Nadia Vulvokav — played by the flame-haired Natasha Lyonne — is a lonely, cynical, and even sardonic video game programmer on the brink of wanting to end it all. In the opening scene, she stares at herself in the bathroom mirror as an invasive knock pounds into the ears and minds of the viewers. Nadia might hear the knock too, but her gaze, pointed directly at the camera, feels empty and distracted. Nadia is not having the time of her life at her 36th birthday party, and she wants us to know it. She lives a reckless life, taking whatever joint is offered her and sleeping with whomever might cross her path. “Staring down the barrel of mortality always beats fun,” Nadia jokes, not knowing that she will be fatally hit by a cab that same night while drunkenly searching for her cat, Oatmeal.
But Nadia lives to see another day. She wakes up peering at herself in the bathroom mirror with the same empty gaze, ignoring the same penetrating knock. It quickly becomes clear that this is not some freaky coincidence. Nadia has returned to relive the final day of her life, continuing to wake up in front of the bathroom mirror after her almost daily dose of death.
Despite the comedic quirks in “Russian Doll,” a newly released Netflix series, the program stuns with serious reflections about mortality, self-love, and becoming a better person. Every rebirth offers the viewer new ways to think about Nadia, just as Nadia examines her own relationships, with friends, enemies, and herself.
And Nadia really is forced to reckon with herself, because the days become a revolving door. People’s actions loop and highlight their utter ignorance of Nadia’s situation, leaving her isolated and unable to rely on others. Before Nadia can truly alter how she sees the outside world, she must first come to terms with her inner self — mistakes and triumphs included. Nadia must grapple with the ways she has selfishly disregarded and hurt others, as well as the ways in which her buried childhood challenges were indeed moments of growth and strength.
But in the midst of this personal growth — warning: spoilers ahead — comes a twist. Nadia encounters Alan, a fellow tortured soul stuck on the same hamster wheel of daily death. Before, Nadia refused to accept responsibility for her situation; now, she and Alan inspire one another to change that and together they try to make sense of their plight. By trying to make amends with the ways they have failed themselves and others, the pair ultimately discovers that each day is bringing them closer to ending the cycle.
They return to the moments they might have hurt others or the moments in which they might have been hurt. This time, they confront the past rather than run from it. And in the midst of this confrontation, they learn just how enjoyable life can actually be, especially when in the company of a friend. This push to be better people, both for ourselves and others, is refreshing, especially when much of modern television forces a narrative of our inclinations toward moral decay and narcissism.
By the end of the season, Nadia and Alan seem to have broken their curse. But in a cruel twist of fate, they are ultimately sent back to separate, alternate universes in which one recognizes only a stranger in the other. It’s stinging to see them wrenched apart after all they’ve undergone together. For isn’t surviving death together day after day as intimate a connection as one forged by those who tackle life side by side? Though times might get tough — so tough, in fact, that you have to watch out for fatal airborne air conditioners — there is a beauty and comfort in having someone play for your own team. In other words, Nadia has found her own partner in crime – or, by the end, a partner in doing good.
Despite the tragedy, it is impossible to stop after a single pass through the show. A second viewing reveals sly symbols playfully sprinkled throughout the show and becomes a fun expedition in the search of those hidden meanings. And given that each episode is only 25 minutes, it may be impossible to resist finding out what joys a third run elicits.