Landon’s Outlook: Every layer of ‘Russian Doll’ exposes perspectives on mental health

Illustration by Sammy Newman

Landon Roberts, Contributing Writer

The Netflix original series “Russian Doll” offers a breath of fresh air into the oversaturated time loop genre while also offering important commentary on mental health.

The eight-episode season puts Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia in a personal hell as she relives her 36th birthday until she can find the root of her misfortune.  

As a limited series, the premise could have easily stretched itself too thin. But as the title insinuates, each episode spends a considerable amount of time opening the layers of Nadia’s identity like a Russian doll. Once her character’s core is established, her fears, anxieties and traumas are left out on full display, revealing a hardened shell of toxic traits hindering her life.

The show — cleverly tied into the time loop concept — revolves around Nadia’s learning to overcome her depression and self-destructive tendencies. When control over her life and her day-to-day actions are manipulated by the loop, she explores a number of theories and methods of escape, ranging from drug hallucinations to Jewish curses. Most of these attempts are met with an untimely death, resetting her day. These actions parallel the loss of ownership associated with depression, offering an interesting allegory for viewers to digest.

Lyonne’s witty scripts and complex acting perfectly execute the discussion on mental health. Her character’s tough exterior is always protected by humor that seems quite basic in early episodes. But as the series progresses, this protective shield shatters with every break in her psyche.

Her manic decisions, ranging from berating friends to abusing substances, carry the first three masterfully crafted episodes. The series is truly ramped up, however, at the end of the third episode. The show introduces Alan — a character whose relation to Nadia I won’t mention to keep from spoiling the entire series — and the storyline becomes more intriguing. He has an interesting connection to Nadia and the entire plot, and the execution of the reveal leads to another heartbreaking character study.

Charlie Barnett’s Alan is the complete antithesis of Nadia’s charming blunt nature; he can come off as unlikable at first. But diving deeper into the series reveals true tragedy. This makes the dynamic between the two palpable, resulting in an emotionally honest final four episodes that tackle mental illness head-on.

“Russian Doll” truly encapsulates the quote by Charlie Chaplin: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” It portrays mental illness in a close, personal manner — instead of the butt of a joke like in many other forms of media. The series is a must-see for any that have felt alone or are dealing with a mental illness.

“Russian Doll” is now streaming on Netflix.

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