RUSSIAN DOLL: Featured Nesting

RUSSIAN DOLL, one of Netflix’s newest original series stands out as being one of their strongest ever. In just 8 roughly half-hour episodes, the show establishes a world — multiple words, come to it — before your eyes and explore them with remarkable efficiency. I do not usually encourage people to not read my stuff, but if you have not seen RUSSIAN DOLL yet, please stop this essay here and get thee to your nearest screen. Yes, watching it makes this piece so much more rewarding, but more, I just want you to experience what is easily the best show of this young year and one I have no problem imagining will still rank up there come year-end lists.

The initial selling point of RUSSIAN DOLL, of course, came from its time loop high concept. Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) is stuck returning to her 36th birthday party every time she dies and she dies a lot. Unlike GROUNDHOG DAY in which Bill Murray’s TV weatherman cannot make it to February 3rd whether he ends the 2nd in bed or letting a marmot drive him over a cliff, Nadia can live beyond the day in question. However, the moment she does die, be it via a gas explosion or falling down the stairs, she is back in Maxine (Greta Lee) and Lizzy’s (Rebecca Henderson) bathroom hearing strains of Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up.” Later we found that she was not the only one Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett) is experiencing the same, albeit with a very different kind of disappointing day.

What if their loop began far earlier than that though?

RUSSIAN DOLL: Mirror
It’s like looking in a mirror in RUSSIAN DOLL from Charlie Barnett and Natasha Lyonne. (Courtesy of Netflix)

The Ever-Lasting Loop

I know, I know, what am I on about? Quite clearly both Nadia and Alan lived lives prior to the start of RUSSIAN DOLL. They have existing relationships, affairs, estrangements, and so on, right? Absolutely true. However, I argue their forever repeating day-or-so represents a literalization of the loop that they already had been trapped in. Long before the universe decided to get darkly playful with a tiny slice of their existence, they were stuck. They just needed this cosmic kick to see it. Ask anyone who has experienced trauma knows, especially if the trauma is significant enough to mark their decision-making process.

Even if the effect of the trauma has not proven far-reaching enough to qualify them for a post-Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis (PTSD) — or the more short-term Acute Stress Disorder — such people can tell you how much their life has been tossed into upheaval. Moreover, they can point to tricks or mechanisms they have developed to avoid retraumatization. In fact, for many, they are not just avoiding retraumatization but anything that’s four steps away from it. Live in that place long enough and the avoidance becomes rote. When stimuli cannot be avoided, the reaction grows larger and larger. The person’s world can shrink, sometimes to the point that routine, no matter if it is beneficial or self-destructive, becomes all they have.

It’s an ever-lasting loop.

RUSSIAN DOLL: Nadia
Natasha Lyonne pops that collar in RUSSIAN DOLL. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Nadia’s Life in RUSSIAN DOLL

I will begin with Nadia because, in addition to being the first character we meet, RUSSIAN DOLL makes her trauma far more explicit. It also makes it far clearer that she has been trapped for some time.

While the show releases information in tiny disjointed pieces, we learn sometime in the first episode or two about her ambivalence towards her mother. It is fleeting, sparked by a comment about their resemblance to one another, but Natasha Lyonne, excellent throughout, puts just enough flinching into the moment that you know there is more to it.

And more to it there certainly is. As it turns out, Nadia’s mom suffered from an unspecified mental illness — or perhaps a co-occurring disorder — that leads her to, amongst other things, smash every mirror she can one day, obsessively buy fruit, and basically be unequal to the task of raising her daughter in a healthy supportive environment on a consistent basis. Young Nadia eventually admitted to the state of her family, leading to her mom losing custody. Nadia went on to be raised by Dr. Ruth Brenner (Elizabeth Ashley), while Nadia’s mom died when she was 36.

Since then, Nadia has become a seemingly successful video game developer and programmer. She is strong, smart, and independent. She appears well-liked with lots of friends.

And none of it is working for her.

RUSSIAN DOLL: Lizzy and Maxine
Rebecca Henderson and Greta Lee serve lewks in a moment from RUSSIAN DOLL. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Hints of Nadia’s Existing Loop

Several observations from people important to Nadia give us an idea of what her life has been like before we first encountered it here. Maxine labels the birthday girl a “cockroach” at one point. Maxine refers to it as something of a compliment, as an assurance. Nadia’s first theory on her recursive loop is that it has been induced by the joint she shared with Maxine, and Maxine is pointing out Nadia has done every illicit substance on Earth and is still standing. It is, essentially, Maxine’s way of saying,

“You have nothing to worry about.”

The second comes from Nadia’s surrogate mom, Dr. Brenner. She observes that Nadia used to have such a spark, a passion for life, and that spark faded a long while ago. Dr. Brenner laments that she misses that aspect, that she misses the Nadia she used to know. John Reyes (Yul Vazquez) blew up his life having an affair with her. He had convinced themselves they had something special and were going to be together only to find that once it stopped being a fling and became real, Nadia could not bail fast enough. In particular, he zones in on the multiple times she agrees to meet his daughter only to find excuses not to at the last minute.

John’s daughter plays prominently in what I feel is the final hint we at the state of Nadia’s life. We see this during her most dramatic death, regurgitating a piece of glass in a crowded restaurant. As she collapses, bleeding out of the mouth, a figure who keeps flipping between John’s daughter and Nadia’s own childhood self asks Nadia if she is, “ready to let her go?” referring to Nadia’s mom.

RUSSIAN DOLL: Nadia and John
Natasha Lyonne and Yul Vazquez steady themselves in a moment from RUSSIAN DOLL. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Nadia’s Nesting Place in RUSSIAN DOLL

As noted above, the comparison to a roach sets Nadia off. First off, obviously that comparison seems unpleasant. However, the strength of the reaction is more because she hates the idea of being a survivor. She has a survivor’s guilt and blames herself for her mother’s death. Thus, the idea of herself as being unkillable — as indicated by both her friend’s statement and her time loop — is a cruel reminder of her ability to survive. She believes she should be dead. Perhaps part of wanting to be dead. And yet, she cannot, will not, shall not die.

This desire to die, or lack of desire to live, anyway, is what causes the other things people observe about her. Moreover, it is something she herself has an awareness of. We observe that Nadia refuses to engage with Dr. Brenner’s observation regarding her lack of zeal. Similarly, while she tries to explain why she never met John’s daughter, she never attempts to argue that he is wrong. She is aware she purposely avoiding connection.

This is not just where Nadia has lived during the night of 36th birthday. This is where Nadia has lived for years. She has self-selected a loop where she only seeks to deaden and distract, never to enjoy or engage. Sure, the days have gone by. She has aged. But she has not actually moved forward. Her life is a treadmill she has been trapped on by her trauma. The loop was just the first time she was forced to notice.

RUSSIAN DOLL: Alan
Charlie Barnett keeps up on his oral hygiene in a scene from RUSSIAN DOLL. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Alan’s Life in RUSSIAN DOLL

As we see less of Alan experiencing the day by himself without Nadia, getting a grasp of his life proves more difficult. However, we do have some information. He has been dating Beatrice (Dascha Polanco) for some time and knew her even longer than that. She describes him as incredibly dependent on her and she fears what he will do to himself when she breaks up with him. Alan talks to his mother with some regularity, but keeps her emotionally at arm’s length, lying to her about Beatrice refusing his marriage proposal. He lives on his own in a rigidly oriented home.

That rigidity extends to how he packs, how he dresses, how he works out. Basically, he rigidly lives his day-to-day life. Alan also loves cake, video games, and his fish. No one in his building seems to know him, but he is close friends with Farran (Ritesh Rajan), the man manning the counter at Nadia’s local convenience store. He is a considerably quieter, smaller existence than Nadia’s.

RUSSIAN DOLL: Dr. Brenner
Elizabeth Ashley offers wise counsel in a scene from RUSSIAN DOLL. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Hints of Alan’s Existing Loop

Obviously, the biggest hint of Alan’s loop is the rigidity of his life. Whereas Nadia’s loop has a sort of haphazard shape and is born of avoidance, Alan has seemingly actively constructed his. He is a place for everything and everything in its place kind of guy. And intensely so. This, coupled with his pathological fear of therapy and therapists, hints at some kind of either trauma or trauma paired with a pre-existing mental health issue.

While, on the surface, the easy diagnosis would be OCD, his rigidity actually does not seem to fit that criteria. A key part of diagnosing OCD involves how much time in your life it consumes. If your routines and checking behaviors consume so much time and energy as to interfere with your daily life by, say, making your late for work or unable to meet friends, that is OCD. We see no signs of that level of interference in Alan’s life. This does not, however, make Alan’s rigidity healthy though. There are no signs of what trauma may have taken place but clearly, it either led to him having to go to therapy or stemmed from an incident while in therapy.

His cake bingeing when he realizes he has “ruined” another day also points to the existence of a loop. He has denied himself so many pleasures, it suggests, including the occasional sweet. Thus, when he knows the day will reset, he goes wild on the food. Indulgence without consequence. Again, while Nadia’s loop provides, Alan’s comes from denial. He is avoiding pain by doing nothing different ever.

RUSSIAN DOLL: Lizzy, Maxine, and Alan
Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, and Rebecca Henderson put on the green light in RUSSIAN DOLL. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Aftermath

The final indicator that both were trapped in the loops of their trauma comes when they finally survive the day to movie forward. They end up on separate timelines, with “healthy” Alan running into still self-destructive Nadia and “healthy” Nadia existing alongside suicidal Alan. In healing themselves, they have been literally separated from those that helped them on their way. In recovering from trauma, one often experiences a similar separation. For one, you have a therapist you leave behind. It is unethical for a therapist to continue to see you and treat you when you no longer require their services.

Speaking as a therapist, even if we like you enough to keep seeing you, it is a violation for us to do so. If you attend group therapy and “do it right” you also lose people. Participants in group therapy should interact only in the context of the group. (Support groups, it should be noted, work differently as they endeavor to provide social support, not therapy.) As a result, “getting better” means losing those people who journeyed towards health with you.

Finally, those who survive and heal from trauma often feel motivated to turn and “repay” the favor to others who are experiencing similar difficulties. The final scene where the “healthy” versions of the characters dedicate themselves to their still struggling “partners” reflects and fulfills this impulse.

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