Russian Doll REVIEW – Dying Is The New Black

Netflix's answer to Groundhog Day cracks open the various levels of Natasha Lyonne's life and existence.

russian doll natasha lyonne

Straight off the bat, Russian Doll is fast-paced visually and plot-wise. However, you’ll have no problem keeping up. It revolves around the fabulously wise-cracking, darkly witty but lovable Nadia Vulvokov, played to perfection by Orange Is The New Black’s Natasha Lyonne. She said in an interview that she used the name Nadia because she was more than a little obsessed with the five-time Olympic medalist Nadia Comaneci, her favourite gymnast from the 80s.

Russian Doll has been Lyonne’s passion project for seven years – she recalls it all began when she received a phone call from Amy Poehler telling her “Natasha, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been the oldest girl in the world, and what I’d like is to create a series with you sort of based on something like that concept.” I think we all could do with a friend like Amy Poehler, but the star of this show is Lyonne – gosh, she’s good in this, just the right amount of crazy (“we don’t say crazy in this house”), killer wit, anguish, determination, and ultimately redemption and hope. Not only does Natasha get joint writing credits for the show but she gets a directing credit for the last episode, ‘Ariadne’ – is there no end to this woman’s talent?

The plot revolves around Nadia celebrating her 36th birthday party that her friends have thrown for her, and then dying and reliving that same night over and over again in some kind of cruel purgatorial loop.

Russian Doll does have a Groundhog Day-esque touch to it, but this is much darker and notably, all too real. It may seem strange to say that, given the sci-fi element to the show, but the subject matter is very socially aware (or “woke” for you Millennials at the back.) In regards to mental health issues, drug-taking, suicide, toxic relationships, homelessness, and sexuality. The characters and their lives are undeniably real and sometimes painfully relatable. It’s a credit to the writers that this show is able to weave between the sci-fi and real world with ease, and as a viewer, you won’t even question it.

Having said that, there are lighter comedic moments too, courtesy of the razor-sharp script from Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler – it’s nuanced and hits the right tone every time. Without giving too much away things start to get even more interesting for Nadia when a chance encounter with a stranger in an elevator prompts her twig she’s not alone on this crazy resurrection ride. After that, it’s death on repeat, and a bit more death, and a bit more death — you get the picture.

One of Russian Doll’s most interesting supporting character’s is a homeless man named Horse, and refreshingly he’s not your stereotypical homeless dude either. To me, Horse seems to represent the oracle-type figure who drops these little pearls of wisdom that makes you smile. Although he’s not a central character he’s extremely likable and we look forward to his interactions with Nadia. There’s an extremely touching scene where she spends the night in a shelter with him to ensure no-one steals his shoes.

As becomes all so clear later on, we find out that Nadia didn’t get a whole lot of nurturing and maternal love from her own mother. It begs the question, is there some dark metaphoric link between Horse, Nadia and her mother? There is obviously some sort of Bermuda Triangle scenario at play here between Horse, Nadia’s mother Lenora, and Nadia herself. Nadia talks very proudly about the gold bullion necklace that belonged to her mother, we can see it holds sentimental value to her and she’s rarely seen without it. In the episode ‘The Way Out’, we see a woman, (in flashback) we’ve not seen before with a young girl in tow – we see she’s wearing the gold bullion necklace and we immediately know it’s Nadia’s mother wearing the same necklace all those years ago; it’s a nice touch.

As a child we’re shown Nadia escaping the hideous reality of the day to day life of living with a schizophrenic parent by burying her head in her favourite book, Emily of New Moon, written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables. Nadia prefers Emily, though – of course she does, it’s darker. It’s about an orphaned girl who’s has to face hardship during her young life and Nadia finds solace in Emily’s story and it’s become her coping mechanism, it’s a safe world to get lost in, unlike her own.

We’re not given too much information on Lenora’s back story but it’s not needed. The few flashbacks we see are so heartbreaking and emotive we can connect the dots for ourselves. In my opinion Russian Doll gets huge brownie points for touching on a subject that rarely gets much attention, the role and subsequent emotional trauma of a young child living under the same roof as a parent with severe mental health issues. These children are mini-heroes but many of them end up with their own mental health problems later in life, mainly PTSD. This is something Ruth mentions to Nadia that she most likely has, during an earlier scene from episode 2.

While Lenora isn’t present outside these flashbacks, we do see that Nadia has a close bond with her mother’s psychiatrist friend Ruth, who in my opinion has one of the best lines in the show when Nadia says she’s losing her mind – Ruth says “should I call my guy at Bellevue?” to which Nadia says “is it the nicest psych ward?” and Ruth replies “it’s definitely the closest.”

Lenora is played with real sensibility by Chloe Sevigny. In episode 7, ‘The Way Out’, we discover the trauma that blighted Nadia’s childhood. Living with a mother suffering from serious mental health issues, and how the effects of that trauma have shaped Nadia’s adult life, her past and present relationships, and the detrimental choices she’s made along the way. We see there’s a wretched reasoning behind Nadia’s penchant for watermelon, we see her buying a tub of it at the deli in the very first episode. When we are shown a flashback to Nadia’s childhood later on, we see that her mother’s mental illness had convinced that she should only feed a very young Nadia watermelon and most likely she feels connected to her mother by some warped and tormented logic.

Finally, we need to talk about Alan. I don’t want to give too much away here as his appearance is a compelling little twist, but Alan appears seemingly out of nowhere but is a welcome and intoxicating addition to the ride. He is the direct opposite of Nadia: he’s shy, clean living, reliable, well-mannered, and a proper geek (meant in the nicest possible way). She’s loud, opinionated, foul-mouthed, and chain-smokes, but the one thing they share is they are both very traumatized individuals. Their brief and complicated relationship withstands the mind-bending revelations they uncover together, and it becomes obvious that when they start to delve into each other’s lives looking for answers to stop the death loo, they can see that when they look at each other they represent the very thing the other one is lacking.

To disclose all the gems that befall Nadia and Alan would do a disservice to the show, so I’ll tread carefully and only highlight a few. We witness Nadia and Alan each giving Horse a valuable item of jewelry that holds painful memories for both of them. For Nadia it’s her dead mother’s necklace – for Alan, it’s the engagement ring he bought for his girlfriend Beatrice.

This act of handing over something that carries so much emotional weight for both of them, seems to symbolises a letting go of trauma, a letting go of fear and a letting go of the emotional baggage that’s been weighing them both down. It’s a thought provoking moment that lasts briefly but stays with the viewer. This series is littered with moments like these and come the end of the show we feel as though we’ve been put though an emotional wringer but we also feel all the better for it.

Russian Doll is a must-see with dark and comedic twists and turns, with a script that is bang on trend, so well constructed I wish I’d written it myself and should be on the top of your binge-watch list for this weekend. Where else could Rocky, Colombo and white walkers all get name-checked in the same show? Dying is definitely the new black.

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Russian Doll is a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing dark comedy.

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