This review is spoiler-free.
Life is disorienting. This much, Nadia Vulvokov (played by Natasha Lyonne) can confirm, as Russian Doll begins with our nihilistic hero gathering her bearings in front of a bathroom mirror, muffled chatter and music from her 36th birthday party seeping through the walls. The inside doorknob is shaped like a gun whose trigger Nadia must pull to exit, before taking her place as guest of honor in a revelrous mass of warm bodies and jumbled voices. The night coalesces — Nadia smokes a cigarette laced with something sketchy, goes home with an insufferable stranger, wanders off into the night to search for her missing cat Oatmeal, then gets hit by a car. She dies. She literally dies. And just as abruptly, Nadia returns to the first scene, back in a body that has tasted death, reckoning herself in the bathroom mirror. Knocking interrupts her shock, when she realizes, she must inevitably return to the party.
The question is why. The question is always “Why.”
Non-spoiler: In Russian Doll, Nadia dies. Again and again. The question is why. The question is always “Why.”
I think of the many times — too many to count at this point — I’ve stood in front of a bathroom mirror as a party rages outside, thinking I’ve gone through these motions so often before that getting by feels like a dance I’ve perfectly rehearsed. No mystery. The real puzzle is the matrix of decisions that led up to that point, that painfully temporary body, worse for wear and too faded for anyone’s good. In that position, you stow that point of reflection away at the back of your head where it can’t bother you (never for too long), regain composure, and hurl your most presentable self back into the Cuervo-soaked commotion of other people.
Other people. Nadia’s interactions with other people are peppered with darkly humorous wit (the script is perhaps Russian Doll’s greatest strength, next to the plot itself) (by the way, all the writers of this show are women, hell fucking yes), her quips certainly helped by Natasha’s natural New York Bernie Sanders “Chocklit??” accent. One quotable quote: “Humanity… a little bit overrated, no?”
I think as well of Jean Paul-Sartre’s famous and oft misunderstood dictum: “Hell is other people.” The line comes from his play No Exit, in which three strangers, damned to an afterlife of eternal punishment, realize that hell’s itinerary apparently doesn’t involve getting stabbed by hot pokers. “Hell is other people,” Joseph Garcin indicts at his roommates, raw from nearly two hours of getting his sins ruthlessly perceived by company he did not choose, but this is a lie. Garcin says this to comfort himself in hell, unable to admit that if what truly stakes a claim on our existence is how other people perceive us, then the real endeavor is accurately perceiving ourselves, which is painful. Hell is not other people. Hell is yourself.
There is something extremely funny and inspiring, watching a chain-smoking, take-no-shit woman on the brink of a full-blown existential crisis, navigate her way through some fuck-up in the time-space continuum with flippantly unshakeable resolve, with the help of her equally crisis-stricken friends.
But it doesn’t have to be, Russian Doll seems to espouse. Because no matter how many times Nadia resets, whether she’s getting hit by a car or breaking her neck falling down the stairs, she seems to resist the belief that she’s been damned to a never-ending night. She sees her fate as a maze she must escape, scouring for clues and possible pathways every time she resurrects.
Honestly I’m making this show sound way darker than it actually is. There is something extremely funny and inspiring, watching a chain-smoking, take-no-shit woman on the brink of a full-blown existential crisis, navigate her way through some fuck-up in the time-space continuum with flippantly unshakeable resolve, with the help of her equally crisis-stricken friends.
It is difficult to describe how fantastic Russian Doll is without giving away major plot points, so I’ll explain it this way: If William Ernest Henley calls us to be the captains of our souls, then Nadia inspires us to be the detectives of our lives. If existence is a mystery, then aren’t we all just cynical gumshoes trudging through the black night of why the fuck we’re even here at all? Thank goodness we don’t have to die a thousand times to come to our little epiphanies, even though some evenings spent sobering up in a bathroom taste like cemetery soil. From such little hells, there is an exit (and unlike No Exit, which can honestly be a slog to watch, Russian Doll is a fast-paced, eight-episode binge for the next time you feel like cancelling party plans). Just something to remember the next time you’re staring dazed at your reflection, coming to your senses, getting ready to dive back into the hullabaloo of other people, and life’s disorienting joys.