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Russian Doll is a funny, dark, and confusing journey into the abyss

Sure, the outfits are wild and so is the bathroom door that looks like a blue vagina, but it’s not any more absurd than having infinite lives

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Natasha Lyonne trapped at her birthday party in Russian Doll - NETFLIX
  • Netflix
  • Natasha Lyonne trapped at her birthday party in Russian Doll

The premise of the Netflix series Russian Doll is not particularly inviting. It follows a woman who dies on the way home from her 36th birthday and is brought back to life in the exact same spot at the party, over and over again. It’s a time-loop, like Groundhog Day, or more recently Happy Death Day, a horror movie about a college student who repeatedly wakes up on her birthday only to be murdered by an unknown killer. Even The Good Place is an apt comparison. Trapping characters in this format can be grating and anxiety-inducing, knowing something terrible is going to happen but not knowing how or when or why. But Russian Doll, created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, beats viewers into submission, creating an intriguing world that’s part comedy, part drama, part sci-fi, part dark abyss.

Nadia (Lyonne) is a chain-smoking gaming programmer with the swagger of a De Niro impersonator. Her best friend Maxine (Greta Lee) throws Nadia a birthday party in her very Brooklyn apartment filled with very Brooklyn people. When she leaves to look for her missing cat, Nadia accidentally walks in front of a car and gets killed. She comes to in the bathroom of the birthday party, before tripping to her death down a flight of stairs, and freezing to death, and getting hit by a car again. 

Over and over, she is thrown into this party with the same people, making slightly different choices each time, all while trying to figure whether she’s on drugs, gone insane, or something else unknown. She tries a therapist, a drug dealer, a rabbi, a mental hospital, but can’t live in any one timeline long enough to figure it out. Everything shifts when, halfway through the eight-episode season, she meets another person who is constantly dying.

By the end of the first episode, the series has not fully succeeded in selling the characters or the premise, both prickly. But as the series unfolds, Nadia becomes less archetype and a more complete person. Slowly, with each death reboot, more of her past is revealed, offering reasons for her dysfunction but none for her death. Nadia is made into a detective of her own death. 

Lyonne’s persona is similar to characters she played previously and based on some of Lyonne’s personal life. Nadia smokes from the moment she wakes up 'til the moment she goes to sleep. She drinks with abandon and has done so many drugs she’s forgotten which she’s tried. Lyonne has been open about her own struggles with addiction, having been arrested and hospitalized for it at various points.   

Nadia is the epitome of a cool fuck-up. She doesn’t have her shit together emotionally or personally, but she has sick Dracula-at-prom outfits and an envious head of curly red hair. She smokes constantly, which is bad health-wise but looks slick. And she has Lyonne’s inimitable smirk-smile, wry even when she doesn’t mean for it to be.

The show is highly stylized—almost excessively so—but it lends an eccentric nature. Sure, the outfits are wild and so is the bathroom door that looks like a blue vagina, but it’s not any more absurd than having infinite lives. The dialogue too seems written specifically to be quotable (“Nothing in this world is easy except pissing in the shower,” “buildings aren’t haunted, people are.”) At times, it can be hard to decipher whether to take the show at face value or whether it’s some sort of parody, but the confusion is also part of the fun.

Russian Doll, as the name indicates, is layered, but where or why they end is a mystery. Or, as Nadia puts it, “life is like a box of timelines.”

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