Gotta Get Up, Gotta Get Out: Russian Doll Review
Time loops are a tried and true story premise. From the iconic Groundhog Day to recent horror sensation Happy Death Day, we just love to see characters trapped into reliving the same day until they learn a valuable lesson. And from the outset, it seems as if Netflix’s Russian Doll simply follows the outline we know and love: the main character Nadia Vulvokov, played exquisitely by Orange is the New Black’s Natasha Lyonne, must confront her demons in order to stop her 36th birthday from restarting. However, in order for that fateful day to restart, Nadia must die, usually in some laughably mundane way, like getting trapped in an free-falling elevator or being crushed under a rogue A/C unit.
There’s no doubt that the show is funny—with Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland (creator of Sleeping with Other People) leading the writing staff, that was always going to be a guarantee. But underneath its raunchy humor, Russian Doll makes the case for how important it is to help each other get through the most difficult parts of life. No matter how tough or independent she is (or wants to seem), Nadia must learn to work with others, specifically her partner-in-time-loops Alan, played by the talented Charlie Barnett, to get to the bottom of why this is happening to them, or she’s stuck forever. As Alan poignantly remarks in the sixth episode about a videogame Nadia created: “You created an impossible game with a single character who has to solve everything on her own. It’s stupid.”
As Nadia continually finds herself gripping the edges of the swanky black bathroom sink to the tune of Harry Nilsson’s annoyingly charming “Gotta Get Up,” she becomes even more scared of the unknown, even though she would be the last one to admit it. She concocts numerous theories to justify what’s happening to her, at first tracking down the ingredients in the cocaine and ketamine-laced joint she’s smoked (“Like the Israelis do it,” remarks spacey party host Stella, played by the wonderful Greta Lee), but when she meets Alan, who is stuck reliving the day his girlfriend turns down his marriage proposal, she realizes that they’re going to have to work together to get out of their respective conundrums. It’s her waking nightmare.
The best part of their alliance is the fact that they couldn’t be more different. Alan is methodical and straight-laced whereas is, to put it lightly, rough around the edges. There’s no organic situation in which these two would meet, much less work together. But the brilliance of Russian Doll is that they actually do meet well before they’re stuck in their loops—a drunk Alan surreptitiously stumbles into the convenience store that Nadia stops in after leaving the party for the very first time. Minutes later, she’s hit by a taxi cab while chasing her cat Oatmeal. Little does she (and, by extension, we) know that this moment when they meet will be indispensable on her also then-unbeknownst quest to figure out how to keep time moving forward.
Interestingly, a 2016 version of the pilot script had Alan and Nadia meeting at the party in the first episode. I’m all the more glad that they didn’t pursue this version because at the end of the third episode, Nadia and then-stranger Alan meet in an elevator while nonchalantly plummeting to their death. Alan’s casual admission that he dies all the time and the look of pure shock of Nadia’s face before the screen went black absolutely blew my mind. It was a large part of the reason I ended up bingeing the whole show in three days and is a great example of how the writers have nailed the story’s pacing in order to keep viewers invested at every twist and turn.
It has taken seven years to develop Russian Doll, and there’s no stopping any time soon, seeing as Netflix has renewed the show for a second season. Although some fans are not on board with this decision, saying the resolution of the first season felt complete enough, Poehler, Lyonne, and Headland originally pitched the show with a three-season arc, which restores my confidence in future seasons. I could watch ten seasons of just Nadia’s quips and one-liners, so I’m sure that whatever they have in store will be just as brilliant as what they’ve given us in the first season.
The best part of the show is the main character herself, mostly because she is unlike any female lead I have ever seen. No doubt this is largely due to Lyonne, who was involved in every facet of the shows’ creation. In an interview with Backstage, she shared how she grew up with a “tough-guy oeuvre” for a film education, saying “I would sort of be compulsively studying: How are they doing this naturalistic, tough-guy schtick that’s also so vulnerable, dynamic, and exciting to watch?” Her uniquely gravelly voice, thick New York accent, and no-bullshit attitude give her the swagger of a modern day mob boss, which makes it all the more exciting when she plunges into the depths of existentialism and is forced into vulnerability as a result.
During an interview with The Today Show, Poehler mentions the idea for the show, which features an all-female writing and directing slate, occurred because they were “bemoaning the lack of possibilities and avenues that female characters get to discover in a series.” Lyonne added to that, saying that “gender almost disappears [throughout the show], making this a human story,” instead of following the tropes that might more strictly define this as a “show about a woman going through this experience.”
Nadia is a character that puts on so strong a façade, like so many of us do, that it takes a time loop and multiple deaths to finally force her to examine her self-destructive ways. She’s stubborn but not inaccessible; we can identify with her loneliness and sadness because we see her darkest moments. Ultimately, we want her to triumph because we, too, want to overcome our demons—but we don’t get a do-over.