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How ‘Russian Doll’ Unpacks Trauma and Emerges Triumphant (Column)

Spoiler alert: Do not read if you haven’t watched the first season of Netflix’s new series, “Russian Doll.”

When I finished “Russian Doll,” I had to remember how to breathe.

The show took both me and its shattered characters completely by surprise. What at first looks like a slick hangout comedy built around Natasha Lyonne’s formidable snarl becomes a violent “Groundhog’s Day” style farce within the first 15 minutes, when a speeding taxi kills Nadia (Lyonne) and she promptly regains consciousness back at her own birthday party from whence she came. But with every passing episode, what seems like a slapstick sendup of Nadia dying over and over again becomes an existential nightmare that neither she nor Alan (Charlie Barnett), a resigned man she meets in a plummeting elevator who shares the same apparent invincibility, can shake.

Then, in the series’ stunning penultimate chapter (“The Way Out”), the existential nightmare becomes a wrenching plunge into their deepest pains. By the time the final credits roll, that wrenching plunge has given way to catharsis, relieved and giddy and, despite all odds, joyful. Nadia and Alan wrestle with their darkest shames and, much to their own grateful shock, come out the other side in one piece.

In other words: reaching the end of “Russian Doll” feels like reaching the end of a particularly bruising therapy session, wherein the sharp gasp of a breakthrough stings as thoroughly as it (eventually) heals.

As each episode embarks on new time loops, the show also strips back another subconscious layer — ergo, “Russian Doll”. Even the physical world surrounding Nadia and Alan shows the strain of their malfunctioning minds struggling to stay present, until everything around them is literally stripped bare. (Go back and look in the background to find the creeping clues of just how far they’ve disappeared into themselves; animals vanish, people disappear, fruit blackens into rot.)

By the end, “the broken man and the girl with a death wish” have to deal with the kind of pain they never thought they wanted to explore. But as “Russian Doll” ends up arguing so convincingly, the only way to stop feeling the dull throb of that pain every damn day is to stare it in the face, force it to blink, and move on from there.

For Alan, that means recognizing that he can’t force his life to be perfect. He can’t fill the hollow in his heart with a pristine apartment or elegant girlfriend if he keeps ignoring the chaotic root of his unhappiness. As he explains to his ex in that standout seventh episode —beautifully acted by Barnett and written by Allison Silverman— he’s spent far too long hoping that his self-loathing would go away if he just avoided it hard enough. “And now,” he says with a bitter kind of amusement that borders on wonder, “I’m stuck with a body that is broken, in a world that is literally falling apart, and a mind that wants to kill me.”

This admission in and of itself is as stark as it is heartbreaking. But the beauty of “Russian Doll” is that it then pushes Alan past the fact of his pain to the point that he’s motivated to actually do something about it. He may never be able to vanquish that truth entirely, but for the first time in his life, he wants to find a way to truly live with it instead of waiting until he can’t.

Nadia’s journey, though similarly self-flagellating, is more tied to specific memories she’s been suppressing her entire life. As shown in sporadic, jarring flashbacks to Nadia’s childhood, her mother (played by an expertly deployed Chloe Sevigny) loved her with fierce affection, but struggled too hard with her mental illnesses to take care of either of them. She then died suddenly before she turned 36 — the age that Nadia is turning in “Russian Doll,” over and over again. For years, Nadia nursed a fear that crystallized into an “unforgivable” truth in her mind: that because she wanted to leave her mother behind, and finally did to live with her godmother, her mother’s untimely death was her fault.

Nadia’s stubborn refusal to deal with her warped trauma becomes a straight up horror movie in “The Way Out” (directed with devastating precision by co-creator Leslye Headland). She keeps turning corners to see herself as a kid staring blankly back at her, and every time, her body keeps trying to save her from the agony of understanding what that might mean by shutting down. She chokes on air, bubbles over with blood, staggers away as if the weight of herself might crush her. But as Nadia learns the hard way, she can’t run forever. And so when she finally looks the tiniest, most tender part of herself in the face and hears it asking if she’s “ready to let [it] die,” she nods — and for the first time, she means it.

That death — and Allen’s after his own confrontation with himself — is Nadia’s last. And it would have been easy and understandable to end the series there, with the triumphant fact of them beating the time loops to give their lives one last go. But instead, “Russian Doll” makes an extraordinary choice by going one step beyond that moment to show them both going back out into the world and committing to helping each other — and, more importantly still, letting themselves be helped in turn.

This happy ending, according to a recent conversation I had with Headland, was simply more narratively satisfying than a bleak one. “We needed to have that ‘Back to the Future’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ moment of seeing that knowledge pay off,” she says, adding later that “it’s not enough to just have a celebratory moment of ‘and I’m back!’”

Sure, that rush of relief might’ve been easier to pull off as a finale. But as in life, celebrating a breakthrough isn’t the same thing as actually changing harmful patterns for good. As Headland puts it: “You learn things, but then you have to go out into the world and execute it.”

On the face of it, “Russian Doll” is funny, strange, blunt, dizzying. But with every new layer, it also reveals itself to be TV’s best depiction of what it means to weed through the wilderness of your own trauma to find your truest self — and somehow, miraculously, to embrace it. As “Russian Doll” shows with such visceral clarity, fighting apathy and exhaustion to recognize your flaws isn’t enough. You have to dig deeper than ever seemed possible in order to come back up for air, vibrating with the thrill of raw hope, ready and willing to change.

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