Russian Doll perfectly encapsulates the birthday blues


Turns out the labyrinthine Netflix series has plenty to say about the gloom of getting another year older.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the first season of Russian Doll.

The buzzy Netflix series Russian Doll hit at an interesting moment for me: the first of February, my birthday month. Similar to Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne), the protagonist who gets stuck in a time loop on her 36th birthday, I have mixed feelings about the annual milestone. Like anyone with an ego, I enjoy receiving extra attention, and gifts never hurt, either. Yet, inevitably, the day is also tinged with anxiety, melancholy, even regret.

Russian Doll definitely knows where I’m coming from. Sure, much has been made of its parallels — and superiority — to Groundhog Day, its commentary on gentrification and its layered, intricate storytelling. I appreciate all of that, but for me Russian Doll is great because it’s one big ol’ metaphor for the birthday blues.

The series opens on Nadia looking at herself in the bathroom mirror as she turns 36. Not long afterward, she dies. Then she’s right back in front of that mirror. This, more or less, is the pattern of the show’s first season: Nadia exits the restroom to return to her birthday party, leaves the shindig altogether, dies and finds herself back in the bathroom staring at her reflection.

Before her first death, but post-mirror, Nadia catches up with her friend Maxine (Greta Lee), the party’s host. Nadia’s not in a very celebratory mood, so Maxine urges her to try to have fun. “Fun is for suckers, Max,” Nadia replies. “Two minutes ago, I turned 36. Staring down the barrel of my own mortality always beats fun.”

That line is the most obvious indicator that Russian Doll and Nadia are reckoning with some complicated feelings about birthdays. It’s basically an update of the old, dark joke that birthdays are just a reminder that we’re one year closer to death. Of course, the actual numerous deaths of Russian Doll are an acknowledgment of the existential woes many people encounter on their birthdays. If death (thanks to her drug use and hard-partying lifestyle) and what she considers a mid-life crisis weren’t already on Nadia’s mind, they definitely would be after, say, her fifth go around in the time loop.

Then there’s the time loop itself. No matter what she does, or the insight she uncovers, Nadia just ends up in front of that cursed bathroom mirror. She feels time moving but she’s standing still.

It’s a cliché that people don’t enjoy their birthdays because it means they’re getting older. But for me, and perhaps Nadia (and some standout episodes of Broad City and Love), birthdays are when you realize I’m x years old now and not where I thought I would be. In fact, we’re often in the exact same place we were on our last birthday.

Honestly, I’m willing to bet we’ve all had at least one birthday that felt more like a static, claustrophobic time loop than a joyous occasion.

I also expect most of us to pause for a moment on our birthdays to remember loved ones we lost, or former friends and significant others. In Nadia’s case, finally facing her traumatic childhood and her guilt over her mother’s death is what allows her to break free of her metaphysical trap. Along the way, she also explores the bonds and disconnects she has with her surrogate mother, her friends and her ex.

On days that are all about you, it’s natural to look back on your life and the people in it, or even those who used to be in it. You remember past birthdays and who you spent them with. You judge yourself for the people who are or are not celebrating alongside you. Emotionally, it can be a lot. So I can’t really blame Nadia for blowing off her own party countless times.

Related Story. Russian Doll: What we can expect from season 2. light

As my own birthday draws nearer, I keep thinking about Russian Doll not as a sci-fi story or modern fable, but as an exploration of the dark side of birthdays. Even with cake — and, believe me, the cake is glorious — they can be a bit of a bummer.

As Nadia makes her way through her M.C. Escher drawing of a 36th, she’s forced to contend with her own morality, inertia and interpersonal relationships, or lack thereof, over and over again. That cycle isn’t exactly unusual when we commemorate the day we were born.

With its never-ending party, myriad death scenes, that ominous bathroom mirror and Nadia’s complex personal life, Russian Doll excels at exposing the absurdity and, let’s face it, inescapability of birthdays.

I mean, they do come around ever year. Talk about a time loop.