Something’s rotten in Russian Doll

My local CSA does home deliveries during this period of isolation, and although I am working from home I find myself with plenty of time to cook, so I ordered a whole chicken to roast and eat by myself.

I love preparing a roast chicken–usually for a larger audience–but the process admittedly flirts with obscenity, which easily tips over into silliness. Rinsing the chicken’s cold pink body, one hand up the cavity. Patting its flabby skin dry. On this occasion, carrying it into the bathroom on its roasting pan bier and drying out the skin with a hairdryer. This situation is ludicrous, I told the chicken (having no one else to speak to). And I was reminded of another ludicrous chicken scene, tinged with hysteria: Maxine preparing a whole chicken for Nadia’s birthday party in Russian Doll.

Notice I didn’t say “roasting” the chicken–we never see that happen. “It’s your birthday, and I made you a fucking birthday chicken,” Maxine tells Nadia, but the chicken is not yet made. Its raw pink form lays nakedly on the kitchen island amid a rainbow of ingredients in Maxine’s artistic open-plan apartment, like an icon or symbol: the idea of a roast chicken, if not the actuality. On my first viewing of Russian Doll, this struck me as odd: the party is in full swing, and chickens take an hour or more to roast–why hadn’t Maxine put it in the oven yet?

Of course, if you’ve seen the show, you know the chicken and the party surrounding it only get odder from there. SPOILERS from here on out. 

Nadia finds herself reliving the night of her 36th birthday party over and over, coming to again and again at the bathroom sink as the same upbeat tune starts up. In almost every iteration, Maxine is presiding over the raw chicken at the kitchen island. Almost every time, she croons “Sweet birthday baby!” at Nadia. In many iterations–if Nadia sticks around at the party long enough for us to see more of it play out–Maxine reflects on the critical role of this chicken at her party. “If nobody eats my chicken I’m going to fucking kill myself,” she remarks to Lizzy after Nadia’s first death, seemingly unfazed by her friend’s strange behavior. “I’m gonna make another chicken. Would you guys eat another chicken?” she asks later in that same iteration. (There do appear to be plates of chicken scraps at the table, but we rarely see anyone eating in this series–mostly drinking and smoking.) For Maxine, having a chicken to roast seems to be an aesthetic and tactile pleasure akin to reading physical newspapers and playing a vintage projector; she likes to be a person who makes a chicken for her friend’s birthday party, even if becoming that person conflicts with some other versions of herself she’d also like to be. “Cooking brings me great joy, but it alters my personality,” she says when she calls to apologize to Nadia for asking her to leave (Nadia’s third iteration of) the party.

For Nadia’s part, the chicken is part of the set-dressing of her repeated deaths and returns, and she begins to lose patience with Maxine’s performative hostessing. By her ninth iteration of the birthday party–after a series of very rapid deaths involving stairs–Nadia is at the end of her rope, starting to fear that her altered reality is caused by a psychotic break and not just party drugs. She gets into an argument with Maxine over the drugs, which were part of Maxine’s present to Nadia. Maxine, perhaps wanting to hurt Nadia for not appreciating her generosity, calls Nadia crazy. Nadia, definitely wanting to hurt Maxine, throws her exalted birthday chicken onto the floor.

The fleshy splat of raw chicken sealed it for me: in Russian Doll, food is gross. Food may be part of the rich cultural landscape of Nadia’s New York, but it is always a little off. Sustenance and nourishment remain out of reach for its main characters; physical comforts remain illusory, or ephemeral at best. The roast chicken never gets roasted. Brunch never gets munched. Nadia’s beloved marmalade cat, called Oatmeal as if to invoke warmth and comfort, remains just out of her grasp for most of the series–literally vanishing from her arms in her second iteration, leading to her second death. “You always liked the kitchen,” says Nadia’s maternal figure, a gravel-voiced therapist named Ruth in whose refrigerator Nadia finds (cooked! ready to eat!) chicken as she starts to piece together the themes of fear and isolation that pervade her memories even before the repeated deaths. “Warmth, safety, sustenance, everything you were missing when you were little,” adds Ruth. Of course, warmth and safety in Ruth’s kitchen remain out of reach also, as Ruth’s gas stove explodes in several of Nadia’s iterations.

When we finally meet Alan, a complete stranger to Nadia who is also experiencing repeated deaths, we see food being gross in a different way. The first time Nadia sees him–before she or we know who he is–he drops a jar in their neighborhood bodega, which explodes into a wet smear. Alan is a compulsive man who likes things neat, orderly, and planned; he maintains his physical fitness carefully, but joylessly orders and consumes an array of desserts when he finds himself living the same day over and over again.

Then, as the two of them rack up more than a dozen deaths apiece, they find the world around them degrading. Mirrors disappear, and people too; flowers wilt, and fruit rots. Food is wasted potential: it either is not enjoyed or it cannot be enjoyed.

At this point, I couldn’t help but think of The Raw and the Cooked, something I’ve written about often in my food scholarship days. In theory, the raw chicken and the rotten fruit represent two points of the culinary triangle: raw chicken is not yet ready for consumption, and rotten fruit has been left to the natural processes of time and decay too long to be fit for consumption. Nadia yearns for the cooked (the oatmeal, the rotisserie chicken, the warm comforting kitchen) but finds it just out of reach; Alan overthinks and overdetermines comfort and nourishment to the point at which it neither comforts nor nourishes him. The culinary triangle is about transformation, and so is this story. “Lives are hard to change,” Alan says to Nadia late in the series; but in order to survive their endless night, they both need to learn how.

You could go on and on with the food metaphors in this visually rich series: Nadia’s mother buying and cutting up mountains of more watermelons than anyone could possibly eat; the gluten-free (but delicious) crackers in Alan’s ex-fiancee’s apartment; choking on chicken bones; the rotten fruit that is still fresh on the inside. But for me, one of the most haunting sequences of the entire series is one without food. In iteration 22 (I think), after dying in the bodega (“I bought the chicken here,” muses Maxine, who is with her on this occasion), Nadia comes to at the bathroom sink and doesn’t hear knocking. No one is waiting; the hallway is empty. Lizzie is gone; the kitchen island is gone. Maxine, chickenless, dances and smokes alone in an empty room. “I am the party,” she says to Nadia. When Nadia urges her to leave, she strokes Nadia’s hair and says, with great sadness, “I can’t.” It is only in this final iteration, before Nadia painfully lets go of her mother’s erratic mothering and subsequent death, that the people around Nadia start to behave in uncanny ways that match the uncanny situation: Maxine here is like a ghost, tethered somehow to the site of the last party she threw for her friend.

When I am tempted to judge Maxine too harshly, with her raw birthday chicken and her performative friendship, I remember that she is still present when everything else around Nadia seems to be dissolving and disappearing. She may not be the most observant or emotionally present of friends, but she is physically tied to Nadia in some way that others aren’t.

And when I am alone in my own apartment in this period of social isolation, dancing by myself to my favorite songs and roasting my own chicken, it comforts me to think my party tricks might offer some stability and comfort in uncertain times–at least for myself, but perhaps for others too.

3 responses to “Something’s rotten in Russian Doll

  1. Pingback: Reading Roundup: April 2020 | Scribal Tattoo·

  2. Pingback: What I’m cooking: Eff It Edition | Scenes of Eating·

  3. Pingback: Reading Roundup: April 2021 – Sara Davis·

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