Leslye Headland, the co-creator of the new comedy Russian Doll on Netflix, is perhaps our sharpest dramatic writer when it comes to cruelty. Headland, who created the series with Amy Poehler and the actress Natasha Lyonne (who also stars in the show and co-wrote several episodes), got her start as a playwright in the mid-2000s, when her main preoccupation was misbehavior—the spiky words and blithe, callous actions that lead people to hurt others and resent themselves, the little, daily snips and slights that we stay up at night replaying in our heads, wondering what we might have done differently.
Beginning in 2007, Headland decided to write seven contemporary plays, based on the seven deadly sins, as a way of exploring our worst tendencies. Her sin play cycle, beginning with Cinephilia, her exploration of “lust,” in which a Brooklyn couple stays up late debating movies and sex and also nearly clawing one other’s eyes out, is a triumph of vulgarity and pettiness and prickly human emotions. There are characters in Headland’s early work that show vulnerability and yearning, but they are swiftly punished or turned into punchlines.
Perhaps this is most apparent in Bachelorette, her razor-edged 2010 “gluttony” play, which later became a criminally underrated 2012 feature film, directed by Headland and starring Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, and Lizzy Caplan as a trio of drug-addled, selfish, body-dysmorphic, alcoholic, miserable millennial harridans, determined to sabotage their most earnest friend’s wedding day. Bachelorette, the film, did not get as much attention as Bridesmaids, which came out a year earlier and had its share of blue jokes but ultimately embraced its characters with a gentle, gooey hug. Bachelorette, on the other hand, slaps its protagonists across the face with an open palm. It sends them into spirals of self-loathing and catty desperation (nearly every character in the film has some sort of eating disorder; much of the female bonding takes place around vomiting in a bathroom stall) and pumps its main trio full of cocaine and champagne which leads to unforgivable mishaps, like ripping their friend’s wedding dress to shreds the night before the ceremony. Writing about the play when it debuted in 2010, a New York Times critic put it this way: “the fun of being young, comfortable and playfully wasted begins to bleed into a life of stunted drifting, frustration and wanton self-destruction.”
Wanton self-destruction is the backbone of Russian Doll, which turns the concept literal: Its protagonist willfully self-immolates, over and over, in the most dramatic way possible. In other words, she keeps dying. Lyonne plays Nadia, a droll, chain-smoking New Yorker with a wild tangle of red hair, who is caught in a Groundhog Day-esque loop on the night of her 36th birthday party. The first episode follows her through her first death: She starts her night sighing into a gilded mirror in a sleek, black-tiled bathroom that looks like it could belong in Studio 54. Somewhere in the distance, Harry Nilsson’s jangly “Gotta Get Up” starts playing, and we hear a cacophony of muddled voices, a sign that merriment is taking place right outside the bathroom. When Nadia emerges, she surveys the large crowd, who have gathered together at her friend Maxine’s cavernous apartment (a converted Yeshiva in the East Village, the height of moneyed, bohemian chic). The guests are all there to celebrate her, but Nadia doesn’t seem to appreciate this fact, or even seem interested in attending her own party. She floats toward Maxine (the kookily dry Greta Lee, swaddled in crystals and velvet choker necklaces), who is basting a chicken in the kitchen and smoking an “Israeli joint,” laced with cocaine. “Sweet birthday baby!” Maxine exclaims (a phrase that begins to lose meaning as you hear it again, and again, and again, throughout the series). Nadia rolls her eyes. Mostly, she seems agitated by the fact that she has to interact with people for the night.
Lyonne’s strongest muscles as an actress are sardonic detachment and antsy discomfort, and she flexes both in full force in these early scenes. Instead of enjoying her fête, Nadia does several shots and desperately skulks around the room hunting for someone to leave with. She finally lands on a misogynist blowhard professor named Mike (Jeremy Bobb). She drags him first to a bodega, and then back to her own apartment a few blocks away for mediocre sex until she grows bored and kicks him out. What we learn from these brief scenes is that Nadia has a severe block when it comes to human connections. She is a devout loner, a woman who prefers the solitude of the bathroom mirror to a party, who blots out her nights with anonymous sex and obliterating substances, whose default settings are caustic and surly. Lyonne is not a wispy mover; she is lead-footed, walking with a slightly bowlegged, clomping gait that can make her look like a dizzy marionette. She is a brilliant physical comedian, the kind that a silent film director might have called a real scamp. Her heavy body language reaffirms Nadia’s internal weight; she’s carrying around a lot of baggage, dragging it behind her everywhere she goes like an invisible carcass.
The first time we watch Nadia die, she is going out for cigarettes after the professor leaves. She forgets to look both ways before stepping into the street, and a taxi barrels into her body, sending her flying onto the pavement. A pool of blood seeps out from her head, as her empty saucer eyes stare right into the camera lens. And then, the screen goes black, we hear the opening strains of “Gotta Get Up,” and suddenly Nadia is back in Maxine’s disco bathroom, her body fully intact and without a scratch. And the cycle begins again.
For anyone familiar with Groundhog Day, Nadia’s purgatorial limbo should feel familiar. The show even borrows directly from that film: She always comes back to life with an increasingly cloying pop song (in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray knows he’s alive again when his alarm clock plays “I’ve Got You Babe”); she befriends a homeless man whom she tries to save from freezing to death (Murray’s homeless friend was named “Pop,” Nadia’s is called “Horse”); she goes through the same process of confusion followed by elation when she learns that she is doomed to repeat the same day dozens of times. Both the show and the film follow a flawed, selfish person who interprets their looping as a kind of divine punishment, a lesson designed by some supernatural force to teach them compassion and tenderness.
And yet, Russian Doll diverges from Groundhog Day in important ways. For one, it doesn’t shy away from the trauma involved in dying repeatedly—Nadia experiences each one of her deaths as the painful tragedy it is. When she falls down a flight of stairs and breaks her neck, it’s brutal and terrifying. When she goes to visit her late mother’s friend Ruth, who acts as her surrogate mother, and Ruth accidentally shoots her thinking she is a burglar, she weeps as she sees Ruth’s agonized face. What Nadia realizes, as she reboots, is that there may be simultaneous dimensions, and in each one that she has left behind, she’s still dead, and that she is leaving a mounting wake of tragedies and bloody messes and consequences. Groundhog Day treated Phil Connors’s infinite rebirths as quirky comedic fodder; Russian Doll immediately undercuts this premise. Nadia’s deaths are horrible, every single time. When she dies in a gas explosion in Ruth’s apartment, Ruth explodes too—her endless spiral brings a body count. Nadia carries the trauma of every fresh death with her, until she can barely look at herself in the mirror anymore.
But—and this is the case with all of Headland’s most cutting work—the show doesn’t torture Nadia just for the fun of it. There is a reason she is trapped; she was trapped even before she started dying. Throughout the show, we learn that Nadia’s mother (Chloë Sevigny) was dangerous, mentally ill to the point where she could not be trusted with a knife. Lyonne reveals Nadia’s painful childhood slowly, in jerky monologues that drip out of her throat like acrid syrup. Nadia believes, deep down, that her mother died young because of her decision not to live with her after child services got involved, and she has shouldered that burden all her life, remaining distant and standoffish when it comes to intimacy.
To sublimate her memories, Nadia submerges herself into drugs, into work (she is a video game programmer), into nicotine, into internet rabbit holes, into snide comments, into rudeness. Her one true friend is a feral cat named Oatmeal, who lives part-time at the bodega because she doesn’t want to bind any living thing to her permanently. Ruth, her mother’s friend, tells Nadia one afternoon that she seems to be chasing down death at every corner (she doesn’t know the half of it), a sentiment that brings Nadia to tears. She sees it all clearly: She was killing herself before she ever started killing herself. She’s let her heart go black and her liver go to ruin.
She is, however, not alone. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors must repeat the same day thousands of times without ever having a friend he can talk to about it, at least not one who will remember their conversation in the morning. What Headland does brilliantly to flip this formula is that she gives Nadia a sidekick, a fellow looper. Early in the series, Nadia enters an elevator which quickly starts to malfunction and drops to the ground. Most of the passengers are screaming, knowing they are hurtling toward death. One man, a tall, handsome brunette in his twenties, remains perfectly calm. Nadia asks him, “Didn’t you get the news? We’re about to die.” He says that it really doesn’t matter to him; he dies all the time.
In her next life, Nadia rushes to find this stranger, who turns out to be a neurotic perfectionist named Alan who also lives in the East Village and spends his days working out, wearing perfectly crisp Oxford shirts, and reciting empowerment mantras to himself. Alan and Nadia quickly learn that their fates are intertwined—they began dying on the same night, and they always die at the exact same moment. On the night he first died, Alan lost his girlfriend, and, as we learn, his will to live. He hurled himself off the side of a building. Once he and Nadia meet, the show takes on the quality of a good noir detective story: Two unlikely allies race through New York City at night, trying to work out why the universe glued them together.
At this point, Russian Doll picks up to a clip; the duo is not only trying to solve the mystery of their reincarnations, but also racing against time, as people and places begin to evaporate between deaths. Both Alan and Nadia were disengaged zombies in life, but they are electric in death, heaving themselves fully into their adventures. For the first time, they both feel an extreme bond with another human being; and all it took to get there was hundreds of fatalities.
More than anything else, Russian Doll is a showcase for Lyonne, who bites into this role like ripe fruit, baring her teeth. She’s scrappy, daffy, mischievous, and magnetic. She careens from slapstick to pathos in mere moments, and she makes us feel every death in our gut. We ache like she aches. Headland may be the queen of writing cruelty, but she gave Lyonne a valentine with Nadia—finally, a role that is equal to what the actress can give. With every death scene, Lyonne peels back another layer to show us a new trick. After months of dying, Nadia finally wants to live. She wants more joy, more pain, more music, more dancing. To say her desire was hard-earned is an understatement. Headland and Lyonne show us that sometimes to get to where you need to be, you not only have to go through hell, but sometimes you have to get stuck there.