The Secret Jewish History Of ‘Russian Doll’
Netflix’s “Russian Doll” is a Rorschach of a show.
The early press has been hot with takes crowing that the dark and funny series is inseparable from star and co-creator Natasha Lyonne’s history of addiction and AA’s signature 12 steps. Others have posited that the constant respawning of the game-programmer protagonist in the same location, unscathed, echoes the nature of video game checkpoints. All these glosses of the show, which follows the persistent death and regeneration of the brassy Nadia Volvokov (Lyonne), are valid. But to those aware of Lyonne’s Orthodox background and family history the show’s themes are undeniably Jewish.
Take the consistent ground zero for Nadia’s “Groundhog Day”-ish resurrection, always on the night of her 36th birthday (the Jewish numerological read has been noted), an Alphabet City apartment in a former Yeshiva building. The building’s prehistory leads Nadia to seek a brief consultation with a rabbi (Jonathan Hadary) at a 14th Street synagogue to determine why she keeps dying and reliving the same day.
His conclusion, delivered to her ex, John (Yul Vazquez): “Buildings aren’t haunted. People are.”
It’s a generic, non-denominational enough analysis, but Nadia’s ordeal is anything but.
The reasons underpinning her substance abuse, her casual flings and her pointed fear of turning 36 are patly Freudian, circling back to her mother who died at 35. As with the titular old-world Matryoshkas (in Russian the word translates roughly to “little matron”), the smaller offspring bear the features of the larger dolls. We learn late in the game that this distaff doll-nesting references not just the structure of Nadia’s time loop but a shared, intergenerational legacy of tragedy.
We first encounter Nadia’s mother Lenora (Chlöe Sevigny) in a flashback from episode seven of the eight-part series penned by Allison Silverman and series co-creator Leslye Headland. In the midst of a manic spell, Lenora frantically jams watermelons into her convertible, pledging to a younger Nadia “this is the day we get free.”
It’s another empty promise. Soon Lenora loses control, smashing mirrors in her apartment and taking her own life after she loses custody of Nadia to her friend Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a therapist. There is no freedom from what Nadia and Lenora have inherited.
The broken glass and all its metaphoric power are, quite literally, violently internalized as the series comes to a close. But before this denouement, when reflective surfaces start to disappear after one of Nadia’s deaths, the glass serves as an echo of Kristallnacht and the shiva ritual of covering mirrors
Nadia’s mother’s behavior seems to stem in part from her own mother, a Holocaust survivor, who after the war consolidated her wealth in over 100 South African gold coins which Lenora carelessly spent. Nadia wears the last of these coins as a pendant and an heirloom of guilt – she feels responsible for her mother’s death. The paranoid hoarding and compulsive behavior evident in both matriarchs and in Nadia’s own tendency to crowd her life with people and drugs is one not uncommon in survivors or refugees from the Soviet Bloc.
The show poses an implicit question: Are daughters doomed to become their mothers, inheriting their history and psychosis and predestined to repeat the same patterns?
When the question is applied supernatuturally where Nadia, by dying, produces another living version of herself connected to the same consciousness, the trauma takes on a different façade – one that reflects a deeper cultural complex. Each successive, smaller “doll” in the nest receives a remembered death that it wasn’t physically damaged by, but was nonetheless psychically scarred by. (It’s a trauma most Jews raised to remember Shoah narratives can recognize).
There is an added layer of parable to “Russian Doll” common to stories like it. It wonders whether we can correct our course and learn from a parade of past mistakes (our own and others). While reincarnation is far from a Jewish concept, repairing the world is baked into the live-die-repeat conceit. Here, as in 1993’s “Groundhog Day,” this repair is measured largely in the person of a homeless man who may not survive the freezing night in a park.
But whereas “Groundhog Day” and its Punxsutawney remain static and are restored the same way each February 2, the terms of the world of “Russian Doll” shift. Fruit and flowers rot, mirrors and people disappear.
There is a pall of survivor’s guilt that can’t be divorced from Nadia’s condition. She dies and gets to start over with her memory while the loved ones she leaves behind in their timeline are fated to suffer without her – or die with her and not regenerate. A diasporic and post-Holocaust reality haunts the show and it is only through confronting the past that the continuity of the world is repaired.
When the rabbi speaks to Nadia’s ex, John, in his office at the synagogue, he tells him that people, not buildings, are haunted.
While this happens, just outside, Nadia receives a different lesson as the rabbi’s secretary Shifra (Tami Seghar) recites a portion of the bedtime Shema for her, asking the protection of Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Rafael. Nadia asks her what the prayer means and Shifra replies, “Angels are all around us.”
In essence, both lessons are the same. We are never free of those we survive.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected]