Russian Dolls: We’ve Only Just Begun

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Netflix, Season 1
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett
Created by: Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, Lesyle Headland
Reviewed by Jade Sharma

For a lot of people life consists of repeating the same self-destructive patterns. That girl who can’t permanently shake the doucebbag who everyone can see treats her like garbage. The guy who lets some girl string him along, uses him to build furniture from Ikea, ditches him for anyone else, but picks him back up anytime she feels like it. We kinda know when we don’t see a friend for a long time that means they’re probably using again. Instead of lecturing the people around us, we listen patiently as they share their litany of reasons of why this time it was different, and we hear the words: This is the last time. One of the lesser known clichés of addictions is that relapsing is part of the nature of the disease of addiction. But for the person who is in the cycle it really is always different. The idea that it’s laziness or weakness that leads us back is offensive. We’re not idiots.. Yes, we know how it seems but the truth is always complicated. And it all looks easy to the outsider but even when we are brave and end the cycle, we have to deal with the messy parts of life that are harder to solve like loneliness and emptiness.

Russian Doll is about 36-year-old Nadia, who is stuck in a loop, re-living the same day. This isn’t a grungy hipster version of Groundhog Day. Russian Doll has bigger existential fish to fry than finding how to give love another chance. Russian Doll does a good job of showing us the messy complicated parts of life but packages it in a tight well-written narrative that moves at a good pace.

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Russian Doll starts in the bathroom. Where we find Nadia (played by Natasha Lyonne in all her androgynous, sarcastic, ranting, glory. Side note: Lyonne is one of the creators.) in front of the mirror. She swings the door open and we find a refreshingly diverse hipster wonderland as her best friend Maxine (played by scene-stealer Greta Lee) exclaims, “Sweet Birthday, Baby.” Nadia, after bemoaning mortality, and asks whether women have mid-life crisis, urns to the party goers “to make some decision.” She decides to have meaningless sex with a pretentious douchebag named Mike, whose mouth is constantly expounding opinions, illustrating that too much Académie can be a bad thing. Nadia’s first death is being hit by a cab. As a viewer it’s jarring to see a character to get hit by a car and then cut to the next scene to find her standing in a bathroom, completely fine, like someone who wasn’t just hit by a car. But that’s we get used to in Russian Doll and what becomes even comical: like the montage of scenes where she seems to die every single time she tries to get down the stairs.

The first thing Nadia does is to figure out what the hell is going on. The earie part of the show is Nadia does what most people would do in her position: sharing what is going on with her friends and getting frustrated when they don’t seem to take her seriously. How frightening/maddening would it be to try to get the people around you to believe you, as you go through this, totally terrified and alone.

Her first theory is that is must be the drugs but after a few deaths, her investigation, confronting the dealer, is that the only thing laced with the joint is anti-depressants and ketamine (which she first blames as the reason as she swears she has never done ketamine, only to be reminded by Maxine that she had actually done ketamine) which ends the drug theory.

After finding out that her party is being thrown in what used to be a Yeshiva school, the next segments, finds her investigating the clumsy idea of something religious/supernatural/has to do with ghosts that is thankfully short and concludes with Nadia turning to a homeless guy that lurks throughout the show, named Horse, who probably is the key to something but somehow, for me, this is the part that drags in this show. I don’t care about Horse and it seems both heavy-handed and nonsensical that Horse, a random homeless dude in Tompkins Square, could hold answers. He doesn’t but he does take up too much screen time to not hold some importance that I’m not interested enough to investigate.

Then we have a phase where Nadia parties, does whatever drugs or drinks are in front of her, and dies in whatever way, taking a break from trying to figure anything out. That’s what there is to love about this show: the pacing is great. I love how though it meanders it still manages to stay compelling.

So, as much as we’re with Nadia we also find relief when she finds a fellow being who is also stuck. After death has gotten to just be a normal part of her routine, she finds herself on an elevator that starts to plummet to the ground and Nadia says to the guy next to her, who is not freaking out either, “Didn’t you get the memo?” she asks, and tells him that ‘We’re all going to die.” He responds, deadpan, “I die all the time.” This new turn in the narrative is a welcome one, we are relieved that finally Nadia isn’t alone in her loop, and that the narrative is extending past just Nadia and her world.

While Nadia’s been agonizing in her loop and trying to figure out what has been causing it; Alan (Charlie Barnett) has been finding comfort in his loop. He likes knowing the rhythm of what’s going to happen but Nadia messes all that up. But Nadia also jars herself and Alan back to figuring out how to get out of this.

They team up, going through each other loops and meeting back at Nadia’s party after they die. They figure out that the very first death, the first night, they actually ran into each other which leads them to the theory that neither of them was supposed to die. That somehow this leads to the universe catching a virus, leaving both Alan and Nadia in this loop.

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Russian Doll ends in what could look like a heavy-handed  mantra to reach out and save each other, as the key to ending the loop turns out to be that Nadia intervenes on Alan’s first night so he doesn’t jump off a building because his girlfriend dumps him and Alan stops Nadia from being hit by a cab, this corrects, or as Nadia sees it de-bugs the universe, and we finally see our characters break free from their loops and move forward.

When Nadia and Alan are both in their loops we see them meander through, following different paths, to find the same outcome: They wake up from their deaths in the same place. This metaphor of being stuck in the same loop, is how a lot of us feel, like someone hit the pause button, and like Nadia, we may spend some time dwelling on the sofa doing nothing until something jars us awake, and we look for answers on how to break free. This is where the metaphor ends. Sadly, the solution to breaking free in real life isn’t ever an universe-bending puzzle with the solution lurking in some obscure part of our world, like a random person in Tompkins Square, or someone going through the same thing but lies in our boring selves (like the title Russian Doll, where going inward to find replicas of the self) to make the steps out of the rut by doing real work that wouldn’t be entertaining to watch. There is something to be said that having real friends to be present to do the dull work of listening to us and doing things like taking a walk with us, or going to a movie to calm the agony of making the hours go by, slowly, stepping forward, one step at a time, or as they say, one day at a time, until we are free and can then investigate what plagued us to find solace, again, and again, in the same self-destructive tendencies.

Back to Russian Doll: The series has been green-lit for another two seasons. Where exactly does a series go, after it’s untangled an extensional crisis and what exactly could be in store for our characters with a-dozen-or-so deaths behind them? Russian Doll has created a feat for itself, it’s hard to imagine what Easter eggs of wisdom will emerge in the narrative space it’s created once life goes back to normal.