RUSSIAN DOLL: The Epic of A Sweet Birthday Baby

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Stories about journeys made by men in which women play supporting roles as inspirations, antagonists, and helpers have been the foundation of Western Civilization. The old Bards stuck to narratives in which the old heroes explained the patriarchal cosmos through their exploits as they came home from war, or established great cities, perhaps met God, and, almost always, as they conquered death in one way or another. Options are now more various. The new and gloriously audacious Netflix series, Russian Doll (created by Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler, and Natasha Lyonne), gives the ancient male quest a modern, feminist twist as Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne), whose name emphasizes her femininity, finds herself on a woman’s voyage for more modern purposes in a female inflected universe.

The way the landmarks of Western storytelling are layered into our imaginations it’s no surprise that when we women tell our own stories, whether or not we know it, we often tend toward revising the old tales to suit new times. I’m not sure whether Headland, Poehler, and Lyonne have intentionally bounced Nadia’s story off Dante Alighieri’s 14th century epic, The Divine Comedy (1320), but I am struck by the numerous ways in which Russian Doll echoes and reconfigures Dante’s pilgrimage for a female hero.

I’m not joking. Roughly translated, The Divine Comedy begins with the words, “In the middle way, I found myself in a dark wood,” and scholars value the details of the dense poetic tapestry of learned references to old Tuscan politics and church doctrine through which the hero makes his way. But the epic survives principally as one of the earliest, greatest, most imaginative chronicles of a mid-life crisis. In her 21st century story, Nadia does something similar while ringing changes on Dante’s cringeworthy pedophillic undertones and unambiguous patriarchal overtones. Dante seeks spiritual renewal by taking a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise—a metaphor for introspection?–to find Beatrice, the 9 year old with whom in real life Dante claims he instantly fell in love when he saw her in the street. After Beatrice died young in Dante’s real life, he created a magisterial fiction in which his alter ego struggles to regain her in a fictional Paradise so she can facilitate his way toward God, the father. Russian Doll gives us a metaphorical dark forest, a middle way, and a need for spiritual renewal, but not a patriarch. A Russian doll is a matryushka. Something more maternal is on tap.


Enter Russian Doll and Nadia as she confronts her mid-life trauma. Nadia is lost, when we first see her, in a gleaming black tile bathroom looking in the mirror. A dark place. Introspection. And she’s in the middle way; it’s the night of her 36th birthday. Outside the bathroom door, many very hip people of every kind of gender identity are carrying on wildly in the chic apartment of a fey lesbian, Nadia’s “bestie,” Max (Greta Lee), the party’s host. But Nadia is detached from the festivities in her honor, caught up in a lonely, very cosmic trauma. In every episode she dies more than once, returns to the black bathroom–twice in the first episode and seven times in the second episode for starters– and must try to figure out whether she is dead or alive and why she is going through these cycles.

Am I over-reaching with the Dante analogy? Maybe, but there certainly are a lot of parallels in Nadia’s story with Dante’s climb to heaven, albeit in the form of interesting feminist inversions. Nadia is looking for her mommy who died at the age of 35, not the universal eternal daddy. And she’s also searching for a little girl, though it’s not Beatrice the pedophilic love object, but herself as a young child. (Someone else is searching for Beatrice, but more of that later.)

At the same time, there’s her demi-feral runaway cat, Oatmeal; Nadia is looking for him too. Oatmeal has no parallel in Dante, so maybe Oatmeal suggests that Headland, Poehler, and Lyonne are bouncing Nadia off a very different journey taken by a very famous literary girl, Alice in Wonderland? You know, I like that idea too, but there is a sea of other much more clearly intentional cultural references in Russian Doll, and we will get to them soon. One allusion at a time.

Back to Dante. In Nadia’s journey, the religious angle is present, but it is as pointless for a questing woman as it is central for Dante’s questing hero. Max’s apartment is in an area formerly populated by Jewish immigrants. In fact, the building used to be a school for Orthodox Jewish boys.

If Dante makes his voyage on the Christian side of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it initially looks like Nadia’s pilgrimage will take her to the other side of the hyphen. She’s hoping that a Rabbi can tell her if there might be ghosts in the former Hebrew school that are responsible for her cyclic deaths and resurrections. But moving from Christian to Jewish is not the most resonant inversion of Dante. It’s that there is not a chance that the Rabbi will help. Everyone in The Divine Comedy is up for assisting Dante, or at least talking to him, even the damned in Hell. But despite the fact that Nadia is Jewish, because she is a woman, the Orthodox Rabbi is not eager to help her. That’s important. A female pilgrim is marginal to the powers that be.

As with all foundational Western stories, Dante is traveling on a path through the universe mapped out from start to finish by the major authorities of the epoch, in Dante’s case orthodox Christian dogma. By contrast, Nadia can’t get directions to 14th street from religion. The Orthodox Rabbi will only talk to Nadia through her non-Jewish ex-boyfriend, John (Yul Vasquez), who at least has the good taste to be male, and then makes short shrift of her questions in preference to counseling John about his problems, which the Rabbi wants to blame on Nadia.

Indeed there are no official authorities Nadia can rely on. Nadia also turns to the modern equivalent of spiritual help, psychiatry. Maybe she’s gone crazy and all her deaths are fantasies. But psychiatry too is a dead end. She consults frequently with Ruth Brenner (Elizabeth Ashley), a psychotherapist who brought her up after her borderline mother became completely incapable of taking care of her and then died. But Ruth’s loving concern for Nadia doesn’t help; her professional training only leads her to arrange for a pointless trip for Nadia to Bellevue’s psychiatric ward. Nadia dies when the obnoxious and threatening male EMTs on the ambulance tangle with her and as a result the ambulance crashes and burns. And that’s that for the “Jewish science.”

Another possible answer to Nadia’s dilemma. She is a hard drinking, drug addicted designer of computer games. So she wonders if her frequent deaths and resurrections are some kind of drug induced hallucination. Maybe the joint Max keeps giving her at the start of each resurrection as she walks out of the dark bathroom is laced with some toxic chemical. But she quickly rejects that hypothesis too. Others are using and they aren’t on Nadia’s journey. Nope, this is not about Hebrew ghosts, toxic drugs, or psychiatric delusion. Nadia really keeps dying and returning to the same dark place during her birthday party in the middle way.


And here’s where Russian Doll joins the ranks of auteur television, whether or not it is our new, feminist Divine Comedy. There are astonishing things going on in American entertainment. Headland, Poehler, and Lyonne have a personal, yet collaborative, artistic, feminist vision that reflects the way women can’t make meaning about their traumas using the same metaphoric vocabulary that men use, so they provide Nadia with some women’s images.

This was absolutely impossible in American television before David Lynch made his mark on the culture industry in 1990 with Twin Peaks, and altered old codes of the detective story with a work of art, whether the sponsoring corporation knew it or not. Russian Doll is a daughter of Twin Peaks, and she pointedly speaks a new vocabulary built on how feminine images alter old codes. I am fascinated by what emerges when, unexpectedly and by chance, Nadia dies in an elevator crash with Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett), a young black man, whom, she discovers, also keeps crossing the line between life and death. Alan’s time jumps concern, yup, that’s right, Beatrice (Dasha Polanco), his unattainable woman—that’s the actual name of the character–to whom he keeps proposing in vain before he dies and resurrects. So, yeah, Russian Doll as an inversion of The Divine Comedy seems more and more, well, yeah. And there’s still more.

Nadia and Alan, formerly loners, join forces on a mutual journey through a very non-religious form of Hell and Purgatory. Clearly, they don’t have Dante’s road map toward Judeo-Christian certainty and purification after encountering the damned dead and the purging dead; they don’t even have a road. What’s more, they are the dead, sometimes, as they lurch through multiple time dimensions that contain no paradise for anyone. It’s the way of the marginal spirit, blundering through discontinuous time fragments with a fellow lost soul in uncharted territory.

How could it be otherwise? This is not the well-traveled universe of God the father, but the unfamiliar cosmos of the Great Mother. Jumping among discontinuous fragments of life and death Alan and Nadia live in a time continuum that has a feminine shape, that of nested universes, one inside the other, female shapes within shapes with a tiny female at its core. The series does not hit us over the head with heavy handed symbolism, as—let’s face it–Dante does. Rather, brilliantly, subtly, the image for the series’ voyage into feminine time is present in the series title and in one moment, almost a throwaway, when Nadia, well into her cycles of death and rebirth, notices a set of matryushka dolls, which she wordlessly contemplates. Is she forming an intuitive picture of her journey in maze like time that cannot be spoken about except in images? Are we? Maybe, since the convolutions of matryushka time become interchangeable with another literary allusion. Matryushka time is labyrinthine and there is an old story about a woman who made a journey into a famous labyrinth. That story is alluded to in the titles of the two final episodes, The Way Out, and Ariadne. Ari-who?

Ariadne is a less well known Pre-Judeo-Christian mythological figure from Greek mythology who is associated with the fearsome labyrinth in Crete at the center of which was a monstrous Minotaur. Those forced into the labyrinth wandered to their death at the hand of the beast.

But Ariadne is only part of the story of Theseus, the king of Athens, who was condemned to the labyrinth as a result of an old vendetta between Athens and Crete. She saved him by giving him a sword and a ball of string that would enable him to kill Minotaur and retrace his steps out of the labyrinth by following the string back to the original entrance where Ariadne was waiting. Her reward? Theseus abandons her and she blunders into a doomed union with the God Dionysus.

Headland, Poehler, and Lyonne are clearly thinking of this tale and intentionally making Nadia her own Ariadne, but not as a tragic figure. Nadia and Alan are certainly in a temporal labyrinth, but here, in 21st century America, Nadia finds the string within her memory that will lead them to—where? Hmmm. Let’s first talk about the process.

From the moment Nadia time jumps, her motion through the temporal labyrinth is punctuated by Max’s greeting to her each time she leaves the bathroom for her crowded, noisy party, “Sweet birthday baby!” It’s an anchoring time marker, but only to suggest the intersectionality of multiple time dimensions and universes. Nadia is never in the same universe when she hears those words repeated. All the universes pivot around Nadia’s portentous birthday, but little else is identical. Nadia is catapulted toward different configurations of interactions with the same people: different manifestations of her failed relationship with John, whose daughter Lucy (Tatiana E. Rivera), Nadia does and does not want to meet; and different experiences with Horse (Brendan Sexton III), a discombobulated, sometimes sinister, sometimes victimized homeless man whom Nadia encounters when she’s looking for Oatmeal. Filthy, disheveled Horse bunks at a Salvation Army shelter and, enigmatically, owns a neat and complete hair stylist’s kit. Nadia also has different experiences with Ruth Brenner, who always loves Nadia but in one dimension fatally shoots her by accident and in another dies with her when her gas stove explodes.


Where is all this going? Toward Alan becoming unstuck from his fatal attraction to the unattainable Beatrice and toward Nadia’s becoming unstuck from a formative traumatic moment she experienced with her abusive mother (Chloe Sevigny) as a nine year old child (Brooke Timber), the time she was separated from her mother and went to live with Ruth. But they are not unstuck in order to reach a higher form of unchanging union with a detached deity, but to arrive at a life of fluidity. And they don’t conquer death. Unlike the classic hero; they learn from it.

The multiple deaths become extremely funny, in their rapid fire occurrences, much like the rhythm of some cosmic kind of vaudeville routine in which the punchline is some version of “Do ya get it yet?” Life is about release within time. Natasha Lyonne is hilarious as her Nadia flails about, coming closer and closer to a perception that the possibility of relationship and release, not necessarily the kind of forever relationships that the songs are written about, is at the heart of this journey. This is the import of the climactic scene in The Way Out, in which Nadia finally meets John’s young daughter, Lucy (Tatiana E. Rivera), and gives her Emily of New Moon, by the author of Anne of Green Gables, Nadia’s favorite book when she was a child. This time the series alludes to a story that was in its inception a feminine centered narrative, about an orphaned girl, who makes her way successfully in the world. This brief moment of shared, intergenerational, female experience in one of Nadia’s possible universes is about letting go. John is stuck in his desire for a forever love with Nadia. John’s daughter not so much, and she, interestingly, becomes a metaphor for Nadia’s release from her traumatized younger self as well as from John.

As Lucy accepts the book, Nadia expels through her mouth a lot of blood and a small, sharp mirror shard that has been cutting her insides. Some of the blood splatters onto an unperturbed Lucy and Nadia has a sudden flash of memory of herself at Lucy’s age, as Lucy says, “She’s still inside you.” The mirror fragments allude to a very traumatic moment when her mother exploded into a fit of breaking all the mirrors in the house. Her mother’s war against introspection? For those of you who know the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, doesn’t this suggest the journey taken in The Snow Queen, by a little boy, maimed so that he can see only the bad in the world when he is punctured by a shard of mirror devised by a troll? In that story, a brave little girl cures the young hero of the wound he receives after the troll’s mirror is shattered into slivers the size of a grain of sand which blow around the world piercing certain souls. Again, Nadia’s adventures appear to turn what was a feminine service to a central male figure into a heroic effort to serve her own needs, as Lucy becomes interchangeable with Nadia’s nine year old self and asks her, “Are you ready to let her die?”

Let who die? Nadia’s nine year old self? Her mother? Both? Any old, rotted bondage to which Nadia might cling? That’s for us to ponder. Whatever, Nadia is letting go. And it matters. In tandem, Alan releases Beatrice. And in the final episode, Ariadne, Nadia, and because of her courage, Alan too, finally reach new places in time, not variations on old moments, and enter into the world in a new, fluid way. I’m not going to tell you the specifics although I will tell you that the series points in its final moments toward a sudden Mardi Gras-like confluence of many imaginative images, just as this review has. I know, I know. I led you to believe I would do better than that. But be a woman about it. Be flexible. I am trying to encourage you to see this miraculous series yourself, to savor its textures and excitement, and to play, in your own way, with its possible meanings.

The old patriarchal epics imagine a grand, serious, ponderous, stable, linear, stand-your-ground, male-centered universe populated by men who can be summarized by a line at the end of the poem, Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that trumpets a climactic affirmation. Stalwart Ulysses, no matter how old he gets, will go on all his life “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Very heroic. But for Nadia and Alan, yielding is all. Very modern. Russian Doll opens before our eyes a very different, hopeful, fearless universe of comic, non-linear flow, movement, and, above all, the beauty and vitality of change as the very stuff of life. What are we to make of the way the series aligns femininity receptivity with change in this variation on classic journeys? Is a priority on release specifically a feminine, and/or feminist view of identity and meaning? Or does the series suggest that women are simply freer than men to exuberantly embrace the modern world of relativity and random flow because we were so marginal to older narratives with priorities on stability and unchanging possession in which men seem to be still stuck?

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