Contains minor spoilers, if you want to know nothing about Russian Doll.
The idea of a life do-over is very appealing: start, stop, start all over again. Fuck it up? Never mind – nobody will remember. It’s appealing because even if you believe in reincarnation, you know none of us will get a true life do-over, ever. And that realisation means that writers have probably been exploring the idea since humans dressed in animal skins began telling stories around fires. Which brings us to the new Netflix series Russian Doll, which is about a woman, Nadia (played by the electrifying, big-haired badass Natasha Lyonne, who co-created it with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland) who gets a life do-over she didn’t ask for. Every time she dies, she wakes up staring into the mirror in her friend’s black-tiled bathroom at her own 36th birthday party. And she usually comes to with a scowl on her face and reaching for her next cigarette.
Because the series is all about discovering exactly why she keeps reliving the day before her death over and over and over again, at first the episodes are preoccupied with the mode of death. So we see her meet her inevitable demise many different ways, and watch her mental and physical gymnastics as she tries to outmaneuver the grim reaper. But as the eight-part series moves on, it starts to be less about her final moment(s), and more about Nadia herself. It fools us into thinking it’s about death, when really it’s about why people reject others, whether we use selfishness to survive, and just how much our past imposes on our present.
We’ve been here before: in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s misanthropic news reporter has to relive the same day, gradually realising that he needs to become a better person to live life right – after doing a lot of bad things first. We like him because he does not give a fuck. In Kate Atkinson’s book Life After Life, a woman relives her entire lifetime multiple times. Sometimes her years are cut chillingly short, but in each of her lives, like in the film Sliding Doors, she takes a slightly different direction. As a reader, you’re spurred on to turn the page by the possibilities of where she might go next, and how long before she’ll shuffle off this mortal coil.
There’s also the It’s A Wonderful Life/Christmas Carol-style life do-over, where men are removed from the everyday routine and emotionally manhandled by a ghostly being into realising what an idiot they’ve been all along.
But it’s the repeated death do-over that I find especially enjoyable.
You see, getting to live life over again isn’t just about reliving those last few days before your death. It’s about the months and years leading up to it. We witness this in Russian Doll and another Netflix series, The Good Place, which are both bringing a new angle to the reliving-your-life trope. What they focus on are the philosophical questions: what is life, and what it does it mean to be human? What is it to be ‘good’?
The Good Place takes apart the binary ideas of good and bad and shows them to us, asking: do you like what you see? Through the characters’ moral crises, the viewer slowly realises ‘bad’ doesn’t just mean ‘axe murderer’. It can mean ‘selfish, bored, preoccupied, anxious, or indecisive’. Familiar, eh? So if you think of good and bad as binaries, then most of us have a spot reserved in the lift down to the Bad Place. Watch out for those hot metal walls.
Most of the ‘reliving life’ stories in pop culture follow a similar pattern, where the person who dies goes through a brief period of anarchy. If you’re going to die and wake up back in the same situation again, why bother to follow the rules at all? That’s the most exciting part for me – when the character realises there are social and moral rules that they don’t actually have to abide to. When they spot the invisible tightrope they’re balancing on, and hop off. When they see their friends for who they are – flawed, messy, annoying, or better than them – and react accordingly. This usually ends, though, in them realising the truth about themselves – they’re a mess of a person too.
As a viewer, it’s a delicious thing to wonder what you’d do if you weren’t bound by rules or conventions. Perhaps some of us wouldn’t stray too far from our baked-in moral code if we found ourselves living out this fantasy. Or maybe we’d say things we’d never normally say, smoke things we wouldn’t typically smoke, kiss people we wouldn’t usually dare to kiss, and feel happy about it all rather than conflicted over our choices.
This era we’re living in can feel very outward-facing, all about presenting an image of ourselves online for others to approve of. We get a little thrill from the dopamine boost of Twitter likes and Insta-story views. It’s scary to look beyond that and into who you really are as a person. If you’re not boomerangs of clinking prosecco glasses, or a second-hand vinyl record, or as beautiful as your selfie, who are you really? It’s almost cliche at this point to invoke the image of someone having a bad day, sitting in their PJs on the couch, posting a completely different image on Instagram, one that’s altogether more #blessed. But it’s a cliché because you’ve probably been there – I know I have. You can avoid the real you by ploughing more time into cultivating the person you are on an app. To take the Russian doll/matryoshka metaphor and run with it, do you know how many versions of you exist within you? Maybe it would be a good thing to find out.
So, a series that makes you reflect on how much of a flawed human you are, while showing you that hey, everyone’s a bit of a state really – I’m here for that. Give me more troubling interior examination, especially if it’s as well-dressed as everyone in Russian Doll.
I can’t say much more about Russian Doll for fear of totally spoiling it, but I will say what else the series has going for it: the incredible soundtrack (Harry Nilsson’s ‘Gotta Get Up’ is played in every episode, a la ‘I’ve Got You Babe’); the very millennial lighting; the acerbic NYC wit of Nadia’s friends; the frankly sickening clothing; the diverse cast with each character, no matter how small, drawn perfectly (note how Nadia’s boyfriends don’t fit the ‘usual’ TV boyfriend type); and one liners so sharp you could cut yourself on them.