Russian Doll and The Good Place: the concept of purgatory in a post-religious era

Back in 2007 acting pope Benedict XVI published a document from the International Theological Commission that became widely publicised due to the misunderstanding that it ended the state of Purgatory. Initially commissioned by his predecessor John Paul II, this document addressed instead an old Church dilemma dating from the Middle Ages concerning the status of infants who died before being baptised — which would eternally trap them in a “limbo”, unable to access eternal life in Heaven due to not having been presented to God yet innocent and pure enough not to descend into Hell either. Though this might seem even anecdotical in a 21st century notably lacking the religious fervor that characterised previous eras — this is, after all, the age of Aquarius replacing the age of Pisces — , the hubbub lifted by said document had two direct and very unexpected consequences: one was the more or less general surprise that such discussions about the afterlife are still taking place within the Church and seem to be updated on a regular basis; the other was the media mistaking “limbo” for “purgatory”, thus ensuing a mild mass hysteria among believers regarding the disappearance of one of the main doctrinal states of Roman Catholicism.

But how important is the Purgatory?

According to Catholicism, the Purgatory is an intermediate state between death and salvation (or eternal damnation, if you are deemed unsalvageable) during which the soul is purified through any type of torment, usually involving fire (“to purge” in a sense of suffering throughout the process), before it can be considered pure enough to ascend to Heaven. Its importance resides in the central place it occupies among the faithful, who can aid these Poor Unfortunate Souls through prayer, gifts, or good deeds. By being a transitional state, it means that something can be done about it — instead of simply accepting one’s fate.

The theme has served as an inspiration for many works of art throughout the ages (Dante’s Divine Comedy and Hyeronimus Bosch’s The Garden of Delights probably being two of the most well-known), a proliferation possibly resulting from its similarities with the earthly plane. After all, one may argue the Purgatory state to be not something experienced in the afterlife, but inherent to the human condition during lifetime — a karma-based theory echoing the Buddhist thinkings of paying one’s spiritual dues through actual incarnation instead of some type of judgement afterwords.

We have recently been observing a sort of resurgence of such themes in entertainment, more particularly in film and TV, with two of the most acclaimed comedy series of the past year addressing the subject in very peculiar ways while updating its inherent questioning to fit our hypermodern beliefs: Russian Doll and The Good Place.

Netflix series Russian Doll seems to toy with the notion of Purgatory in a deliberate, almost cynical way: protagonist Nadia sees herself encapsulated in a seemingly never-ending loop of death and rebirth that always resets to a specific moment, with her in the bathroom while her birthday party happens outside (the birthday theme arguably linked to the astrological notion of the Solar Return, which defends a sort of “reset” whenever the Sun returns to the exact place it occupied the moment one was born). Over the course of the series and while trying to figure out what is happening to her (and how she can put an end to it), she meets Alan, a man stuck in a similar timeloop for apparently the same time as her. As they set out to try and change parts of the ever-repeating narrative in an attempt to “solve” their limboesque state, they learn a few things about themselves and the people surrounding them. It is however interesting to point out that the only main religion mentioned throughout the series is Judaism (remember Nadia’s birthday is being held in an ancient Jewish school that she initially believes to be responsible for the timeloop), which also has its own variation of Purgatory — interestingly, Gehenna is much shorter (one year of wandering before purification), but salvation also involves fire in some way.

The theme of Purgatory is addressed in Russian Doll through this indefinite timeframe during which the soul needs to deal with a certain amount of situations requiring some type of action for the equation to be solved and the loop finally come to an end. These “lessons” emerge through metaphors that seem to incorporate classic Purgatory themes: Nadia is a video game designer, which refers not only to us being masters of our own destiny (making choices and dealing with their consequences) but also to the possibility of being eternally stuck in a certain level until we finally learn how to complete it. This is even more visible when Nadia discovers Alan owns the first game she designed, prompting him to complain he was never able to finish it because “it’s impossible”. Wanting to prove him wrong, she starts to play it and is of course unable to pass a certain point — curiously, the one in which the player falls in an abyss of fire.

Russian Doll: Nadia is unable to finish the game she designed herself

The fire theme is also present as one of the causes of her death (the gas leak at Ruth’s, Nadia’s friend and therapist), but so is one of the most divisive aspects regarding eternal salvation: suicide. Alan eventually remembers that his first death happened after he jumped off a building, triggering every possible consequence associated with guilt — the traditional views in both Catholic and Jewish religions see it as a mortal sin.

In a completely different set and tone we find NBC’s much acclaimed fantasy-comedy The Good Place, whose series finale has recently been broadcasted much to the fans’ chagrin — even though it had visibly ran its course, a slight dispersion eventually happening at the end causing some to lament the predictability of its resolution. The series revolves around a group of four individuals who find out they were tricked into thinking they were sent to The Good Place (which could be roughly considered as “Heaven”) after dying, and end up inadvertently bettering themselves throughout Michael’s (the “architect” responsible for designing the place they find themselves in) constant reboot of his experience. Even though the series has a much more philosophical focus than Russian Doll’s inherent spiritual and psychological undertones, the theme of perfection through repetition is also present, as is the need of relying on one another in order to complete a level — the main lesson is that you can never do it alone, and that others will always have something to teach you as will you to them.

The Good Place: one of Chidi’s lectures on Ethics

Both series approach the immediate state of afterlife as a trap: stuck in some sort of loop, you are expected to relive something all over again until you finally perfect it, only then being finally allowed to move on. And this is also the core theme of the Purgatory: since it isn’t supposed to be a definite state, its purpose resides in making you understand the implications of your thoughts and actions in others, and by extension in yourself. It doesn’t derive from a “punishment for punishment” motto like many a narratives of Hell do, depicting eternal damnation as an irrevocable consequence of a faulty life, nor it relies on moral patronisation of a binomial right/wrong equation; it simply demonstrates that you need to accept and change certain aspects within yourself in order to “ascend”, giving you seemingly endless opportunities to do so while providing no clues nor promising anything concrete by default.

But why this apparently sudden interest of comedy in what happens after death? Shouldn’t we, given our current socio-political doomsday status, be turning towards harmless distraction as a coping mechanism instead? Not exactly. As it has been extensively written and talked about, religion is one of the many things Millennials are killing — which is but a consequence of their ever-growing distrust in institutions ranging from marriage to traditional politics. But spirituality and a need for a bigger purpose never truly abandon the individual, since the quest for answers and logic in a seemingly illogical and unfair world is intrinsically part of the human condition. So what could be done to replace the hole institutionalised religion has left in contemporary life? While some might argue that we are trying to do so (and failing miserably) through work worshipping, one could also defend an ever-growing need for approaching the so-called metaphysical via different angles. The infinite possibilities that fiction provides can serve as a mirror of our hopes and fears regarding the quest for an internal logic within the universe — especially in the areas where science fails to deliver, neither confirming nor denying the existence of an afterlife.

The spiritual and philosophical dilemmas that series such as Russian Doll and The Good Place so brilliantly illustrate operate as a sort of meditation, for they demand us to think instead of escaping, to reflect on a complex subject instead of sweeping it under the rug. In a world increasingly ignoring education in apparently “useless” subjects like philosophy, history of religions, or anthropology whilst favouring studies in fields with a direct connection to moneymaking instead, it is of vital importance that we don’t lose sight of our need for a belief system, which should ideally be regularly revised and updated through knowledge, human interaction, and respect. So the reason why this sort of narratives still interest us in 2020 comes from realising that maybe right here, right now is our own collective Purgatory: we remain condemned to History repeating itself until we actively change course through a careful approach to the challenges that lie before us, not knowing how many times we’re supposed to do so before we learn the lessons and unblock the bug that has been keeping us from moving on. And maybe then we will finally be authorised to ascend.

Paris-based trilingual music journalist. fingers in other pies include film, psychology, history, politics, social dynamics, gender issues, tarot and astrology.