I remember Natasha talking about the All That Jazz aspect of re-looking at your life and your choices, like from a hospital bed, seeing your life choices flash before your eyes in a very kind of magical realism way as opposed to a pure trauma, much more like you’re laughing because it’s so crazy.

To be honest, we’ve been working on it for so long that I don’t remember exactly how much was in place at that point, because after that, Natasha and I started essentially having a mini writer’s room between her and myself, and of course Amy. Whenever we were in town with her, we would go and have dinner. I remember there was one moment before we pitched Netflix where it was like, “Great, so now we just need to make decisions.” We know the repeating behavior of the show, we kind of understand this protagonist and what her wants or needs are.

Natasha, I think, nails it when she says “an existential adventure show.” That’s the kind of thing that she wants to delve into and call it, so now we’ve got to sit down and make these decisions, and start coming up with rules. What are the rules that keep this story afloat and keep this environment intact? That was kind of the shortened version of it. I was looking through my emails, I think for the premiere to find tickets or something, and I found an email from Amy that was from early 2016 that was like, “Hey guys, here are our notes on whatever.” I was like, “Oh, right, this has been going on for so long, and longer for Amy and Natasha.”

Charlie Barnett as Alan, and Lyonne, both stuck in the same cycle.
Netflix

Did you all have any difficulty in figuring out how the recursive time works?

Oh my God, that’s an understatement. It wasn’t difficult because there are shows like this, or movies like this — meaning, I’m a big fan of mystery box shows, I’m a big fan of noirs, which is a big genre that inspired us at the beginning. Natasha, I remember saying early on, “Where’s the female Long Goodbye? Where’s the female character that is existentially trying to solve this problem?”

The hard thing was cracking the why and the who, and then the how was the thing that we had to really learn on the go. As you’re writing these things, it’s like, “Okay, but does that mean that if, at 9 p.m. every day, does that mean that if she doesn’t make this choice, does that mean at 9 p.m. this thing always happens no matter what?” We really did go through each time loop and map out everything single thing that happened. Especially once we introduced other characters that were going through a similar experience, that’s when we mapped those characters as well and we were like, “This is where this character is.” Natasha just made this joke in another interview, so I don’t want to reuse it, but it was so funny. She was like, “What’s that movie where Benedict Cumberbatch invents math?” It was like that.

Was there ever discussion about having more than one other character who’s experiencing time like this?

Yes, I think so. That actually may have come after we sold the show. Alan was always a character and he was a very integral character to her journey, but I think he changed a little bit once we started dissecting how we were going to stick the landing of this thematic, emotional ending. What’s the magical realism or the device with which we can stick that landing? It started to be about human connection, and connection with others, so on and so forth.

Natasha said something about Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman; the question was always an existential, spiritual, or emotional question, and the device was just a thing that helped you answer that. To me, it’s not really reliving the same night, especially once you’ve watched the whole thing. It’s more about a woman that’s unable to move to the next level. It’s much more of a video game analogy than it is like a Groundhog Day or Happy Death Day. I mean, I totally understand the comparisons because I remember watching the trailer for Happy Death Day, and being like, “Oh shit! We just sold this show to Netflix.” To me, the analogy is a little bit more like, “What if life treated you way that a video game treats you, which is that you can’t move forward until you accomplish this thing, and you’re just not allowed to until you accomplish this thing?”

And so to me, because that was answering an existential, emotional question, a lot of the other technical aspects of what was happening in each time loop, what was being taken away, what was rotting, what wasn’t, how many people were missing each time, pieces of furniture that would go like — all of that was basically informed by what was going on with our lead characters that were stuck in this situation.

Barnett and Lyonne playing video games.
Netflix

With regards to the video game analogy, was Nadia being a game designer always baked into the story?

I think it may have been in the pitch, and if not, it came very quickly after the pitch. I think the only reason we may have not been completely on board with it was because we just didn’t want it to feel too, like, was it going to help or hurt kind of thing. That’s the kind of thing I think you don’t know until you start writing the scripts. You’re like, “Oh, no, this is working, actually. Her knowledge in that is helping us.”

Everyone has such a different interpretation of the show, which is so good, and as it absolutely should be. I remember getting the question from somebody, whether it was one of the writers or an exec or something, that was like, “Why is Ruth a therapist?” And I was like, “I don’t know, but it feels important.” And then one of the women that was interviewing me was like, “I felt like the show was the closest thing, narratively, to what it’s like to go through therapy.” Not that it was a therapeutic show, but that it illustrated what the process of therapy is. And I was like, “Oh, thank God we made her a therapist.”

You just make these gut instinct choices, and they aren’t really intellectualized until later, kind of that Kierkegaard, “It can only be lived forward but understood backward.” A lot of time, at least with the stuff that I work on, later I’m like, “Oh, that’s why we made that choice,” but at the time, it’s really coming from a gut place or feeling.

Are there any other big revelations that have hit you about the show?

That was the one that I thought was the most inventive, meaning I was like, “That is so true.” But it’s not something that we necessarily— it was something we talked about so often. When I saw Maniac, I was like, “Oh gosh, there are so many similar things that we had talked about insofar as what the future of processing your experience is in a world where essentially everything is designed to distract you from your experience.”

Somebody was asking me, “Is there like a moral?” And I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no. No. I don’t believe in morals. That is not my place as a human.” But I do think that as storytellers, when you tell a journey like the one that Nadia goes through, the best thing that can happen is that the viewer extrapolates their own meaning. I’m a little bit more of a “death of the author” type person. I can tell you what I think, but it kind of doesn’t matter what I think. I can tell you why I think the deaths happen the way that they do, I can tell you why I think they’re happening, I can tell you that there was a lot of logic and thought put behind how things reveal themselves and so on and so forth throughout the journey. But then I’m also like, it’s kinda up to you insofar as what that means.

My goal is always just to entertain you, and push you a little off balance so that you are laughing, and then you feel a little uncomfortable, and then maybe you’re crying a little bit, and then when it’s over, it gives you a little bit more of a pause when you’re interacting with the themes or the conflicts or the circumstances that the art was highlighting. Sleeping With Other People, for example, with a rom-com, maybe before you swipe left or right, you’re thinking about something a little bit different than you did before you saw the movie. Maybe you’re seeing that affair that you’re having with a married guy in a different way than you were before, or whatever it might be.

I definitely feel like I don’t have a moral ever in mind when I’m making something, but I definitely think that it’s worth trying to have your audience pleasantly off-kilter so that they can make their own decisions about how they’re going to live moving forward, or the decisions that they’re going to make, or even just the way that they see female characters or the female experience.

Lyonne, in a bit of a tough spot.
Netflix

I was curious about the final scene of the show, with the parade. Is there a particular significance to that being the way that the first season closes?

I would say that everyone that worked on the show, including Amy and Natasha, could answer this question completely differently. We definitely weren’t like, “Okay, this is what it means, let’s go, action.” It’s just that as soon as it was pitched, and I think it was Natasha that pitched it, we all were just like, “Yeah, that’s exactly how it should end. That’s exactly how it should end.” And I think, for me personally, what I loved about it was I love when Fellini’s films end that way, like in where they’re all at the carnival, or La Dolce Vita when they all walk into the woods.

It reminds me a little bit of theatre, which is where I come from and what my major was in college and how I started writing. It reminds me of almost a curtain call, in the sense of it’s kind of going like, “Hey, this was a thing we made!” We’re not necessarily trying to totally break the fourth wall, but kind of going, “Let’s celebrate the fact that it’s over now!” And acknowledge that there kind of is no end. This has to end because that’s the nature of the medium it’s in, but there’s kind of also no ending. So when those two Nadias go by her at the end, hopefully you, again, get that feeling of completion and narrative satisfaction. But then also that kind of question mark of, “Is it ever really the end? Do these things ever really stop?”

At the end of the season, we’re not like, “And now they’re immortal!” I’m assuming those characters will die. Did they stop the loop, or were their minds just expanded a little bit more, and so now because they understand a little bit of what multidimensionality is, and the fact that we don’t have just one reality, does that mean anything to them? Does it not? Because one side of the duo is enlightened and the other one isn’t, does that mean they’re destined for failure or does that mean they can come to the same kind of working together? The possibilities are endless.

That’s my answer to it, but I can guarantee you, if you were speaking to Amy or Natasha, they would have their own version of what that meant. It’s just that, again, there was that gut feeling of, “Yeah, that’s the ending.”

There’s chatter about a second season, and I don’t know if you necessarily already have the plans, but I wanted to ask what the idea for it was because it seems like the first season is such a perfect unit.

That was always our goal actually, was that the first season felt very complete. We pitched it as a three-season arc. I mean, I wouldn’t say a three-season arc; we pitched the show with three seasons when we pitched it to Netflix. That being said, the first season was always supposed to feel like what you just said. That was always the intention, even though of course things changed along the way, and the rules of it changed and some of the characters changed and morphed into other things.

Ultimately, that was always the point, was that it would feel like a complete whole, and then in the second season this thing happens, and in the third season this thing happens. I unfortunately cannot tell you any of those things, and that’s not to be cagey, but I do have two other brilliant collaborators that I work with, and of course would not want to speak out of turn. That’ll just be up to Netflix and the viewers, and Amy and Natasha and whatever happens next.

Lyonne and Brendan Sexton III.
Netflix

Was there ever more significance to the character of Horse? The series opens with Nadia saying that she finds him familiar, and then he’s present at the end as well.

Yes. I always thought— and again, this is my personal interpretation. It’s just so funny to talk about it, and I hope I don’t sound too hippy-dippy, but it’s truthfully this thing where whenever we talked about Horse — and Horse was a character that Natasha pitched and Natasha really brought to life and kind of molded out of clay — but to me, Horse was always the moon tarot card to her tarot reader. He’s the subconscious self. He’s this other part of her that she can dip into at any time and join at any time, and he’s both dangerous and a positive, kind of protective character. But he’s neither creation nor destruction.

If Alan is her double within the timelines, I feel like Horse is almost a subconscious or unconscious manifestation. I think, if I am remembering correctly, you never see Horse during the daytime. I think you see him waking up at that place where he’s sleeping, where she’s watching his shoes, so you see him like within the real world, but to me, he always felt like Nadia’s vampire self. But again, that’s just me. Who the fuck knows what else anybody else thinks. But whenever I was tasked with writing him or when we were pitching Horse storylines, I was like, “To me, Horse is the god Pan. He lives in the woods in Tompkins Square Park, and he is all of our unconscious or subconscious selves. We can dip in and visit Horse whenever we want.”

To circle back to Nadia, is her company’s name, Rock and Roll Games, a conscious reference to Rockstar Games? Or was that just kind of incidental?

Totally a reference to Rockstar Games. Hope they don’t sue me. I fucking love Rockstar. I love Bethesda. I’m a huge gamer. I love playing video games. I actually know Polygon; I think I’ve been on there to cheat some walkthroughs back in the day. But yeah, no, I love video games. I just finished Red Dead Redemption 2, I love the Fallout series. I’m really enjoying Fallout 76. I know it’s getting some shit, but I’m really enjoying it. I love Detroit: Become Human, Heavy Rain. And then, of course, any of those campaign games, like God of War or Uncharted, they’re super fun. I really enjoy them.

I think Kumail Nanjiani made the funniest joke about video games, which is that it’s the only medium that’s gotten better with technology. Because of technology, the storytelling medium has actually gotten so much better as a result of that. But yeah, I was like, “What sounds like Rockstar Games? What sounds like some bullshit titles?” I was shocked that cleared. I was like, “Oh God, please don’t take me down.”

One last question: In previous interviews about you’ve talked about how heavily music factors into your plays and your work, so — how did you settle on the Harry Nilsson song for this one?

Oh man, I do not remember whose idea that was. It must have been Natasha. Natasha must have at least been talking about Harry Nilsson, because from day one in the pilot, it was like, “‘Gotta Get Up’ by Harry Nilsson.” It must’ve been Natasha, though. I love Harry Nilsson as well and have a deep personal connection to that song, but Natasha, especially, just coming from her background with music and how much she knew about him and loved him, either she pitched that song or I put that song in as like, “I love you.” I don’t remember who came up with it first, but once we decided on it, it was always that song. I have listened to that song a thousand times. It’s absolutely wonderful.

From a directorial standpoint, I think Natasha always had faith in it and always was like, “This is the song that’s going to be there.” I think, of course, there was a part of me that went like, “This has got to be a song that doesn’t get on your nerves.” So I was a little worried about it, but once we got into the edit, Natasha and I were both like, “Oh my God, it’s perfect. It’s the best song ever.” I think it’s a testament to fucking Nilsson. Even his upbeat song is kind of scary and upsetting, which is I’m sure why Natasha probably picked it in the first place. It’s got to really have that feeling of authenticity to the tone of the show, but also what’s going to feel like a party. What’s going to be like Nadia, you know? I definitely was like, “Well, we’re probably going to have to replace it, it’s probably too expensive. It’s going to get annoying.” But she saw it all the way through to the end and was like, “We’re getting this no matter what.” And we did.

Russian Doll is streaming on Netflix now.