By Elana Luban
Russian Doll, at its core, is about the ability to break a cycle. It’s also about a sassy Brooklyn girl, a birthday party, good friends, bad hookups, jobs, therapists, breakups, late-night trips to convenience stores, drunken mistakes, and pet fish. But it’s more than the sum of all those parts. It’s also about how all of the tiny details of our lives come together to create seemingly unbreakable, impenetrable patterns.
The plot follows a woman named Nadia Vulvokov (played by Natasha Lyonne, a writer and director of the series as well as the lead) on her thirty-sixth birthday, which she experiences over and over again, repeatedly dying and reliving the same night. You’ve probably heard about this show with its all-female team of writers and directors. In the last couple months, the show has received rave reviews from Vox and Metacritic, and holds a 96% approval rate Rotten Tomatoes.
At first glance, its storyline might sound a little Groundhog Day-esque, but one of the best things about Russian Doll as an artistic achievement is that it blends genres effortlessly and is far from being just a rom-com or just a drama. Whether you like comedy, drama, mystery, science fiction, or even thrillers, this is the show for you.
Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall gave the show 4½ stars out of 5 and praised it saying, “That blend of tones, and the controlled mania of Lyonne’s brilliant performance, makes Russian Doll feel like something wholly new.” The comedy in Russian Doll ranges from laugh-out-loud (an encounter between Nadia and a Hasidic rabbi and rebbetzin comes to mind) to dry and dark. Even the horror in Russian Doll isn’t pure horror. It’s as much horror as growing pain is — creepy moments do exist in the show, but their eeriness dissipates when you realize that they’re just embodiments of the main characters’ deep-seated emotions and inability to transition to the next life stage. Emotions and traumas are scary, but the characters conquer them one by one, and not like they used to solve them — by drinking, casually hooking up, and avoiding therapy — but through finding meaning and catharsis. And let me tell you, the catharsis is next-level: imagine a show deftly portraying a person letting go of hatred, fear, and bad memories (whether related to an abusive parent, a bad breakup, or any other difficult experience). Imagine two people bonding and helping each other relinquish the past, drop toxic patterns, and walk hand-in-hand into a new life.
At the end of the day, we’re all living some (albeit less intense) version of Russian Doll. We’re all going through mini-deaths each night when we close our eyes and jarring back-to-life moments at the beginning of each new, difficult, sometimes unbearably monotonous day. That’s why the song that plays every time Nadia wakes up after dying is Harry Nilsson’s 1971 “Gotta Get Up,” featuring the following lyrics: “Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes; what if I’m late, got a big day, gotta get home before the sun comes up; up and away, got a big day, sorry can’t stay, I gotta run, run…” The song and Nadia’s repeated and jarring awakenings are symbolic of the routines we all fall into. Almost all of us do this at some point or another; we fall into patterns. Sometimes, we start to dread this cycle. Like Nadia, we might start to get cynical about life and about our friends, start to take it all for granted. Like Alan, the other central character, we might fall into the opposite extreme and put too much weight on just one person, one relationship, until it does nothing but bring us anxiety. We might beat our heads against the wall when all we should do is let go, move on, start over.
Russian Doll is about gaining a new perspective, like a breath of fresh air, for the first time in years, about sharing that breakthrough with another person in the rawest experience of friendship and human connection.
Whether you get addicted to the suspense, the humor, the thrilling character development, or all three, this show will leave you binging, re-binging, and wanting more.