Devouring Time: Circling Existential Crises in Dark (2017) and Russian Doll (2019)

The majority of audiences in North America and Europe, broadly categorised as ‘Western’, are accustomed to tightly controlled episodic structures, culturally engrained storytelling conventions, and deep-rooted expectations of a linear system of cause and effect. This tradition has been popularised by contemporary narratologists, such as Joseph Campbell with his hero’s journey (1993, 1972), but can be traced to the few extant writings of the ancient philosopher Aristotle (approx. 335BCE), interpreted ad hoc by dramaturgs and script editors in both the theatrical craft of the ‘well-made play’ (see Eugène Scribe discussed by Cardwell 1983) and the conformist Hollywood studio system. In this narrative context, both Dark and Russian Doll seem like wildly inventive – even game-changing – creative works. They follow a cyclical logic, replacing the straight line of past and present, then and now, with a circle. Past and present exist, simultaneously, in the same world, the same scene, the same interaction. Scholars from a range of fields, including philosophy, health and cultural studies, have provided frameworks in order to recognise and unpack this non-linear concept of time. Ivanova & Vickery-Howe (2017) calls this space the ‘now-here’ (p. 177), which may be a difficult concept for many ‘Westerners’ to accept, but something familiar – even passé – to other, older storytelling traditions from around the world, including but not limited to those that emerged from a Buddhist spiritual perspective.

With this in mind, Koller (1974) asserts that “time is a culturally determined construct” (p. 204). Accessing the realm of the ‘now-here’ may therefore require an acknowledgement of embedded assumptions surrounding time, which in Eurocentric narratives has been drawn as a pathway laced with challenges, achievements, obstacles and actions. For Nadia (Russian Doll), the assumption that life will be linear is proven false as her construct of causational time dissolves completely during the night of her birthday, while for Jonas (Dark), the experience of linear time has only ever been an illusion. To illustrate what ‘now-here’ time means in a ‘non-Western’ context, with implications for both of these characters, Koller cites the ancient Buddhist Jātaka tales:

Time consumes all beings
including oneself;
the being who consumes time,
cooks the cooker of beings.

The above passage equates time with ‘Māra, the personification of death, making time the dreaded evil in life.’ (p. 206) It is less a ‘hero’s journey’ and more an ouroboros [1] , devouring and birthing itself. In this continual cycle, the hero, the villain, the conqueror and the conquered are all one and the same in a self-feeding loop without end. Death and Time are merged into one perfect temporal trap.

The central protagonist of American dramedy series Russian Doll experiences death repeatedly much like an unsuccessful video game character. We first meet Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) in her friend’s bathroom during her birthday party. We will meet her there again as she seems doomed to die and restart at this point in her evening over and over. Whereas Dark, set in the German town of Winden, introduces audiences to a community plagued by unexplained natural phenomena and the disturbing disappearance of several children. What emerges throughout its first season is Dark’s complex time-travel narrative spanning three time periods (each separated by 33 years). Winden, located next to a nuclear power plant, is home to a time-bending Higgs Field blackhole created by Cs-137, a radioactive isotope of Cesium. Its residents are tormented by unresolved and ongoing traumas. These events are connected and all of the characters are trapped within those connections. Helge Doppler (Hermann Beyer), although suffering from dementia, acts as an accurate prophet of doom saying: “The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning.” The series opens with a quote from Albert Einstein suggesting that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion” (Episode 1). This quote is immediately repeated and cemented by opening narration accompanying a montage of framed photographs on a bunker wall. These portraits introduce us to Winden’s key family groups (the Nielsens, Kahnwalds, Dopplers, Tiedemanns) whose lives are irrevocably influenced by the town’s complex relationship to, and experience of, time. This haunting montage builds to a crescendo landing on the faces of Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hofmann) and his father, Michael (Sebastian Rudolph) – two characters we will later discuss in further detail. Michael’s death acts as a catalyst and, alongside an emotionally fragile Jonas, we discover the haunting truths surrounding his own and the town’s origins and secrets.

What the two premises have in common is this notion of Time and Death trapping their characters, and subverting, if not outright denying, their agency. For Nadia, her will and her choices have limited consequences – she will be reset in all but the most specific circumstance. For the residents of Winden, many of the choices they think they’re making have already been made by past-future incarnations of themselves.

Control and Free Will
How can characters control their own fate or express free will when their universe is one of predetermined chaos? In order to escape a dangerous and chaotic world, one must either run from Death, or tame it:

Time, in the guise of change, devours all things, and the only paths to salvation are to either find an existence free from the influence of time – which means eventually coming to regard the temporal order as ultimately unreal or else to make one’s peace with time and change, in effect adjusting one’s lifestyle to “groove” with the fact of temporal becoming as the ultimate reality. (Koller, 1974: p. 206)

Buddhist philosophy, as summarised by Koller, advocates the latter approach, wherein ‘the conceptual space of time loses its binding power’ (p. 208). Resonances may be found here with Nadia’s journey in Russian Doll and with ‘Western’ antecedents, such as Groundhog Day (1993) and, with more gore and less subtlety, in the Final Destination series (2000-2011) along with Happy Death Day (2017) and its sequel Happy Death Day 2U (2019). Time and Death are intertwined in these stories with protagonists variously attempting to flee from it, or to fight it. Most are devoured.

For a practical, pop-cultural demonstration, look no further than William “Bill” S. Preston Esq. and Theodore “Ted” Logan, the adorably dim-witted musical duo who, of course, headline the Bill and Ted franchise (1989-2020). Tasked by a representative from the future with writing the ultimate music track that will bring about world peace, Bill and Ted travel backward and forwards in time in a linear fashion throughout their series. However, more interestingly, Bill and Ted soon learn how to move beyond the linear and take advantage of the cyclical aspect of time. From reminding their present selves to plant spare keys in the past (in what would be their future), to giving advice to their past and future selves simultaneously, Bill and Ted gleefully inhabit the ‘now-here’. Once understood, non-linear time becomes their plaything, enabling them to elude and defeat a range of adversaries; and their mockery of Death is ‘legendary’ – they Melvin him [2] .

Beyond the comedic frame, for those that do manage to escape, the subtext embedded in these character journeys seems to be that acceptance is the only way to find the ‘groove’ that Koller describes. Such is the case with Groundhog Day’s weatherman Phil Connors, who is introduced as egotistical and controlling, only to fall in love with his anarchic, non-linear lifestyle in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, at which point he is released from the groundhog’s magical charm. Or take Marty McFly, the teenage protagonist of the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-1990) who, after numerous attempts to protect his own destiny, discovers that the future was never really set in paper and ink. His acceptance of the randomness of fate ultimately frees him. We see a similar path of redemption followed by Nadia in Russian Doll. It is only by the relinquishing of her guilt surrounding past traumas that she allows herself to quite literally move forward in celebration. The final sequence is a mirrored street parade where two Nadias cross one another and one complete, fulfilled Nadia emerges. Dark, on the other hand, lives up to its name and does not offer the same kind of neat resolution to its characters. It instead bestows an omniscient, cruel voyeurism to its audience as its trapped characters attempt and fail to escape their predetermined roles within Winden’s time loop.

Bruce (2007) links Time and Death explicitly through her investigation into the experience of patients in palliative care. She provides an instructive contrast between what she calls linear ‘historical time’ and this Buddhist notion of ‘cyclical time’:

Broadly conceived, historical time is irreversible, and an evolutionary line with moments in time like beads strung on a cord from birth until death. Within this linear trajectory, time is divided into past, present, and future. (Bruce, 2007: p. 152)

The contrast between this beaded cord – with its principal constructs of past (then), present (now) and future (when) – and a Buddhist conception of cyclical time is not only marked but jarring:

Time becomes linked with a circular image where birth and death refer to an arising, changing, and re-arising of the sense of self from experience to experience. (Bruce, 2007: p. 153)

In the context of palliative care, the questions Bruce raises are profound: who or what dies? Are we separate from time or are we part of time? Historically, religion has stepped in to fill the void created by these questions. The tantalising monotheistic promises of a pleasant afterlife and someone watching over you has brought many into the fold. German Protestantism manifests in various characters in Dark including the sinister priest Noah (Mark Waschke) who says “We are all full of sin. God’s hands guide us to our one true destiny” and the troubled Peter (Stephan Kampwirth) who repeats the addict’s prayer asking for “the serenity to accept the things [he] cannot change.” When Jonas decides he must do something to change the course of history, his religious grandmother Ines (Angela Winkler) says: “Who are we to play God? What’s past is past. But you live in the here and now. Who knows what the future will bring?” Jonas replies “I just want everything to go back to normal.” This decision to take control is seen in Russian Doll’s Alan (Charlie Barnett) whose first death is at his own hands. Alan’s choice to remove himself from the cycle of experiencing his life, one marred by anxiety and the breakdown of his relationship with Beatrice, leads him to be trapped in this time loop with Nadia. He is given another chance but his past stays with him. Bruce (2007) explains: “The totality of past and future, all that has gone before, is fully present in this moment.” (p. 153) A consideration of time through a Buddhist lens is, therefore, a potential source of comfort and acceptance, transcending the starker temporal punch of a strictly linear framework. The storytelling potential is, likewise, transcendent. For Alan and Nadia in Russian Doll, their present and future are impeded by the past. For the Winden community in Dark, the present is unavoidably informed by both the past and the future. As the prophetic narrator explains, their lives are “predetermined by the beginning and by the end which is also the beginning.” One can embrace the abyss and instead live in the moment. Both of our case studies push their characters to ultimately surrender to the unstoppable power of time and accept the present. In Dark, HG Tannhaus (Christian Steyer) articulates this point of submission:

Tannhaus: It is human nature to believe that we play a role in our own lives. That our actions can change things. All my life, I’ve dreamed of traveling through time, to see what was and what will be.
Jonas: You don’t dream that anymore?
Tannhaus: Dreams change. Other things become important. My place is not in the yesterday or tomorrow. Rather, it’s right here. And now.

In Russian Doll, Nadia and Alan are afforded the opportunity to repeatedly confront their issues until they break through and learn to move forward, cognisant of their traumas. Their connection is one not only rooted in their bizarre shared circumstances, it is one that drives them to help each other on shared and individual journeys. When Nadia and Alan find themselves operating on different, parallel timelines – when they disconnect – there is real danger. The final episode of the series is a quest for these two previously disconnected individuals to find one another in the ‘now-here’ and to find the new, better versions of themselves in the process.

There is, however, an ominous aspect to cyclical time. Through Hinduism, we encounter the theory of karma, as outlined by Silvestre (2016), who wonders if there can be any ‘free will’ in a system which determines that one’s present actions don’t just inform one’s future destiny but shape it and set it in stone, while – perhaps more worryingly – one’s past actions, including actions taken in another life or another state of being, determine one’s present value. While the karmic cycle exists to punish negative behaviour, and reward the positive, there exists an intrinsic bind – a celestial hamster wheel – wherein:

…our present actions somehow determine our future states of being, including our disposition to act and desire in specific ways. So, if the theory of karma is true, it seems we are faced with something very close to determinism and fatalism (at least in a localized way) as well as with an absence of free-will. (Silvestre, 2016: p. 36)

This ominous and oppressive side to time is evident in Dark. In this sense, Winden’s residents are slaves to a cyclical system above and beyond themselves; a predetermined structure that positions them as cogs in a turning mechanism, following a set loop around and around. Rather than beings with agency, they are simply components in a perpetual motion machine. It is certainly true that this conception of time avoids the beaded cord of past, present, and future, yet in so doing it sets up something even more restrictive. Silvestre asks:

But if there is no freedom of will, and the future, including our future actions, is completely determined by our past actions, in which sense can these actions be said to be ours? (Silvestre, 2016: p. 36)

This point is unpacked by Jonas in Dark. When asked by the scientist and inventor, HG Tannhaus why he is so fascinated with time, he explains:

I want to understand if I can change it. If everything has a purpose, and if so who decides about this purpose? Coincidence? God? Or is it us? Are we actually free in our actions? Or is it all created anew in an eternally recurring cycle? And we can only obey the laws of nature and are nothing but slaves of space and time.

Japanese writers and artists have taken this conception of looping Time and Fate even further, expanding the purview of this inexorable machine by allowing it to entrap and assimilate not only the sinful individual but the community around that individual, across time and space, through the notion of shared karma. Before discussing this shared responsibility and punishment in Dark, let us unpack this karmic concept with Japanese stage and screen examples. Dōjōji is a celebrated play in the nō tradition most often attributed to Kan’ami Kiyotsugu in the late 14th century. The play opens with a brand spanking new, shining bell being raised in the Temple of Dōjōji, much to the delight of servants and onlookers. What the Abbott alone knows is that the temple was once the site of a horrible murder: a young priest caught the eye of Kiyohime, an innocent young woman, who pursued him ardently until she became a furious serpent. In her transformed state, consumed by passion and rage, Kiyohime coiled around the original bell – where the priest was hiding – and roasted her lover alive. When a mysterious dancer arrives at the gate, this historical act plays out again:

In Dojoji there are clear indications that the spiteful and destructive serpent-woman [Kiyohime] disguised as a Shirabyōshi dancer is, like Lady Rokujō [3] , simultaneously searching for release from the karmic bonds of her “original sin.” (Klein, 1991: p. 293)

There is a dreamlike quality to this work, as the dancer seems to realise how much she hates the bell, and memories of another life gradually surface. This is especially clear in the kabuki adaptation, when her animosity towards the bell is a famous gesture, and there is a melancholic undertone; a sense of inevitability, as she slowly transforms physically and emotionally into a literal green-eyed monster. As Klein points out, the dancer may wish to escape the cyclical curse, but she is fated to become the serpent once more. Those present – innocent and unknowing – have, at best, a peripheral connection to the story, but they face the serpent’s wrath regardless.

In contemporary Japanese cinema, this notion of shared karma is still prevalent. Take the tale of Sadako Yamamura, the murderous child from Ring (1998) and the series of sequels and foreign remakes it inspired. Based on a traditional onryō, or wronged spirit, Sadako was originally a vulnerable, albeit disturbed, young woman who was assaulted and left for dead at the bottom of a well. Her vengeance is contained in a video tape, which will kill the viewer after seven days – the time it took Sadako to succumb to starvation and hyperthermia. The fact that the people viewing this tape are not in any way responsible for her unjust death, or even aware of it in many cases, is of no consequence to the story. In accordance with shared karma, the sin has been committed and all will pay, again and again. Even the title of this franchise suggests a cyclical notion of Time and Fate. The machine keeps turning, relentlessly, and there is no escape for Sadako herself – doomed to rise, take her revenge, and return to the well, over and over – or for her uncomprehending victims. In the American remake, Sadako, now Samara, sings a chilling nursery rhyme about precisely this phenomenon:

Round we go
The world is spinning
When it stops
It’s just beginning

Similarly, Ju-on or The Grudge (2002) features another notorious onryō, Kayako Saeki, who haunts and destroys anyone who wanders into the house where she and her young son, Toshio, were murdered by Kayako’s jealous husband. Here again we see shared karma in action. Anyone who steps foot in Kayako’s territory will be haunted by Kayako herself, her son, and the family’s cat, Mar. All of them, much like Sadako, are doomed to perpetually replay their vengeance. The injustice is so great – their deaths so horrible – that the entire community must atone for the wound. Manga and anime are full of these tales, along with Japanese paperbacks. Yukito Ayatsuji’s novel Another (2009), later adapted into manga in 2010 and anime in 2012, sees school students suffer a collective curse over multiple generations when they refuse to properly grieve the death of a classmate. This curse transcends their will as individuals and places the weight of responsibility on every student attending the school, even though the original inciting incident was many years prior to their arrival. Consider also Future Diary (2006), adapted from manga to anime in 2011-2012, which sees the young protagonist interact with the God of Space and Time, and subsequently gifted with a phone that can predict the future. The story expands into multiple timelines, in a way not too dissimilar from Dark, as young lovers attempt to unite in a shared reality. Erased (2012), adapted from manga to anime in 2016, features a protagonist who can send himself back into the past in order to avert mortal danger to himself and others. He shares this ability to cheat Death with Russian Doll’s seemingly immortal Nadia, though she has to physically experience the pain of dying before she can reset herself. Many of these tales, strongly influenced by Buddhism, as Buljan and Cusack (2015) identify, carry a sense of defying the inevitable at great cost to the characters. As a result, even those few encounters with the uncanny that work out well in the climax carry a lingering sense of doom and dread – a hint that the curse, or the anomaly, may not be truly over. The class of Another will always have an extra pupil in attendance; vengeful Sadako will always be waiting at the bottom of her well.

This sense of doom and dread is palpable in Dark as characters rail against their predetermined, shared fates. Both Ulrich and Jonas believe they can alter the course of their tragic histories. Likening time to “an eternal beast that cannot be defeated”, the series places its characters in a labyrinth of shared and individual memories. Symbolically, this dark quest for a buried, disturbing truth is represented by Winden’s cave system and frequent references to the Greek myth of the Minotaur and Ariadne’s thread. In episode 4, Marta performs in a play called Ariadne in which she says that we are all searching for a “beacon in the darkness”. Ulrich goes back in time to try and kill Helge as a boy (before he grows into the man Ulrich believes is responsible for the children’s disappearance). This, however, only cements the series of events which would lead to Helge becoming Noah’s protégé and Ulrich’s own disappearance into the past. Jonas describes the town as “a festering wound. And we’re all a part of it. But I can change it.” In attempting to break the cycle, Jonas instead creates the black hole by trying to destroy it.

Tannhaus: All our lives are connected. Our fate bound to another. Every one of our deeds merely a response to a previous deed. Cause and effect. Nothing but an endless dance. Everything is connected to everything else.

In this endless, futile dance, characters struggle to find sense and comfort in their chaotic yet clean-cut collective and individual stories.

The mythmaking of any culture reflects core social values and their adaption to popular form, not just seminal works, speaks to their continued relevance. Just as embedded Christian concepts of guilt and original sin permeate ‘Western’ cultural expression with its bias towards individualism, freewill and personal responsibility, embedded principles of cyclical time and shared karma permeate the impeccably polite, community minded, collectivist Japanese civilisation…and why not when a ghost may crawl out of your television if society frays? But, in all this broad distinction between ‘East’ and ‘West’, there remains an implicit irony. For ‘Westerners’, the storytelling tradition begins with Aristotle, who gave us the unity of plot and the structure of beginning, middle, and end; nevertheless, as Roark (2011) explores, Aristotle himself wrestled with these great mysteries, recognising that ‘the business of keeping time is largely conventional’ and making allowances for flawed human perception and ‘our experience of time’ which Roark frames as ‘deeply subjective.’ (p. 219) The rigidity with which the ‘West’, in the main, has applied linear historical time to storytelling is, on balance, a simplification of a complex idea – or, perhaps, a quirk of selective interpretation. While Aristotle’s Poetics (c. approx. 335 BCE) does read as a prescriptive text on effective storytelling, his later work On the Soul (c. 350 BCE) portrays a more layered fascination with memory and the way humans create mental pictures to weave together an impression of our world. Edwards (2013) frames Aristotelian “discussions of time” as dependent “on motion and on the soul” (p. 16) while, according to Williams (1990), Aristotle links time overtly “to the cyclical (uniform and circular) motion of the celestial sphere”, conceptualising time as “a cycle because it is both the measure of that kind of motion and measured by it.” (part II, para.11)

‘That kind of motion’ may not be quite so dominant in ‘Western’ storytelling traditions, but – whether through adaptation or experimentation – audience members do acknowledge that the motion of time has resonances and echoes, and connections, which at the very least feel cyclical rather than neatly laid out on a firm straight line. It is not really surprising then that the narratives of Dark and Russian Doll have been so readily, indeed eagerly, embraced by a global audience, with both series commissioned for multiple seasons, winning numerous awards and scoring highly on aggregate reviewing sites. Cyclical time, deep emotional wounds disturbing the physical and temporal environment, a sense of the ‘now-here’, and redemption through acceptance are all present in both of these stories. Both, in fact, launch from a shared proposition: emotional memory is non-linear.

Trauma and Guilt
Within a conventional European context, narratives traversing time periods are often introspective works engaging with a linear reading of history. Scholarly analyses of historical representation on screen explore the collective and individual processes of memory when reflecting on past events. In his seminal work, Le Syndrome de Vichy (1987), Henry Rousso described films as vectors of memory, artistic acts of commemoration. Memory studies has emerged as a field analysing remembrance in a socio-political collective space but also in a personal sphere, engaging with themes of self-reflection, identity and trauma. Past events and actions forming the perspective and perception of central characters is a key theme in stories engaging with multiple timelines, whether that be in a big ‘H’ history sense or more of a personal reflection. French scholars, particularly in relation to the memory of les années noires (the dark years) of the Nazi Occupation in the Second World War, cite the devoir de mémoire (duty to remember). Looking back over more difficult aspects and periods of a nation’s history, this ‘duty’ becomes a sombre and pedagogical activity. According to Pascal Bruckner, “the so-called duty to memory can also (and perhaps more accurately) be characterised as a duty to repent” (quoted in Bracher, 2007: p. 495). Richard Golsan (2000) warns against the duty to remember becoming a masochistic impulse and an expression of self-hatred. This fixation on the past being damaging rather than liberating is further expanded by Bernhard Schlink:

What is mistaken…is the idea that fixation on the traumatic past would somehow guarantee being set free from it. A collective past, like that of an individual, is traumatic when it is not allowed to be remembered, and it is just as much so if it has to be remembered. In other words, fixation on the past is merely the flipside of repression. Detraumatisation is the process of becoming able to both remember and forget; it is leaving the past in the past, in a way that embraces remembrance as well as forgetting. (Schlink, 2010: p. 36)

This dual process of at once remembering and forgetting is a fascinating space for characters to occupy within cyclical narratives engaging with multiple timelines and perspectives. However, Nadia’s drug use and Jonas’ fragile mental health, following the death of his father, cast doubt over the clarity of these characters’ perceptions and aims to prompt audiences to question whether they can trust what they are being shown on screen. Adhering to the series’ self-referential humour, Nadia questions her own sanity, pushing the boundaries of what is and what isn’t possible in her time loop. Perhaps this is possible given the show’s scant representation of the more horrific elements of each death – they are often instant and when they aren’t, the camera cuts away – Nadia is back, alive and ready for her next adventure. On the other hand, Dark lingers in the more troubling aspects of characters trapped by their circumstances with no way out. Dark’s families are haunted by ongoing and unresolved traumas. The issues of generations past, present, and future blend into one, interconnected memory of family life in Winden. In her book, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative & Postmemory (1997), Marianne Hirsch offers the following definition of postmemory:

Postmemory is distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection. Postmemory is a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation. This is not to say that memory itself is not unmediated, but that it is more directly connected to the past. Postmemory characterises the experiences of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor re-created. (Hirsch, 1997: p. 22)

Johnnie Gratton continues this analysis by adding another term to the memory studies canon, prememory. Gratton argues that younger generations inherit the memories of the past:

The idea of a memory that goes back beyond one’s own birth embodies the aspirations of postmemory, but now in the form of a belief that, through what Hirsch calls a ‘deep personal connection’, one has somehow inherited or acquired a prememory. (Gratton, 2005: p. 42)

When a time-bending narrative includes a character that has both imagined and real memories within their own experiences and prememories existing before their birth (generational trauma, for example), the audience is thus invited to act as omniscient voyeurs who observe the formation, realisation and discovery of these different forms of memory as the story unfolds. Jonas embodies this process as he discovers that his friend’s younger brother, Mikkel, and his recently deceased father, Michael, are the same person. Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz) as a young boy disappears in the Winden forest in 2019. He emerges from the forest caves in 1986 and, unable to return to his own timeline, grows up to become Michael. Jonas, having been able to travel back and forth across timelines, discovers this truth, made more disturbing by his burgeoning relationship with Marta who, as Mikkel’s sister, is in fact his aunt. Now, caught in a paradox which would render his existence impossible, he feels immense guilt because, instead of retrieving his father (at that point still Mikkel) from the 1986 timeline and bringing him back to 2019, he leaves them there to grow up as Michael Kahnwald. This decision is made under pressure as the Stranger (later revealed to be future Jonas) intervenes telling him: “Every decision for something is a decision against something else.” Michael’s final letter addressed to Jonas, with instructions not to read it for several months, reveals that he was aware of his fate and Winden’s time loop: “I hope you can forgive me. Everything is connected.”

Jonas, traumatised by his father recently committing suicide – an act we come to view as the ultimate act of free will (ending your experience of the time and causality over which you have no control) – must live with the guilt surrounding the death of a parent. The same can be said for Nadia in Russian Doll who, likewise, confronts her guilt surrounding the death of a parent. Confronted by the proposal of John (Yul Vazquez) to play the role of stepmother, memories of her own mother and turbulent childhood emerge. It is implied that Nadia’s mother took her own life. Nadia feels responsible for this event because she (incorrectly) recalls saying she wanted to live with her aunt instead of her mentally unwell mother, thus rejecting her and sending her into a downward spiral. Nadia’s guilt manifests in visions of her younger self appearing to her at different points of her repeated evening. These encounters have a visceral impact, causing Nadia to vomit blood, suffer nosebleeds and experience ‘fatal’ epileptic episodes – each a physical representation of her inner turmoil. Showing these central characters traverse time either by visiting the past physically, as Jonas does in Dark, or recalling personal memories, as Nadia does in Russian Doll, the two series use their narrative structures to explore themes of guilt and trauma in a haunting fashion.

Concluding Remarks
The binary of ‘East’ and ‘West’ is undoubtedly flawed, often framed in oppositional terms, as a wide and imprecise lens, or as an unfortunate conflation of richly diverse and varied cultures. Nevertheless, when employed as a contextual tool for repositioning the ‘unconventionality’ of Dark and Russian Doll, looking beyond the ‘Western’ canon and all its deep-rooted storytelling conventions proves fruitful. By expanding into notions of non-linear time outside of this strict Hollywood context, and tradition, we see that Dark and Russian Doll have a plethora of antecedents from around the world. We also see, in the marriage of Time and Death, both as forces and often as personifications, an attempt to wrestle with the big existential questions of one’s place in this world, one’s duty to others, and one’s impact on society as a whole through ‘shared karma’.

Applying the lens of memory studies to time-bending screen narratives, we see characters processing trauma and existential crises through their experience of time. This adheres to the tendency of ‘Western’ media to focus on the individual psychology of its characters. While this remains true for Russian Doll, Dark takes a more collective approach and pushes its audience to consider generational, inherited and ongoing trauma. The pressure to at once remember and forget, to confront and repent, is a push and pull experienced on individual and collective levels across different cultures, life stages and times.

When taken together, what these stories explore are different responses to guilt and lack of control. It is human nature, regardless of where one is positioned on the globe, to consider the emotional impact of every choice we make, not only to ourselves and our own lives, but to the ripples we cast across our society, our culture, and perhaps even across time itself. Our lives are not hero’s journeys, despite our fondest illusions, but false starts, rough drafts; thoughts, dreams and ideas cast into the collective pond to inspire or to harm the generations that follow. Our stories do not end, neatly, with our deaths but rather our choices trickle on, impacting those left behind, stretching across the ever-turning world.

And yet, paradoxically, our desire to control our lives is manifest in our approach to storytelling. Our compulsion to package ourselves into a beginning, middle, and end speaks to this human need for order. It is a need that both Jonas and Nadia find untenable, as their guilt at their choices and their flaws physically alters the temporal reality around them, or else it is, was, and forever will be inextricably tied to it. In this way, they become the serpent bound to rage, or the ghost in the television cursed to repeat the same actions…that is, until they surrender to what they cannot tame. To surrender is to defy the power of Time and Death. The inhabited moment – the ‘now-here’ – becomes their balm, if not their salvation.

What Dark and Russian Doll offer audiences is not so much a puzzle to solve, a mystery box to unlock, but a moment of clarity acknowledging that where we stand in a turning universe is not as the masters of Time and Death, categorising each according to our traditions and our will, but as flawed but conscious beings who can make the most of the moments we have.

[1]  A circular ancient Egyptian symbol of a serpent eating its tail, stuck in a constant loop of death and rebirth.
[2] Early ‘90s slang for a frontal wedgie.
[3] A character from the 11th century novel The Tale of Genji whose repressed jealousy transforms her into an ikiryō or ‘wandering spirit’.

Aristotle. Approx. 350BCE. Poetics (trans. S.H. Butcher) accessed via The Internet Classics Archive, Daniel C. Stevenson, 1994-2000.
Nathan Bracher, “Bruckner and the Politics of Memory: Repentance and Resistance in Contemporary France.” South Central Review, 24:2, 2007, pp. 54-70.
Anne Bruce, “Time(Lessness): Buddhist Perspectives and End‐of‐Life.” Nursing Philosophy, 8:3, 2007, pp. 151-157.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. London: Fontana, 1993 (2nd edition).
Douglas Cardwell, “The Well-Made Play of Eugène Scribe”. The French Review, 56:6, 1983, pp. 876-884.
Carole Cusack & Katharine Buljan, Anime, Religion and Spirituality: Profane and Sacred Worlds in Contemporary Japan. Sheffield: Equinox, 2015.
Michael Edwards, Time and the Science of the Soul in Early Modern Philosophy. 1st ed. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
Richard Golsan, Vichy’s Afterlife History and Counter-History in Post-War France. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Johnnie Gratton, “Postmemory, Prememory, Paramemory: The Writing of Patrick Modiano.” French Studies, 59:1, 2005, pp. 39-45.
Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Maggie Ivanova and Alex Vickery-Howe, “Dramaturgy of Mobility: Towards Crossover and Fusion in Out of the Ordinary.” Australasian Drama Studies 70, 2017, pp. 159-86.
Susan Klein, “When the Moon Strikes the Bell: Desire and Enlightenment in the Noh Play ‘Dojoji.’” The Journal of Japanese Studies, 17:2, 1991, pp. 291–322.
John M. Koller, ‘On Buddhist Views of Devouring Time.’ Philosophy East and West, 24:2, 1974, pp. 201-208.
Tony Roark, Aristotle on Time a Study of the Physics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Henry Rousso, Le syndrome de Vichy, de 1944 ˆ nos jours. Paris: Seuil, 1987.
Bernard Schlink, Guilt About The Past. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2010.
Ricardo Silvestre, “Karma Theory, Determinism, Fatalism and Freedom of Will.” Logica Universalis, 11:1, 2017, pp. 35-60.
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Films & Television Series
Another. P.A. Works, 2012.
Back to the Future. Amblin Entertainment, 1985.
Back to the Future Part II. Amblin Entertainment, 1989.
Back to the Future Part III. Amblin Entertainment, 1990.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Orion Pictures, 1989.
Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Orion Pictures, 1991.
Bill and Ted Face the Music. Orion Pictures, 2020.
Dark. Netflix, 2017-2020.
Erased. A-1 Pictures, 2016.
Final Destination. New Line Cinema, 2000.
Final Destination 2. New Line Cinema, 2003.
Final Destination 3. New Line Cinema, 2006.
The Final Destination. New Line Cinema, 2009.
Final Destination 5. New Line Cinema, 2011.
Future Diary. Asread, 2011-2012.
Groundhog Day. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 1993.
Happy Death Day. Blumhouse Productions & Universal Pictures, 2017.
Happy Death Day 2U. Blumhouse Productions & Universal Pictures, 2019.
Ju-On. NBCUniversal Entertainment Japan LLC & LionsGate Films, 2002
Ring. Ringu/Rasen Production Committee & Toho, 1998.
Russian Doll. Netflix, 2019-.

About the Author

Alex Vickery-Howe & Lisa Harper Campbell

About the Authors

Alex Vickery-Howe

Dr Alex Vickery-Howe is an award-winning playwright, social commentator, rambling podcaster and emerging novelist. His work spans political satire, environmental polemic, dark comedy and fantasy fiction. He holds a PhD from Flinders University, where he teaches creative writing.

Lisa Harper Campbell

Dr Lisa Harper Campbell is a writer, researcher and educator from Adelaide, South Australia. She has written for Australian Book Review, Independent Australia, Aniko Press, The Conversation, Hawkeye Books and various academic journals. Her first book, Reframing Remembrance: Contemporary French cinema and the Second World War, was published in 2021 with Manchester University Press.View all posts by Alex Vickery-Howe & Lisa Harper Campbell →