Russian Doll

"Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?"

Yes, it's Groundhog Day. But I'm okay with that. Because Russian Doll, an eight-episode half-hour Netflix series, is much more than a Groundhog Day retread.

(And I won't spoil you in my opener.)

Why did I love this series? It's not just that I could watch Natasha Lyonne in anything. She's wry, she's dry, she's incredibly funny as jaded, sarcastic and emotionally exhausted Nadia Vulvokov ("It's like Volvo, but with more letters and dyslexic") who becomes stuck in a time loop on her thirty-sixth birthday. It's just that it's so enjoyable watching Nadia figure out what is happening to her, and why. Russian Doll not only stays good, it keeps getting better, right through to the satisfying ending. I finished it last night and I could sit down right now and watch the whole thing again.

The loop begins in the bathroom at the birthday party that is being thrown for Nadia by her friends Max and Lizzy. Each time Nadia dies, she returns at the sink, staring at herself in the bathroom mirror. Just the d├ęcor of the bathroom itself is enough to clue in the viewer that this is no average story; it is shiny and black and features a decorative glowing purple vulva on the door, and a door handle shaped like a gun.

Initially, Nadia seems self-absorbed and uncaring. She was unable to commit to a relationship with her boring ex-boyfriend John, who hangs around the party hoping to get her back, and it is very like Nadia to keep leaving a party that is being thrown specifically for her. And yet, as we go through the time loops with her, we learn that she cares about homeless people and homeless cats, and that she carries with her an immense load of guilt about the death of her mother.

There is an absolutely mad amount of metaphor permeating Russian Doll. My favorites are that Nadia is a game developer who designs characters that get stuck in certain levels, like what is happening to her, and of course, the title of the series is a reference to Matryoshka nesting dolls. You get the point.

If you haven't tried this series yet, I encourage you to stop reading right here and go check it out. It's really wonderful. And I'm going to delve into spoilers below the adorable spoiler kitten.


It's fascinating how Nadia proceeds in her investigation of the time loop. Was it the drug in the joint Max kept handing her? No. Could it be ghosts in the creepy old yeshiva building? No, but I loved the visit to the rabbi. Is Nadia herself simply crazy? Let's check in with the therapist that raised her. Is she being punished because she's a bad person? Am I a bad person, she asks all of her friends. Clearly, she is not.

The part of Russian Doll that I found the most intriguing, and interestingly, the most unlike Groundhog Day, was how Nadia's loop was tied into Alan's (Charlie Barnett), a man who is essentially her complete opposite. He is as controlled as Nadia is freewheeling, as tight as she is loose. (And I don't mean sexually... although actually, that works, too.) The music that is playing when Nadia re-sets in the strange black bathroom is the bouncy and appropriate "Gotta Get Up." For Alan, alone in his pristine white bathroom, it's classical music. And yes, black and white bathrooms, I get it.


What an incredibly cute meet. I mean, there they are in an elevator full of terrified people plummeting to their deaths, and Nadia and Alan notice each other calmly waiting to die. I enjoyed their debates about morality and existence and the multiverse as they tried to figure it all out. Especially how Nadia decided at one point that she and Alan were the same person and stabbed him in order to find out if she would feel his pain. And now that I'm typing that sentence, I realized that Nadia and Alan did feel each other's pain, that that was the point, pun intended.

Because of course, and by the end it made sense, the two of them got caught in the same time loop because they were initially supposed to save each other's lives. When they repeated the initial loop knowing the truth, they were able to save each other as well as break free of their old emotional chains.

The changes that started creeping into the later loops freaked me out – the disappearing fish, the rotting fruit, the broken and disappearing mirrors. The intersection of Alan's cheating girlfriend Beatrice (Orange is the New Black's Dascha Polanco) and Nadia's one-night-stand Mike (Jeremy Bobb), was so clever. The way that young Nadia kept appearing and causing adult Nadia's death was also freaky. Not to mention the flashback watermelons. Ruth, the woman that raised Nadia, was a therapist. You'd think Nadia would have explored her feelings about her mentally ill mother sooner, but okay.

A couple of other things, and I'm done. Gotta love a series that segues into a discussion of art criticism. I thought Mike's line about himself was so fascinating that I wrote it down: "Nobody chooses me. I'm the hole where a choice should be." The early sequence where Nadia kept falling down the stairs was supposed to be funny, but I found it disturbing. And I appreciate Nadia's humanity in doing so, but how could she let a strange homeless man with his own scissors cut her hair?

Will there be a second season? How could there be? Any theories?

Four out of four broken mirrors,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

9 comments:

TJ said...

Loved it! Groundhog Day themed episodes can easily get very repetitive and boring - but not here!! Not even after 20-25 (?) deaths. Loved the chemistry between Nadia and Alan.

Thank you Billie! I would have totally missed this without your review!:-)

Billie Doux said...

TJ, you're so welcome!

milostanfield said...

Gonna let this show sit for a bit but will definitely be bingeing this wonderful movie again.

I said "movie" on purpose. RD seemed more like a movie in structure to me, just that we got it in 25 minute segments (hey, Dickens did that with his novels!). It would be nice to see a continuous cut of RD with no episode credits or "previouslys" interrupting. To see if it would hold up like a movie. I think it would.

And unfortunately, because I see it as a completed movie (draws bell shaped parabola skewed right with virtual finger) that began, had a middle, and resolved nicely at the end, I don’t think we’ll see a Season Two. Would love to see more new of this awesome story, but where would it go after what it has done? It could not do the death/return thing over and over. It’s not an OTA Network show that would have them dying/returning to solve the crime of the week (barf!). To borrow Vonnegut’s story metaphor, Nadia and Alan fell in a hole and got out. Why go back in? Besides, all shows seem to stumble at Season Two.

Never saw "Ground Hog Day" (oops) so the movie that RD immediately reminded me of was 1998’s "Run Lola Run", with Franka Potente, who along with Jennifer Jason Leigh, tops my list of favorite INTENSE actresses. Lola literally runs through the whole movie!

Next RD binge I will definitely concentrate on the production design. RD deserves awards for that alone. And the lighting! The way they lit Prospect Park it was really night, not some day for night BS, yet we saw everything we needed to see. Nice job crew!

One of my fave little moments was in the park with Nadia walking around saying "Oatmeal" over and over. What other people must have thought! Not that Nadia would care.

PS - NYT has a really nice article about Prospect Park and RD. Check it out.

Billie Doux said...

milostanfield, must say, lovely comment. I might try it as a movie when I watch it a second time.

I can't believe you've never seen Groundhog Day! It's not just incredibly funny, but it's also surprisingly deep. One of my absolute favorite fantasy movies.

milostanfield said...

Per your recommendation I'm on it. Any other good time loop shows/movies shows out there anyone? One could make a film festival to watch over and over and over and...

Billie Doux said...

milostandfield, as it happens, we have a Groundhog-esque index page that includes recommendations in the comments!

https://www.douxreviews.com/2000/02/groundhog-day-index.html

milostanfield said...

Of course you do! THANKS!

magritte said...

I just started the series, but I've already been really struck by how game-like it feels. Particularly the scene where she keeps falling down the stairs. Very often when you're playing a game you often will keep trying the same thing over and over, thinking that you're just not executing right, until you decide there must be another way. Black Mirror had an episode "Playtest" that was ostensibly set in a game world, but didn't feel like a game at all.

Billie Doux said...

magritte, yes, absolutely.