How 'Russian Doll' Subverts the Creepy Time Loop Trope

[This story contains mild spoilers for Netflix's Russian Doll.]

The concept of living the same day over and over again is one that Hollywood has embraced since the 1993 comedy classic Groundhog Day. Since then, it's become an established setup featured in everything from rom-coms like About Time and When We First Met to sci-fi movies like Edge of Tomorrow and The Infinite Man. One of the defining features of the strange subgenre is that the protagonists are often men — though that did change in Blumhouse's Happy Death Day — and use their predicament to improve their love lives and themselves, at the expense of almost everyone else around them.

In Netflix's new dark comedy Russian Doll (which released on Friday), the trope is turned on its head as Natasha Lyonne's Nadia traverses the day of her 36th birthday in a seemingly endless loop. The eight episode series is a dense exploration of self-destruction, nihilism and the point of everything. The big difference here is that Lyonne is at the center. Although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray's hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle. But Russian Doll never loses the scathing humor and cynicism that living through the worst day of your life over and over again would make unavoidable.

Groundhog Day, About Time and When We First Met all include an unsettling plot thread which sees the protagonist use their newfound ability to relive the same day over and over as a way to utilize the things that they learn about the women in their life to essentially trick them into falling in love. Despite this, the men at their center are always presented as the heroes of their own stories, complex and flawed, but heroes nonetheless. In a rare choice, Nadia gets to be a flawed and sometimes unlikable protagonist who hurts other people, and learns from her mistakes without ever choosing to use the things she learns each day to manipulate those around her.

Russian Doll also manages to deviate from previous incarnations of this narrative device thanks to serialized storytelling, which gives the show far more time to explore its core characters. As Nadia dies each day, and sometimes even multiple times in an episode, the audience gets to witness her experience from another perspective, learning more about the world she inhabits and the people she interacts with. It's the most extreme version of self-reflection as Nadia is faced with every choice that she's made — whether it's smoking a cocaine-laced joint or ignoring someone in need — and is left wondering just how much they've impacted the mind-bending situation that she's in.

As funny and irreverent as the conceit is, it also offers up plenty of existential dread, which the writing team uses as an engaging way to explore trauma, loss and ultimately acceptance. After meeting Alan (Charlie Barnett), a stranger who is also stuck in the time loop, the pair embark on a journey together, further separating Russian Doll from similar stories which tend to focus on the solo traveller. This partnership forces them to come to terms with their pasts and themselves. It's a story which, like so many others before it, focuses on the need for selflessness as way of overcoming a seemingly never-ending purgatory. But unlike its predecessors, Russian Doll provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end all the more powerful.