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Understanding the mental health message hidden within Netflix’s Russian Doll

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Emily Reynolds
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Netflix's Russian Doll

The Netflix show deserves praise for its startling portrayal of trauma, says Emily Reynolds.

Fair warning: this article contains some spoilers for Netflix’s Russian Doll

Netflix is on somewhat of a roll when it comes to original series. In the last few months alone we’ve been introduced to You, which sparked both serious debate and some slightly misplaced stalker adulation, Sex Education, a sweet and funny look at the inherent awkwardness of sex, love and growing up, and Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, the show that launched a thousand piles of old DVDs straight into the bin.

The platform’s latest offering, Russian Doll, hasn’t disappointed. The show follows Nadia, played by a gloriously curly-haired Natasha Lyonne, as she lives the same day over and over again. Stuck in a loop, she eventually dies in every scenario only to wake up in the same bathroom at the same party – her own 36th birthday party, in fact. 

Written by Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, the show is fast, funny and completely unique. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s become an instant runaway success. And, also unsurprisingly given the subject matter, there’s already been lots of conversation about what Russian Doll is actually about. It makes sense – the show is centred around a mysterious glitch in time, after all, and there’s a rich history of fan-squabbling around the logistics of how time might bend and warp to accommodate characters in any given cinematic universe.

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You’re also dragged along for the ride as Nadia tries to explain the glitch herself: was she high on a ketamine-spiked joint? Is she, as her mother did years previously, experiencing a psychotic break? Does she have to right some unknown wrong before she can return to her normal life? Or is the loop some kind of message from the universe? 

She doesn’t know, but she’s determined to find out – so of course we care why she’s there and how she got there. 

For me, though, all of this is actually the least interesting aspect of the show. Yes, the time-warp forms the basic premise, and the creepy sci-fi element is definitely part of what the show both so original and so eminently watchable.  But what made Russian Doll so compelling for me had nothing to do with time travel or the possibilities of multiple branching timelines.

Rather, it was its frank, honest (and sometimes bleak) depiction of trauma.

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Nadia, we learn, grew up in less than ideal circumstances. Her mother (played in flashback by a jumpy, anxious Chloë Sevigny) has mental health problems, and eventually becomes incapable of feeding Nadia anything but watermelons. On one occasion, her mother starts to smash every mirror in the house, every piece of glass, every single reflective surface – she can’t face herself, Nadia’s psychoanalyst aunt later explains. Nadia, six years old, has no way of knowing what any of this means, though: all she sees is glass, blood, and pain.

One scene late in the series is particularly resonant. Nadia, blood covering her hands and face, starts to cough up glass, eventually pulling a long, thin shard from her mouth. Her on-off boyfriend’s daughter looks on: “she’s still inside you,” she says. It’s not clear whether the ‘she’ referred to is Nadia’s mother or a young Nadia herself, still scarred from witnessing so much as a child. Either way, it gets to the heart of what it means to live with trauma.

Because what is trauma if not being stuck in the same moment over and over again? Your might be elsewhere, but your body is stuck: your nervous system always on alert, your sleep disturbed. You jump out of your skin at loud noises, your body living in a permanent state of fear, expecting the worst every second of the day.

Natasha Lyonne in NEtflix's Russian Doll

That’s all without going into flashbacks: those moments that force you, so viscerally, to relive what happened to you. You might not, in a literal sense, be waking up in the same place over and over again. But, like Nadia, you are forced to live the same moments on repeat, not quite sure what it is you should be doing to try to escape them and move on with your life.

Without giving away too much away, Nadia does find some kind of solution – and she only gets there with the help of someone else. Their experiences – and outcomes – are vastly different. But the common ground they find is what matters.

This, too, is key to why Russian Doll is just so brilliant. It proves how important community is, how the most unlikely person could be key to working out how your past, present and future are constantly merging and changing into something new and unknowable. And it proves that getting stuck isn’t forever: that there is a way out of a moment that seems, still, so inevitable. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. Someone with PTSD often relives the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt. 

Symptoms include:

  • sleeping problems
  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating
  • flashbacks
  • nightmares
  • repetitive and distressing images or sensations
  • physical sensations, such as pain, sweating, feeling sick or trembling

You can find out more about the causes, symptoms and treatments available for PTSD here.

Image: Netflix

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Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author based in London. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, came out in February 2017 with Hodder & Stoughton. She is currently working on her second.  

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