Netflix has another bingeable hit on its hands with “Russian Doll.” Created, produced, and starring Natasha Lyonne, this eight-part series will, as they say across the pond, do your head in. But in a good way. But no “Russian Doll” review would be complete without saying that it’s long past time that Lyonne featured in her own series. Despite a career that stretches back to her childhood over 30 years ago, her star finally rose to mainstream recognition via “Orange is the New Black,” another brilliant series from Netflix.
“Russian Doll” opens up with Nadia Vulvokov, facing a mirror in her friend’s rather surrealist bathroom, fixing her bright bush of red hair, while someone outside knocks impatiently for a turn at the facilities. Nadia, an acerbic, self-serving New York video game coder, soon finds herself stuck in a bizarre time loop. A bit like “Groundhog Day,” except with funnier death scenes. Every time she tries to leave the birthday party hosted for her by her arty friend, Maxine, she dies. Sometimes gruesomely, but often comically.
The first time Nadia dies, she’s taking some douche lit professor home from the party home for casual sex. He’s pretentious and boring, but no one wants to spend their birthday alone, right? On the way home, they stop at the local bodega to see if her cat, Oatmeal, has made an appearance. Oatmeal’s been missing, and he seems to be the one creature Nadia truly cares about.
While there, she notices a young man at the back of the store struggling with a mess he has made of broken glass and beer. But distracted by some bros from Wall Street and her companion of convenience, she returns to the street to search for Oatmeal. Spotting a homeless man across the street, she thinks she knows him, but then she sees Oatmeal. Bolting across the street to catch him, she’s hit by a car. We see her slumped on the ground, neck broken, quite dead.
Then we see her back in the surreal bathroom, facing herself again in the mirror. Nadia is about to do a lot of this in the next seven episodes. Both literally and metaphorically. If anything, “Russian Doll” is about facing yourself, facing your life, and admitting that it’s all bit too much for any one human being alone. It’s also about death, and life. And people. Yes, it’s really that complicated. That’s what makes it so wonderful.
Black comedy gold
“Russian Doll” is the perfect black comedy, and one highlight is a hilarious montage of short cuts of Nadia attempting to get down some stairs without falling to her death. Really.
It’s also firmly set in the realm of magical realism. Nadia’s deaths are sometimes comic, but also often symbolic. In fact, many of the times that she dies, its because she’s furious, stomping carelessly about while yelling at someone on the phone or by her side. And mainly, it’s someone who needs or expects something from her.
And each time she dies, she “resets” and returns to the bathroom in Maxine’s apartment. Maybe a bit like some of the games she writes. At first, she suspects there’s something unusual in the joint that Maxine passed to her after exiting the bathroom — maybe cocaine, maybe ketamine. Nadia’s lovingly familiar with a wide variety of drugs from years of self-destructive behavior. So, naturally, she seeks to investigate the cause of her disorientation and possibly imagined death.
When that proves to be a dead end — literally — she suspects Maxine’s apartment building is haunted. Once a Yeshiva, the congregation’s rabbi won’t talk to her; he’ll only talk to her husband. Problem is, Nadia doesn’t have one, so she recruits the help of her ex-boyfriend, the poor guy who’s marriage she exploded with their affair. And even after a year together, she still refuses to meet his daughter.
Nadia has issues. And while Nadia’s life seems pretty carefree and successful, she’s unable to really connect or commit to anyone. She does as she pleases on her own terms, and that seems to work for her. Especially since she never faces how it affects anyone else.
If Nicky Marotta and Alvy Singer had a one night stand, you’d get Nadia: smart, wry, intellectual without being pedantic. Chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, and completely authentic, Lyonne has created a new 21st-century icon for New Yorkers.
Lyonne said she spent 10 years writing “Russian Doll,” and while it may not reflect her actual life, she says it reflects events in her life. Health problems, drug addiction, and some legal problems underlie the show’s darker moments and even it’s most uplifting plot points. In fact, “Russian Doll” is a bit of a play on the process of therapy. But it isn’t preachy, or boring, or even particularly therapeutic.
In fact, you’ll spend the first couple of episodes becoming increasingly frantic, just like our protagonist, looking for answers to why she keeps dying and then “waking up” again in Maxine’s bathroom. Sometimes she dies immediately after leaving the party, and sometimes she makes it through the next day, even two days, before succumbing to some bizarre accident.
In one inspired moment, she begins to realize that her inability to empathize with others might lie at the root of this bizarre cycle of death and rebirth. She needs to atone. In solidarity and compassion, she buddies up to the homeless man in the park — Horse — and they drink together and huddle up for the cold winter night.
She freezes to death.
The twist (one of many)
And just when you think they can’t drag this joke out any longer, we get Alan.
Alan Zaveri is also repeatedly dying and waking up — this time in his own bathroom, facing himself in the mirror. Alan also has issues, but rather than sowing chaos, as Nadia does, Alan likes order. In fact, he likes order so much that his OCD has ruined his life. But he doesn’t need help. He’ll tell you that.
Alan keeps dying on the worse day of his life. He’s about to go on vacation with his childhood sweetheart and plans to propose on the trip. We watch him pack and see him double-checking the engagement ring he’s purchased. But his girlfriend has other plans. Rather than an engagement, she breaks up with him before they can leave on vacation. She’s seeing someone else. He’s become a burden. His mental health issues have turned the relationship into “work” for her. Alan, distraught, goes to drown his sorrow at a local bar. By the end of the night, he too is dead. Only to wake up again in front of his bathroom mirror.
Alan and Nadia finally meet in an elevator. She’s tracking down clues about her bizarre time loop, and he’s reliving his visit to his girlfriend’s apartment, where she dumps him. The elevator suffers a mechanical failure, and as they plunge down floor after floor, and the others panic, Nadia asks him: “Didn’t you get the news? We’re about to die?”
“It doesn’t matter; I die all the time.”
Luckily, the next time they reset, they remember meeting each other. She seeks him out to find out what he means by dying all the time. They’re both dying and resetting. But unlike Nadia, Alan is comfortable with reliving the worse day of his life over and over. He knows what to expect. Alan doesn’t want to change it. He wouldn’t know how to react.
And this isn’t a random fateful night. While Nadia keeps dying on her 36th birthday, Alan dies on the worst night of his life. Nadia’s mother never lived to see 36, something Nadia mentions frequently. And therein lies the heart of Nadia’s problem. Alan ignores his OCD, refusing treatment, until the day it ruins his life. And that’s something Alan needs to face.
Flashback to the first night — the first death. It seems that it was Alan in the bodega, drunk and in despair, struggling among the shelves. Nadia could have helped him then, but she was distracted by the lame professor. And Alan, as usual, didn’t want any help. The question is how many times will they need to die before they learn this lesson? What’s the trick?
And they don’t have forever. Each time they die and reappear, parts of the world begin to fade. The fruit starts to mold; flowers die. Then, scenery begins to grow stark as belongs disappear. The people in their lives start to vanish, too, one by one. They’re running out of time.
Only Alan can help Nadia avoid the next death. And only Nadia can keep Alan from dying again. While the underlying feel-good message may be that people need to help each other — the deeper message may be learning how to accept help and learning to accept your own weakness.
That’s a scary thought, too. Accepting your own weakness means facing the times when you had no control and admitting you were powerless. The time you failed. When nothing you could do or say could change your situation or make a difference. To get back to that critical first moment of powerlessness, you have to open up layer after layer of denial, coping mechanisms, aloofness, and disconnection. Sort of like, you know, a Russian doll.
It’s impossible to do a thorough “Russian Doll” review and explore each magical moment without including too many spoilers. It’s too good to spoil.
But What Does It All Mean?
While many pundits debate about the true meaning of the ending, and many speculate about the deeper symbolism behind the final scene, none of the discussion will make sense until you watch it for yourself. But this beautifully woven tapestry of smart comedy, magical realism, and exploration of the nature of time is sure to make you think.
Best of all, the producers — Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, contracted with Netflix for three seasons.
“Russian Doll” may ultimately be a metaphor for therapy or a fairytale about the importance of connecting with others. It could be a sci-fi satire about multiple universes or an allegory for karma. It might even be a straightforward comedy about dysfunctional relationships in the big city. More accurately, it’s all of these things. The magic of this smart and deftly told story is that you’ll find what you need to find in “Russian Doll.” It’s that rich.
Featured Image: Promotional photo via IMDb