Therefore, it is my duty to provide you with one more. You’re welcome!
That I would like Netflix’s Russian Doll was as close to a given as it gets these days. Natasha Lyonne is an actress who I actively long to see on screen more often. Watching Orange Is The New Black gave me my first exposure to her in many years, and I found myself getting excited every time her character appeared. Her character, Nicky, was fun to watch because of her swagger, which Lyonne played as just the right mix of innate and put-on. Her sadness, though, and her longing for love always lay just beneath the surface. Perceptible to us, because we had the benefit of watching the camera linger on her face, but somehow invisible to so many of her friends and fellow inmates. Lyonne, to me, is a standout as Nicky. On a show packed with nuanced performances, compelling stories, and self-destructive tendencies, she was the one I truly worried constantly about losing, and she was the one I never wanted to be deprived of, no matter what
Right from Russian Doll’s opening shot of Lyonne staring at herself in a mirror at her 36th birthday party, I didn’t really care what was about to happen; I just wanted to watch her. I wanted (and always, still, want) to hear and see a story about someone like Nadia, but not just about her. It’s not enough to create a story about a woman without also creating within it an endless fascination. I want the camera to linger on her face and tell me in no uncertain terms that there is no end to the depth of this person. We’re not going to figure her out by watching her for eight episodes; that’s not how people work. But we’re going to dive in because even if we never get to the bottom, the experience will be worth it.
About a year ago, I re-watched Lawrence of Arabia in anticipation of my favorite podcast, The Cine-Files, airing a three-part analysis of the film. It was a blast both to watch and then to deconstruct as I listened to the podcast hosts. They analyzed the movie more or less shot for shot, and most prominently, they took us on a deep dive into the character of Lawrence. The way the camera lingers on Peter O’Toole’s face communicates in no uncertain terms how fascinating the story finds the character of Lawrence. Is he good? Is he bad? Isn’t he so…complex? Well, of course he is. The hosts of The Cine-Files kept saying the same thing over and over again regarding shot after gorgeous shot: they just don’t make films like this anymore. It’s true: four-hour biopics about problematic historical figures are not as en vogue as they once were. But when they did make those types of films, they made them about men and only men.
So yes, bring on the TV series where our desire to know the depths of Nadia’s soul supersedes our opinions about her sex life. Less than ten minutes into the pilot episode, Nadia brings home and has sex with Mike, the literature professor whose assholery has only begun to reveal itself to us. Afterwards, she’s sitting on her couch, eyes on her phone, smoking a cigarette. She is totally comfortable in her own space, and Mike is the one who’s sort of flitting around, trying to say things that will impress her or otherwise get her to pay more attention to him. Finally, he goes with the tried and true “why don’t you come over here and sit on my face?” in his best bedroom voice, to which Nadia replies, “I would, but I just called you an Uber.” And, scene.
As I reflect back on the show’s eight-episode run, this is the scene, and the line, that I keep coming back to. Nadia draws us in, just as she draws Mike in, and she makes us want to know more about her. But she’s not going to give it up that easily, and if anyone gets too close, she’s done. We - and the show - can’t help just zeroing in on her face at every opportunity, and inevitably, just as we think we might be about to discover something really meaningful, something which may be the key to everything that’s happening, boom - we’re back at the birthday party, back to the mirror-image of Nadia’s face, forced to start again. Nadia is going to go on a journey and she’s going to take us with her, but the show isn’t out to repair her or change her in any fundamental way, any more than Lawrence of Arabia is trying to fix Lawrence (whose particular vices, like his endless pursuit of personal glory, are arguably far more destructive on a macro level!). Russian Doll wants to follow Nadia, think about her, examine her, hold onto her tightly as she boomerangs from party to death to party to death, and see where she ends up after all. She does have things to learn from the time warp she’s caught in, and she will absolutely have to examine herself and the reasons why she does the things she does if she is to move beyond it, but she’s not a sad single lady who just needs love to fix all her problems. As another favorite show of mine is fond of saying, "the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.”
Almost as much as I loved watching the show itself, I’ve loved seeing how much attention it’s getting. I love that everyone’s blogging about it, tweeting about it, reviewing it, criticizing it: it has a ways to go before it hits True Detective-levels of relentless hype and over-analysis, and that’s almost undoubtedly for the best, but I love the degree to which it is currently commanding our attention. Let’s all stare at Natasha Lyonne’s face and wonder about the state of the world as seen through her character. Let’s do what the show does and obsess over this complicated, flawed, and fundamentally sad individual, and let’s also also enjoy it immensely when she blithely brushes off the advances of an asshole who doesn’t really deserve her anyway. Watching Lawrence of Arabia and listening to the way the Cine-Files hosts could not stop debating Lawrence’s character was fun, yes, and at the same time it made me deeply sad. For my whole life, I have seen male characters draw this kind of adoring fascination (all the more so when they’re morally ambiguous or outright antiheros). I have been one of the ones adoringly fascinated. And waiting for a Nadia to come along and pull me in such that I can’t look away.