***spoilers abound/pro-tip: Russian Doll is best enjoyed with a blank canvas, i.e. read all the stuff about it later***
It is raining when they had promised snow and Russian Doll is playing on the laptop, my insides artfully being strewn out before me in a way that I cannot yet articulate. Like the transmuting nature of a dream, unwilling to be grasped and ephemeral by definition, so is this magically-real delight conveniently packaged in a Netflix Original series. Call me ripe for the kind of heroism that is Natasha Lyonne’s; it’s 2019 and we can all use a brief reprieve. And yet, this is more like a pleasant, enduring haunting (here I am one week later and three runs deep). Why—despite my reputation as a pop culture lightweight/know-nothing—does Russian Doll feel less like a casual entertainment break, and more like a peak existential experience?
When reality gets multidimensional like this and the world bluntly represents itself as a multiverse, analysis short circuits to the point of necessary surrender. One of Russian Doll’s great and timely gifts to us as a species is that it won’t let itself be figured out by mere intellect alone. To let yourself in on the secrets of Russian Doll is to let yourself get worked over emotionally by it. It is to surrender to what lives inside of you. It was designed this way; clever will only get you so far. My psyche—and yours too: come on, speak up, fellow fans!—doesn’t just spin out from my cozy couch-wrapped body to sit there in front of me staring back at me like a dog with its tongue hanging out of its mouth begging that I attend to it, for just any attempt at evoking this in me. No, no—it takes the kind of combined artistry, genius, and badass execution that is Natasha Lyonne’s and co-creators Leslye Headland’s and Amy Poehler’s to render possible such an experience.
Nadia Vulvokoff is an unapologetic, dirty-mouthed, and relentlessly lovable New Yorker turning 36. Nadia Vulvokoff keeps dying. Nadia Vulvokoff keeps dying. She keeps dying, and it is both a hilarious and deep affair. What is life anyway (but a sleeping life) without hilarity and depth? Or even further: What is life if not these two things? I cannot speak for all women or of all women, but I will speak for myself, of myself, and of the women I know and love and respect and rely on, when I say that women are fucking funny while being deep at the same time. Natasha Lyonne reminds us of our lifeblood. As writer, director, and actor in her very own autobiographical masterpiece, so is she just above and beyond in the comedy department, gifting us not only with her character Nadia’s hilariously witty commentary and comebacks, but the humor of her body. Who amongst you does not experience the birth of a laugh inside of your own body when Nadia swaggers out of the bathroom with a revivified pep in her step after her fifth or sixth death? Who doesn’t crack a smile while emotion bursts forth from her body in dramatized New Yorkishly-accented expression? Who doesn’t love her more as she simply just is, signature stoop and all? A rare and top-shelf female master of physical comedy, Lyonne, who alongside doling out the laughs we all need, reminds us that among all of the things a woman’s body can be, it can also be a home of humor.
What Nadia Vulvokoff’s body is not a home to are the cliché female functions of supporting role, sex object, girlfriend, wife, mother, work-life balancer, single woman looking for those things, etc. Nadia is a person who is less concerned with convention and more interested in making it more than a few scenes past her 36th birthday party in her best friend’s boho-cool East Village loft without dying. Lyonne chooses 36 for Nadia because “I think the reason to have a character who was facing her own mortality not be older than 36 was so that we didn't have to unpack that endless conundrum of ‘Should I or shouldn't I consider children?’ It feels like you have up 'til 37 to really be still playing fast and loose with that.” If fast and loose is dying over and over again and concerning herself with the existential nature of her bizarrely terrifying reality, then fast and loose it is for Nadia.
Nadia Vulvokoff keeps dying. She dies, she died, she died again, and dies once more. What is wanting to be made of this? Lyonne is forthcoming when she reveals the dark spaces that she inhabited (and that inhabited her, as it works—“Buildings aren’t haunted, people are,” says the rabbi) amidst her addiction. “The early days of conceiving Russian Doll, I didn’t even realize [the stories were] in any way supernatural. They were just based on my personal experience of nearly dying very often as a result of addiction.” In the same interview with Rolling Stone, she says of the addict’s life, “as a standalone, indirect commentary on that experience, it feels like the dark nights of the soul where you feel like you’re dying again and again, and there’s no way out, and you’re forced to come up against yourself and interface with other people, and move from a disconnected, selfish, belligerent experience into a connected one, against your will, if you want to make it out alive. In many ways it’s quite literal — emotionally, at least.” And yet the beauty of Russian Doll is that it is not only this—it makes meaning in those amongst yourselves who didn’t pick up on the addiction element to the story. Addiction, after all, isn’t the only way we self-destruct. It isn’t the only way we live and die over and over each day and night, each life and death. It’s not the only way the universe(s) force[s] us to try another way. Addiction is one surefire way—but not the only way—of giving you the illusion that you are okay so long as you keep covering your eyes, and so long as you fog yourself out enough, no one else is suffering the impact of your life:
“What if they keep going?” Nadia proposes to Alan.
“Who? Who keeps going?” asks Alan.
“Them, everyone who’s not us. I thought what was happening to us wasn’t hurting anybody else, but I mean they’re all in it too.”
“Fifteen times, Ruth has grieved for me. In fifteen universes.”
For Nadia to be freed from the harrowing death-on-repeat cycle, what does it take? A coming to terms with the trauma of a child—the rampant destruction of a live-wire-of-a-mother (hairstyle to match) and the shards of glassy guilt trapped inside that grown up body? (“It wasn’t that bad” says Nadia. “It was that bad” Ruth corrects her.) A coming in close to that little girl inside of her—gaping, bleeding holes left behind where a mother should have been? The recognition that there is no way around our interdependence, a concept so excruciating for someone who has created for herself the perfect little protective cocoon of self-reliance? (“Look man, I gotta be honest with you if I was inventing hell it’d look a lot like this. . . Our lives depend on each other for, like, eternity? That’s my own worst personal nightmare.”) Can we ever be sure that Nadia and Alan don’t have more dying to do?
What we can be sure of is that somewhere between “cock-a-roach" Nadia with a cirrhosed degree of tolerance to (and gravitation toward) destruction, and fully dead Nadia is the life force inside of her that never does die no mater how broken she gets. “You were this tiny seed buried in darkness, fighting your way to the light,” godmother Ruth reminds Nadia of her younger self. “You wanted to live. It’s the most beeeeautiful thing in the world. Do you still have that in you?”
Natasha concludes in her Elle interview that “I think the biggest idea of Russian Doll would be that we start to talk about removing some shame around the underlying idea of our own brokenness, and realizing that we're all broken in our own ways and that's part of our power and our beauty: our imperfections and our differences.”
While I am not here to tell you about my own brokenness (but please do let us all keep talking about our brokenness), what I want to say is this: I am not the only one besides Natasha Lyonne who has a self inside who knows (or at the very least ponders) a thing or two about how our wounding comes back around and around again, with the simple want of being transformed; about non-linear time and the possibility of fifteen universes; about the unbearable pain of mother who lost herself and left too soon to find her daughter; about the pain of a little girl just too much to look at; about the things a person stuffs away under the bed; about the inheritance of trauma; about the fog and the forgetting and the way a person shrinks her world and kills herself over and over inside of addiction; about a 36th birthday and the way it can take on a death tone; about the depth of mystery; about what death does to a person; about the likelihood that we are inextricably dependent upon each other and that this could change everything; about the multiple selves that reside within us at any given moment; about the possibility of angels; and about the will to live. I am not the only one besides Natasha Lyonne who can look back at her life and see that amidst all the brokenness, there are cracks where life force is pushing through, like the rainbows of a little girl’s bright and secret wish for herself. Nadia Vulvokoff keeps dying. She keeps dying, and with every death she pours us a little swig of some kind of homecoming; she offers us the possibility that we can relax a little bit because this existence is going to make sure we get what we need (and if we don’t get it this time around, we’ll get it in the next).