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RUSSIAN DOLL and Non-Diegetic Storytelling

  🕰️ Time is on my side, yes it is...

The second season of Netflix's Russian Doll is dropping next week. If you didn't watch the first season, it tells the story of Nadia, an NYC programmer who is struck by a car after her birthday party and finds herself stuck in a time loop. It's a darkly funny drama about helping others and forgiving yourself, and it had the kind of conclusion that prompts inane "The ending of ______ explained" think-pieces and YouTube videos. Similar to Encanto, this is a show where the thematic elements bleed into the literal narrative, and re-watching the first season has had me thinking about the ways that works.

So, with that in mind, let's talk about non-diegetic storytelling.


Let's do some vocabulary work. Diegesis is the world of the story. It's what characters are aware of and interacting with. You frequently hear this term in the context of music. Diegetic music is music that the characters can hear, whereas non-diegetic music is going to be the score and the needle-drops that are there purely for the audience. But the concept extends to the entire narrative. Diegetic elements will include the plot, the world, the characters. Non-diegetic elements will be those things that are abstracted away from the literal narrative, things like theme, world-building, and character arc--and even elements that are a function of the format like camera angle, shot composition, and title cards for movies or chapter headings, epigraphs, and scene breaks for books.

And here's a storytelling secret for you. Non-diegetic elements always, always, take precedence over diegetic ones. Theme always outweighs plot. A story beat that is thematically resonant will work for the audience, even if it's incoherent from a plot standpoint. I'll give you a couple of examples. Consider the movie Ghost. It establishes the rules of its world very clearly: ghosts can walk through walls and doors but don't have a problem with floors; no one can see ghosts except other ghosts; no one can hear ghosts except other ghosts or a psychic. So in the last two minutes, when the titular ghost has concluded his character journey, he becomes visible and audible to everyone in the room. The rules of the world get thrown out the window without explanation, and it doesn't matter because from a thematic perspective, this is a way to give our characters a sense of closure. Or consider the movie Groundhog Day (speaking of time loops). There is never an in-world explanation for why Phil is trapped in the same day over and over. And there's never any explanation for how he gets out, other than that he had completed his arc and become a good person. It was thematically appropriate, so it was the right choice, even if there's no plot justification. And not only did audiences not care about these gaps in the plotting, for the most part they didn't even notice.

And that's because non-diegetic elements aren't things you typically think about on first watch/read. If you're getting lost in the story, you're not wondering what the themes are--but that doesn't mean you're not aware of them. Theme and character arc are things that resonate with you on a subconscious level at a minimum. Ergo, you'll only really notice them if a) you're actively looking for them or b) they aren't working. Again, let's look at an example. Man of Steel is a technically competent movie with good acting and direction, but it mostly doesn't work because it's thematically incoherent (for an excellent explainer of why Man of Steel is thematically muddled, check out this Folding Ideas video). You can't point to anything about it that's wrong, but it still feels off.

Typically, theme emerges organically as an abstraction of the story. Theme is what the story is about, narrative is how it's about it. But every now and then a story will just plop its themes front and center and force the audience to confront them, eschewing traditional storytelling rules in order to de-emphasize the plot and emphasize theme. (See: my lengthy discussion of Encanto). Russian Doll, on the other hand, actually takes this a step further, bringing non-diegetic elements into the narrative and forcing the characters to confront them. And in fact, the first few episodes are a lengthy wild-goose chase of diegetic plot business that is ultimately discarded because it doesn't matter, and the show is doing its damnedest to make sure that we, the audience, are aware that it doesn't matter.

So how does this actually play out? Well, in the opening episodes we learn the mechanics of the time loop. Nadia dies at the end of every iteration, usually through some fluke accident, and restarts at the exact same moment. Also, with every iteration, something disappears--although that is not obvious to the characters at first. Nadia spends a few episodes trying to figure out why this is happening diegetically--within the context of the story. Eventually she meets Alan who is also stuck in the same loop and they pair up to try to get out of it and in the process they force each other to confront their character flaws. So far, so normal. Then things start to turn a little when Nadia gives up on explaining the time loop and just has to acknowledge that "the universe is fucking with us" and decides that maybe she can break the loop by being a good person.

This is the first obvious moment where theme bleeds into narrative, but it's been there since the opening shots of the series. Harry Nilsson's Gotta Get Up is an extremely on-the-nose needle-drop song that  opens every iteration of the time loop, but even though it sounds non-diegetic, it turns out to be a song playing at the party. The time loops start with both Alan and Nadia staring at their own reflections. Even the title, Russian Doll, is in on the joke, as Nadia has Russian heritage and, we learn, needs to do some inner-child work. The themes start to become more obvious as we get into flashbacks of Nadia's mother. The woman was mentally unwell and Nadia was eventually taken away from her. Within a year her mother was dead, and Nadia blames herself for this. And, in fact, she has spent her adulthood engaging in self-destructive behavior and disregarding others as a result of this guilt. Clearly, if she doesn't get out of this self-destructive cycle ("gotta get up, gotta get out"), she is going to die.

And then the show takes it another step farther. Nadia's literal inner child starts showing up in the loops. Why are things disappearing? Because they are distractions. They don't matter. By the end, the only person left at the party is her friend Maxine who is there to say "Sweet birthday baby" to Nadia. When Nadia meets her ex's little girl in an attempt to be a better person, the daughter steps out of the diegesis entirely and asks Nadia if she's ready to stop blaming herself for her mother's death--at which point Nadia is literally choking on a shard of broken mirror, which is a totem of the traumatic event that cause her to be taken away from her mother.

You see, there's unsubtle, and then there's this.

And the result is one of the most unique seasons of television I've ever seen. And it's fantastic. And I can't wait for Season 2.