With its Groundhog Day-like premise, Netflix’s Russian Doll originally didn’t really appeal to its skeptics. After all, the idea of a person continuously reliving their last few hours on Earth is fairly common in fiction; the 2017 horror film Happy Death Day and its recent sequel Happy Death Day 2 U also utilizes the same premise. But true to its title, Russian Doll diverges when it sets its characters Nadia and Alan (played by Natasha Lyonne and Charlie Barnett, respectively) on a path that requires them to peel back layers of their self-destructive behaviors and ultimately forces them to come to terms with their lives.
The story opens with Nadia’s 36th birthday party, which she promptly escapes after announcing that she’s “staring down the barrel of [her] own mortality”. After a hookup with a man, she leaves to look for her cat and is hit by a car. She suddenly finds herself in the bathroom, ready to go out to the same party… and this repeats over and over again as she dies, whether it’s by breaking her neck on the stairs or getting caught in a gas explosion.
With every death, Nadia attempts to seek out why she keeps looping, to little success. During one particular death in a falling elevator, she meets Alan, a man who relives the night he proposes to his girlfriend. Together, they attempt to stop the cycle, while discovering things they didn’t truly know about themselves.
A refreshing premise
With every loop, more of Nadia’s personality and backstory is revealed; at the start, she’s not the person you’d want to be best friends with. Disenchanted and selfish, she spirals into a life of drug-induced hazes and failed relationships to evade the issue at the core of her psyche: childhood trauma. While Groundhog Day and similar films and shows focus on bettering yourself and gaining self-awareness, Russian Doll turns this cliché on its head by introducing our second protagonist, Alan.
A person desperately trying to control a world that is inherently uncontrollable.
Alan, compared to Nadia, is as straight-laced as he could be. His ‘reset’ includes a series of affirmations like “You are in control”. It isn’t until it’s revealed that he has driven his girlfriend away that we see Alan as who he is: a person desperately trying to control a world that is inherently uncontrollable. As companionship grows between Alan and Nadia, we see them not just connect, but also work to understand one another. This dynamic between our protagonists is quite uncommon, as most stories focus on a single protagonist to unravel the mysteries of why they keep looping time.
With another person involved, the lengths that Alan and Nadia go to evade the truths about their unhappiness and state of life comes into perspective. They become each other’s sounding boards and in the end, even save each other’s lives. The (sometimes vitriolic) friendship between Alan and Nadia is the heart of the story; they grow thanks to each other.
Over and over again?
Due to the nature of the show, many scenes involving Nadia’s infamous birthday party involve repetition: Maxine (Greta Lee) cooing “sweet birthday baby” at Nadia, her offer of the cocaine-laced joint, and the appearance of Nadia’s exes become multiverse constants for every death Nadia experiences. This, obviously, can result in several viewers growing bored of the show; after all, the show is supposed to progress with the plot and the mystery at hand. However, the show makes up for this by having Alan and Nadia attempt to evade the previous causes of deaths they know of, such as reporting a gas leak or taking the fire exit instead of the stairs.
Another point critics also make is that Alan’s characterization isn’t fully realized as Nadia’s is. While it’s mostly due to the fact that we spend at least 3 episodes together with Nadia only as she investigates her own deaths, it’s a valid point to make as Alan’s story is also interesting to explore in a future season (if possible). Further background to Alan’s story and why he can be quite defensive and dull when we first meet him is an interesting idea for a second season, and Charlie Barnett’s emotional performance of Alan definitely deserves more screen time.
In the real world, there aren’t any do-overs. While Nadia and Alan are able to learn from their mistakes in the past deaths, it usually doesn’t happen in reality. But Russian Doll leaves a poignant message for its viewers: while it’s definitely not enjoyable, confronting your deepest fears and truths is the first step to actually living… and with a friend by your side, it can be a little bit easier.
Editor: Mana Reed Stutchbury