It is Nadia Volvokov’s 36th birthday, and she’s taking a break from the festivities in the bathroom. On the other side of the door is a hipster party in a loft in Alphabet City. Natasha Lyonne, most recently of “Orange Is the New Black” fame, plays the wisecracking Nadia, who explains her last name is spelled “like Volvo but with more letters and dyslexic.”
Nadia leaves her party, high on an “Israeli joint” laced with cocaine, to hook up with a pretentious English professor. Soon after, a car runs her over and she dies. Only she doesn’t. She is propelled right back to the bathroom with the gun-shaped door handle to live the evening on repeat. So begins “Russian Doll,” the new Netflix series created by Lyonne and Amy Poehler of “Parks and Recreation” fame. Think of the series as a very dark version of the Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day.”
After Nadia’s first death, there are seven more intense, gripping, half-hour episodes in the series’ first season. In one of them, Nadia tracks down the drug dealer responsible for the Israeli joint. It turns out that it didn’t contain cocaine, but ketamine. Given that there is no drug Nadia hasn’t tried, including ketamine, she concludes this odd hallucinatory reaction she is experiencing must be a breakdown. She is then convinced the loft has something to do with her otherworldly experience.
A confession: I came to “Russian Doll” hating the senseless repetitiveness of “Groundhog Day.” But here’s why I decided to binge on the Netflix series: a tarot card reader I went to see said I needed to watch Lyonne zigzag through the series. “You’re Jewish, and there will be so much meaning throughout the show for you,” the reader intuited. So yes, I came to the weird series under equally weird circumstances and ended up loving it.
I’m also a Jewish numerology geek who couldn’t help but notice that the series takes place on Nadia’s “double chai” birthday. The number 18—in Hebrew, letters also stand for numbers—spells out the word “life.” So here we have Nadia dying and then not dying on this very Jewish age. It’s also a birthday her distraught mother never saw.
We meet Nadia’s mother, Lenora, in a flashback in episode seven. In the midst of a manic episode, Lenora is buying as many watermelons as she can fit into her small convertible. Soon after, Lenora loses control altogether as she smashes mirrors in her apartment. It’s an echo of Kristallnacht for this woman who is the child of Holocaust survivors. After Lenora loses custody of Nadia to her friend Ruth, who also happens to be a therapist, she dies by suicide.
Nadia’s only substantial inheritance from her mother is a gold Krugerrand, a South African coin, that she wears as a pendant. Contemplating the coin, Nadia tells a Holocaust-related story about her grandmother, who consolidated her savings after the war to buy a hundred of these coins. Lyonne once famously described her own Orthodox Jewish family as “my father’s side, Flatbush, and my mother’s side, Auschwitz.” The two sides come together in Nadia’s witty and sharp observations.
Another thing that came out in my card reading was how my father always told me a coward dies a thousand deaths. It was his peculiar and indirect way of telling me to be brave. Nadia is certainly no coward; she walks the streets of the Lower East Side at all hours of the night. During one of her “deaths,” she befriends a homeless man and watches over him as he sleeps in a shelter. She’s a two-pack-a-day smoker who figures she won’t live much past 70. But even that forecast is cheery compared to dying again and again at 36.
Nadia also has an aversion to being referred to as “Jewishy.” In her estimation, “Religion is dumb as f***…. It’s racist. It’s sexist. There’s no money in it…anymore. Who needs it?” And yet she can’t escape her Jewishness. The loft where her birthday party takes place is a former yeshiva. “This was once a sacred place!” says Nadia, embodying some of her late mother’s mania.
She’s convinced the building is haunted and has something to do with her ongoing death episodes. A bit of detective work leads her to the synagogue that still owns the building. She tries to speak to the rabbi and is rebuffed by his stalwart secretary, Shifra. Shifra tells Nadia the rabbi will only speak to Nadia’s “husband,” who is really her Catholic ex-boyfriend named John. The rabbi tells John that people, not buildings, are haunted. In the meantime, Shifra says the Sh’ma, Judaism’s central prayer, for Nadia. The extended prayer invokes various angels including Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Rafael. When Nadia asks Shifra what the prayer means, Shifra says, “Angels are all around us.”
Nadia eventually meets Alan, a compulsive guy who is also experiencing the same death loops. The two of them first encounter each other in an elevator that is in free fall. While the rest of the passengers are hysterical, Nadia and Alan are calm. “I die all the time,” Alan preternaturally says.
The Talmudic concept to perform a good deed and feelings of connection will follow is inherent in “Russian Doll.” As Nadia keeps mining the same territory for a definitive solution to her situation, the hope is that she’ll eventually understand what exactly is happening to her. It’s a very Jewish notion with a dash of magical realism.