When you first meet Nadia, the gruff but glamorous heroine of Netflix’s Russian Doll, the off-ness of the strange predicament she’s found herself in is immediately apparent, but difficult to put your finger on, especially if you go into the series unfamiliar with its premise. But as Nadia pulls apart Russian Doll’s mysteries piece by piece, a relatable truth about her story comes into focus.
As Nadia’s (Natasha Lyonne) staring down her future on the night of her 36th birthday, she’s at a point in her life where she’s gotten ahold of and made peace with a number of her inner demons. Even though she hates her job at a game development studio, she’s good at what she does and genuinely loves coding—it’s her condescending, dismissive male coworkers that make going into the office less than ideal. Relationships aren’t Nadia’s strong suit, but she’s not really lonely or wanting for romantic companionship. Family ties are tough for her, but she’s got a close-knit group of friends (including Rebecca Henderson as Lizzy and Greta Lee as Maxine) that keep her grounded and sane, and it’s in their presence that she realizes she’s on the precipice of death.
For reasons she doesn’t understand, Nadia’s fated death hours after her birthday party refuses to stick, and every time she dies, time reverts to the night of the party when she wandered off to the bathroom for a couple moments alone. No matter how hard she tries to avoid the fatal falls down stairwells and car accidents, Nadia keeps being pulled back and reliving that night, with each replay leading to a different series of events that, much to her dismay, always end the same way.
Death is an inevitability for Nadia as it is for all of us, but in revolving around her demise, Russian Doll challenges you to understand that the thing Nadia’s really butting up against—the thing we’re watching her being repeatedly knocked down by—isn’t death, it’s her life.
Though Russian Doll shares a certain degree of narrative DNA with a number of classics from the time-loop canon like 12:01, Edge of Tomorrow, and Groundhog Day, it sets itself apart by delving into Nadia’s psyche to tell a story that’s more about the psychological trauma that comes with being alive.
Because Russian Doll’s scope is generally limited to the night of Nadia’s party and a few hours afterward, there’s only so much of her life as a whole we’re ever privy to. But the amount of her own life, her struggles with addiction, and brushes with death that star and co-creator Natasha Lyonne poured into the show make it easy to fill in the blanks, just enough to understand that Nadia is simultaneously at the top of her game and in the depths of an existential crisis. After years of building herself back up in a way that makes her come off mostly put-together to everyone else around her, Nadia’s falling apart in ways so much larger than she could ever hope to initially admit to herself.
In every scene, you can see the psychological weight Nadia’s carrying in the way Lyonne comports herself from scene to scene. As much space her charismatic personality takes up, there’s a beleaguered slump to her physicality that speaks to a lifetime of emotional battles both won and lost that have left her resilient and jittery, but also weary. Every drink she pounds or cocaine-laced joint she smokes feels as if they’re more than how we’re seeing them. They’re the kinds of intoxicants people consume at parties—the kind that can warp someone’s mind into believing that they’ve been reliving their deaths all night. But they’re also Nadia’s lifelines of self-medication meant to help her cope with, and maybe escape from, the things in her life she isn’t ready to confront head-on.
At first, Nadia understandably assumes that the drugs and booze in her system are what’s causing her to experience her loops, but she quickly disabuses herself of the idea once it becomes clear that’s not the case. Still though, Russian Doll never lets you move into a space where you can untangle Nadia’s vices from the bigger existential crisis she’s going through.
Each time loop begins, for us, much in the same way it does for Nadia. The same song—Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”—prances up into your ears as Nadia realizes she’s back in the bathroom and has to once again navigate the party. She has to decide whether she wants to go home with different people, or perhaps just call it a night and pray that sleeping in her own bed will break the cycle. None of it ever fully disrupts the repetition, but her choices do force the loop’s events to change in order to find new ways for Nadia to die and start the process once again. If it’s not the car, it’s the stairs, or freezing to death in a park, or having a sudden and unexpected allergic reaction.
But with each of Nadia’s successful attempts at stretching the loops out longer, and eventually connecting them to other people in powerful ways, Russian Doll reveals its innermost secret: Inevitable as Nadia’s death is, it’s living that ends up killing her. Simply existing in a world where she feels constantly behind the eight ball is what’s gotten Nadia to this point. And thankfully, Russian Doll is not at all ham-fisted in the way it presents this idea, so it makes it that much easier to identify with her.
Performatively longing for death’s embrace has become shorthand for expressing one’s desire to be free from the day-to-day frustrations and slights that come part and parcel with being an adult. It’s something people openly joke about, assuming you would never take the text of their bit too seriously because you’re just expressing the same kind of disillusionment they feel. But Russian Doll embraces the idea that there’s a profound sort of introspective honesty and vulnerability baked into that dark humor, and makes it a vital part of the story the show is telling.
“Everything sucks and I want to die” is the kind of stray, inner thought that can cross people’s minds, regardless of how (subjectively) significant their particular circumstances might be to other people. Russian Doll feels like an acknowledgment of that feeling brought to the fore in Nadia’s life in the way she takes stock of her connections to others and the things around her. Content and stable as she would love herself to be, she isn’t; she’s going through some shit at the moment that can’t be delayed, ignored, or otherwise brushed aside.
Nadia’s fighting against that thing all too many of us has felt at one time or another—that feeling that life itself and its many delights and horrors are just too much to deal with. It’s that feeling that you’re on the edge of something you can’t take back, but you’re helpless to do much to stave it off. It’s this same feeling that ultimately keeps leading Nadia back to her death over and over, but we, like her, are meant to understand that this particular moment isn’t meant to be The End™ because there’s so much more that’s yet to play out.
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