Russian Doll and the Legacy of Addiction and Trauma

Russian Doll is a show about a woman with an impossibly eccentric life, living and dying on the day of her 36th birthday over and over again. But it rings strangely true when you watch it—like the unabashed, melodramatic rambling of a high schooler’s diary, it's fiction with a seed of truth. As the series unfolds and unstacks just like its title, that seed of truth blossoms until we’re left with a shockingly vulnerable portrayal of trauma and addiction that drags everyone down the rabbit hole with Nadia—and with Natasha Lyonne. 

Lyonne, the lead actress, writer, producer and director, basically lived the story she put on camera. You know, without all the “dying and reliving the same day” stuff (although, in an interview with the Guardian, she does refer to her recovery from heroin addiction as a “resurrection”). Her belief that addiction is a coping mechanism for trauma shines through in Russian Doll, as Nadia goes through two to three packs a day and as she drinks herself into oblivion, desperately hoping she will wake up the next day. But we realize about a quarter of the way through that these self-destructive habits didn’t just start with the never-ending Wednesday.

Nadia has deep-seated trauma surrounding her relationship with her mother, who died on that same birthday. As the show progresses, so does their relationship. Nadia’s mother was a deeply unstable woman who'd excused her own negligence towards Nadia’s safety by developing delusions of persecution. At one of the turning points in the show, Nadia thinks she’s being punished because she told her pseudo-grandmother (her mom’s therapist) that she’d rather live with her... when she was twelve. 

Somehow, Nadia spirals even further with each successive attempt at fixing her broken-record life, and she starts to have visions of herself at that turning point in her life: when her mother, in a rage, broke all the glass in the pictures in her house. When she sees young Nadia, she dies almost immediately, dragging her partner-in-repetition, Alan, along with her. Her death becomes more and more graphic until finally, she leaks blood from every orifice and coughs up a piece of the same glass her mother ruined. “Are you ready to let her die?” says twelve-year-old Nadia. Is she talking about herself or her mother? “This is how we get free.” This is also how Alan gets free from the guilt and shame of killing himself before the first loop. Through his relationship with Nadia, Alan eventually learns that just because he might not be happy doesn’t mean his life isn’t worth living.

Neither of them are shamed or put down for having their vices—Nadia lightly teases Alan about his OCD, and Alan tersely asks her not to smoke in his apartment—but instead, they are shown sympathy from the supporting characters. “Where is that gorgeous piece of you pushing to be a part of this world?” her grandmother asks. And when Nadia breaks down after hearing this, you can feel the depth of damage done by her mother’s behaviors and decisions, as well as her own misinformed ones. This damage is made physical through Nadia’s violent deaths, through the things in her world disappearing the further into the loop she gets, and through the ruining of various relationships in every loop. 

Natasha Lyonne knew what she was doing when she made Russian Doll. Whether it was because she had lived through it or she just had the insight, addiction and trauma are perfectly represented through not only the characters but within the repetition and tedium of the central premise. Every Emmy nomination it gained may have been under “Comedy”—and it is a funny show—but make no mistake: this show takes itself and its subjects seriously.

Images: Hero designed by author, 1, 2