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I Die All The Time

The Repetitive Nature of Self-Destruction in Russian Doll

Russian Doll (2019) | Netflix
Netflix

There’s a bit of dialogue in the third episode of Russian Doll that stands out in all my viewings. By the time we get to this point, Nadia Vulvokov (played by the charmingly acerbic Natasha Lyonne) has already realized that she died on the night of her 36th birthday party and is stuck reliving the same night repeatedly. She’s in full-on problem-solving mode now, determined to identify the root cause of this hellish loop. Having eliminated a bad drug trip, and unwilling to consider a psychological break, she finds herself at a synagogue trying to question a rabbi. Nadia’s latest theory is that she’s incurred the wrath of some ancient Jewish curse by holding her birthday party at a converted yeshiva. In her mind, she and her friends have desecrated the space, so this is a perfectly logical reason for her increasingly surreal circumstances. And since the rabbi’s secretary won’t let an unmarried woman anywhere near her boss, she’s dragged along her ex-boyfriend, John (Yul Vazquez).

As John sits across from the rabbi, he asks the first question on Nadia’s list: “Are there any history of hauntings in the building?” He stops, seemingly realizing the ridiculous situation he’s found himself in. It doesn’t take long for him to spill his guts to the rabbi—how his affair with Nadia destroyed his marriage, how his decision to pursue a relationship with her has alienated his daughter, and how the sacrifices he’s made to be with her seem meaningless to Nadia. The rabbi tries to counsel him, suggesting that Nadia is just a distraction from his own pain. John takes it in, but he still has to try one more time: “And that building she’s asking about isn’t really haunted?” The rabbi shrugs and waves him off. “Buildings aren’t haunted,” he moralizes, “people are.” When the scene cuts to Nadia, now half a bottle deep in the kiddush wine, the implication is clear: Nadia’s world is unraveling around her, but there aren’t any outward forces tugging at the strings. 

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In his essay collection The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always 3 o’clock in the morning. Day after day.” In spirituality and folklore, 3 o’clock is considered the witching hour—when devils, ghouls, and spectres are free to wreak havoc on the world. But the cloak of night isn’t reserved for biblical hellions; it’s also when our psychological demons are at their most potent. Most of us have lain awake in the middle of the night, ruminating on every awkward interaction, every missed opportunity, every real and perceived failure we’ve ever experienced. There’s something about the stillness of the night that brings our deepest anxieties and insecurities to the forefront. It’s when the woulda, coulda, shoulda loop pulls us in. 

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Russian Doll (2019) | Netflix

Russian Doll begins in a bathroom. Nadia stares at herself in the mirror as her 36th birthday party rages on just outside the door. The camera lingers on Nadia a beat more than what feels comfortable, and the longer she stares at her reflection, the less it feels like she’s looking at what she sees—a slightly askew collar, expertly applied mascara—and more like she’s looking for what she doesn’t see. 36 years old, now. No meaningful career. No family. No real place in the world. No clue.

As incessant knocking at the door pulls her away, we follow Nadia as she effortlessly reintegrates herself into the party—lighting a cigarette for a friend here, a head nod and dap-up there. It’s her birthday party, so we shouldn’t be surprised at this level of familiarity. But every interaction feels more fleeting than the last. When you’re shut down emotionally, you learn how to slip in and out these moments without anyone actually noticing. Some do this by burying their turmoil, while others—like Nadia—wear their discontent on their sleeves, numbing those around them to their cries for help. Nadia is clearly well practiced in this manner of disconnecting; when her best friend, Maxine (Greta Lee), urges her to enjoy the party, she doesn’t pretend. “Staring down the barrel of my own mortality always beats fun,” she quips. And yet, no one bats an eye. 

After a while, Nadia bails on her own party for a one night stand. The guy is light on substance and heavy on sleaze, but he’s a perfectly fine placeholder for the moment. It’s only a short time until she’s discarded him, too, and is off to buy a pack of cigarettes. That’s when it happens. As Nadia steps onto the street—having spotted her runaway cat, Oatmeal—a yellow taxicab hits her head on. The cabbie rushes to her side. The passersby look on in horror as she lies lifeless on the pavement.

And then we’re back in the bathroom. Nadia is back in the mirror. We’re going to run through this night all over again.

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Russian Doll (2019) | Netflix

The basic premise of Russian Doll is inherently familiar: a morally inept protagonist gets stuck in a loop, forced to confront their “bad” choices or behavior in order to break the cycle. By learning some valuable life lesson, their hearts grow three sizes larger and they become happier, shinier people. From Groundhog Day to Haunter to Happy Death Day, it’s a cutesy plot device that gets dusted off every few years, but few iterations venture as far into nihilism and existentialism as Russian Doll.

In each entry of the “Begin Again” genre, the protagonist must figure out how to impact the outside world; if you can rise above your own selfish needs to improve someone else’s life, you’ll be better for it. But rarely is true happiness that simple, rarely is genuine fulfillment achieved without significant self-improvement. In an interview with Broadly, Lyonne touched on bringing the theme of internal strife to the screen: “This idea that we are starving to death with limitless choices but are stuck with our own broken selves until we kind of resolve what it is to have a meaningful life. What does any of it mean?” Even if solid answers are few and far between, Lyonne and co-creators Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler designed the show to take on the deeper questions about life’s purpose while also serving as a metaphor for addiction and depression.

During a period of turmoil, F. Scott Fitzgerald began work on a series of essays written for Esquire that would later become The Crack-Up. With his alcoholism taking a physical and mental toll on his health, Fitzgerald found himself in a state of self-reflection, commenting frankly on his own disillusionment and descent: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down.” While it’s possible to read that as cynical, a more open-hearted take is that, in order to fully live and appreciate life, you have to break down the walls and defenses you put up. That process can take a lifetime. In Russian Doll, a lifetime is condensed into a single night.

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It’s at the end of the third episode—not long after she visits the rabbi—that Nadia officially meets Alan (Charlie Barnett) on an elevator (we learn later in the series that the pair actually crossed paths in the first and second episodes). As the power goes out and the elevator plummets, everyone panics. Everyone except Nadia and Alan, that is. We’ve come to expect this from her, but his calmness is suspect. “Hey man, didn’t you get the news? We’re about to die,” she asks him. He matter of factly replies, “It doesn’t matter. I die all the time.” The elevator bottoms out and the scene cuts to black. As the fourth episode begins, we’re back in the bathroom, back in the mirror. Only this time, it’s with Alan.

Russian Doll (2019) | Netflix

The story switches perspectives and we go into an overview of Alan’s life: he unpacks a suitcase while listening to self-help affirmations. “I am loved and deserve love,” he parrots back to the automated voice as he fixates on the engagement ring box in the bottom of his suitcase. His apartment is pristine, his clothes and appearance meticulously maintained, even his posture is impeccable. Soon, Alan takes off into the night, his affirmations still playing in his earbuds. “I am in control,” he repeats just above a whisper. But as Alan ascends the stairs to his girlfriend’s apartment, control seems like a far off concept.

Once he’s face to face with his girlfriend, Beatrice (Dascha Polanco), Alan’s perfectly manicured facade starts to crack. He aggressively speaks over her and cuts her off before she can finish a thought. “We become what we repeatedly do,” Alan snaps when the topic of his affirmations comes up. When she asks him where his bags are, the scenario becomes clearer; the two were supposed to go on vacation where Alan intended to propose, but since he’s lived this night a few times already, he knows he’ll never get the chance. Beatrice, seemingly fed up with his repressive tendencies, breaks up with him, imploring him to get help. It’s a devastating scene, and Alan responds with an all-night eating and drinking binge. He manages to survive the night (this time), but as he recounts its events to his best friend Ferran (Ritesh Rajan), his steely repression returns. “You blew up your whole life and you are serial-killer calm about it,” Ferran says. But deep down, Alan knows he’s on borrowed time. It’s only a short while until he’s on the elevator with Nadia, their lives and deaths finally coalescing.

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In a lot of ways, Russian Doll feels like an extended exercise in cognitive therapy. The repetitive plot device isn’t simply about learning lessons, but about correcting harmful behavior. For Nadia, self-imposed isolation is a common theme over the course of the series. Other than her failed relationship with John, her friends constantly deride her preference for independence. When her surrogate mother Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a licensed psychologist, tries to explain that we need other people to thrive, Nadia barely entertains the idea. “Other people are garbage,” she claims dismissively. Once Alan enters her loop and it’s clear that she needs him in order to break it, she recoils. “Our lives depend on each other for, like, eternity? That’s my own worst personal nightmare…It’s not you,” she tries to reassure a wounded Alan, “I don’t want to be attached to anyone.” 

Russian Doll takes its name from the matryoshka, or Russian nesting dolls. In a show rife with symbolism, the namesake serves a dual purpose; there are issues within issues for Nadia and Alan to uncover, but matryoshka also represents motherhood. Through flashbacks, we learn that as a young girl Nadia watched her mother struggle with mental illness. Growing up with a wayward parent is like existing within the eye of a hurricane: if you’re fortunate enough to escape total annihilation, a massive amount of wreckage still remains in its wake. Some people have the resources and support to rebuild themselves. But the rest of us, we just try to work around the damage as much as possible, covering up bits and pieces of our shattered selves to get by. Nadia’s mother ultimately loses her battle and completes suicide, and the impact on Nadia is profound: she completely insulates herself emotionally, filling the void of human connection with alcohol and drugs. Self-reliance isn’t just a preference, it’s a means of survival.

Alan, on the other hand, desperately wants to connect with other people. He defines his self-worth through how others view him, believing that if he projects confidence and togetherness, he’ll eventually feel that way on the inside. It’s a tenuous means of coping, as rejection forces him to withdraw into himself further. When Alan and Nadia meet, he can’t remember how he first died. He remembers all the deaths since“crushed in rush hour traffic. Slipped in the shower. Bathtub electrocution. Open manhole”but the first time eludes him. Nadia believes the mystery of his first death is the missing piece of the puzzle, and in a way it is.

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Russian Doll (2019) | Netflix

The longer the loops goes on, the more unstable it becomes. Flowers and fresh produce rot and decay. New York City becomes a ghost town. Despite destroying themselves and pushing people away, Nadia and Alan continue to repeat their destructive patterns. When Nadia hits bottom, believing the loop will never end, she seeks comfort in substances. She snorts, smokes, and drinks whatever’s handed to her in an effort to numb the pain. Alan doubles down on internalizing his depression by only trying to improve what people can see. It’s a vicious cycle where pain pushes them into their addictive comforts, but their vices only lead to more pain. It always ends the same way: Nadia and Alan back in their respective mirrors, facing themselves again. 

It’s eventually revealed that Alan’s first death was by suicide. After Beatrice rejected him, Alan went on a bender, and in a moment of absolute despair, he jumped off a building. The revelation sends Alan reeling, but Nadiahaving begun to deal with the circumstances surrounding her motherrallies him. At the core of Nadia’s issues is the feeling of inadequacy she felt in not being enough to save her mother. By helping Alan, she also gets to make peace with her mother’s death. And with Nadia’s help, Alan makes peace with Beatrice, finally acknowledging that he was clinging to her as a sort of safety net. Not only was it unfair to place that responsibility on her, but it would have inevitably crashed in the long run. 

With Alan and Nadia both resolving to be there for each other regardless of their trauma and shortcomings, the pair believe they’ve solved the loop. But in a twist, the night begins again—and this go-round, their timelines have split. Initially, this plot development seems cruel but when you’re in the thick of any therapeutic journey, it’s easy to be convinced that the progress you’ve made is genuine. At some point, you have to move forward without your built-in crutch and for Nadia and Alan, their crutches were one another. There’s a duality in the final episode that comes to the forefront; while stripping them of their newfound support systems, it also highlights that these two characters personify each other’s fears. Alan’s anxiety about rejection is exacerbated by Nadia’s desire to be alone, and Nadia’s repressed self-loathing is represented by Alan. Their final hurdle is to confront the aspects of themselves that still haunt them.

Armed with a new sense of confidence and determination, they’re each able to break through to their less enlightened counterparts and break their cycles of self-destruction. Nadia convinces a drunken, bereft Alan of his self-worth, and Alan persuades a distrusting Nadia that his friendship is worth her time and effort. At last, they’re able to excise their ghosts and break the loop. The final symbol falls into place: the longest nights are the ones that linger in your soul long after the sun has risen. The nights that replay on end in your mind’s eye. The nights you wish you could relive and redo. Those are the nights that never really end.