Russian Doll could just as easily be titled Onion, because the layers of the new Netflix series feel endless. Your interpretation of whether it’s primarily about addiction, trauma, video-game narratives, existential questions about the construction of the universe, the imperative of human connection, the redeeming power of pets, or the purgatorial experience will likely depend on your own formative life experiences. Somehow, though, Russian Doll manages to be about all these things and more, weaving myriad themes and cultural references into a tight three-and-a-half-hour running time. What starts out feeling like a zany homage to Groundhog Day ends up being darker, deeper, and much more complex as the show moves forward, with clues and references that often reward closer attention.
One of the most straightforward threads of Russian Doll considers addiction. Lyonne, who co-created the series with the playwright Leslye Headland and the actor and producer Amy Poehler, has spoken about how parts of the story were inspired by her own history with drugs, even if the series isn’t specifically autobiographical. Throughout the show Nadia binges on drugs and alcohol, usually after a climactic emotional confrontation she wants to avoid thinking about. Every time she dies and returns to the loft bathroom where her story repeatedly reboots, viewers hear the same song, Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”—a work that speaks about wanting to move beyond partying, recorded by an artist whose own addictions contributed to his early death at 52. And a bravura sped-up scene in the second episode alludes darkly to Nadia’s self-destruction when it shows her inhaling from a pipe that’s in the shape of a gun—just like the door handle of the bathroom she keeps returning to.
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The cyclical structure of the show also feels like a metaphor for addiction, and for Nadia’s habit of repeating the same patterns of behavior over and over. Her “emergency” code word that she shares with her aunt Ruth is record player—yet more imagery of an object spinning round and round. But Russian Doll makes it clear, too, that Nadia is emotionally wounded, and that she self-medicates with drugs and alcohol as a way to try to paper over the trauma in her past. (As the rabbi puts it, “Buildings aren’t haunted. People are.”) Nor is she unique in doing so: In the second episode, when she seeks out a drug dealer by invoking the spectacular passion project Jodorowsky’s Dune, one of the chemists she meets tells her he’s been “working on this new thing to help people with depression,” i.e., joints spiked with ketamine.
All this context is further unfurled in the seventh episode, which features flashbacks to Nadia’s childhood spent with her mentally ill mother (Chloë Sevigny). As her loops get less and less stable, Nadia’s trauma and guilt begin to manifest in the form of herself as a child. During that time, she tells Alan, “things with my mom were not good.” Her confrontation with herself is the most obvious representation of the enduring pain she continues to carry as an adult, but others are more subtle. In the third episode, long before Sevigny’s character has been introduced, Nadia holds coffee and a carton of sliced watermelon in one hand—a nod to the memory in a later episode of Nadia’s mother obsessively buying watermelons in a bodega. In the sixth, Nadia gives Horse (Brendan Sexton III) the last gold sovereign from her Holocaust-survivor grandparents, telling him that the necklace, her only inheritance, is “too heavy.”