Netflix’s Russian Doll is funny, moving, and sometimes existentially terrifying

It could be described as a kind of video game, or choose-your-own-adventure story, or puzzling, claustrophobic escape room.

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Nadia Vulvokov is a 36-year-old New Yorker. She smokes two packs a day and has the rasping voice to prove it. Her halo of wild red hair frames a face that is at least 63 per cent smoky eye. She splits her time between designing video games in her dark apartment, beer in hand, and cocaine-laced nights of debauchery with bougie art hipsters in boldly designed yeshiva conversions – even on Sundays. She chews the inside of her mouth. There’s a glint of playful cruelty in her eyes, but also a vacancy. She is physical and exuberant, but every gesture and interjection comes with a smirk of irony. She’s living every day as if it’s her last. And every day is her last.

On her 36th birthday, Nadia skips out on her own party (“Staring down the barrel of my own mortality always beats fun,” she quips), is hit by a car, dies and wakes up back at her birthday party. She relives it again and again, dying in a freak accident each time, no matter how carefully she tiptoes down stairs or triple-checks the road before she crosses.

So begins Russian Doll, a Netflix show that could be described as a kind of video game, or choose-your-own-adventure story, or puzzling, claustrophobic escape room. Or even part sci-fi mystery, part extended metaphor on grief, childhood trauma, death anxiety and human connection. Its eight tightly scripted 20-minute episodes are funny, moving, and sometimes existentially terrifying.

Natasha Lyonne gives an explosive performance as a fiery, charismatic woman going through the motions of her life: she has the kind of magnetism and vulnerability rarely seen on screen. The plot sees more sudden lurches than Nadia’s repeatedly catapulted body, so I won’t spoil it here, but this show ends up being as compelling and satisfying as it is strange. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam