Russian Doll, the new Netflix series starring and co-written by Natasha Lyonne, is a pretty remarkable achievement: a weird, funny, and tragic blend of drama and science fiction not incidentally written and directed entirely by women, that manages to be original even as it nods to a long list of influences.
[Spoiler alert! Though we won’t give everything away, please note that this post will reveal elements of the basic premise of the series, as well as one twist halfway through, that are really best experienced for yourself—never mind what Netflix’s trailer makers apparently believe.]
The show revolves around Lyonne’s character Nadia Vulvokov, who we meet staring into a bathroom mirror, hiding out at her own 36th birthday party. Shortly thereafter, she is hit by a car and killed. Inexplicably, she comes to staring into that mirror again, and finds she’s stuck in a time loop, during which she repeats the events of the night over and over, dying again and again, though never in the same way twice (save for on those deadly stairs). There are big science fiction ideas at play here, as well as philosophical questions about determinism, free will, and the morality of our choices when weighed against their effect on others. More centrally, it’s about finding ways to connect with others even when a lifetime of trauma has taught you to keep them at arm’s length. The show also foregrounds female relationships—some healthy, some less so, but all of them enormously consequential.
Putting a character in some form of time loop and watching what happens isn’t a new plot device—we’ve all seen Groundhog Day, yes?—but like any great trope, there have been a number of variations on the premise, and it offers a multitude of ideas to explore. These books and stories are all of a kind with Russian Doll: each places human relationships at the center of worlds in which time is entirely out of whack, and people can’t stop dying.
Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver
Snotty 17-year-old mean girl Sam Kingston is horrifically killed in a car accident, only to find herself reliving the last day of her life on repeat. Over the course of the novel, she searches for ways to avoid her fate, and ultimately comes to realize that there are different ways of being, and more important things than social status and wearing the best clothes. She also comes to make a connection with Juliet, a classmate mercilessly bullied by Sam and her clique. Sam’s journey becomes less about what she needs to do to survive, and more about what she’s willing to sacrifice for someone else.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Like Nadia, Ursula Todd keeps dying over and over again. The difference is that her reboots don’t start in adulthood—she starts all over again. The first repeat is triggered on what would otherwise be her first day on Earth, February 11, 1910—except she’s strangled by her umbilical cord and never takes a breath. She gets to try again, though, and lives and dies many times, eventually using her vague, fragmented memories of earlier lives to help her make different, if not always better, choices. She dies and lives through childhood accidents, the Spanish flu, rape, and an abusive husband before coming to work for the British War Office during World War II, and grows desperate to use her looping lives and barely remembered knowledge to end the war. Her efforts to change global events aren’t always successful, but she has a significant impact on the life of a neighbor named Nancy, who becomes a major character in the sequel, A God in Ruins.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North
Much like Ursula Todd, Harry August was born in the early 20th century—1919, specifically, in a ladies’ convenience in Northumberland. Unlike Ursula, he lives out an unexceptional life and dies in 1989, but finds himself reborn in that washroom with his life’s memories fully intact. Going through various cycles, he eventually becomes a professor of physics at Cambridge, and learns that there’s a name for what he is. He also learns that his cycles of birth and rebirth are bringing the world closer to its end. He meets an undergraduate named Vincent who shares his condition, setting the two at odds in a deeply intimate way: best frenemies who need to have no choice but to destroy one another.
Neverworld Wake, by by Marisha Pessl
After what at first seems an inconsequential car accident, five friends find themselves trapped in an 11-hour hell—a rend in the fabric of time in which nothing sticks or moves forward. Nothing that isn’t in the minds and emotions of the protagonists, anyway. Beatrice and company travel to an out-of-the-way house where the meet the Keeper, a strange man who informs them that they’re trapped in the title’s neverworld, and they’ll remain there until they unanimously agree on one person who can leave; the rest will die. Until they make that impossible choice, they’ll exist in the consequence-free world, repeating the same day over and over, their secrets moving them away from each other when the only real hope is to come together. As she unfolds a mystery connected to the friends’ shared experience of trauma, Pessl has a lot of fun exploring the what-ifs? of the scenario, as the characters experiment with both creative ways to die and trying to stay alive and see what happens when the day resets.
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
It’s not a 36-year-old woman, but a 43-year-old man who dies in Grimwood’s 1986 novel, and he doesn’t wake up earlier that same day—he wakes up a quarter century earlier, in his own 18-year-old body. Otherwise, the emotional jouneys undertaken by Nadia and Jeff Winston are oddly similar. Less initially horrific than many other time-loop scenarios, the circumstances Jeff finds himself in give him the chance to relive his entire life with all of his old memories intact, doing the things he’s always wanted to do—but he always dies at the age of 43 and is forced to start over again, meaning he must mourn all the lives (and, sometimes, children) he has left behind, again and again. Though he starts out a bit later each time, a plot twist that mirror’s the disappearing, er, mirrors of Russian Doll. In one memorable run-through of his life, Jeff meets a filmmaker named Pamela, whose blockbuster seems to be an anomaly in his loops, suggesting to him that she’s also reliving time. As their time together becomes more and more constrained, life becomes less about enjoying being young again and more about maintaining his remaining one human connection.
“Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang
There’s no time-loop at the center of Chiang’s story (made into the film Arrival), but it plays with similar ideas and asks very similar questions. Linguist Dr. Louise Banks is tasked with understanding the impossibly complex language of aliens that have arrived in Earth’s orbit. The aliens, it turns out, don’t share our linear sense of time, and so their language doesn’t occur in sequence as we would expect. In developing an affinity for the language, Dr. Banks begins to see time as the aliens do. With her future feeling like her past, and a head filled with memories of a family that doesn’t yet exist, Louise is forced to reckon with the mere notion of free will and decide whether she can or should change events, even tragic ones, given her foreknowledge.
All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
In many ways, this action-heavy Japanese light novel (and its manga and Tom Cruise-starring film adaptations) is the antithesis of everything that’s unique about Russian Doll: instead of a woman and man revisiting a single night as a means of exploring past emotional trauma, it’s the story of a woman and man of the United Defense Force facing immediate physical trauma—as marines defending Earth from the alien “Mimics” who are very close to conquering Earth. Keiji Kiriya dies over and over again, eventually using each time loop to learn new skills and develop into the type of soldier who can defeat the Mimics, and ultimately joins forces with Rita Vrataski, another time-looping soldier in whom he confides. The ending sends rather the opposite message of the show, but it’s still a fun, action-packed military sci-fi take on the trope, that’s not without some poignance. It’s a fascinating example of the way two stories can sprout from the same seed and grow into entirely different plants.
What’s your favorite time-looping tale?