On the night of her 36th birthday, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), the protagonist of Netflix’s Russian Doll, gets hit by a car and dies, only to wake up back at her birthday party to relive the night all over again. So begins a seemingly never-ending cycle of death. She dies, then she wakes up again at the same birthday party. She dies a different, more gruesome death, then wakes up at the same birthday party. Sometimes, she gets a little further into the next day, but no matter what, she just keeps dying.
Eventually, Nadia chances upon another person, Alan, who is victim to the same fate. “I die all the time,” Alan says when Nadia asks him why he isn’t freaking out as the elevator they share rockets towards a crash. Nadia tracks down Alan during their next deathday loop, and they are mutually bewildered by their circumstances and each other. But it’s clear enough that Alan is all Nadia has and vice versa, and perhaps together they can put a stop to this unfortunate purgatory.
Cynical, Unfiltered, and Not-So-Obviously Sick
When we meet Nadia, she reads as enviably liberated, or at least romantically anti-heroine. She does a shit-ton of drugs and thusly her friends refer to her as a “cockroach.” She’s cynical and unfiltered. She’s the kind of gal sleeps with a man and orders him an Uber before he’s out of bed. She’s the best of the best at her job as a game designer. She doesn’t care at all about what other people think, and she’s got little interest in finding “the one.”
But there’s a soul-sickness behind her devil-may-care lifestyle. As the plot progresses, we learn that she is indeed sensitive beneath her hard exterior. She’s not invincible. She’s not immune to hurt. She doesn’t like being called a “cockroach,” and wants to know which of her friends at her never-ending hell of a birthday party thinks she’s a bad person.
The emotionally untouchable lone-wolf persona stems from growing up with a mother who was mentally ill and ultimately ended her own life. Nadia keeps everyone at a distance for reasons she can’t—or won’t—examine herself, and instead moves through the world deciding her actions don’t impact other people. Or at least she doesn’t stay still long enough to acknowledge what she leaves in her wake.
As Nadia’s foil, Alan reads as clean cut and basic. His issues are first buried in compulsive perfectionism and self-reliance. He is close to his mom and has been dating the same girl since college. He repeats positive affirmations and keeps his apartment disturbingly clean. “We become what we repeatedly do,” Alan says to his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend during one version of the night he’s doomed to repeat.
While Alan is trying to make a case for the meticulous routines he lives by, the subtext to “becoming what we repeatedly do” speaks to the fate of people with such destructive or self-punishing coping mechanisms. People who often have trauma histories have mental health issues that go untended. Alan tries to white-knuckle life through turbo-charged self-control, until he breaks down and goes on angry blackout benders with takeout (cake, specifically), booze, and video games. It culminates in a decision to kill himself that instead drops him into the deathday loop.
The Dangerous Loop of “Dealing” On Your Own
Logical or not, obvious or not, people repeat painful patterns for a reason. For both Nadia and Alan, substance use is one unfortunately effective way for them to avoid introspection, trauma, tenderness, deep feelings, vulnerability, the past, and the unknown.
But Russian Doll isn’t just about the dangerous cycle of coping through substances. It’s about how people check out of living life because it feels like too much to bear, so instead we devise destructive behavioral cycles to obscure what we might need to confront.
The connections between Alan and Nadia are more clear cut when we see them at their core: They are simply two people who can’t look within for fear of what they’ll find, or what might happen once they find it. They obscure their feelings with food, drugs, and alcohol, and they hold on tight to their coping mechanisms, because the other option feels like uncertain death. It reeks of something worse than death, in fact: the necessity of being vulnerable.
The problem is that if you don’t look at your pain or your trauma, your pain and your trauma come looking for you. In the gnarliest of ways they explode themselves out, incapable of being contained.
Toward the end of the series, Nadia starts being haunted by a figure of herself as a little girl. During a particularly troubling scene, Nadia starts bleeding from the mouth, pulling out a shard of broken mirror from her throat, a nod to a particularly frightening tantrum of her mother’s from childhood. “She’s still inside you,” the little girl whispers. The shard of glass denotes the shattering, downright bloody effect her mother had on her, something she staunchly avoids considering. Is she afraid that if she looks closely, the image she might see in the mirror is that of her mother’s?
If you don’t look at your pain or your trauma, your pain and your trauma come looking for you.
Anytime her mother is mentioned or asked about, Nadia does her best to wave it off or sidestep mentioning her. For a while, Nadia thinks that perhaps it’s the crappy way she treated her ex-boyfriend that needs to be remedied in order to break free from the multiverse. But her childhood is the core of what haunts her, and so it starts to—very literally—until she allows herself to look at it and speak about it. If she didn’t, the need for her trauma to be drowned out wouldn’t go anywhere, and she would never be free of the loop.
As for Alan, he has to open up to help, release his tight grip on life that only serves to alienate him, and ultimately, realize that ending his life is not the answer. Both characters must rediscover their will to live—truly live, outside of the safety of the addictive cycles they’ve created.
Escaping the Cycle: the Antidote to Addiction
In the well-known TED Talk “Everything You Thought You Knew About Addiction Is Wrong”, research journalist Johann Hari talks about how the antidote to addiction is not just sobriety, it’s connection. Addictive coping mechanisms are less about the pleasure someone gets from escape, he says, and more that beneath the destructive habit is a fundamental struggle and impaired ability to bond with people.
In Russian Doll, Nadia and Alan find this in each other. The way out of their loop, their death cycle, is by helping one another deal with something impossible to confront alone, even totally elusive without the objective eyes of a trusted outsider. The kind of repair they seek is never easy, and has to be fought for both intentionally and hard. And as much as Nadia and Alan have spent their lives denying this, even perpetually messy deliverance can only happen with the help of other people.
“You promise if I don’t jump I’ll be happy?” Alan asks Nadia as he “rewrites” his first death, “No man, absolutely not,” she says. “But I can promise you that you’ll not be alone.”