“Did you ever hear the one about the broken man and the lady with a death wish who got stuck in a loop?”
On its surface, Russian Doll—co-created by and starring Natasha Lyonne—has a familiar setup. Stuck in a time loop, Lyonne’s reckless and pessimistic Nadia Vulvokov is reliving her 36th birthday, only to die each night and start it over again. The first time she lives out this fated birthday, she’s struck by a taxi and left to die in a cold New York City street.
When Russian Doll premiered on Netflix back in 2019, no one could have predicted just how prescient the series would soon become. In the three years since its premiere, we’ve collectively spent an ungodly amount of time locked in our homes, reliving the same, tired days trying to find something, anything to help us make it through. Living through a pandemic has been life-changing for us all, to say the least. Maybe you realized just how introverted you really are and enjoyed the lack of pressure to socialize, or maybe after two years of stilted, awkward gatherings you’re more than ready to return to a maskless community lifestyle. However you’ve managed to make it through the pandemic this far, congratulations are in order. Like Nadia, we’ve all been exhausted living this repetitive life; but if we’re lucky, maybe we found someone along the way who makes it all worth it.
Russian Doll begins with Nadia alone. She stares into a bathroom mirror, looking directly at the camera. She hates the reflection looking back at her. This will soon be our repeated start, the moment Nadia returns to after dying each night. A thrill-seeking, drug-taking Nihilist who goes through her life insisting she needs no one else—besides maybeher two best friends, Maxine and Lizzy—Nadia is deeply unhappy. She’s selfish and brash and tends to do whatever she wants at any given moment. This pattern leads her to Mike, a horrible, cocksure man, who she whisks away from her own birthday party to bring her home. It’s on their walk back to her apartment that her first death occurs.
Suffering from the worst deja vu of her life, or maybe just tripping from the cocaine-laced joint Maxine offered her, Nadia refuses to realize the weight of her new immortality at first. No one listens to her ramblings on death and rebirth, and she even considers the fact that Maxine’s apartment, formerly a yeshiva, is simply haunted. This dead-end leads her to a rabbi who offers up the very succinct: “Buildings aren’t haunted, people are haunted.” After tracking down the dealer who supplied Maxine’s illicit birthday gift to Nadia, she’s forced to reckon with the fact that if it’s not the building, and it’s not the drugs, it must be her.
As she repeats her birthday, Nadia slowly allows her callous, projected personality to fade bit by bit, realizing how impactful the people in her life are on her happiness. She reconnects with John, an ex who was married when their tryst began and divorced by the time it ended. Seeing him for the first time since they broke up months ago, her first few interactions are typical fare for Nadia, brushing off the importance of their relationship and pretending like it meant nothing to her, although they both know that’s not true. As she spends more time with him, she gives him more and more of herself. She drops the front, apologizes, and even promises to meet his daughter. Each time she dies, Nadia’s given a clean slate and John is seeing a miraculous change in character from her. This is a win-win for Nadia. As he’s giving himself the chance to let someone in, she’s getting used to the idea of vulnerability without repercussions; it doesn’t matter what she says to John, she’s just going to die and he’s just going to forget it. But by rekindling this relationship, even if just for a few nights, Nadia begins to let the tiniest bit of herself believe that maybe she doesn’t want to be alone after all.
Another recurring figure in Nadia’s cyclical life is Horse, a man who lives in the park by Maxine’s apartment. Each time they meet, she’s inexplicably drawn to him. One night, Horse tells her that his shoes got stolen at a shelter he slept at. In perhaps the bleakest of her deaths, Nadia and Horse freeze to death cuddled up beneath a blanket that doesn’t stand a chance against the bitter cold. Seeing the opportunity to do a little good, the next time she relives the day, Nadia stands guard while Horse sleeps peacefully and his shoes remain unstolen. Despite what she thinks, Nadia is not an inherently bad person, she’s just a woman suffering from debilitating self-hatred and who’s prone to bouts of self-sabotage. But when given the chance to put in just a little effort to make an impact in someone’s life, she chooses to help.
Without even realizing it, her repeated deaths are bringing the best out of Nadia, the little parts of her she thought she hated and tried to shove down with booze and drugs. But they were always there, buried beneath the depression and self-loathing. Once Nadia begins to soften from her experiences with John and Horse, she meets Alan. Despite living through an apocalyptic personal event, Nadia still feels the need to appease her shitty bosses and focus on her work. As she rides the elevator up to her office at a video game development firm, alarms start to blare and the doors slide open. The others panic while the elevator plummets down the shaft, but not Alan. “Hey man, didn’t you get the news?” she says, coolly. “We’re about to die.” “It doesn’t matter,” he responds. “I die all the time.”
Have you ever met someone and immediately felt that indescribable pull? Like from the first moment you met, you just knew they’d be in your life for a long time? Platonically and romantically, it’s real and it’s terrifying, especially for someone like Nadia who makes a point to diligently protect herself against forming any real connections, even with her best friends. Like it or not, the universe pushed Nadia and Alan together, forcing them to share an experience no one else will ever understand. Their lives are woven together, beginning and ending at the same time every day. They are destined to live and die together.
At first, it seems Nadia and Alan have nothing in common. He’s a rigid rule-follower to a fault and listens to recordings of affirmations daily. Rather than reliving a lavish birthday party like Nadia, Alan is reliving the worst day of his life. On his way to pick up his long-term girlfriend for a weeklong trip where he planned to propose, she reveals she’s been cheating on him and can’t continue their relationship anymore. Knowing the outcome will never change, Alan follows the routine of this night each time he dies and starts over. But besides his ex who he’s been with all his adult life, Alan has no one. He’s lost and hopeless following the breakup but insists on white-knuckling through the pain alone. He can do this alone. He’s always done it alone.
It takes Nadia and Alan time to figure out how to break this grueling, cursed existence. As they spend their days and deaths together, they develop a deeper bond than either allowed themselves to feel before. Nadia opens up about her troubled past and complicated relationship with her mentally ill mother, and Alan eventually reveals the truth about his very first death. At the same moment Nadia was killed by that taxi on her first 36th birthday, Alan—piss drunk and reeling from the seemingly life-ruining breakup—jumped off the roof of his apartment building.
The heartbreaking revelation that Alan’s first death was by suicide crushes Nadia but leads her towards finally solving their mysterious conundrum. Just prior to the car accident on that first night, Nadia was in the corner deli and witnessed a clearly distraught Alan stumbling through the store. She considered helping him, or even just asking if he was alright, but instead decides to mess with a rowdy group of men, sending them to an abandoned building when they approach her for directions to a bar. By the time she’s done, Alan is gone and she goes on with her night, only to die moments later. If she had chosen to help Alan, Nadia considers, she could’ve prevented his death. And if he hadn’t been so steeped in self-pity and whiskey, Alan may have been able to prevent her death, too.
Fate works in funny ways, especially for those of us who are skeptical towards the idea of the whole thing. For Alan and Nadia, as soon as they realize the power of their connection, they’re thrust into parallel timelines. The Nadia we know runs to the deli only to find Alan the way he was that night: upset and on the brink of doing something horrible. She follows him through the park, watching him give his wallet, engagement ring, and anything else he had to Horse and his friends. Our Alan, on the other hand, sees Nadia and Mike buying condoms and struggles to convince her of his importance to her. Finally, he makes it through, referencing something so specific and personal that she has no choice but to listen to him. As for the version of Alan that was so crushed by his relationship imploding, well, he just needed someone to be there for him that night.
Of course, it’s horribly upsetting to the Alan and Nadia who lived and died together that they’re forced to start their relationship over, but both are eager to do it. Hooking up just once throughout the series, the love between Nadia and Alan isn’t romantic and doesn’t feel pressured to be. Their need to be together is just a fact of the universe. Regardless of anyone else they’ve ever had in their lives, this is the connection that makes life worth living. Soulmates in the truest sense of the word, Alan and Nadia were destined to change each other’s lives by just being there for each other.
As much as we try to fight it, we aren’t meant to be alone. Sure, for some of us it feels easier to shut everyone else out, to refuse to acknowledge we need anyone, to just grit your teeth and take on the world by yourself, but what if it’s not? Obviously, this is a truth understood by many people already, but when you’ve lived in the comfortable pattern of solitude for so long, it can be damn near impossible to even recognize it, let alone break it. When you think you hate the person you are deep inside, why would you ever let anyone else see that? When you truly believe you’ve caused irreparable pain by simply existing in people’s lives, how could you risk hurting anyone else? It’s exhausting to hate the person you think you are and terrifying to change it. Alan and Nadia are two sides of this coin; their lives are endless cycles of repeated behavior they’re finally forced to confront in the most extreme way possible. Facing death over and over again, Nadia and Alan come to the painfully simple conclusion that the only life worth living is one where they’re together. And maybe, just maybe, we could all be so lucky as to find that person in our own lives.
“You promise I’ll be happy if I don’t jump?” Alan asks Nadia on the roof.
“Absolutely not. But I can promise you that you will not be alone.”
“Okay,” he says. “What now?”
Kristen Reid is a writer, covering television for Paste Magazine, Vulture, and Film School Rejects. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.
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