OK, I know Stephen Silver just did an awesome review of Velvet Buzzsaw — basically, an intensified The Picture of Dorian Gray which I’m all about— but I need to give a big shout out to another Netflix Original. While it may be too much back-to-back commercialized reviews for an alt paper to handle, Russian Doll should be your next weekend binge.
Moreover, I cannot stop talking about it to people and hopefully writing it out will put an end to my incessant rants or at least calm the waters. Not likely, but worth the try.
Created by the women dream team Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, Russian Doll was released earlier this February and is the Hitchcockian, darkly twisted version of 1993 Groundhog’s Day, which starred Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. But Russian Doll elevates the well-known plotline of reliving the same day by incorporating a nesting doll, or a matryoshka doll as the Russians say it, of themes from Jewish mysticism to psychological trauma.
Nadia (Lyonne), a troubled 36-year-old game designer, keeps reliving her birthday after she is hit by a car while looking for her cat Oatmeal. Stuck in a loop, more a dialectical spiral, after every death she returns to a black bathroom with Henry Nilsson’s “Got to Get Up” playing in the background, emanating from her drug and sex fueled birthday party.
With each new loop, Nadia looks up from the sink and into the mirror, processing her latest death and resurrection. She then walks over to the Nosferatu–esque, coffin-shaped door with a blue galaxy-shaped light, a possible cosmological signifier to her purgatorial existence, and pulls the trigger on the gun-shaped doorknob, thus sealing her fate to her next imminent death.
Sprinkling motifs throughout the entirety of the show, the audience is gradually let in on the full weight of her core trauma and residual guilt — her relationship with her mother, who died at 35, adding extra importance to Nadia’s 36th birthday. Breaking the fourth wall, the show travels through childhood memories of Nadia’s mother smashing all the glassware in the house and filling her car with watermelons, even throwing fur coats on the street to make room.
Drowning, gas leaks and an intense battle with stairs that led to multiple broken necks, with each death Nadia seems to value life a bit more. That’s amplified when she meets Alan Zaveri (played by Charlie Barnett) as they are about to crash in an elevator…
“I die all the time,” Alan says to Nadia, moments before plunging to their deaths.
Also stuck in a loop, Alan suffers from undiagnosed OCD and even enjoys his death cycles because he can control his day. However, Alan still must endure his breakup to his long-time girlfriend, Beatrice. Carrying the ring he was going to propose to her with, he tries to perfect his loops, in hopes that he can change her mind.
While this features a yin-yang character duo that would otherwise be reductive, the supernatural implications of Nadia’s and Alan’s relationship give the pairing a narrative pass on archetypal night and day personalities. But their character matchup also lends itself to another of the show’s many messages, which is that self-reflection is most effective when someone else is holding up the mirror.
“Angels are all around us,” Shifra (Tami Sagher), a Rabbi’s assistant, translates a prayer she offered Nadia.
Accepting and providing help for others is a crucial element to Russian Doll’s success as both dark but uplifting. Nadia learns that lesson when she spends a night in a homeless shelter, safeguarding a man named Horse’s (Brendan Sexton III) shoes so that he won’t leave and freeze to death as well as when she continuously calls the gas company to fix a leak for her therapist and childhood guardian Ruth Brenner (Elizabeth Ashley) to make sure she stays alive.
Not for the nihilist, the characters realize they need each other in order to break their Sisyphus ways, the Greek mythology about the king of Corinth who had to roll a heavy stone up a hill for eternity. By extension, viewers can also venture to the edge of the abyss with them, recognize their root problems and still find the purpose and meaning in life.
Questions circulate around whether the buzzworthy show will bring about a second season. Given the amount of publicity it has generated and its perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, more episodes seem likely.But I hope that Russian Doll will not be up for renewal as to preserve what it was able to achieve. It is a television show that can be binged in mere days, two in my experience, but needs to be rewatched to be fully appreciated, particularly for its foreshadows and callbacks of motifs.
Some have argued that the show leaves viewers unsatisfied, I contend that Russian Doll trusts its audience, gifting them with a Twilight Zone ending that keeps the door open for endless lives that Nadia and Alan can lead.