Russian Doll Nails the Investigation of One’s Own Ghosts

What is a life that is worthy to be lived? Where we ponder about the choices that we make or about to make or have made? Where we go through it wearing goodness on our sleeve? Or to live it free of everything? These questions lead to one thing: consequences. They come through all the ponderation, the degree of the action that we choose, and the freedom itself. Ethically, you cannot screw life up, ever. But it’s hard to live life well with evil around us, dictation doesn’t come naturally for all of us. How does that compute to Russian Doll?

Russian Doll shares its premise to Bill Murray’s 1993 Groundhog Day, where they encounter the same day everyday. What strikes it from the classic film is death.

The scene opens with Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), front and center; staring at a mirror, to herself, in a pitched black ceramic-walled bathroom with guns for its door handle. The situation already looks hectic, with someone knocking impatiently at the door. What a tumultuous night, filled with cigarette smoke and loud music. Her friends Maxine (Greta Lee) and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson) greet her, congratulate her on her 36th birthday. But for Nadia, it’s just a number and a ghost. The night goes berserk as she leaves for home with a douchebag, gets into a car crash to save a cat, and she dies, instantly. Cut to Nadia, front and center; staring at a mirror, to herself, in a pitch-black ceramic-walled bathroom with guns for its door handle—again.

Spearheaded by Leslye Headland (Bachelorette, Sleeping With Other People), Amy Poehler (Broad City, Difficult People), and Lyonne herself; their comedy comes from the narrowest, most specific genres of comedy that are crass, neurotic, and unpredictable. The show tackles themes of self and how life is supposed to be lived; of living in what we presume to be hell; of what we should do to fix or deal with the consequences of the actions that we have made. All the eternal questions that always swarm whenever we’re alone, are being exhibited in how Nadia chooses to live her life. She was almost hopeless until she meets Alan (Charlie Barnett) who is apparently going through the exact same thing as her.

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Alan is pretty much the antithesis of Nadia’s exteriority. His moral compass relies on guilt and how he chooses to reside in his bubble which results in his downfall. Alan is interested in correcting his life from then, without ever wanting to know details from the consequences, whereas Nadia wants to inspect how this death cycle works out. But, they do share some of the same things. How their pasts are a blur, whether it’s because they block them out, or there were nothing to begin with. In a way, this show studies how trauma works for people, and for most of the people, they process it very, very differently.

One of the common denominators that Nadia and Alan share are mirrors. Both starts the day of their death in front of a mirror of a bathroom; somehow preparing themselves for the looming predicaments that they’re about to encounter. Russian Doll plays a lot with optical illusion, where the mirrors come to play. In episode 9 titled Reflection, Nadia’s aunt Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) explains how mirrors are “a proof of existence, another pair of eyes.” The mirror is a companion that will show you who you are, who you were once before, and you would be forced to narrow and pinpoint every little thing that you see. How one could be led to trace the intentions and consequences of their actions, if not for a mirror. In this case, therapists resemble the mirror. To lead the way out from the hole that has become your existence. To remind you why you need to exist and examine the choices in your life. To put it bluntly, to reflect. It’s a symbol of seeing through who you are and noticing the flaws that you somehow choose to ignore beforehand.

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A star is born in Natasha Lyonne, who has managed to create, write, produce, and act in it. She moves in a fidgety manner most of the time, scratching her hair (great, great hair), and lighting cigarettes—she is mesmerizing, riveting, and enchanting to watch. Charlie Barnett enlivens Alan with so much empathy and layers that we are able to see the distinction of his version of aloneness to Nadia’s. Not to mention the other actors such as Greta Lee, Rebecca Anderson, Elizabeth Ashley, Chloë Sevigny, and Dascha Polanco as Alan’s ex. They help us to make sense of this weird, delicious show with so much laughter, ambiguity, as well as a few tears here and there.

In the end, heuristic becomes the foundation of Russian Doll’s storytelling, how it unpacks and untangles and goes back to packed and tangled again. Since Nadia and Alan are riddled by their life expectancies, they begin to inspect each and every minutiae of their everyday lives, especially that day. Where they both die in that same day. They exchange stories, theories, conspiracies, up to their background; who they are as a person before the situation happens; who they have become now; what triggers the death(s); what ghosts of their pasts have been haunting them; that they unite, depend on each other, care for each other. To witness their relationship is one of the rewards itself. Russian Doll is a menace for other new shows to come, as it has become one of the most enjoyable and thrilling television experiences one could ever watch.

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