When you first begin watching Russian Doll, you might wonder why it's not just called Groundhog Day: The Revenge, or some other nod to the repeated day/repeated death genre we've seen so many times before (Run, Nadia, Run, perhaps?). Why call this video-game-like black comedy something so old-fashioned? What's the meaning of a title like Russian Doll?
A couple episodes in, as Natasha Lyonne's Nadia dies again and again, the title starts to make sense, even as the show itself becomes more of a twisty puzzle. Here’s a spoiler-free analysis of how and why the title takes after this old timey toy:
Russian Dolls: A Brief History
Russian dolls, nesting dolls, or matryoshka, first appeared in Russia in 1890. Some say they were originally based on a Japanese Fukurama figure, which was a depiction of a god that opened to reveal another, which also opened to reveal an even smaller figure, for a total of five statues. TravelRussia.com credits wood craftsman Vasily Zvezdochkin and painter Sergei Malyutin with the first Russian version, which was a baby inside a girl inside a boy, and so on, for a total of eight figures. The more well-known versions are all women or girls, usually in matching head scarves. Matrona was a popular Russian name at the time, with roots in the Latin word for mother, which makes sense given the birth-like nature of the dolls within each other.
The dolls grew so popular, they're now one of the most prevailing symbols of the country. They’re also forever a great metaphor for getting to know someone’s inner mysteries after breaking through their superficial layers.
Russian Doll: The Pun
With a name like Nadia Volvokov, our heroine clearly has Russian roots. But the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, boyfriend-ditching ways, she's kind of the opposite of a doll. In fact, her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) calls her a cockroach at one point, referring to the way no drugs appear to be capable of killing her.
Russian Doll: The Visual Reference
As you can really see in the show's ads, Lyonne's wild red hair as it cascades over her blazers make her kind of into the shape of a matryoshka. Her huge, slightly alarmed eyes make the image even more doll-like.
Russian Doll: The Metaphor
Since Nadia is a video game developer, you naturally see that as metaphor for the way she keeps dying and going back to her starting point. She dodges the things that killed her before, and takes some detours along the way — maybe to pick up bonus points by saying something nice to a friend — while avoiding the things that waste her time (who needs that work meeting?).
Gradually, however, we begin to see how she really is a nesting doll. The big, boisterous, seemingly reckless first Nadia breaks open (by breaking her neck), to reveal one who's a little bit more careful. That one breaks, and she's slightly more introspective. With each death, she seems to think more and more about her actions, their causes, and their consequences. Even as she parties it up (why not, when you've got to relive your own 36th birthday party so many times?), she seems to hold herself more tightly, realizing her own fragility, but resembling a more compact, controlled version of herself than we saw before. We watch her treating others with more care too, as if she suspects she might solve this puzzle by being a better person. So maybe this is a Groundhog Day homage after all!
Will she break open one last time to get to the real Nadia at the center? The process of getting there is so fun, we kind of hope not.