Natasha Lyonne Stuns in Darkly Brilliant Russian Doll
Nadia Volvokov’s 36th birthday is always taking a turn. It starts with her birthday party at her friend’s expansive Alphabet City loft and ends, repeatedly, with her death. A car hits her. She dies in a gas explosion. She falls down stairs and breaks her neck, a lot.
Then she returns to where she began, in a slickly bohemian bathroom–the door handle is a gun and the entrance includes a glowing blue vaginal cutout)– with Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” mockingly playing outside.
Is Nadia in purgatory, or one of the difficult video games she designed? Is she in a gender-flipped Netflix reboot of Groundhog Day?
In the hands of co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne, who also wrote and directed some of the episodes, Russian Doll starts by feeling a lot like the latter. The show plays its high concept for laughs in the first episode, with Lyonne’s blare-mouthed New Yorker stomping around like she owns the city. Death is just another blocked road to getting blasted and getting fucked.
But it doesn’t take long into the eight-episode run of the series for things to get much darker, weirder and, most surprisingly, to get to a place that’s moving and cathartic.
Nadia says things like, “You’re supposed to ask people about their kids. Okay? It’s polite. It gives everybody a moment to pretend there’s gonna be a future.” She drinks, she smokes, she’s tried every drug there is to try and she’s brilliant. Lyonne plays Nadia like a hyperverbal ball of fiery hair with no fucks to give. She possesses a wardrobe that feels like it fell out of a truck carrying the contents of an Andy Warhol exhibit.
When death begins messing with Nadia, she fights back, exploring with a game-coder’s precision every possible clue and path that could tell her what’s happening, from the location she respawns to the laced joint she was smoking when she died.
She finds that she’s not only not alone, she’s more connected to the collapsing world around her than she ever imagined. As each new version of that night changes slightly, decaying in subtle, then not-so-subtle ways, Nadia learns she’s not going to get out of the cycle without reconciling her past.
For the small but vocal club of appreciators who’ve been patiently waiting for Lyonne to evolve into her full Pokémon form since 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills, Russian Doll provides reason to celebrate.
Lyonne’s marvelous performance works in every context of the show. She ranges from broad physical humor to intense tragedy. She convincingly shows us a singular person trying to live her broken life with each new curveball thrown at her.
Russian Doll’s strong roster of co-stars revolves around that performance, most notably Charlie Barnett as a repressed, broken-hearted mystery man and Greta Lee as Nadia’s pretentious best friend. The writers have filled it with literary and pop-culture references. At one point Nadia describes herself as Andrew Dice Clay crossed with Merida from Disney’s Brave. The book Emily of New Moon figures prominently.
But apart from Lyonne’s stunning performance, the binge-worthy show features a dark, twisty narrative that ultimately points to an empathetic place. Nadia is a mess, but she’s also tremendously funny, smarter than everyone in the room. In the end, she can love and care deeply for others, despite what she thinks of herself. Twisted, funny, harrowing, and moving, each 30-minute episode, shot with a keen eye for New York, feels packed with ideas. But most surprisingly, it aims for uplift, the kind of thing the Nadia of Episode 1 would mock until the concept cried and ran home.
Lyonne and her crew plan for more seasons. But Russian Doll already feels like a perfectly crafted, self-contained story that begins and ends in proper form. Its lead actress is exactly right for the role at exactly the moment when we needed it. Even as it borrows from Edge of Tomorrow, Groundhog Day, and other die-repeat-die stories, it transcends the gimmick to become so much more.