Opinion: ‘Russian Doll’ reads like a great novel
- This Netflix show starring Natasha Lyonne is a deceptively deep comedy
- The series is created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland
Dying is the easy bit. As the William Burroughs poster in Nadia Vulvokov’s room reminds us, the danger lies at the other end: “Life is a killer." When we first meet Nadia in Russian Doll, she’s looking in the mirror and coming to terms with turning 36. Stepping into the late 30s is a milestone these days, meant to sever grown people from those still seeking shape. Nadia’s birthday party is a debauched wonderland, a series of free-association hook-ups in a sea of substance abuse, and, as she steps out of the dark bathroom with a revolver for a door handle, she realizes she can’t take it.
Yet this she must endure. Specifically, these: the birthday, the ageing, the guests, the ex, and that distinctive greeting, from an unbelievably cool friend who is hosting the shindig and cooking chicken. We hear it repeated many times through the show’s eight episodes, as we watch Nadia die over and over, in ways gruesome and abrupt—only to always come back to life in that art-horror bathroom, always returning to that very party, doomed to always show up at the wrong end of having been young. That greeting, “Sweet birthday baby", trilled with affection and indulgence, sounds fatal as a knell.
Russian Doll, created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, is an instant masterpiece, a Netflix series so intricate and engaging that it made me hunger for the inevitably obtuse sci-fi 1970s mind-bender of a novel it’s based on—but ah, there is no novel. This is no adaptation of existing source material but a genuinely new, spirited creation birthed by an all-female team. The live-die-repeat premise sounds like high-concept gimmickry, but there’s much more to this show than the log line. More than anything else, it features a character special enough to make us question ourselves.
Lyonne, playing the lead, creates an incredible Nadia, charging with the relentless self-assurance of a heroine in a one-woman show. She deploys her flaming mane and pugilistic world-weariness to intoxicating, irreplaceable effect. She is every bit New York—slightly unreal, more than slightly uncaring, never defending messed-up choices, and forever wearing an armour of bemusement—or at least a movie version of New York. The series may be named after the nesting Matryoshka dolls, but the characters and story would please the giants of Soviet literature. Nadia is both Master and Margarita.
One of her nicknames is Nemo, not coincidentally—never coincidentally, given the elaborate writing—reminiscent of the famously missing Pixar fish. Nadia is a video-game programmer, a job that allows her to grasp the idea of re-spawning more readily, and one that made me think of Isabelle Huppert in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. It’s a compelling career for strong, smart women: creating playpens for men, imaginary worlds of violence and mayhem where they can vent, frolic and playact at masculinity. Women may indulge in (and indeed create) games themselves, but gaming spaces have become infamously misogynistic worlds.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Alan, a crucial character Nadia encounters in her search to debug her life’s code, has tried playing a game she designed, and failed. He’s a troubled man committed to colouring within the lines—a man so rigid he is described, and identified, by his posture—and she needs to unravel him before she can fix herself. If, that is, she needs fixing.
When Nadia is told the time loops might be a sort of purgatory, she scoffs, calling the reading simplistic, declaring it narcissistic to assume that the universe shares your morality. It’s a fair reaction, because there are no easy answers on this show and, even if—at first viewing—the end seems too neatly wrapped up, there are provocatively pesky questions and intentional inconsistencies all over the place (I, for one, remain fixated on tableware in one diner scene that appears to be taunting me for thinking about it).
The show is a comedy, inasmuch as the storytelling is bouncy and the wall-to-wall quips have a jagged sharpness, but Russian Doll is deceptively deep, holding such abstract imagery and exacting detail—and precious, powerful asides—that viewers will find different facets to focus on and seek their own funhouse-mirror reflections to ponder. Like Nadia says, “Fucking clues abound".
I found it disingenuous that Nadia, such an ace at finding spot-on movie parallels for life and people, never compares her condition to that of Bill Murray’s jaded weatherman in Groundhog Day. That would be handy shorthand to explain things to friends and family, even though Russian Doll uses the Harold Ramis classic only as a jumping off point. Then again, this may be because she’d rather not spell things out to them. Nadia’s unlikely charisma blinded me to the character’s complete, callous disregard for others—a by-product of her defiant independence—till her selfishness was called out by another character.
The soundtrack is immaculate and the cast excellent—with stunning turns from Greta Lee, Yul Vazquez, Chloë Sevigny, Charlie Barnett and Elizabeth Ashley—while the writing is the true star. The science of the show is fascinating, and the world whimsical yet precise: where people are plausibly named Wardog, a man proposes marriage to a horse, and a girl keeps dying and inexplicably coming back to life, a bit like Kenny from South Park.
As she tries to piece together this beautiful mystery, wondering if it’s about a ketamine-laced joint or something more metaphysical, Nadia reminds us that too many balls—and too many parallel universes—are in the air at any given moment, and the genre our lives resemble depends on where in the narrative we think we are, where we think the story starts. Russian Doll is not “a love story with multiple deaths", she laughs. It could be, though. It could be anything. It depends on when you’re standing. Once upon a timeline.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen