Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland’s new Netflix project Russian Doll uses the Matryoshka dolls metaphor in a Groundhog Day-esque setting to narrate the story of Nadia (played by Lyonne), an eccentric engineer living in New York. Nadia leaves her own birthday party to find her cat Oatmeal. After spotting him in a park, she goes to pick him up, only to die in a car accident while crossing the street. Her story really begins after she has died (SPOILERS FOLLOW), when she finds herself back at her birthday party, wondering how she got there.
Nadia keeps dying and coming back to the start of her birthday party in an endless loop, but remembers everything that transpired before each of her deaths. Despite coming back to the same party every time, ending up in the bathroom of her friend Maxine’s apartment, and staring into the mirror, Nadia slowly realises that the circumstances around her are gradually changing. In one such reset, the bathroom does not have a mirror; in another, there is no one at the party except Maxine, who claims that she IS the party.
As the show unravels, it is clear that the events are allegorical of the darkness human beings endure in real life. The show largely makes use of trauma models to delve into the deepest struggles of people. Lady Gaga, in Marry the Night, says that trauma is the ultimate killer. That becomes true for Nadia quite literally, as the show unravels her traumatic past and problematic present, that she is often faced with before dying every time. A melancholic flashback establishes that Nadia had a childhood full of neglect from her single mother, who struggled with mental issues. Haphazard behaviour patterns are often associated with traumatic childhoods. Over the years, Nadia has developed self-sabotaging patterns in her other relationships and daily routine. We can see hints of the issues she has carried on from her estranged relationship with her mother. Children with neglectful parents are often unable to themselves manifest attachment behaviors in their adulthood, which in evident in Nadia’s case when she is apathetic to her ex-boyfriend and had chicken out of meeting his daughter several times.
In one of her disturbing phases, Nadia’s mother put her on an only watermelon diet. We can see her throwing off essentials such as coats in order to make room for watermelons. This might as well have been a metaphor for substance addiction. Present-day Nadia is a chain smoker and a heavy drinker, and at one point we see that she has bought watermelon from the supermarket, but it has been cut down into pieces – the pieces from her past that she still carries around. Nadia’s mother dies at 36, the age Nadia would turn this birthday – the party that she keeps resurrecting into. It’s almost as though she is self-prophesising her death by acting ruthlessly in real life. In one such ‘death’ experience, where she is about to crash to the ground in a falling elevator, she is standing almost unaffected by the impending doom, only to realise there is a co-passenger who is doing the same. Nadia soon learns that Alan is stuck in the same rut as her, unable to escape the death loop. Hell bent on determining what is going on, Nadia’s next life begins with the quest to find Alan.
Alan, it is revealed, has his own mental struggles, which have put him on a steady diet of listening to daily self-affirmations to give his own self some merit. Alan’s long-time girlfriend, whom he plans on proposing to, has issues with him, which leads her to cheat on and break up with him. Unable to process such a huge blow, Alan decides to commit suicide, and that’s where his death loop begins.
Russian Doll speaks largely of the relationship between time and self-healing. It shows that side of mental illness where individuals slowly stop processing their surroundings and their interpersonal interactions because grappling with their own thoughts consumes a lot of physical and mental energy. This is depicted through the disappearances around Nadia and Alan, wherein their pets disappear first (perhaps out of neglect). Then, the people close to Nadia start vanishing. With each passing death, she becomes more and more paranoid, and refuses to leave her friend’s apartment altogether, consequently holing herself up away from the world. Nadia’s nonchalant attitude may make it seem as though she is unfrazzled by much that goes on around her (for instance, showing moral ambiguity by saying she does not really care, when she learns that the man she is about to sleep with is a sex addict, and the man who Alan’s girlfriend cheated on him with). However, in the scheme of things, when the different timelines in which Nadia and Alan die start malfunctioning, she literally comes face to face with her childhood self twice, dying brutally both the times. That’s the core of Russian Doll. Finally facing and accepting the root cause of her issues, Nadia is ready to heal, and the process begins.
Much of the acknowledgement of her own issues comes to Nadia after she has met Alan, when she starts helping him with his own, and perhaps understands that acceptance has to come from within in order to help oneself and be helped by others. Loving the core self, flaws and all, is essential. When Alan and Nadia start helping and supporting each other, things vanishing from their lives start coming back. The rotten fruits neglected over several timelines become fresh. Nadia also sheds some of her apathy and saves a homeless man (Horse, who deserves a piece of his own) from freezing to death, and his shoes from being stolen.
Russian Doll represents the struggles of the characters well, without glorifying or shunning the validity of their experiences (Nadia’s surrogate mother figure Ruth, who is a therapist, often says that we don’t use the word crazy in this house). It asserts that buildings aren’t haunted but people are, implying that how people feel is a result of the choice of their own reactions to their situations and not of the situations themselves. Nadia’s and Alan’s deaths pave a way for them to have self-awareness about their destructive patterns, and break away from the cycle with each other’s help. They finally manage to do so, albeit in different timelines. Russian Doll ends with their versions from the different timelines embarking upon some sort of a journey through a carnival like procession, which sees them through crossing over a tunnel to the other side. This is where all their versions converge and the most developed versions of them go over to the other side. The 'Russian Dolls' start nesting again, but this time with layers of acceptance and healing. The crossover is not the happy ending to their story, but a beginning towards a happy ending.
(This article was originally published by Firstpost on 23 February, 2019.