Being forced to repeat one day for the rest of your life is terrifying for the same reason that movies with this sort of plot are usually bad: it’s boring. Having only one day to live severely limits the amount of plot divergence a movie can attain, and is one of the main reasons why the movie, “Ground Hog Day,” staring Bill Murray, can feel repetitive and sometimes boring.
But the Netflix original, Russian Doll carefully avoids any of the pitfalls of repetition, and stuns with its compelling tale of the main character, Nadia’s, journey to accept and forgive herself.
*Spoilers to follow, FYI
The show opens at Natasha Lyonne’s character, Nadia’s 36th birthday party, which the audience later learns she is doomed to repeat for what seems like the rest of time, or whatever time can possibly be in a looping world. The system works like this: every time Nadia dies, she repeats. The fact that she is repeating the same day doesn’t register at first, but slowly Nadia begins to unravel, turning to drugs and alcohol to process her new reality. The first few episodes are peppered with references to Nadia’s mother, and as the show develops, the story of their relationship becomes more compelling.
Despite the love Nadia clearly feels for her mother, their relationship was problematic to say the very least. Nadia’s mother spent most of her daughter’s college tuition, an inheritance of gold coins, the last of which remaining Nadia wears around her neck. Her mother suffered from delusions, and was paranoid about mirrors, a fact that gains significance when in the looping world Nadia finds herself in, all the mirrors begin to disappear.
The show is more about the relationship between Nadia and her mother, it’s about the nature of time and choice. But the two’s relationship provides one of the most compelling aspects of the plot. While she lives her 36th birthday over and over again, Nadia is forced to face how their relationship has affected her, and how she still hasn’t forgiven herself for telling child services to separate them.
Nadia felt, and clearly still feels, that she was responsible for taking care of her mother, not the other way around. And as she grapples with their relationship, she beings to see visions of herself as a child, prompting a heart attack each time. Nadia is quite literally, forced to face her childhood for what it was, abusive and dangerous, as the audience learns through well timed flashbacks to Nadia’s past.
By the end of the show, it becomes clear that nothing Nadia could have done would have saved her mother, and further, she shouldn’t have been expected to. After all, she was just a kid. But when Nadia meets another character trapped in a looping world, she learns that she can save someone even if she couldn’t save her mother.
Nadia meets Allen, a neurotic character played by Charlie Barnett, who, like Nadia is doomed to repeat his birthday. Together, Nadia and Allen try to figure out the rules of this new world, and how to escape it. The two go through what must be more than ten loops together, each time dying in a crazier way, always at the exact same time. The variety of deaths adds a comedic element to the show, and so does the resulting dynamic between Nadia and Allen. Nadia, a loose-cannon, live in the moment type of person plays opposite to Allen’s robotic, controlled personality, and watching the two interact is not just funny—it’s fascinating.
But the most interesting aspect of the show is revealed at the end. In order to escape the loop, the two must go back to a decision they made not to help the other the very first night they died. As Allen’s tragic first death—jumping off the roof of his building—is revealed, Nadia learns that to save herself, she has to save him as well.
In the end, Nadia and Allen save each other, and the show “Russian Doll” redeems the trope of being trapped in the same day. The show has enough variety in plot to make up for the usually constraining fact of having a character repeat the same day. In fact, the use of this plot makes Russian Doll thrive.
The audience is able to see, because it is repeated so clearly, how Nadia’s actions connect with her troubled past of her mother, and watches as Nadia comes to terms with her relationship with her mother throughout the loop. The two characters, Nadia and Allen, are played skillfully by Lyonne and Barnett, resulting in a fascinating and entertaining dynamic from two so incredibly different people. And finally, through the creative use of flashbacks and visions of her childhood self, the show becomes more about Nadia facing her past than the present that she is forced to repeat, making each loop, even each scene feel new.