Back in our youth, Gen Xers like me didn’t get a lot of content geared just for us. We watched as older kids got shows about frat parties and younger kids got “Barney,” and we picked through the remnants of culture to find something related to us. Now with the fracturing of entertainment options, Gen X finally represents a large enough market share that the content outlets can vie for our attention. One result of this is the new Netflix show “Russian Doll,” which serves up the Gen X neurosis about the splintered nature of reality.
Starring Natasha Lyonne as 36-year-old birthday girl Nadia Volvokov, “Russian Doll” is about her last day on earth, repeated in a “Groundhog Day” style time loop. Flanked by best friends Maxine (Greta Lee) and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson), Nadia relives the night of her birthday party over and over again. In each incarnation, she dies tragically, or accidentally, or comically, and comes back to life to face her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Harry Nilsson’s song “Gotta Get Up” punctuates the moment every time.
Nadia begins in the bathroom of her friend Max’s great unicorn-of-an-apartment in New York’s East Village, in a converted Yeshiva, as there’s a party underway right outside the door. Despite the festivities, the sense is that this is another party, another opportunity to take pleasure without implications of meaning. After her first death, Nadia meets up with her friend Max in the kitchen to share a laced joint. As the smoke coils around her fingers, she voices concern that she’s having a mid-life crisis.
A recent article by Ada Calhoun in O Magazine, “The New Midlife Crisis for Women,” tracks Calhoun’s friend group, all Gen X women, each of whom is experiencing that condition once defined by narcissistic men with dad bods buying motorcycles or kayaks: the mid-life crisis. “An awful lot of middle-aged women are furious and overwhelmed. What we don’t talk about enough is how the deck is stacked against them feeling any other way,” she writes.
Calhoun says, “Generation X has long been an outlier, after all. Wedged in between millennials and baby boomers, Gen Xers (ranging from 50 million to 65 million Americans, depending on which birth years you count, far smaller than the generations on either side) are, in the words of the Pew Research Center, ‘America’s neglected ‘middle child’ … a low-slung, straight-line bridge between two noisy behemoths.”
Just like the neglected middle children of all our favorite sitcoms, from Jan Brady to Darlene Connor, Gen X has internalized the struggles of both their parents and the younger generation. Adding stress about money, debt, aging parents, young children, career stagnation, and the overwhelming feeling that we have so much and are too privileged to feel bad, Gen X, like Nadia Volvokov, spends birthday parties careening haphazardly towards death.
A dive into the history of Gen X shows the primary through line of our childhoods was instability driven by our parents’ choices. Divorce, separation, parental addictions, and mental illnesses, those hallmarks of latch-key kids, the normalized conditions of familial dissolution, have in many ways created a generation that never quite trusts the reality presented to us.
Every new death that brings Nadia back to the reflection of her face in the bathroom mirror breaks her concept of reality into ever smaller pieces. If reality isn’t her reflection in the mirror, isn’t the high from a shared joint, isn’t the party, isn’t her friends and exes who come to wish her another happy rotation around the sun, and isn’t even dying, then what is it? Unable to come up with a definitive answer for what reality is, she has to look within herself and find out who she was before reality shifted. This is the trajectory of the season. As Nadia tries to connect with who she was, she begins to get a sense of a viable way forward.
This is where so many Gen X women, as discussed in Calhoun’s article, stand today. The ground is shifting, as are the expectations we’ve had for ourselves and our lives. Instead of our parents invoking instability with strange choices and selfish behaviors, now we find the reality of our lives doesn’t meet the expectations we had for it, and when we look back at those expectations, we can’t even quite find out where they came from, why we were trying to meet them in the first place, or what to do now that we’ve fallen short. Blowing up your life and reality for a chance to see what’s behind the curtain, what the final layer of reality is, becomes more and more attractive.
Calhoun writes, “Women find quieter ways to act out, fitting breakdowns around school drop-offs and business meetings.” Even a bathroom at our own spectacular birthday party is the perfect setting for a Gen X woman’s mid-life crisis. We try to figure out who we are, what we wanted, and if it was ever worth it anyway.
We have made our choices, and we are living with them, and while we own them fully, and would probably make many of the same choices again, we are still in boxes that are defined by our relationships to people in our lives, and our relationship to all those desires still unfulfilled. “Russian Doll” encapsulates this feeling of stepping into an unpredictable reality at middle age, wondering both where you’re going and where you’ve been.
At one point, when Nadia tries to explain her lived experience of life and death to her ex, he tells her she looks good. “I’m grateful that you’re complimenting me,” she says, “but you’re not really hearing me.” She is intelligent, confident, competent, and self-aware, but despite that, or maybe because of it, it’s near impossible to be heard.
As much as “Russian Doll” resonates with a very specific part of the populace, it could be said that it’s a little too steeped in its own hipness. The whip-smart dialogue can start to feel like a series of self-aware one-liners, and because the series follows the repetition of the same storyline, the only characters the writers develop are Nadia and Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett), who is discovered to also be taking the death ride-and-repeat. The other characters, from Nadia’s not-mother-mother-figure, Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), to her ex, John (Yul Vasquez), to her best friends are as one-dimensional as the ubiquitous bathroom mirror.
The series thus far comes in at eight half-hour episodes, and in the land of bingeing, four hours is almost too short to suck. This is a great watch for those long nights where sleep has dissolved, answering questions brings even more uncertainty, and you want to indulge the fantasy of getting a whole-life do-over.