This edgy series about a woman who finds herself dying numerous times has several layers to it.

Russian Doll review This unusual Netflix series on death and depression is brilliant
Flix Netflix Friday, February 15, 2019 - 11:55

What can be worse than dying on your birthday? Dying multiple times and knowing any minute could be your last, or not knowing how to escape the endless loop of inevitable deaths? These are just some of the dilemmas that Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) faces in the new Netflix original Russian Doll.

Nadia is celebrating her 36th birthday with her friends when she decides to leave with a man named Mike (Jeremy Lowell Bobb) she meets at the party. Hours later, while looking for her missing cat Oatmeal, she is hit by a cab and lies dead on the road. Only she isn’t. She finds herself alive again, back in her friend’s bathroom at her birthday party. Thus begins a loop where Nadia finds herself dying in a series of unfortunate accidents, and coming back to life to re-live the evening again.

Frightened at first and unbelieving of what she has just experienced, she soon enters detective mode and rules out a bad reaction to drugs, being haunted by ghosts from the building where the party was, and her biggest fear, the fact that she may be losing her mind like her mother. Just when we think the show is going to be a dark comedy where a person dies and yet doesn’t, Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett) in an elevator that’s crashing. He reveals calmly that he isn’t scared because he dies all the time. In fact, as they both realise, they may have been dying at the same time all this while.

The premise of a person being stuck in a tragic, endless loop of actions is not entirely original. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was cursed to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down and start his ordeal again, Prometheus is punished to have his liver eaten every day after it grows back overnight, and in films like Groundhog Day or The Time Traveller’s Wife where characters live in an altered time-space continuum.

Creators Lyonne, Amanda Poehler and Leslye Headland adapt the loop structure to reflect the stackable Russian dolls, with each loop taking us deeper into the lives of Nadia and Alan. The loops also become a device to weave in the cyclical nature of addiction, and the seemingly endless nightmare of depression where people just can’t seem to find a way out of their misery. When people and things precious to them start disappearing each time they come back from the dead, Nadia and Alan are forced to finally confront their innermost demons to save the ones they care about.

As Nadia poignantly tells Alan, her aunt Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), friend Maxine (Greta Lee) and ex-boyfriend John (Yul Vasquez) have all mourned her every time she died. Though she has tried to isolate herself from making real emotional connections with people, she is connected to others and her actions in every loop have long-lasting consequences. It takes us back to a Rabi's quip earlier in the season when Nadia wants to prove that a haunted building is causing her existential crisis, “buildings aren’t haunted, people are.”

The Russian dolls or Matryoshka dolls traditionally consist of the outermost doll being a woman in a traditional dress while the smallest doll inside is a baby. This is deeply significant for Nadia’s story because she blames herself for her mother’s death when she was young. Her 36th birthday itself is significant because it makes her older than her mother ever was. This makes you wonder if somewhere deep within she wanted to die to avoid outliving her mother. As her childhood self tells her in a brilliant scene where Nadia pulls out a shard of glass from her mouth similar to the one Ruth has found in her hair after her mother breaks all the mirrors in the house, “she is still inside you”.

The stacking dolls also symbolise the multiple planes of reality the show alludes to in its finale, and speak to human beings being a small part of a larger universe where we can only survive together. While the show wanders close to becoming a sentimental drama about people being there for each other, the powerful writing never allows it to sink into sappiness. The performances by its lead players are brilliant, especially Natasha Lyonne who brings humour and empathy to Nadia’s character. While there are similarities to her character Nicky from Orange is the New Black, Lyonne and her co-writers rescue Nadia from becoming yet another crazy-haired addict.

Charlie Barnett is also effective as Alan, creating a sense of claustrophobia with his constantly uptight posture and limited display of emotions. They are completely opposite personalities, one using substances and another self-affirmation tapes, but until they reach out to the other, nothing can really paper the gaping holes in their lives.

Further, Russian Doll is significant for putting the female perspective front and centre. The parts usually played by women, of the sidekick, jilted ex or unlikely half of an odd couple, are all played by men here, without the show ever screaming of its ‘woman oriented’ tale from the rooftops. The fact that the writers and directors on the show are all women is also significant because we get a part existential, part metaphysical dark dramedy from a female point of view.

One of the most touching moments of Russian Doll is in the final episode when Nadia and Alan meet on the roof of his building in the final moments of the season. Alan asks Nadia, who has been trying to save him, “You promise if I don’t jump I’ll be happy?” to which she replies that she can’t but she promises that he will not be alone. 'Life may be too hard, or people too fragile', but sometimes miracles happen and together we can come out alive.

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