Russian Doll is a series about meanings within meanings, extending from the double meaning of the very title, through to the genius Netflix stroke of releasing this Groundhog Day-style tale *on* the renowned and celebrated Groundhog Day itself.
Most people are familiar with the ornamental ‘Russian dolls’ which nest inside of each other; revealing the top of the doll only leads to one the next size under and on and on until the smallest is uncovered, usually the seventh. Layers upon layers of dolls. They are known in Russia as ‘Matryoshka’, which derives from the Latin meaning ‘mother’. Matryoshka dolls symbolically represent fertility and motherhood, the largest the matriarch protecting her young.
This on first glance may seem less important to a show like Russian Doll, in which ostensibly the ‘doll’ of the title is the character played by star and co-creator/writer Natasha Lyonne, Nadia Vulvokov – a New Yorker of Russian-Jewish descent around whom the time loop conceit rests. In truth, motherhood and the internal pain represented by the Matryoshka dolls lies at the core of Russian Doll, which, like those ornamental souvenirs, hides more than it first appears.
SCULLY: I should have had the courage to stand by you, but I thought I was being strong because it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done: to let go, and to know that I was going to miss your whole life.
When plans for the latest season of The X-Files were announced, quite a number of fans were surprised to be informed by FOX head honcho Dana Walden that Season 11 would feature only two episodes concerning the ‘mytharc’, Chris Carter’s long-running, labryinthian mythology which has coursed through the series over the last twenty-five years. ‘Ghouli’ proves that statement was never entirely accurate, and continues what was already established in ‘This’ – the mythology is being weaved in more with stealth than grandiosity.
Ostensibly, of course, ‘Ghouli’ is a monster story – two teenage girls try and kill each other, each believing the other to be a tentacled beast from some kind of Lovecraftian nether realm. It recalls Season 5’s ‘Folie a Deux’, which memorably dealt with the literal idea of an unspeakable ‘thing’ hiding in plain sight, with a dash of Season 3’s cosmically apocalyptic black comedy ‘Syzygy’ (just without the laughs). Before the episode, a neat level of viral marketing presented the fictional ghouli.net discovered by Agents Mulder & Scully in the episode as a real site fans could click on, reading the fictional urban legend recounting of people seeing or encountering the mysterious Ghouli. Everything about the episode, on the face of it, points to a classic monster of the week.
If not for a character named Jackson van de Kamp, who very swiftly establishes himself as the raison d’être for James Wong’s entire piece. Look away now—no seriously, don’t say I didn’t warn you—but Jackson is, of course, Mulder & Scully’s long-lost biological son William (or Scully’s for certain, at least). William was born at the end of Season 8 having been coveted by alien super-soldiers and later bonkers cultists for being some kind of supreme alien/human hybrid being, indeed prophecies exist about how he may either save humanity or lead the aliens to their complete destruction (in Season 9, so we try and forget about all that). Nevertheless, William is important with a capital I. He was crucial to the last two seasons of the original series. He played a key, off-screen role in Season 10. And he is central to everything about ‘Ghouli’.