“Russian Doll” Is a Case Study of Existential Recovery

February 13, 2019

Russian Doll, the acclaimed Netflix comedy-drama built around Natasha Lyonne, tackles loss, trauma, self-destruction and addiction. But most importantly, it portrays recovery as an existential journey involving self-discovery, human connection and purpose.

The inimitable Natasha Lyonne was previously seen as Nicky, a heroin-addicted prisoner in Orange Is the New Black. In collaboration with Leslye Headland (writer) and Amy Poehler (producer), she has now created a role that more fully mirrors her own journey. Lyonne was addicted to heroin in her 20s and had open-heart surgery for a resulting heart infection. Well beyond that part of her life now, at 39, she brilliantly depicts a recovery process in Russian Doll.

Playing Doll‘s protagonist, the wisecracking, brilliant, alienated, Russian-Jewish Nadia isn’t foreign territory for Lyonne. For example, while Nadia was taken as a young girl from her mother, Lyonne lived independently of her Orthodox Jewish parents from the age of 16. Both Nadia and Lyonne developed strengths and vulnerabilities as a result of the absence of a parental tie.

Doll isn’t specifically about addiction—even though Nadia consumes many drugs, drinks heavily and is addicted to cigarettes. Nor is it about recovery; Nadia doesn’t announce that she’s addicted, enter rehab (which Lyonne herself did), or abstain from everything. Instead, after repeatedly dying, each time due to self-inflicted traumas, she seeks a path to affirm life.

Rachel Syme describes this cyclical, existential process in the New Republic:

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.

Having once been addicted is an experience that can add value to life, as Nadia illustrates through the twists in her tale as she ripens her personal pain into a valuable, worthwhile existence. Lyonne may have done something similar, as suggested by Joy Press in a Vanity Fair piece, titled, “Natasha Lyonne Can’t Stop Living.”

Lyonne has a way of making everyday life feel like a tremendous, defiant adventure. A larger-than-life personality, she wields wit like it’s an Olympic sport, and exudes a sense of hard-earned wisdom. I wouldn’t describe her as someone “at peace” so much as a person O.K. with where she stands.

Notice how the phrase “hard-earned” pops up with both fictional Nadia and real-life Natasha.

Once again, we find lived experience to be the greatest life asset and therapeutic tool.

There is therapy in Doll, as practiced by Nadia’s surrogate mother, Ruth (played by Elizabeth Ashley—whose hoarseness also suggests a hard-lived life). Ruth administers Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy as a way of unlearning trauma. But Ruth never administers this therapy to foster daughter Nadia. And she downplays its consequence to a client; when she releases the man into the street, she instructs him to convert what he has learned into actual life changes.

The series uncovers Nadia’s trauma, seen through a little girl’s eyes, in the form of her mother’s mental health problems that caused Nadia to be taken from her. Nadia’s problem wasn’t an event, but the absence of a fundamental relationship in a child’s life, which Ruth jumped in to fill. Once again, in place of therapy, we find lived experience to be the greatest life asset and therapeutic tool.

Nadia also spends some time tracking down the drug she takes at a party—supposedly an “Israeli joint” (marijuana laced with cocaine)—to explain her condition. She discovers the additive wasn’t cocaine but rather the hallucinogen ketamine. She is forced to abandon her search for drug causality, however, when her friend points out that they had taken ketamine together before. Besides, no one else at the party who consumed the drug went down her existential rabbit hole.

Nadia constantly returns after dying to the bathroom of an apartment filled with “friends” with whom she is celebrating her 36th birthday. But she doesn’t seem to care about any of them, other than a polysexual female couple to whom she is closest. Nadia lives alone—except for her missing cat, who has seemingly abandoned her. Yet she interacts with many people in meaningful ways, including a resident of Tomkins Square Park who cuts her hair and whom she provides with shoes, and a helpful, concerned all-night deli-grocery store owner.

It is in this deli that Nadia finds her alter ego, a co-sufferer in her life-and-death-and-life syndrome, Alan (Charlie Burnett). Alan is also undergoing a life crisis stemming from loss, a loss that resulted from his own rigidity and personal limitations. Their shared experience is, understandably, a strong bond between the two existential argonauts.

It seems that the world, including the East Village, is more rewarding when walked with control, connection and purpose.

Thus Nadia and Alan help one another. They cure themselves when they reverse their tendency to ignore other people’s pain and misery (including each other’s when they first unknowingly met). Their two-person support group involves each performing acts of unsolicited kindness for strangers.

And when they emerge at the end, their cure is not centered on happiness.

“You promise if I don’t jump, I’ll be happy?” Alan asks.

“No, man,” Nadia says. “Absolutely not. But I can promise you won’t be alone.”

Lyonne is obviously indebted and interlinked to many people, starting with series co-creators Headland and Poehler. But in her own words, she shares her deepest intimacy with Chloë Sevigny, who plays her deranged mother:

Chloë is my closest person in life, and there was really only one person that it felt like it was safe to entrust that role to. Probably the most incredible moment for me was walking home with my little director’s binder in the East Village and watching the sun begin to rise. And I’m like, this is a very different kind of sunrise than what I’ve experienced historically at this hour. This was the good guy’s version of that, and it was deep stuff. Chloë and I had walked those streets so many times, and now it was this world that we had built.

It seems that the world, including the East Village, is more rewarding when walked with control, connection and purpose. By illustrating this so vividly, Russian Doll performs a service that goes well beyond entertaining its many fans.

Photo of Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll via Netflix

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele is a psychologist who has pioneered, among other things, the idea that addiction occurs with a range of experiences and recognition of natural recovery from addiction. He developed the Life Process Program for addiction. He has authored many books since the 1975 publication of Love and Addiction (co-authored by Archie Brodsky); his latest is A Scientific Life on the Edge: My Lonely Quest to Change How We See Addiction.

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