The signature Natasha Lyonne character usually is intelligent and bold, unapologetically sexual, a fan of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, and often Jewish. The character typically behaves in ways we might not expect or approve of but thoroughly enjoy. She flashes that Lyonne look, with eyes widened more than should be humanly possible. Her thick New York accent (“caahkcaroach”) contains a wry, Borscht Belty delivery. She is quirky-comedic and wise, an assertive truth-teller, and possesses wild hair and iconoclastic style — think Annie Hall with added frump, fire and f-words.
All of the above is true of Lyonne’s latest, as lead character Nadia in “Russian Doll,” a loopy time-loop dramatic comedy on Netflix. But this time Lyonne is also at the helm, co-creating the show with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland (and credited for two episodes as writer and one as a director).
As with others in the time-loop genre (“Groundhog Day,” episodes of “Legends of Tomorrow,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The X-Files”), both character and viewer have to figure out why this is happening, and what Nadia needs to do differently in order to escape. Each time she starts over, with the bathroom sink running as she gazes at herself in the mirror, she remembers a little bit more. Even in this space of not knowing whether it’s a dream, drugs, menopause, purgatory or an emotional breakdown, Nadia begins to see truths about herself and the people around her. As she works through her loop — whether she makes mistakes or manages to do good things — she sees the world she knows begin to fall away in disconcerting ways.
Did I mention that the party where the time looping begins — and the place to which she is always returned — is a loft located in what was formerly a yeshiva?
“This whole building used to be a school for Jews,” Nadia points out to a man at her party, partway through the strangest yeshiva-themed flirtation I’ve seen on Netflix. “Seriously,” she continues. “Yeshiva students used to study the Talmud right where you’re standing.” It’s on that spot that Nadia — well, lets the man know she’s sexually interested in him in a way that underscores the fact that the location is no longer sacred.
Those of us who know details about Lyonne’s Jewish background might pick up on some possible biographical references.
For example, when Nadia smokes a joint “laced with cocaine like the Israelis do it,” we recall Lyonne getting expelled from her Modern Orthodox yeshiva day school for selling weed, or the year she spent in Israel before her parents split up. In a series about living life over and over again and trying to make different choices, could there be any significance to the fact that she’s turning 36 — in Hebrew numerology, 18 represents chai, or “life,” and 36 is double chai — and perhaps giving a nod to living life more than once?
We also need to talk about the visit that Nadia pays to a local shul as she tries to track down information about the building where the yeshiva used to be. Nadia starts baiting Shifra, the synagogue administrator. “Your heart’s not really in this,” she says combatively. “You don’t even know the prayers.” Shifra asserts that she does know the prayers and even offers her one, naming in Hebrew the angels who should always be at her side, protecting her.
After the shul visit, Nadia decides to help a homeless person, and then, toward the end of a loop, discovers that she’s not alone in her own repetitive universe. While Nadia (and Lyonne herself) may have irreverent or contrarian perspectives on the role that religion can play in a person’s life, the takeaway lesson that support is out there if you know where to look comes only after her synagogue visit.
Nadia is a Russian doll whose tough outer shell protects a possibly infinite number of increasingly smaller, more fragile core identity components: from her complicated relationship with her mother and guilt over her mother’s death, to her resistance to intimacy and the way she consequently treats her lovers. While the season’s last episode is a bit confusing (simultaneously linear and fragmented), it is also marked by the character’s growth, self-acceptance and growing awareness of life’s purpose.
As an audience, we can also see ourselves in those dolls within dolls: struggling with the selves within ourselves. And if we’re lucky, we find the angels to our right and left, in front of and behind us, who can support us as we make better choices toward crafting a more meaningful future.