Somewhere in the middle of Russian Doll’s maiden season, Nadia Volvokov (Natasha Lyonne) returns to life for the umpteenth time, after having frozen to death in New York’s Tompkins Square Park, where she had been huddling under a shelter-issued blanket with a homeless man called Horse.
She mutters to her reflection in the mirror—just one of many totemic props used in the eight-part series—“Jesus fucking Christ, that’s dark.”
The Indian Express describes the new Netflix darling as “chicken soup for the existential soul” and even though there’s a ring of truth to that, it doesn’t cut close to what Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland’s riveting take on Groundhog Day meant to me in the day and age of Bandersnatch.
Don’t get me wrong, I love them both and Black Mirror’s Choose Your Own Adventure-style episode, more than most purists out there. But here is this misanthrope with a potty mouth, flaming red hair, and unresolved issues, painfully aware of tipping her prime, yet in blissful denial of forces that control her, who keeps reliving her 36th birthday bash like it’s her last because inexplicably enough, she keeps dying and returning to life.
Plus, she is played by Lyonne herself, and as I
However, before I get ahead of myself, here’s a disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Fleabag, the fiercely dark British show created by and starring literal life-force Phoebe Waller-Bridge, to the extent that I use it as a yardstick to measure up comedies with female white cis-het leads. Upon finding a few of its crowning syllogisms and idiosyncrasies in Russian Doll, which arrived on Netflix’s catalogue utterly unannounced, it didn’t take me very long to recognise the unassuming brilliance of its layers.
That said, it’s not exactly easy to give away the full essence of Russian Doll in an essay. I can write pages on its tour de force and still not be able to do justice. In fact, I have read nearly every glowing review of the show, and none of them quite capture the quality of Lyonne’s performance in it. Those familiar with her work in Orange is the New Black know mere adjectives aren’t enough; ‘great bravado’ and ‘loose physicality’ come close but is only a part of it. So, for Lyonne’s new antiheroine, I have settled for a Gorillaz lyric: ‘thunder roll, sunshine’.
Sweet birthday, baby!
Nadia has led a seemingly nondescript life until her fateful 36th birthday, even though no aspect of it can be billed as normal, except maybe for the fact that she is a software engineer who writes codes for video games. But she is so cynical that progress in her flagship game, as she learns later, is impossible. A true portrait of an imbecile, Nadia even manages to subvert the good ole’ cat-lady trope; it is while chasing Oatmeal that she enters the death-loop.
Impulsive, irascible, and unapologetic, Nadia leads a reckless life in the Upper Eastside, is too worldly wise and weary for her own good, has a low opinion about nearly everything, is atheistic to the point of being offensive and is offensive to the point of being beyond redemption. Dubious drugs, a tight circle of friends, a complicated break-up and a maternal shrink— all announce themselves as part of Nadia’s conscious in the first few iterations itself.
Fear death by water, Eliot is warned in “The Wasteland”. For Nadia, it’s probably the stairs.
Over a series of 21 deaths spread across eight episodes, each exceedingly bizarre, gory and imaginative than the next, Nadia is driven closer to
The Big Others
The structure of the show itself is beguiling, introducing two important sub plots much later in the season, trapping Lyonne in a loop without a key to the past or a door to the future.
The former presents itself in a recognition of her abandonment issues stemming from a troubled childhood, in terms of her relationship with—they got Chloë Sevigny to play—her hysterical mother.
And the latter, Alan.
Everything Nadia is not, Alan is: straight-backed, by the book, compulsive, serial compartmentaliser. He too is trapped in purgatory, and not by mere coincidence as it turns out. Metaphysically bound, Alan (played by Charlie Barnett) and Nadia offer each other a different perspective, a mirror to their own trauma and desire, which gives them, for the first time, the will to fight all odds as if their lives depend on it.
And it is in their shared fear of life, and the collective experience of overcoming it that the show lands on its feet, in a way very few can.
There is a tendency in modern television to overrate (
This reading may steep the genius of the trifecta in a somewhat simplistic and derivative light, especially after Headland and Lyonne’s admission that the show can be seen as a meditation on the Tompkins Square riots and the loss of bohemian New York. But as Emil Cioran’s mad man says, “I am like a broken puppet whose eyes have fallen inside,” similarly beyond Russian Doll’s darkness, absurdity and kitsch and above its Bechdel score, multi-cultural ensemble and that boggling final scene, lies a vulnerable depiction of the elusive human condition. In the end of its beginning, the lost vision of the broken puppet is restored through the eyes of another.
Russian Doll is streaming now on Netflix.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius