Russian Doll Review
Getting hit by a car. Tumbling into a sidewalk cellar. Having a heart attack in a bodega. Falling down the stairs. Falling down the stairs again. Falling down the stairs again…and again.
These are only some of the ways that Nadia Vulvokov dies in the Netflix comedy-drama series Russian Doll. Natasha Lyonne stars as Nadia, a software engineer who keeps inexplicably reliving the night of her 36th birthday party over and over, in the head-spinning series, created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler . Many critics have drawn parallels to Groundhog Day; like Phil Connors, Nadia is stuck in a time loop, awakening in each repetition to the same song playing (in Groundhog Day, it’s “I Got You Babe”; in Russian Doll, it’s “Gotta Get Up”). Yet unlike Phil Connors, the big-haired, chain-smoking, sunglasses-wearing Nadia is a protagonist with an identity entirely of her own – she is practically the human embodiment of chaos and unpredictability.
Her clock also doesn’t reset at the end of each day; it resets whenever she dies (which is often). With each death and subsequent loop her world gets increasingly bizarre and surreal – people start to vanish from the party, bathroom mirrors begin to disappear, and no one else but Nadia seems to notice anything strange going on or realize that time keeps folding back on itself. That is, until she meets Alan Zaveri in a falling elevator. Alan, played by Charlie Barnett, is a tight-laced man also stuck in a time loop. He also keeps dying again and again – sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose – only instead of reliving the night of his birthday, he is stuck replaying the day his girlfriend Bea, whom he planned to propose to, breaks up with him. Nadia and Alan’s meeting seems fated as he seems to counterbalance her in every way, but why they are destined to meet and what exactly they are supposed to do with one another is not immediately clear.
The series moves at a brisk pace; with eight episodes that each run about 25 minutes long, you can plow through the whole thing in only a few sittings. I watched all of it over the course of two afternoons with drawn blinds and no visible signs of the passage of time. Time for me during those two days was weird, but for Nadia, time is even weirder: the show implies that people are living in multiple parallel timelines or alternate universes. As Nadia jokes at one point, “Life is like a box of timelines.” Trying to search for the “meaning” of the show is perhaps as difficult as Nadia and Alan’s own efforts to find meaning in their lives. They keep reliving their days to do them the “right” way, but it isn’t so easy to determine what went wrong or how they are supposed to fix the things in their lives making them unhappy. Like the matryoshka dolls that give the series its title, each episode is a dense construction of nested narratives, timelines, and possibilities. The only certainty in all of the insanity is that Nadia will die, eventually—maybe five seconds from now, maybe sometime in the distant future—and the only way to get through it is to hold on to human connection.
As the series progresses, Nadia and Alan slowly start to unravel the mystery of what’s keeping them trapped in time: Nadia suspects it may have to do with her troubled relationship with her mother, who died at the age Nadia is now and whose past physically manifests to haunt Nadia. The duo also eventually realize that their paths crossed often before meeting in the time loop—they were just too caught up in their own lives to pay attention to the mental health and well-being of the strangers around them. While the mirrors may inexplicably vanish from their bathrooms between the time loops, they find new strange mirrors in each other, reminding them that they’re never alone.
Russian Doll may not necessarily have a “lesson,” but it does show us the importance of connecting with other people, and the necessity of looking beyond our own problems once in a while to consider the lives of others. It also engages in big existential questions about why we are alive and what we are supposed to do with our time on Earth. Even in a city as densely populated as New York, there is an immense amount of loneliness and desperation; everyone is searching for human connection, trying to find someone to really listen. The characters on the show are filled with guilt and regret over their pasts—saying the wrong thing, not saying anything, not being there when someone needed help—and Nadia and Alan now have chance after chance to do things differently this time around and not let their past decisions entirely dictate their futures.
The kaleidoscopic ending of the show does not answer every question or tie up each loose end, but one thing is apparent in the final scene: as Nadia and Alan run through the streets, they are happy. By dying again and again, they finally learn how to live.
By Katie Duggan
Princeton student, feminist film enthusiast, and lover of all things spooky.