Drop Dead: Russian Doll Ethics
Leslye Headland’s Netflix escapade, Russian Doll, is a darkly surreal adventure in which the main protagonist(s) die over and over again. The plot unfolds as a narrative puzzle, spinning its web to ensnare its characters inside the day of their own deaths. They die only to be born again a few hours earlier. The characters are desperate to see if there is any way out of this frightening, recurrent death cycle. Spoiler: there is. While much fictional (and even non-fictional) art concerned with exploring death leans hard toward introspective solipsism, Russian Doll evokes a universe in which death is a communal activity. When one dies, all die, or so it seems. The show evokes a line from the Paulo Coelho novel, The Winner Stands Alone: “Whenever someone dies, a part of the universe dies too.” To watch the death of another while remaining emotionally indifferent, is akin to coolly sipping tea while your neighbor’s house is consumed by a sinkhole. This avoidance of solipsism is one vast difference between Russian Doll and its thematic cousin, Groundhog Day. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray never strays for beyond the concerns of his own personal life and well-being, whereas Russian Doll is the story of a human community. As one of the characters says in an early episode, “This is a communal experience, not a solo performance.”
In philosophy, most normative ethical theories are “solo performances” in which a single moral agent is the primary loci of concern. (1) This is particularly the case in Kantian ethical theory, also known as deontology. In deontology, I need not concern myself with the results of my action, rather I am concerned only with the quality of my desire. Kant argues that desire can be shaped and informed by rationality. Other moral agents have virtually no place in the ethical world of deontology, for other beings are well outside the scope of moral concern. Kant perfects the art of ethical solipsism. For Kant, each person is their own self-contained, rational, moral universe. Care ethics, on the other hand, is an ethical system developed largely in reaction to theories such as deontology. Care ethics views the human being as inherently communal, in relationship with other beings and dependent upon them for life’s most important goods. The conviction that one’s life is bound to others, and not just the “others” who we already know and love, but potentially bound to complete strangers, lands us in the moral world of care ethics.
Care ethics can be taken in two different senses, one of them descriptive and the other prescriptive. It is descriptive in the sense that most of us already do, in fact, care for some people, and do so deeply. We don’t need to “learn” to love our parents, our children, our best friends, etc. In this sense, care ethics describes something we already do, and do reasonably well. It is the other, prescriptive, side of care ethics with which philosophers are most concerned. In ethics, something that is prescriptive is aspirational. It paints a hypothetical picture of what we would do if we were to act morally. If we have an aspiration, by definition, we do not currently possess the thing toward which we aspire; we must learn how to do something we do not currently know how to do, or at least do not know how to do very well. Most ethical theory is prescriptive and aspirational. It describes how we would act if we were fully functional, healthy moral agents.
So, what exactly does care ethics prescribe? Care ethics is sometimes referred to as “response ethics” because there is an emphasis placed on the manner in which we respond to other people and to the world. Responsibilities and relationships are the framework to which a care ethicist will appeal. Whereas an ethical system like virtue ethics or deontology will place the single ethical agent at the center of the ethical interrogation, care ethics places relationships and connections at the center. There is a distinct inclusion of “the other” in any ethical endeavor I undertake. In this sense, there is little different between the “public world” and the “private world.” Whereas I need little convincing that my private world is very much a world of relationships, a care ethicist will urge us to understand that the public world is simply a reflection of the private world, the primary difference being that I don’t personally know many of the beings in my public world, but I am nevertheless connected to them, and therefore have obligations to them, and they to me.
The care ethicist is likely to frame morality in terms of “circles of care.” Just as I already have a small circle of people that I care about, the goal is slowly to expand this circle. First it might simply include my family and close friends, then perhaps my (literal) neighbors and then my whole neighborhood, even those people who live one street over that I might not even recognize were I to pass on the sidewalk. From caring about my neighborhood, I might even be able to go further to include my entire city, then my state and nation, and, yes, eventually even far beyond my nation. Part of the rationale for this ever-expanding circle of care is simply that I cannot rationally justify ceasing to care for others arbitrarily at any given point. Why should I only care about the neighbors who live on my street and not 4 streets over? Is one street the limit? Just as I could not conceive of making the boy who lives two houses away work a 15-hour day in order to make a cheap t-shirt for me to wear, perhaps I will think twice when I consider that the t-shirt I am about to purchase was made by just such a boy. One objection to care ethics is simply that it is not realistic to care about so many people. It is too much emotional work. However, as the philosopher David Hume reminds us, just because something is a certain way, does not mean it ought to be that way. (2) This distinction between is and ought is an important one in ethical theory.
Russian Doll is a study of what it means to begin expanding one’s circle of care. Initially the narrative appears to track the hellish night of a single person stuck in a cyclic reliving of her own death. However, the initial narrative solipsism of the show is an Act One fake-out. At the end of the third episode, we are introduced to the second lead character, and we slowly realize that Russian Doll is not the story of a single tortured woman, but rather about the relationship forged between two strangers, and the responsibilities they incur toward one another simply by inhabiting the same space at the same time. However, Russian Doll is not a love story (thankfully), rather, it is a “Care Story.” The protagonists discover that the only way to stop themselves from dying over and over, is to acknowledge the pain of the other and to take responsibility for helping the other, even if that other is a stranger. As Alan, one of our protagonists says in Episode 7, “The loops started because we didn’t help the other person.” And though they are strangers at the moment they are expected to help, they are infinitely responsible for one another. It is precisely this responsibility for the other that is built into the fabric of the Russian Doll universe.
The co-lead and co-creator of Russian Doll is the always fierce, always fabulous, Natasha Lyonne. She plays a character who is a video game designer and it turns out she has designed a game with a glitch, one that mirrors her life. She has inadvertently designed a game in which, “…a single character has to solve everything on their own.” Such a game can only end in repeated failure, no matter how far the player advances. It’s a “stupid” design, she is told. The possibility of patching the game, of ending the cycle of repeated deaths in which both protagonists are stuck, depends upon their ability to care for one another. Failure to care is what is killing them, literally, over and over, but they are able to devise a path out of this daily, recurrent, death. Here the show skillfully distinguishes between “caring” as a value and “taking care” as an action. The characters are able to practice the latter as a means of growing the former. We might not be able to just make ourselves care for others on demand, especially strangers, but fortunately we don’t need to. The show makes an argument that when we act “as if” we care, ultimately, we actually will care. This is a good thing, because whether we like it or not, the quality of our care determines the quality of our life.
Only by caring for others can we become fully human, which is to say, caring allows us to become ourselves. The most oft repeated line in Russian Doll are the words, “Sweet birthday baby.” We hear it multiple times in every episode and, indeed, the show is as much about birth as it is death. The relationship between birth and death is absolute. The presence of one ensures the presence of the other. The most basic of all human certainties is that we are born and, having been born, we must surely die. However, the realization of our death need not isolate us from the world. On the contrary, death binds us to the world. Death is the single thing we can be certain we have in common with every other being in existence. Russian Doll is an exploration of the absolute nature of our relationship to others forged by our own mortality. It doesn’t matter whether or not we wish to be entangled with other humans, we simply are. It’s a brute fact of existence. We can no more evade human relationship than we can undo our birth or avoid our death. And if relationship to others is a “brute fact,” then caring and being cared for, become the ultimate human virtues. Care is the value toward which we must aspire. As Nadia advises Alan, “From what I gather, we are in this together.”
(1) A “normative ethical theory” is simply an ethical theory guiding moral action. Philosophers make a distinction between normative theories and applied theories. A normative theory is what you read on the page, whereas an applied theory is how that theory looks when practiced.
(2) This is commonly referred to as the “is/ought fallacy.” How something currently is has little bearing on how it ought to be and to argue otherwise is considered a fallacy.