When one encounters a matryoshka, more commonly referred to as a Russian nesting doll, the instinctual response is to unpack it. Carefully twist the outer doll, lift off its top, and look at the slightly smaller figure underneath. The process repeats until you get to the core: the smallest doll, but the only one that doesn’t twist open and reveal anything else. It’s the nucleus — the soul, even — but it’s also there to steady every other layer. Then you repack the dolls together, filled with understanding and admiration for the hidden bounties inside.
This experience is exactly what you’ll feel while watching “Russian Doll,” Natasha Lyonne and Leslye Headland’s new Netflix series (with an assist from Amy Poehler), which treats its subjects like matryoshkas in need of thorough examination, delicate handling, and deserving the utmost love. To say anything about the plot would be to spoil the fun of that initial reveal — what’s inside the first shell of this half-hour, eight-episode so-called “dramedy” isn’t what anyone would expect. Not exactly, anyway, but rest assured it’s beautiful, intricate, and intimate.
Even from a fast, four-hour season, there’s a lot to unpack in “Russian Doll,” and it’s perhaps best to start with the ending and work backward. So for those who’ve binged the series, proceed as normal — for those who haven’t, make sure to dissect the doll yourself before taking a look at the following perusal.
[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Russian Doll” Season 1, including the ending.]
Courtesy of Netflix
What “Russian Doll” boils down to on a plot basis is rather simple, but far from simplistic: Nadia (Lyonne) has to value her own life enough to want to save someone else’s, and Alan (Charlie Barnett) has to do the same. Both have been sent on a seemingly endless repetition of the same night, reliving her birthday party and his breakup over and over again. Both, at first, stubbornly cling to their old selves: She keeps doing whatever she wants, refusing to acknowledge her friends and family, even though they’re right there in front of her, begging to be acknowledged. (Quite literally with her hurt ex-boyfriend.)
Meanwhile, Alan keeps getting dumped by his girlfriend, plays the victim, and drowns in self-pity. He’s trapped in a cage of his own making, as is she, and the universe has tossed them into a cycle of second, third, and 12th chances to see if they can help each other find the key.
That key isn’t clear, even to the audience, for some time. Like the video games she designs and he plays, they try various routes to see what works, only to restart at their designated save points. Was it a bad joint that made her crazy? Nope. Should they be helping other people fix their problems? Not exactly. Are they trapped in purgatory until they become better people? No, no, no. (Nadia’s dismissal of the “Groundhog Day” interpretation, calling it “morally simplistic and narcissistic,” is a great way to separate this show from its most common comparison point.)
By the last episode — when Nadia pulls a 180-degree flip and greets her party guests with sincere joy and excitement instead of disinterest bordering on disdain — it’s evident her key is other people, that she needs people, and she needs to know she needs people. Recognizing as much is part of what drives her out of a literal and figurative self-destructive spiral. Living her old life — acting completely on her own impulses while pushing away anyone who cares about her — actually killed her. It killed her so many times that it took more than a dozen repetitions for her to realize she needed to ask for help.
Courtesy of Netflix
Alan also refused to ask for help, but in a more literal fashion. Suffering from undiagnosed OCD and plagued by control issues in general, Alan didn’t want to see a doctor. He says midway through the series that his greatest fear is being labeled “crazy,” so he runs away from anyone who might confirm his suspicions. That means he doesn’t ask for help, instead driving straight ahead with whatever he thinks is the “right” thing to do, and the guilt of not being rewarded for his good behavior eventually pushes him to suicide.
These are complex emotional beats examined with unabashed intellectual discourse. Nadia uses her background as a software engineer to explain things like relativity’s connection to time and morality. Alan, while often the audience stand-in in need of edification, serves as the insightful interpersonal touchstone and pushes Nadia to examine herself when she gets overly distracted with solving a puzzle she wants to believe is outside of herself. (This, by the way, is what makes the bloodiest moment of the series so profound: Along with its connection to the title, Nadia removing a shard of glass from inside her body aptly illustrates the pain it takes to address such deep-seated, repressed thoughts.)
These theories and philosophies can be overwhelming, often clouding story beats as the series quickly bounces from one problem to the next. They can also make it hard to connect with the characters, even though the performances often draw you back in. There are no easy answers in “Russian Doll,” but many of them are tucked away in the dialogue itself. One of the very last lines is Nadia telling Alan, as he considers jumping off a building, that things may not be OK. “You promise if I don’t jump, I’ll be happy?” he asks. “No, man,” she says. “Absolutely not. But I can promise you won’t be alone.”
Courtesy of Netflix
That does the trick, and it’s a big moment for Nadia, too, considering how stubbornly isolated she used to make herself. In Episode 7, “The Way Out,” when Nadia pushes back on addressing her childhood issues with her mom, Alan says, “You are the most selfish person I’ve ever meet. Thank you for changing my life. Lives are hard to change.” Lives are hard to change, and this crazy “Groundhog Day”-esque experience is what it takes for each of them to do just that.
All this is to credit the writers — Headland, Lyonne, Poehler, Allison Silverman, Flora Birnbaum, Jocelyn Bioh, and Cirocco Dunlap — for not only crafting such challenging material that doesn’t condescend to the audience, but for daring to explore the big questions about happiness and depression with honesty and courage. It would’ve been far easier to send these two dancing off into the sunset, all their problems solved, but it’s far more penetrating to see them struggling; a tear in their eye as they walk bravely into a scary, but precious future.
There’s much more to appreciate about this quick hit of brilliance, from the leads’ soulful performances to the edgy, adventurous direction, but “Russian Doll” must be treated like its namesake. Unpacking it over and over again will reveal fresh insights. Each piece is worth admiring for different reasons, and each episode offers its own rewards. We’ll be talking about this first season for quite some time, so don’t forget to take a moment and appreciate how well it all comes together. Hell, just appreciate that Headland, Lyonne, and Poehler told their story in eight episodes that never run longer than 29 minutes. Great things come in small packages, and this marvelous matryoshka is no different.
“Russian Doll” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.