“What do time and morality have in common? Relativity. They’re both relative to your experience.”
The eternal question regarding what is good and bad receives an existential twist with a tinge of black comedy in Russian Doll, which is a marvellous 2019 show created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler – of which Lyonne stars as the titular character Nadia Vulvokov. After Bojack Horseman ended, I did not hope to stumble upon a show that would tickle my funny bone while inducing deeply philosophical questions at the same time. Dealing with heavyweight questions regarding life and death, the show is a psychological rollercoaster that highlights the repetitive patterns of our day-to-day lives.
Watching the bushy-haired redhead Nadia, who has a knack for swearing and scandalising people with her sarcastic comebacks, as she gets stuck in an unexplained time loop of the same event occurring every day after her death has been both liberating and entertaining. It has not only raised questions regarding the paradoxical nature of time and questioned the religious take on morality and sins, but also presented a fresh new perspective on the time loop structure while constantly subverting this very popular cinematic trope. However, at no point does it make the entire premise sound farcical or gimmicky. If anything, it seems rather natural and realistic; we find ourselves rooting for the protagonist time and again to somehow come to terms with this act of being stuck in the continuum between life and death. While there are certain similarities to films like Happy Death Day, the time loop structure is where the similarity ends. Russian Doll is perhaps the greatest Netflix Originals of all time, and here’s why.
Nadia Vulvakov is a frenzied, reckless and self-deprecating busy software engineer who has designed a seemingly unwinnable game that somehow foreshadows the cyclical unwinnable path she is about to embark on soon after her 36th birthday. When her friend, Maxine, throws her a birthday party in her loft, Nadia dies shortly only to wake up again in Maxine’s bathroom, which has a strange-looking vaginal shaped portal designed on the door. Nadia discovers that every time she dies, she keeps returning to that very setting, and each decision influences her ensuing actions. She meets another man named Alan, who has been dumped by his girlfriend Beatrice, who has been sleeping with her professor. Alan, too, is stuck in this continuous cycle and is desperate to find an escape. As Nadia struggles with the unexplained consequences of coming back to life every time she dies and navigates through various possibilities with Alan, her relationships with her ex John, friends Lizzy and Maxine take a hit; her repressed childhood trauma comes rushing back in, and her support system Ruth as well as the homeless man named Horse provide her with answers that help figure out the way to get out of this seemingly endless continuum.
Convoluted storylines are the absolute worst. I hate it when showrunners expect me to do their job of piecing together a narrative; it makes me wonder how much I shall get rewarded for patiently getting through a complicated show. These shows never trigger the existential question in me; if anything, they tire and bore me. When I watched the trailer of Russian Doll, I dreaded boredom and exhaustion. However, the show completely exceeded expectations. Not only is it the perfect length with just eight average 25-minute long episodes, but it also keeps the complex storyline intriguing and fun.
Nadia Vulvakov is one of the best Netflix original characters ever created. With her raspy voice, big, smoky eyes and typical Manhattan lifestyle, Nadia is rarely seen without a cigarette between her lips, uttering profanities. Spirited and disillusioned at the same time, she is a product of her childhood trauma. As she tells her ex, John, her mother sent her spiralling with an eating disorder; belonging to a dysfunctional household, Nadia grows up to partake in dysfunctional relationships. She chickens out before meeting her ex’s daughter, for whom she has bought a book, has mindless birthday sex and bails out on her own birthday party. Aware of her shortcomings, Nadia is hilarious and somewhat relatable. Nadia is doomed to be a part of this never-ending journey which starts each time in Maxine’s bathroom with a hapless Nadia looking at herself in the mirror while Harry Nilsson’s groovy ‘Gotta Get Up’ plays in the background and tries to rationalise her situation. She feels an eerie connection with the homeless man who dishes out fairly wise pieces of advice. She lives as a shadow, chasing death, slowly losing grasp over reality and over the zest for life.
Nadia’s condition is considered to be induced by the alleged Israeli joint laced with cocaine (which is actually ketamine) or due to the trauma-induced mental illness (which causes her to bleed through her nose or sputter blood). While watching the show, my brain seemed to read out T.S. Eliot’s famous poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ due to the way the creators confidently deal with the issue of time. While Prufrock, pathetic and scared, fears to take action, worrying about a catastrophe and talks about how there will always be time, Nadia is a part of this disaster. Every time she steps out, she dies and thus realises that time has frozen for her; time is running out too, for if the audience notices the familiarities in her life seem to fade away slowly, starting from the number of fishes in Maxine’s aquarium to the people at the party. The imagery of rotten fruit is somewhat ubiquitous throughout the series, and Nadia later relates it to the relativity and paradoxical nature of time as well as morality.
While Nadia tries to evade death (spoiler alert, she fails every time), her seemingly daring and laidback self goes into a state of paranoia as she puts on her oversized sunglasses and clad in an all-black outfit, seems to be a formidable investigator trying to get to the bottom of things that have left her completely frazzled. She lives in a somewhat hyper-real part of New York where the stark juxtaposition of the comfortable New Yorker lives to that of the homeless in Tompkins Square Park is noticeable. The show no longer remains a mere fight against your own psyche or time but Nadia’s fight with her childhood trauma and guilt. Alan and Nadia’s lives are intertwined, and they must hold on to each other to survive against all odds and put a stop to this. When Alan and Nadia roleplay as Mike and Beatrice to ease Alan’s pain, his cuckold behaviour is overshadowed by the emptiness inside him, which is seemingly crippling Nadia as well. As Nadia embraces the homeless Horse and befriends him, a part of her comes to terms with being a shadow in this vast diasporic space.
The finale is super complicated yet fulfilling. It sees Nadia and Alan, finally devoid of this time loop structure after having gained redemption, meeting one another in the grocery store yet in different realities. They race against time to prevent each other from making the same mistakes they made the first time they “died” lest they die forever. The atmospheric tension of this episode and the caustic humour is a culmination of the other seven episodes that have led to this build-up. The final episode sums up the human relatability of the show. Russian Doll teaches one to be human. It constantly battles the question of fate and free will and the consequences of immoral actions leading to one being trapped in purgatory. Mike’s lack of morality acts as a perfect foil to Alan’s stupid loyalty, yet the latter is stuck in this infinite circle of reliving the day he suffers a massive heartbreak. Nadia’s childhood self is confined too – in her memories and denial of truth – which finally gets the freedom that her mother promised her as a child when she finally brings herself to realise the truth.
The final scene shows Nadia and Alan joining Horse and his gang in a heterotopic parade where they are enveloped by mirth and cheer. The feeling of being alive despite all odds is the weird optimism that this show of an existential nature has to offer. Despite its hyper-real premise, the show is rooted in ingenuity and reality with a flawed yet loveable, well-developed female protagonist whose predicament induces laughter and pity. As she fucks up every step, the showrunners present to us one of the best and most memorable storylines. If you thought that The Haunting of Hill House did a wonderful job by manipulating time and space, re-watch the seventh episode to see how the creators manipulate the familiar scenes into a zone of unfamiliarity, although the apartment is totally empty and Maxine is dancing alone, Nadia suffocates.
While the show highlights the mundane doldrum that aligns with the contemporary lives of people trapped in an urbanscape, it presents a highly entertaining story of a doomed reality of infinite possibilities with well-developed character arcs and drug and alcohol-fuelled bougie Manhattanite lifestyle. Russian Doll is arguably one of the greatest Netflix originals ever made, and if I could, I would like to get stuck in an infinite continuum where the show never ended, so that I could ponder on the deeply existential and upending question: “If given the chance, how will I redo my life over and over again?”
“The universe is trying to fuck with me and I refuse to engage.”