Netflix’s Russian Doll begins with a familiar premise: Every time Nadia dies — which happens on a recurring basis thanks to some invisible force — she wakes back up in the same place, on the same day, at the same time.
But Nadia’s experience isn’t like Bill Murray’s holiday-hellscape-turned-quest-for-love in Groundhog Day. Instead, the boozy, video game designer has entered a purgatorial situation like the ones she designs. Each episode pits Nadia against an endless loop of painful moments, drug-enhanced debauchery, her own crumbling reality, and many mangled relationships. For her, death is inevitable; she’s playing life on a masochistic difficulty level.
Challenging the system on “hard mode” often means dying and dying and dying before making it through to the end. That can also be a game’s default, offering few options to change when and how a game will make the player suffer. Nadia’s stuck in that version of life, where the only option is to perpetually throw open the bathroom door, walk through her 36th birthday party, and try not fall downstairs or run into traffic or choke on a chicken drumstick before she can complete her quest.
Russian Doll reminds me of a similarly cyclical hellhole of a game: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The N64’s Zelda sequel is the most anxiety-inducing game I’ve ever played, an adventure predicated on an unstoppable countdown timer that, in essence, deletes all of your progress once it hits zero. Link constantly races against a clock that gives him just three days to save the world from catastrophe. His ocarina now possess the power to warp back to the beginning of the countdown, progress in tact. But catastrophe largely seems inevitable, unless Link can speedrun his way to victory. (He can even slow down or fast-forward in time, although the abilities don’t seem like they’d help Nadia too much.)
Link is a notoriously silent hero, but playing as him, I project my sweat-stained fear onto him — shaking as I crawl through dungeons, fight off monsters, and stare up at the menacing moon that moves closer and closer and promises total destruction. It’s frightening to know that the same things will happen again and again and again, even as I gain more knowledge to quicken the course. Either I will defeat the moon and save the world or I won’t. Going through the same steps and motions on each leg of the journey, with each reset, only intensifies the experience.
Russian Doll creates the same anxiety through repetition. Creator Leslye Headland forces the audience to watch Nadia repeat her night again and again, and it’s both a frustrating and nerve-wracking experience. The first episode feels, well, like a first episode: the pilot that establishes and explains the show, its world, and its twisted logic. We learn that Nadia is able to preserve her progress, just as Link does. Later, she teams up with Alan, who is also suffering from this strange curse; each time they die, they learn a little bit more about the ins and outs of the process.
But the surface-level story of Russian Doll is easy to communicate, and watching the whole “die, rinse, repeat” cycle is exhausting. When the second episode does nothing but reiterate this, Russian Doll becomes an exercise in frustration, until its third-episode breakthrough. Nadia’s repetitious days change ever-so-slightly for the first hour of the show, but these changes are at first incremental. As in the first hours of a game like Majora’s Mask, in which Link must meet the bartering Happy Mask Salesman once more and talk to the fretting townspeople again and again, before heading off anew to his first dungeon, the early part of Russian Doll is a sluggish tutorial, prohibiting us from the main story’s more interesting turns.
Enduring the tutorial is the only way to build up the good stuff, and the good stuff is certainly worth the wait. While the audience may only feel moved by the same cutscenes so many times, Russian Doll, like Majora’s Mask, knows that the pain of repetition leads to more emotional moments. We’re invested in seeing Link and Nadia learn, then make it out alive. Investment is the biggest motivator for games like these, which try to break the player as much as entice them to continue on.
Headland spoke to the game-y nature of Russian Doll in a recent interview with Polygon, saying, “It’s more about a woman that’s unable to move to the next level. It’s much more of a video game analogy than it is like a Groundhog Day or Happy Death Day. [...] To me, the analogy is a little bit more like, ‘What if life treated you way that a video game treats you, which is that you can’t move forward until you accomplish this thing, and you’re just not allowed to until you accomplish this thing?’”
The addictive nature of the impasse completely comes through. What Russian Doll (and Majora’s Mask) does especially well is ensuring that Nadia and Alan (or Link!) do make important steps forward along the way. They may throw themselves at the wall to figure out the puzzle that’s holding them back, but they make a crack each time they push against it.
As Russian Doll viewers, we’re passive participants on her road to success, unlike with Link, whom we actively guide to defeating the villainous Majora’s Mask and forcing the evil moon back to its rightful spot. We teach ourselves to get faster and better at playing Majora’s Mask so that we can avoid the minutiae that keeps us from progress.
The beauty of Russian Doll is how we eventually become engrossed in not just the experience itself, but watching Nadia fighting back against her inexplicable curse, acquiring the tools and skills she needs along the way — because we’re going through that journey, too, in a meta sense. Conquering the series’ much slower first half feels like an achievement, and unlocking the more exciting final four episodes a true reward. We want to see Nadia break the wall down, even if we’re not holding the controller.