In the first episode of the first season of Russian Doll, Nadia relives her 36th birthday. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Russian Doll.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of death, and for mentions of drug use
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And with that out of the way:
WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST WATCH
I’m so thankful that all the folks who have told me to watch this show since it premiered left out the premise. This show so causally slides into speculative fiction, and I admire that. It did not seem like a genre show when I started it. Truthfully, while I love very intensely speculative stories, I’m actually perfectly fine with stories that only lightly touch on the speculative fiction elements. I’m thinking of my love of Adam Silvera’s first three novels, or historical examples of magical realism, where these fantastical elements aren’t even really the point or the focus; they’re just a means to tell a story.
But I also have to admit that upfront, this show has landed in my life at a very odd time. Like Nadia, I am also thirty-six, and I also live in New York. Actually, from what I can piece together from context clues and some of the shooting locations, the apartment I was staying in prior to moving to Brooklyn was within a quarter mile from where Russian Doll takes place. There is also a whole lot of death in my life. Hell, in all our lives right now, but I think it’s real obvious that this is probably going to affect me differently if I’d not lost someone so close to me and so suddenly.
That’s part of this experience, though, isn’t it? I’ve had a lot of time alone, like many of you, and I’ve spent some of that reflecting on the ten years of doing Mark Does Stuff. (A decade??? What the FUCK.) What I hope I’ve done in these past ten years is bring the personal into play when it comes to literary criticism and media studies. That personal angle affects the way each of us interpret a work of art, and I bring that up because if I’d watched this show when it debuted, I would not have had the same take on it all. If I’d watched this show before a global pandemic, I would not have had the same reaction. I don’t mind talking about that, either, even if I have been mostly silent on some of the larger issues that have been in my life and continue to be.
Watching this show is strange because, as I said on video, it made me miss New York City. That may seem like an absurd statement—I literally live in fucking New York City, so how can I miss it? Because I currently can’t do any of the things portrayed on this show!!! And the show manages to make fun of New York City culture while also stunningly portraying it? I went to like SIX loft parties that looked exactly like the one in this episode just last year alone. There was often someone there liberally handing one substance laced with another substance . There was also a white dude just like Mike at nearly all of them, who talked just like Mike did, too. (I’m guessing that we’ll learn Mike is either a political science teacher or a literature professor. ONE OF THOSE TWO.) It has EVERYTHING NYC in it. The music! The fashion! The history of buildings that were once one thing but are somehow now these elaborate lofts that seem deeply unfair! (I can’t get over the bathroom. It’s so HUGE.)
So while that plays a part in what I instantly felt drawn to, I also have to say that what “Nothing In This World is Easy” does best is give us a challenging, complicated character in Nadia. I spent a lot of time in the kidlit world, obviously, so I am really excited that I’m getting a character appears to be dealing with something I am also going through: mid-thirties angst. It’s a real thing, even if you aren’t going through a global pandemic! Because what IS the point of everything! Why go to work? Have I peaked too late? Will I be alone for the remainder of my life? Do I just have to survive until I’m sixty before I lock it down and have some security in my final years?
Yes. I find Nadia deeply, deeply relatable. However, it helps that even in the twenty-five minutes she’s onscreen, Natasha Lyonne KILLS IT. I’m always impressed by this specific craft, because Lyonne seems to so easily become this character. I love her voice, her accent, all the tiny expressions that convey MOUNTAINS of character information, the way she holds her body when she’s speaking to someone else. Look at the way she slowly collapses in on herself while she talks to John, until she’s doubled over, his hand in her hair, right up to the moment where he suggests going to look for Oatmeal. Lyonne then rises, her eyes go wide, and in this we see vulnerability. Hope. Possibility. It is of course immediately ruined when John misinterprets this genuine offer of company to look for Oatmeal, and how many of us have been right there? How many times have we thought someone just wanted to be a good friend, but they misinterpreted an action or an offer?
Lyonne is both chaotic and deeply, deeply human in this portrayal, and I personally can’t wait to see more of it. I say that because while Russian Doll exists within a fairly trope-filled history of time loop stories, I never got the sense that the show was trying to say it was some sort of edgy exception to it. No, it feels like the people who made it know we’ve all seen at least one iteration of this story, be it an episode of The X-Files or The Twilight Zone, or perhaps Groundhog Day. So that means when the story goes in an unexpected direction, it comes off as sincerely exciting. There’s a central mystery here, of course: Why is this happening to Nadia? Why is it that she is the only one conscious of this loop happening? But those core questions provide some of the entertainment, but this show doesn’t rely on a mystery being the sole source of the fun. I love that Nadia retains knowledge of the previous loop, and I also found it incredibly fascinating how quickly she began to question what was going on. That was a character-centered writing choice. I believed that if Nadia got stuck in a time loop, she wouldn’t passively accept it happening it. No, even in just one episode, she seems like the kind of no-nonsense person who would immediately say, “Hey, what the fuck?”
Yet even though she’s questioning her experience, it doesn’t leave the audience with a whole lot of answers. One thing in particular bugs me more than anything else. I suspect that maybe the homeless man will play an important part in this; the same goes for that random guy who stumbled in Farran’s bodega. I think the way Nadia has died isn’t necessarily that important, though both of them seem… so horribly New York City. Like, I am also terrified of getting hit by a yellow cab or falling into either the Hudson or the East River. (More so because of pollution than actual drowning, for the record.) However: Oatmeal disappearing. That just… what the fuck was that, y’all? I don’t believe that Nadia is imagining any of this, so that stands out as the most bizarre part of what is already a bizarre situation. How? Is it because she didn’t die by taxi? Did some mysterious force work some sort of course correction to make sure that she died anyway? What the FUCK. I don’t think it’s the joint, y’all. I think that Nadia will focus on that, since it seems to her to be a reasonable explanation for these events, but I believe it’s immaterial to it all.
I am very, very excited to see more of this, y’all. What a treat!
The video for “Nothing In This World is Easy” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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