“I don’t believe in dictating the boundaries of a sentient being,” proclaims software engineer Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) in the pilot episode of Netflix’s Russian Doll. She is referring of course to her runaway cat Oatmeal, but the joke is on her, as we find out quickly when she dies and comes back repeatedly to the same party. Her boundaries appear to be dictated by some Great Lesson she is supposed to learn about life/death, love/abandonment, and herself. We may digest the paradigm: some twisted version of Groundhog Day in which the day rarely finishes but rather halts abruptly as Nadia gets hit by a car, falls down the stairs, freezes to death while cuddling with a homeless man in Central Park, the list goes on and on. The series has been compared to Bandersnatch, Black Mirror’s choose-your-own-adventure film, but I see it as more of a Harold & Maude story weaving in themes of substance abuse and midlife crises. For the most part, viewers are attempting to solve the puzzle of mortality right along with Nadia.
The party she is transported back to each time she dies is her 36th birthday party, thrown by her two best friends, the eccentric hostess Maxine (Greta Lee) and pragmatic pal Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson.) Our first major clue about The Lesson comes in the form of her attempts to escape the party alone. When she’s not leaving with a seemingly random guy (more on him later) or her ex, she dies on Maxine’s apartment stairs every time, until she finally asks Lizzy for help and the pair successfully scale the fire escape. Although Max is the social butterfly, always surrounded by her friends, she dismisses Nadia’s cries for assistance, while Lizzy looks deeper and is the first to notice when someone she cares about is in real distress.
Throughout the show, there are multiple references to John Updike, who brought middle America to life with themes of sexual promiscuity and questioning one’s faith. Nadia herself claims no religion, saying “there’s no money in it…anymore.” Her view is a stark contrast from that of her ex-boyfriend John (Yul Vazquez), a Catholic realtor who shows up to her party after six months of not speaking to Nadia. In one episode, John is called in because Nadia needs a faux husband figure to question a Rabbi about an old Yeshiva (the building the party takes place in.) The exchange backfires, however, as the Rabbi tells John, “Mysticism teaches that you can’t reach enlightenment through intellect, only through spiritual surrender,” wisdom that would no doubt be lost on Nadia, were she allowed in the strictly-male conversation.
As John navigates a bittersweet reunion during each version of the party, we learn that Nadia convinced him to leave his wife and once he did, she freaked out, flaked on meeting his daughter, and broke up with him. This is another example of her fear of being tethered: her desperate attempts at autonomy leave anyone who loves her drowning in her wake. Even the first video game she ever designed features a single female character facing each challenge completely alone. Aside from Oatmeal, the only exceptions to this rule of solitary existence are her mom-figure Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), who is a brilliant therapist specializing in trauma, and her foil character, Alan (Charlie Barnett), who we don’t meet until halfway through the season.
Alan is the opposite of Nadia in almost every way: a buttoned-up, obsessive compulsive who has been in the same relationship for nine years, and keeps everything about his tidy life as routine as possible. But upon their first meeting, they find that they do have something in common. As the elevator they share malfunctions and starts to plummet, Alan says flippantly, “it doesn’t matter, I die all the time.”
Upon discovering that they have a partner also trapped in this repetitive nightmare, Nadia and Alan set out to find each other so that they can compare notes. Alan is not reliving a birthday party, but rather the day that he proposes to his longtime girlfriend, gets dumped, and discovers that she has been cheating. The more Alan insists on trying to control everything, the more he seems to fit into some of the show’s plentiful literary references. Take the password for Nadia’s drug dealer’s opium den: it’s “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” the mid-1970s failed attempt by filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel. Like Alan’s marriage proposal, Jodorowsky studies, theorizes, prepares, and ends up blowing his wad before the project really even gets off the ground. Alan’s girlfriend Beatrice (Dascha Polanco) is shacking up with her literature professor, with whom she is working on a dissertation about, you guessed it, John Updike. Also, this same professor creep (Jeremy Bobb) happens to be the random stranger that Nadia hooks up with in the very first go-around of her party. He uses lines about Faulkner and being a dad to seduce other grad students and various guests at Nadia’s party.
As Alan and Nadia inch closer to discerning The Lesson each are supposed to learn, things start to unravel, and literally disappear. First Alan’s engagement ring and pet fish, then all of the mirrors, and finally entire groups of people are simply gone. More clues emerge as Nadia’s hidden past pushes its way to the surface. She takes Alan to see Ruth, who we learn is not only certified in EMDR, but is also Nadia’s adopted mother since her own mother spun out of control in a paranoid psychotic break, eventually committing suicide when Nadia was still a girl. Ruth tells Alan about Nadia’s mom’s history of smashing every mirror in the house, around the same time that the mirrors in present-day are beginning to vanish. She describes the benefits of a therapist offering “another pair of eyes” to witness one’s life, because our own memories can’t always be counted on. Much like Nadia’s skepticism about spirituality and religion, Alan has a strong aversion to therapy, explaining that he’s always been afraid to seek help for his own mental illness for fear of being labeled “crazy.” Eventually, he recognizes that the stigma is not enough to keep him from at least hearing Ruth’s advice.
Their revolving-door days hit real breaking points when the two begin to realize that reaching out for support doesn’t place a burden on anyone. Counter to what they’ve thought for maybe their entire lives, accepting help actually eases the pain of those they’re closest to. When Alan admits he’s known for years that Beatrice has lost interest and grown tired of mothering him, there’s a release: he’s able to forgive her and to see the professor as a person, not an evil homewrecker. Nadia has at least two major Eureka moments. The first is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all of her deaths, when she goes to Ruth’s house super early in the morning to look for a book from her childhood, Ruth mistakes her for an intruder, shooting her, and Nadia has to watch Ruth sob in horror over her bloody torso as she fades out. This ushers in a new urgency to solve The Lesson and figure out a way out of this loop, so that she can save loved ones from grief and loss, something she knows a lot about.
The second moment happens in a terrifying dream-like sequence when she goes to make amends to John’s daughter, giving her the book from her childhood, Emily of New Moon, perhaps the most prescient literary reference in the show. It’s written by Lucy Montgomery, who authored Anne of Green Gables, and who committed suicide. As Nadia puts it, “Everybody loves Anne. I love Emily. She’s dark.” Emily is also an orphan, but she and her friends share a sort of unseen magic: each is a prodigy with some talent that is misunderstood by their families and teachers. When Nadia hands the book over, she suddenly starts coughing up blood, and John’s daughter turns into a prophet of sorts, coaching, “She’s still inside you. Are you ready to let her die?” then morphing again into a young Nadia. As Nadia nods and agrees to this sudden bout of inner-child work, she pulls the culprit out of her throat: a broken shard of mirror.
The final episode of the first season (which Lyonne also directed) is named for the Greek princess Ariadne, who was in charge of labyrinths holding sacrifices made to Poseidon. As myth tells it, one day Ariadne could take no more, and she defeated a Minotaur to save the innocent victims of sacrifice, much like Nadia’s revelation that by helping herself and Alan she could save the “innocent” bystanders in each of their lives. After a brief lecture on the theory of relativity and alternate timelines, she explains to Alan that they met on the evening of their first loop, each refusing or unable to help the other one. Once Alan reveals that his first death was a suicide — in a gut-wrenching performance by Charlie Barnett — the final episode is wrought with twists in which nothing is simple, everything has a ripple effect, and no one is exactly sure what’s real. Ariadne could also be a reference to Nietzche, Chekov, or likely in this entirely female-run series, Ellen Page’s character in Inception.
Given that the characters are all on this journey together, albeit some of them unknowingly, they may be best separated into two categories: those who value image and who need constant external validation, vs. those who are more selfless, i.e. the quiet servants. Maxine, the professor, and Nadia’s mom are needy, best reduced to the former category. Beatrice, Lizzy, and John belong to the latter, as they require little from the outside world that they don’t blatantly ask for. They know themselves well, and problems only arise in relationships with others who don’t yet show this amount of introspection. Although Nadia and Alan are in denial about this, their obsession with “seeming okay” without actual resolution tests the patience of John and Beatrice, and in their own ways, each lover reaches his/her limit. Although Nadia and Alan do develop and mature during the final few episodes especially, Ruth is the fulcrum of it all, a sort of Charon, ferrying the two across the river Styx. She does this literally when she shoots Nadia or blows up her house with the stove, and figuratively when she convinces Alan that it’s okay to admit you need help, but not okay to call yourself “crazy.”
Two of the characters suffer from extreme depression or bipolar disorder and commit suicide. Others are obsessive compulsive, prone to angry outbursts, addiction, or Updike-style sexual escapades. Such is the way with the traumatized brain. We never quite know how it’s changed us, or how we can reverse those effects. We may spend years trying to create a sci-fi film only to use the entire budget on pre-production and never see it come to fruition. We may hallucinate a 10-year-old version of ourselves standing on the sidewalk or listen to affirmations on repeat in our headphones, but whatever we do, one thing is for sure: we will never quite be the same. So we must acknowledge that it happened, it’s happening, that it’s part of our dark brand of magic, and that as the Rabbi says, surrender may be the only way out.
Netflix has picked up Russian Doll for a second season. No release date has been announced yet.