“Alright. Let’s make some choices.”
These are among the opening lines of Netflix’s new show Russian Doll, from Natasha Lyonne and Leslye Headland, a comedy somewhere between Groundhog Day and Harold and Maude. In essence, Nadia (played with a wit equal parts dry and dark by Lyonne) keeps reliving her 36th birthday, which seems to always end in her death. That death comes in many forms: being hit by a car, freezing to death, or falling down a particularly pesky flight of stairs so many times that she eventually ditches them all together.
At first, it’s hard to not see Russian Doll in a similar light as Netflix’s most recent choose-your-own adventure Bandersnatch. Both involve main characters making choices that often end in horrific results before respawning and picking another path that we hope won’t end quite so badly. In that way, it’s fitting that some of Nadia’s opening thoughts are about making choices — well, after she worries about her cat Oatmeal (top 5 cat name).
But unlike, Bandersnatch, we don’t strictly relive the same events until two equally awful choices pop up at the bottom of our screen. Each time Nadia is brought back to that bathroom, and the familiar piano keys of “Gotta Get Up” punch her back to life, her choices change, and those choices create ripple effects throughout that alternate timeline. They put her in slightly different situations that branch out further and further so that we’re never watching the same day play out.
This trope is hardly new. Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow both stand out as clear examples of reliving the same day, usually with the main character spending a good chunk of time trying to understand what is going on to them. That’s no different at the start of Russian Doll, but Lyonne’s performance of Nadia is more than captivating enough to want us to live (and die) with her. Picking up the story in the middle of her life also teaches us more about her and her relationships with each new direction she picks. It’s just as interesting to learn about her her dating history, friend group and family as it is to figure out what the hell is going on.
Equally as impressive is Headland’s direction that sticks us inside a cohesive world that somehow blends dark, sleek, and dirty together to create a New York City that seems to capture all aspects at once. Her visual palette matches the voice of her script right down to a basement designer drug store where they deal Israeli cigarettes laced with ketamine. And don’t even get me started on this outfit Nadia wears on her way to ripping her incompetent and misogynistic coworkers a new asshole.
The tagline for Russian Doll reads, “Dying is easy, it’s living that’s hard,” and there are a number of different ways to read this. Nadia keeps dying on, or immediately following, her 36th birthday, a day which officially marks her outliving her departed mother. It’s clear (from the 3 episodes I’ve seen) that this death hangs heavy on Nadia’s shoulders, and that no amount of chain smoking, random hookups, or mid-day meetings with drug dealers and orgy aficionados will absolve her of the pain she feels.
Another reading may be in regards to existential dread, not just about impending doom, but about the system in which we find ourselves. Each life for Nadia is at both times a fresh, new hell and achingly familiar. She doesn’t know how, but she is going to die, it’s going to hurt, and she’ll be right back in that bathroom in the middle of a party she doesn’t want. This is the latest in a long string of modern comedies to laugh at the system we find ourselves futilely waging against (maybe I need to branch out a bit), but perhaps the one most interested in confronting that reality and coming out the other side.