What Russian Doll Reveals
You’d never know it from the first episode, but Netflix’s Russian Doll is a sweetheart of a television series. It masquerades as flippantly profane when really it’s only profane. It’s a spin on the movie Groundhog Day—complete with a recurring pop song that starts every day—but, unlike the Bill Murray film, Russian Doll lingers in the darkness of its premise and ultimately offers a more hard-earned hope.
Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) is the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, profanity-spewing tasmanian devil at the center of Russian Doll. She’s a take-no-crap New Yorker whose accent turns “cockroach” into three distinct syllables. All her adult life Nadia has been self-destructively sprinting away from her abusive upbringing, running from cocaine-laced cigarettes to binge drinking to casual hookups with creeps, all with a suicidal intensity that matches the show’s tone. Russian Doll is dimly lit, its aesthetic grimy and lived-in, its characters (initially) more abrasive than appealing. The show doesn’t much care if you like Nadia, because Nadia doesn’t much care either. I spent the first three episodes of Russian Doll not sure I wanted to keep watching it, as Nadia continues to be stuck in this self-destructive loop.
And then episode four happens. (Spoilers ahead.)
We discover that another character, Alan (Charlie Barnett), is also reliving the same day over and over again. In fact, when either of the two main characters die (something which happens a lot), the other dies as well. It’s here that the show’s premise locks in place: these two very wounded, very different people are bound to each others’ fates, and the only possible hope for escape is through each other. It’s to the show’s credit we’re never positive they will make it. As Alan and Nadia’s connection deepens, the show’s nihilistic flippancy becomes nightmarish. It’s as though their broken, wounded selves are cornered animals, fighting fiercely against all attempts at healing. This is maybe my favorite aspect of Russian Doll: it doesn’t pretend that sanctification—the pursuit of healing and holiness in your life—comes easily. Whatever sanctification is possible in the show will be hard-won.
There’s a tendency to talk about sanctification as if it were a simple path, that reconciling with the pain of the past, or overcoming addiction, or experiencing honest intimacy with another human is in any way easy. One of the Bible’s most appealing traits is that it never claims this. Peter may have his literal “come to Jesus” moment on a boat, after which he declared, “I am a sinful man!,” but his journey will still involve being called “Satan” by Jesus, denying he ever knew Jesus, and being publicly chided by Paul for treating Gentiles differently than Jews. Nearly every biblical figure, from Moses to David to Jonah to John the Baptist, experiences similar ups and downs. There’s a reason one of the primary metaphors for the Christian life is “taking up the cross.”
Whatever sanctification is possible in the show will be hard-won.
In Russian Doll’s penultimate episode, Nadia sees visions of the deeply wounded child still inside her. We see flashbacks to the disturbing mania of Nadia’s mother (Chloe Sevigny), including a scene where she breaks all the mirrors in the house in a rage; in the present, blood and shards of glass come out of Nadia’s mouth. Alan’s obsessive-compulsive disorder leads him to the verge of suicide when his girlfriend dumps him. Groundhog Day is a wonderful movie, but it mostly sidelines the carnage of Bill Murray’s battle with himself on the path to becoming a better person. This battle is central to Russian Doll.
It’s important that Alan and Nadia aren’t romantic soulmates, destined to live eternally in love. Russian Doll is fantastical, but it’s not a Disney fairy tale, and it’s understanding of sanctification is like a gritty rendition of the biblical concept of ironing sharpening iron. That metaphor has become cliche, but what it envisions—two iron objects colliding—isn’t pleasant, or easy. The reality of being vulnerable with others, of clashing against them in a way that produces change, is one of the bravest and most painful tasks humans can voluntarily do. What Russian Doll gets about intimacy is that it is, in fact, a beautiful, horrible thing.
In one of the show’s most moving moments, a drunken and suicidal Alan is being literally pulled back from the ledge by Nadia, who tries to convince him life is worth living. “Can you promise me I’ll be happy?” Alan asks? “F*** no,” Nadia replies, “but I can promise you we’ll do it together.”
This unsparing assessment of life carries on into Russian Doll’s view of death. In the show’s final scene both Alan and Nadia have broken their loops, but found themselves placed in separate realities. The Alan in Nadia’s world is still suicidal. The Nadia in Alan’s world is self-destructive. Neither remembers the other. As both Alan and Nadia rush to save the other, the dual realities merge in a scene that plays like a twisted, fun-house mirror reflection of the ending to ABC’s Lost. But whereas Lost’s depiction of human connection felt like a Unitarian church service, Russian Doll’s is a Dia de los Muertos parade, led by a homeless man in a horse mask. (Watch it, you’ll see what I mean.)
Russian Doll’s ending is a “rage against the dying of the light” ode to surviving the pain of human existence through community, but it’s hard to say if the show’s oblique ending offers much hope after that. What’s beautiful about Christianity, in contrast, is the understanding that the work of sanctification we do together carries on into the afterlife. Sanctification prepares us for that day when the tears will be wiped away and the suffering will end.
It’s hard to imagine this sort of hopefulness existing in Russian Doll’s world. Still, that doesn’t erase the show’s understanding that true human connection and improvement doesn’t come easy in this life, here and now. Sanctification, it tells us, is hard work, like iron being sharpened iron. But there’s beauty in the pain.