Netflix’s Russian Doll made me yell at the TV

Okay so either you’ve watched Russian Doll or you’re one of those people who reads the last page first. Spoilers ahead.

Lizzy and Maxine. Not pictured: Maxine’s chicken.

One of my favourite things about this show was the way they portrayed Nadia’s relationships with her friends Maxine and Lizzy. Maxine is hosting the birthday party Nadia keeps looping back to, and Lizzy provides a lot of dialogue variation in each loop. The two characters seem quite opposite: Maxine is a very Type A “Here to be seen” character, and her friendship with Nadia is tense; you almost wonder why they’re friends at all. Then there’s Lizzy, so cool, so chill, so aware of herself and along for the ride, no questions asked (“Oh sweet I love fire escapes!”). Her relationship with Nadia is also tense, but Lizzy hides it and accepts Nadia for who she is, even when it hurts. This seems like a straightforward presentation of modern women’s friendships, but one could very easily see Maxine and Lizzy as the personifications of Nadia’s own duality and internal conflict. Nadia is so terse and blunt with her friends because in the end it’s herself she doesn’t like.

Duality plays a major roll in this series. The show takes a deep dive into the nature of the self, why we are who we are and how our self-perception shapes the reality around us. The most obvious depiction of this is through mirrors and literal reflections of the character. But the cinematography also captures this beautifully, utilizing a lot of split screen or implied-split screen shots, or through repetition of scenes, actions, and dialogue. The appearances of duality/reflection in the characters’ environments only escalates as the story progresses and the actual mirrors start to disappear. There are even instances of triple and quadruple reflections… often the light scultpure on the back of the bathroom door is reflected on the glossy black tile on either side of the exit; in the final episode multiple realities and dialogues are split out into a four-way shot to show repetition of dialogue and actions as well as Nadia and Alan’s more direct reflections of each other.

I liked Alan a lot, for his fallibility as much as the way he showcases Nadia’s stubborn nature and inability to evolve, and eventually becoming her point of stability in a world that’s falling apart. Alan seemed to personify Nadia’s relationships with/to men in general. He begins as a tool she needs to figure out what’s happening and becomes a mama bird forcing Nadia towards her own independence, and eventually ending with their friendship. Sure, they hook up for a moment, but that didn’t mean anything to either of them, right? It was during the middle of their cycling when neither character was considering the consequences of their actions, and were instead living in the moment knowing they would soon die and resurrect at their respawn points.

I went into my marathon of Russian Doll knowing nothing more than the autoplay trailer on mute. It started as some kind of dark comedy, and was almost so light-hearted that I switched to something else. But I’m so very glad I stuck with it, and experienced the show in one long viewing haul. The final two episodes devolve into a desperate, Lynchian exploration of the concept of the self, with some moments of true horror thrown in to let you know the writers mean business. Oh, and the writers? All women. Directors? You guessed it. Well done, ladies.

Nadia actress Natasha Lyonne was involved in every aspect of the show, from writing to producing, with Leslye Headland and Jamie Babbit also directing, and Amy Poehler executive producing. I don’t think the female-centric perspective of this show is necessarily worth dissecting here; it simply is. But learning of the all-female writing team after the fact did explain my enjoyment of certain scenes. When Nadia heads to her code review meeting, and everyone else at the table is a) male and b) receiving praise, and then “Nadia, we… we found a bug in your code.” That scene is so tense, like ooooh shit well the woman fucked up but of course she did this is Man Land. But no, this is nothing to her, and she spends maybe 15 seconds fixing the bug right then and there, while the men continue to feel awkward but now it’s because she was able to so quickly handle her shit and didn’t at all react the way you’d “expect” a woman to. Nadia’s coding experience factors in heavily to the rest of the show; it’s discovered that Alan is an avid player of the most popular game she’d worked on, and she again doesn’t miss a beat when he accuses her of not even knowing how to play her own game. Nadia overlays many concepts from gaming over the situation she and Alan are experiencing, providing a relatable metaphor for not just what’s happening but potentially how to fix it.

I want to talk about Horse for a minute. Horse is the homeless guy who always seemed to be on the scene when Nadia bites it, or is just around in many exterior shots. I sure hope he comes back in the second season, as I found his character fascinating and, yeah, I think he had an awareness of what was going on, but perhaps was just not cognizant enough to recognize or verbalize it in the way Nadia and Alan could. Maybe instead of his world diminishing each cycle the way Nadia and Alan’s did, Horse’s world just kept repeating merely because he could not theorize beyond the immediate experience. He became a player when Nadia started to realize she needed to be kinder to others, even if they weren’t directly her friends or even the sort of person one would usually socialize with. She thought maybe he was the key to cracking this thing, and she went through a variety of “keys” trying to unlock an ending. She watched over his boots so they wouldn’t get stolen, she gave him Alan’s shoes, she got drunk and did drugs with him and held his hand and spent time with him in displays of compassion we didn’t really see her showing anyone else.

And in return, he wanted to cut her hair. “Let me cut your hair, I know what I’m doing.” Always the hair. We see in a scene with her mom that Nadia’s hair is important, and it serves as the reflection of her mother in her adult self. Women’s hair is traditionally quite an important part of their personal stories, and women’s abilities to control their hair is pivotal to identity. So letting this homeless stranger cut her hair? That seemed pretty major to me. Women often change their hair after a relationship ends as a way to reassert the self, so perhaps accepting Horse’s offer was Nadia’s subconscious way of recognizing that her relationship with her old, pre-death self was ending.

The scene that made me literally shout at the TV? It was, appropriately, the final scene, the parade march that Nadia and Alan find themselves falling into. Is… is it really…? A Dia de los Muertos parade? Oh!! Oh my yes! There’s a lot to unpack in this scene but I feel like I need to rewatch it to really see what’s going on. But the premise of these events surrounding Day of the Dead, wow. I love that. I love it so much.

There is A LOT a lot more to unpack from these 8 episodes, and I’m looking forward to a rewatch. Knowing what unfolds, I want to watch for more covert displays of reflection and dualities, watch for what repeats and what changes, what and who disappears. There were some amazing quotes throughout the episodes that I didn’t bother to write down, but overall I found the premises presented in Russian Doll to be quite profound and humbling. Food for thought.

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