Nadia Vulvokov leans heavily on the bathroom sink, head low. Her curly mop of hair falls over her face. Nadia stares into the mounted mirror with a look of existential dread. After all, it’s her 36th birthday. And her mother never made it to 36. And her cat has been missing for three days. Forceful, impatient knocks can be heard on the door, and Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” happily chirps on in the background. This is how Netflix’s Russian Doll begins… over, and over, and over again.
Developed by Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black), Amy Pohler (Saturday Night Live), and Leslye Headland (Bachelorette), Russian Doll season one is only eight episodes long, with each episode running about 25 minutes. After it premiered on Netflix on February 1st, I was very excited to see what some of my favorite creators in the entertainment industry made. I am happy to say that it exceeded my already high expectations by all accounts.
The concept of Russian Doll is that the main character, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), is stuck in a time loop. She walks out of her friend’s neon-lit bathroom, enters a New York hipster party, and inevitably dies in multiple, random ways. She gets hit by a car, falls through a grate, freezes to death, drowns, etc. If you are averse to extreme violence, do not worry. The camera will rarely indulge in those moments. Before you start thinking that this show is a ripoff of Groundhog Day or Happy Death Day, think again! Human beings borrow story ideas from each other all the time. It is not a detriment that Russian Doll uses the time loop gimmick; what matters is the execution of that idea.
The first three episodes tell their story through comedy more so than drama, helped by Lyonne’s hilarious performance and solid writing. Nadia leaves her party to search for her missing cat Oatmeal (played by a cat), but unfortunately gets run over while crossing the street to grab the pet. She wakes up in the bathroom, fully aware of the moments before. At first she thinks its either from a joint given to her by her clueless friend Maxine (Greta Lee), that it’s a case of inherited mental illness, or that the building is haunted. As she relives her life, we get to know Nadia deeper than those around her. She suffers from severe anxiety related to her relationship with her mother. As a result, this inability to allow loved ones to be close to her hurts those in her vicinity. The biggest example is ex-boyfriend John (Yul Vazquez), who broke his relationship with his wife to be with Nadia, and was subsequently left hanging. Symbolism plays a role in these episodes; the bathroom door and Nadia’s pipe is shaped like a gun. She is metaphorically killing herself.
Russian Doll takes a crazy shift towards the last few seconds of episode three. After helping a homeless man named Horse (Brendan Sexton III) at the local shelter, Nadia finds herself trapped in an elevator that is plummeting down to Earth, Tower of Terror style. While the others are panicking, she notices a man next to her is just as calm and over it as her. Nadia asks why he isn’t scared of dying. The man say he dies all the time. That man is Allen (Charlie Barnett), also trapped in the same time loop. In fact, after re-watching the season, I noticed Allen several times throughout the first episodes. We then switch perspectives in episode four to his background, and it becomes clear that Allen has his own set of problems. Unlike the carefree and distant Nadia, Allen is a sensitive control freak. He must relive an important moment in his life, just as she has to. On the night he was about to propose to his girlfriend Beatrice (Dascha Polanco), she breaks up with him. After a night of unhealthy drinking and cheesecake eating, Allen throws himself off a building (a fact he subconsciously knows but chooses to forget until later).
As Nadia and Allen interact with one another and put the pieces to the puzzle together, they eventually realize that they must finally contend with their own personal demons. Nadia needs to stop blaming herself for the downward spiral of her mother and to make things right with John and his daughter, allowing herself to be vulnerable and connect with her inner child. Allen needs to accept his own flaws: his implied alcoholism and emotional immaturity was driving Beatrice away long before that night, and that a marriage proposal was nothing more than a desperate Hail Mary. Towards the end of the season, they finally deal with these problems head-on, and fix the time loop… for themselves.
In the final episode, it becomes clear that their timelines diverged; Nadia finds the original, drunk Allen on the verge of suicide. Allen finds the Nadia from the first episode… cynical, self-destructive and about to be struck by that car from the beginning of the show. Both of our protagonists succeed in helping the other, and the timelines converge as the two couples approach a parade led by Horse.
Russian Doll ends on a happy note, with a few great messages for the audience to consider. One is to embrace the chaos. Accept your flaws, and refuse to run away from your problems. The other is that we all need each other. Nadia and Allen wouldn’t have survived that night if it had not been for their emotional and mental support.
Despite the boatload of spoilers I just laid out, I refrained from revealing the many more aspects to this show that make it special in my eyes. I would absolutely recommend watching the first season yourself; honestly, you should have seen it before reading my review. I would give Russian Doll season one a 9/10.