Russian Doll: Nihilism, Satire, and the Contemporary Society

22 November, 2020
Russian Doll is an entertaining and humorous series that makes fun of conventions. It laughs at everything and presents the current urban model in order to immerse us in the complexity of the people who live there. It takes the form of a loop with a dose of black humor, and we discover a story that goes from laughter to the supernatural.

Russian Doll is one of the latest Netflix series starring Natasha Lyonne, who also debuts as the creator along with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland. The series moves between satire, comedy, and black humor but also addresses much deeper issues. The truth is that you’ll experience somewhat strange and confusing sensations.

Its short episodes keep the rhythm and work in a loop that attract the viewer’s attention. When you watched the first episode, you don’t know whether to continue or not. You’re unsure whether it’ll be a loop all the time or whether, at some point, the plot will take a radical turn. And that’s precisely what keeps you glued to the screen: uncertainty.

Nadia is a young New Yorker who’s just turned 36. She’s a programmer, works in the world of video games, and has problems with addictions. We see her at her birthday party, but not for long, because Nadia dies suddenly that very same night. But the story doesn’t end there, it resurfaces and returns to the exact point where it all began: her birthday party.

Are we going to see an endless loop where Nadia dies and comes back to life? Yes and no, because Nadia remembers that she died and she’ll face several parallel endings.

Despite its structure, the series reveals information and immerses us in different adventures that constantly play with our minds, making us question what we see. In a type of infinite and humorous party, Russian Doll is an interesting adventure that plays with life and death.

Russian Doll: characterizing a society

Although its promotion wasn’t very eye-catching, the truth is that the series has already won over its plaudits. On the website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles some of the most relevant reviews, Russian Doll is already close to 100% approval, a highly significant figure.

Russian Doll takes a fair few risks. It starts off with the supernatural in order to paint reality. The series takes place in New York City, an emblematic city that’s served as a stage for many series and films.

The urban model, cosmopolitan and with a delayed youth with purchasing power, seems to fit perfectly in this city. To live in a city like this, you need more than a stable job.

Today’s bohemian lifestyle is no longer confined to cheap apartments that house artists of all types. Now, creativity has reached other places like the Internet or the world of video games, and the eccentricities, in some way, respond to consumption. This can be quite contradictory, however, because what we see in the series responds to this new life model.

In contrast to other series, such as Sex and the City, which idealized the life of modern, independent women with purchasing power, the women of Russian Doll move very much away from conventionality.

A life verging on nihilism

Nadia is charismatic, smokes compulsively, takes drugs whenever she can, and rarely goes to work. However, she’s able to afford an apartment where she lives alone and doesn’t have any financial difficulties.

Her friends also live far away from conventions, their lives flow between orgies, parties, and all sorts of other eccentric activities. Despite the fact that they’re adults, many of their attitudes reflect a certain childishness.

It’s a way of life that verges on nihilism, in a city that’s far too frenetic and inhabited by people who, like Nadia, get pleasure from life’s excesses.

The fact that the characters smoke is something that, at first sight, you may not be particularly aware of. It may seem to be a simple tool to support this vision of life but, in fact, totally groundbreaking. Nowadays, we hardly ever find an American series where tobacco acquires a relevant role. Very few series associate the character immediately with tobacco.

The loop format between life and death, the addictions, and the attitude of the characters creates a very current society and reinforces the idea of nihilism.

The characters believe that nothing matters too much. We’re all going to die and the consequences of our actions shouldn’t bother us. For that reason, the characters adopt a certain hedonistic attitude towards life. If tomorrow is of no importance, they say, then why not smoke, get high, and give free rein to pleasure?

A scene from Russian Doll.

Nadia, behind the armor

However, these ideas and this way of life start to crumble. Nadia starts to realize that her actions and her decisions may have repercussions in the future.

This loop goes beyond life and death and ends up building diverse realities or possibilities that derive from Nadia’s actions. If she dies and returns to the starting point, then surely there’s something she isn’t doing right.

Nadia, in a funny way, will have to overcome a whole series of death traps, from stairs, to cars, to gas leaks, in order to stay alive as long as possible and be able to solve all her issues. What seemed to be a joke of fate begins to make sense. We start to discover new sides to Nadia to finally realize that she isn’t alone in this peculiar adventure.

The various “awakenings” are very reminiscent of the film Groundhog Day and help the viewer delve deeper into Nadia’s personality.

Natasha Lyonne.

The character has certain similarities with the actress who plays her, the charismatic Natasha Lyonne. Lyonne suffered serious addiction problems and, like Nadia, found herself on the verge of death several times.

In reality, the loops serve to build, or discover, the different layers that make up the main character’s personality. A series of internal conflicts, voices from the past, and memories have made a dent in the Nadia we see on screen.

Nadia: the Russian doll

Under an outward image of eccentricity, addictions, and verbiage, there’s much more hidden away. Nadia is unstable and, as the title of the series explains, she’s rather like a Russian doll. Her own surname, Vulvokov, evokes Russian roots and the idea of the doll is associated with the matryoshka doll.

Matryoshka dolls, also called babushka dolls, are those famous sets of wooden dolls of decreasing size, placed one inside the other. They become less detailed as they get smaller, all hidden inside the largest doll.

Nadia, in the same way as a matryoshka, isn’t only what we see. She also keeps a lot of “little Nadias” and different voices from her past. This group of “Nadias” is in conflict and can’t agree with each other, making it impossible to create a Nadia in harmony with herself. Therefore, each of her “awakenings” will give us clues as to the real Nadia, and she’ll have to deal with her past and find that harmony.

In short, Russian Doll is a tremendously entertaining series, capable of traveling from the tragic to the comic in a matter of seconds. It laughs at everything, mocks appearances, and travels to the depth and complexity of the human soul.