*** Beware spoilers ***
Nadia (played superbly by Natasha Lyonne) is a mess. Selfish, cynical and often isolated, she’s refreshingly unlike many female leads on television, defined by their innate likability even when committing abhorrent acts. Nadia never does anything so bad – she is flippant about an ex’s feelings for her and easy to judge others for their reliance on relationships at the worst – but she’s a taxing character, one who is easy to love while simultaneously easy to distrust as a reliable narrator. It’s so clearly a product of women visionaries (including Sleeping with Other People director Leslye Headland and actress Amy Poehler) because the empathy on display for a character that too often would be given second fiddle status and an icy shoulder rather than compassion is wide reaching. They don’t just want us to relate to Nadia, they want us to root for her. And we do because she is a product of her trauma, an amalgamation of a life that’s both wrought suffering and creativity that have projected her to the top of a male dominated field. She’s eccentric, frantic and decidedly New York and there hasn’t been a female character like her on television in quite some time.
Maybe this is because there hasn’t been a series like Russian Doll in quite some time (and when the nearest comparison is the similarly boundary pushing Killing Eve, the argument to continue to bolster and champion female creatives gets ever louder). Over the course of a night (and a little more), Nadia finds herself redoing her death in a warped Groundhog Day nightmare where she must live the same day over and over again. Waking each time after being hit by a car, blown up in a gas explosion, or freezing to death in a bathroom with hilariously vaginal door decor as her birthday party rages on outside, Nadia must unravel the mystery of her many chances at life and the loops she’s stuck in before running into Alan (Charlie Barnett – similarly great) who has found himself in the same situation. While the time looping aspect is certainly intriguing and adds the right level of tonal flavor to what already is non-traditional storytelling, it’s the character work that allows this fabulously offbeat series to soar.
Much of this is aided by game performers who run the gamut of emotions. Greta Lee as Nadia’s best friend Maxine comes close to stealing the series with only a handful of lines and Barnett sells a great deal of sadness that goes underplayed for most of his runtime. We know of his depression – it’s clear as day when presented by him and surrounding characters – but we’re never given as much access through dialogue as we are through the soulfulness Barnett brings to the character. Barnett imbues Alan with a lost, boyish wonder, clearly out of his depth in every possible way, but desperate to stay afloat.
However, this is without a doubt Lyonne’s vehicle and she’s extraordinary. There’s a lot of pain and delight that she can fit behind those orb-like eyes as she walks through the city streets as if at war with the air in front of her, stomping and glowering before showing off one of her dangerously charismatic, wolfish grins. She ensnares you, equally flirtatious and vivacious as she is sullen and hopeless. The duality on display is the strongest she’s ever been with the best material catered to her specific gifts as a performer. Few actresses convey the idea of humor as a means to mask pain as she can.
Similarly, the talent behind the camera adds to the payoff, with directors such as Headland and Jamie Babbit (who worked on But I’m a Cheerleader with Lyonne) taking control. Babbit’s eye for visual symmetry is played beautifully in “Alan’s Routine” which perfectly befits the subject matter, while Headland turns what was a dark comedy into a horror short in the penultimate episode “The Great Escape,” which has Nadia staring down a ghoulish image of her younger self.
Perhaps not everything about Russian Doll is introduced or resolved as neatly as it could be, with ideas that ricochet off of one another, clamoring for the most screentime at any given moment. But better to be messily engaging than perfunctorily dull and there isn’t a lull in the story from the moment we’re introduced to Lyonne’s damaged and nihilistic leading lady. She is so resilient in her ability to shove down past trauma that it takes an entire world she’s built for herself crumbling away to fully accept her past and the ugly, debilitating truths that quite literally steal her breath away from her.
Trauma and depression aren’t things we simply get over. It doesn’t matter the distractions, the self-medication or self-acclamation we utilize to try and bury our own pain and insight, unless we face the demons head on and understand the place that they’ve been borne from – be it tangible or not – and learn how to try and live with them. On its surface, Russian Doll is an intimate and hilarious portrait of a sardonic woman living an independent life of her own making in New York City before wackiness interferes and she’s caught in a time loop of death where the riddle to life is found in the act of dying and accepting mortality. Dig a little deeper though and Nadia, then Alan’s, stories are about how so often appearances aren’t what they seem to be.
The fruit in the deli rots from the outside in, pets are disappearing, followed by furniture, mingling strangers, and loved ones. Depression and its root cause takes and takes until there’s nothing left but you, your body and the disease that has it out for you. Similarly, childhood trauma eats away until your sense of self is determined by things and experiences, the inability to heal stemming from an inability to reckon with guilt rooted in the vulnerability and naivete of a child. The world as they know it is growing arduous and sour with constants being those who have similarly been worn down by the world at large.
Alan first died after committing suicide, let down by an affliction that wouldn’t let a perfect house, body and girlfriend disguise the fact that his sadness had overcome him and Nadia dies after a speeding taxi barrels into her, not one to lean into caution. Nadia rushed, shoulders squared and brow furrowed like a one-woman battering ram, while Alan simply wanted to feel weightless rather than feel anything at all. Their stories are so different and their path to rediscovery – rebirth – diverge from their shared paths beautifully. He must confront his present to address his future; Nadia must let her past self – her mother – die and her survivors guilt with it to be in her now. Once they’ve accomplished this they can move forward rather than living two steps behind.
Of course, the show goes one step further in yanking the rug out from underneath us and the last battle is to have these two people save alternate versions of one another. It requires the two to be selfless in their attempts to rescues the friend that has no memory of them while simultaneously asking the versions of Nadia and Alan who don’t remember their life-altering ordeals to want to accept help, no matter how forward or awkward it is coming from a stranger. It’s optimistic and warm, enchanting in a manner so few comedies that balance the dark and the light are able to be. Nadia and Alan aren’t cured, but they’re on the way towards it, marching alongside fellow artists and wandering souls who commune in the night to simply press onward. Lyonne, Headland and Poehler haven’t just created one of the wittiest comedies in ages – they’ve dreamed up something that miraculously manages to both be deeply realistic and dream-like, hazy in approach and methodical in execution.