Welcome to Yesterday: Thoughts on Russian Doll, Part 2

(This is part 2 of my coverage of the series. Hopefully, you will read part one before diving in. This article does contain spoilers but do not worry there is still plenty of mystery to unpack all on your own. Enjoy!)

Netflix’s Russian Doll has quickly become one of the most talked about shows of 2019 since publishing the first part of this series. In Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out of, Thoughts on Russian Doll Part 1 we took a closer look at the first half of the eight episode series, so to keep in true spirit with Russian Doll itself that is exactly what this article will be about, as I am stuck on a loop wherein I can only continuously write about the first half of the show, never venturing forward to the second half of the series. Just kidding. This article will take a closer look at where the series went from its midpoint to its end, discussing time loops, multiple timelines, and a touch of just about everything else in Amy Poehler, Natasha Lyonne, and Leslye Headland’s Russian Doll.

When we last left Nadia at the end of episode four, “‘Alan’s Routine,” she had discovered that she is not alone in this specific time loop. Throughout the episode, the audience and Nadia get to meet Alan and his loop of nightly getting re-dumped by his girlfriend Beatrice. Alan’s girlfriend has been sleeping with a certain sleazebag college professor named Mike, who we have already met back in the show’s first episode when Nadia blew off her birthday party to go home and hook up with him instead. This was the night that she originally died; the night that set her loop in motion. But what actually set that in motion? Maybe teaming up with Alan, whom Nadia tells to meet at her birthday party the next time he dies, is the key to unlocking the mystery for both of them and escaping the loop. Then again, maybe not.

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) and Alan (Charlie Barnett) team up to solve the puzzle of the time loop. 

Alan shows up to Nadia’s party in “Superiority Complex,” the show’s fifth episode. Immediately they hit it off like yin and yang; polar opposites yet somehow both still strikingly the same. Alan suggests right off the bat that what is happening to them is simple. They are both trapped in Purgatory for being bad people—God the Almighty is punishing them both for the wrongs they committed in their lives.

Sound heavy? Nadia agrees, calling out that entire notion as a pigheaded false sense of egomania disguised as morality. She does not do this in a mean way per se. This is just the type of bluntness that Nadia seems to only be able to spew—often with hilarious effect—that when coupled with the uptight absolutist rigidity that is Alan brings out so much in the series that makes it more than just plot driven. Alan and Nadia have the oil and water chemistry of any old buddy cop film—think Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours without the racist wisecracks that in no way aged well. It is this chemistry between Natasha Lyonne and Charlie Barnett as much as any supernatural element that makes Russian Doll such a success.

Throughout the aforementioned episode five and the following sixth episode “Reflection,” the audience sees Nadia start to try to treat some of the humans in her life better. Her ex, John, who keeps showing up to her birthday party every single loop, thinking he has not seen her in months, lost his marriage due to his year-long relationship with Nadia, and his relationship with his daughter Lucy is strained. Nadia, deciding to finally meet her after going home with John one time around from the party, wants to gift Lucy the book Emily of New Moon, which was her own favorite as a child.  This says something about the lovable outsider ruffian that is Nadia to us. She never liked Anne of Green Gables, the much more popular work by the author (Lucy Maud Montgomery). She does not care for it. She prefers Emily because she is a darker character. Emily is much more related to Nadia than Anne, which makes perfect sense.

The book is very important to her sense of safety as a child, and she sees another little girl in Lucy who has been handed a raw deal in the guise of her parent’s divorce. Nadia hopes that Emily of New Moon will help Lucy find comfort in the same way that it did for her. After finding the book at the house of her surrogate mother, chain-smoking, hilariously spacey therapist Aunt Ruth, Nadia dies once again in a gas explosion. Snapping back once again in the bathroom at Maxine’s party, Nadia starts to seem very frustrated and defeated to an extent, yet still determined to get that book to Lucy and also fix her aunt’s gas leak.

Nadia’s favorite childhood escape becomes a series focal point

While Nadia seems to be on a journey of at least some sort of enlightenment and acknowledgement of others in her life at this point, Alan is still stuck in self pity. He confronts Mike over Beatrice a total of four times in one episode, which are all embarrassing and do not do him any favors with anyone. He keeps angrily challenging Mike to either an ill-advised duel of words or an outright round of fisticuffs, which Maxine hilariously breaks up by yelling at them to either “start sucking each other’s dicks or get the fuck out!”

Alan leaves, only to drunkenly follow two girls way too close at night and end up once again getting killed; this time maced to death.  That same night, Nadia goes back to Ruth’s to find Emily of New Moon for Lucy and leaves a note not to use the gas stove for her, when she is mistaken for a robber and shot dead by Ruth; the only reliable mother figure she has. While Nadia lies dying in Ruth’s arms and can see the utter pain and turmoil all over Ruth’s face before she fades to black and snaps back to life in the bathroom, she has a sudden realization that changes everything: what if every single time she and Alan die they start over in the loop, but a new timeline goes out for everyone else. At this point, that would mean there are fifteen different universes where Nadia has died, and she does not want to continue to be responsible for anyone else’s suffering, showing a crack in her armor.

Nadia and best friend Maxine (Greta Lee) at Maxine’s apartment/Nadia’s never-ending birthday party

Nadia meets Alan and tells him her multiple universe theory, and while they talk the, the show confirms something that Alan had speculated on earlier: “Are we dying at the same time?” An air conditioner suddenly breaks off the top of the apartment building they are talking in front of, crushing both of them to death instantaneously, seems to settle that argument once and for all. This changes everything once again for the viewer. Nadia and Alan are not just two people stuck in the same time loop. Their time loops are inextricably linked; they rely on one another. When one dies, the other will follow suit and start back over. By that logic, Nadia and Alan will have to work together if they ever hope to escape. The problem is, neither of them seem to be very adept at taking and accepting help from others.

Something other than the Mike connection that Alan and Nadia share in common is a that Nadia once designed a video game that Alan still owns and played. The way in which Nadia developed her game says everything about her inability to let anyone close to her. Alan calls her out for making a video game that is “a single character game that has to do everything on her own.” Nadia tries to call his bluff, but soon dies playing the game by ignoring Alan’s warning to “watch out” for an opening in the floor of the level, in which her avatar falls into a hole of molten lava and dies. Soon after, a bombshell of a revelation is dropped: Alan has no recollection of the first night that he died. No memory whatsoever. He just woke up in the loop one morning. Nadia clearly still remembers being hit by the taxi while chasing Oatmeal, so why does Alan not remember? As they say, the plot continues to thicken.

Just as things seem to be going really well after a great day of progress tracking Alan’s last movements, Alan betrays Nadia’s trust in a way he does not understand by pulling out all the old pictures of her mother that she has purposefully buried away. Nadia freaks out, and makes Alan leave after yelling at him. Eventually and fortunately  Alan comes back, finally remembering that on his first loop he committed suicide on his original death night. Did this set the entire loop off somehow for both of them? Did Alan have the right idea all along, that this is purgatory for the sins they both committed in a past life? Nadia does not think so. And she has a theory.

After a brief opening detour to Nadia’s childhood at the start of episode 7, “The Way Out,” focusing on her mother’s (Lyonne’s real life best friend Chloe Sevigny) mental illness and how it left a lasting scar on Nadia, we return to Nadia and Alan’s apartment where she lays out why she does not think that they are trapped in purgatory, regardless of Alan’s remembrance of his first death being a suicide. Notice the rotting fruit?

This is where Nadia’s theory of multiple universes that stretch out comes into play. Each reset day that they spend in the loop, the viewer notices little things: the slow disappearance of Alan’s fish, and the more prevalent constant bowls of fruit strewn out about the episodes that look more rotten each time the loop is reset. Here’s the catch: the fruit is only rotten on the outside. When Nadia slices open an orange, it appears fresh as can be on the inside, thus pointing out that their timeline must be still out there on some timeline because somewhere in the universe, that fruit is still perfectly ripe.

The fruits are not what they seem 

This is when the third act twist happens and it is a dark one. Nadia suddenly spots an eerie looking version of her childhood self staring intensely at her that no one, including Alan, can see but her. It only takes a few seconds before the very sight of Nadia’s child self causes her to have a heart attack and die. She snaps to in the bathroom for the umpteenth time only to find that something is not quite right. Remember that disappearing fish of Alan’s?—this comes into play during “The Way Out” in a series changing way. What if each time they die in the loop after so long the loop itself starts to change and disintegrate? People, pets, and even mirrors start to disappear at an alarming rate. Suddenly, with each loop, it is not just the occasional fish that is gone. It is the people at Maxine’s party; friends and loved ones, pets, even mirrors.

Nadia continues to see her self as a child and has at least one more heart attack. The problem at this point is that there is so much disappearing from her life that the timetable for figuring this out has significantly shortened, considering that every time Nadia dies there is less and less of any semblance of an existence left. Nadia and Alan have figured out that they can fix the broken code, but they have to do it quickly. It almost reminds us of the old “glitch in the Matrix” idea.

At this point, the show becomes more deliriously heady and exceedingly dark in tone as the entire universe starts to disintegrate into nonexistence with each reset. One of the eeriest moments in the entire series sees Nadia snapping to in an empty bathroom and an empty party, which is such a nightmarish shot that it has more than a little bit in common with Lynchian tropes like dream logic. Alan and Nadia both use the opportunity to say anything to anyone they love that may not be there the next time that they wake up. Alan finally learns to let Beatrice go in a heartbreaking moment of confession that is the culmination of everything that Alan has trapped inside. It is also a larger diatribe that speaks to a generation of lost souls wondering through an abyss of false hopes, fears, and broken dreams. Nadia comes clean about the guilt she feels about choosing to live with her Aunt Ruth instead of her mentally ill mother. She tells Ruth that she blames herself for leaving her mother alone even though it is what she wanted.

Chloe Sevigny guest stars as Nadia’s mentally ill mother 

Children often find comfort in stories like the way Nadia finds comfort in Emily of New Moon in distressing or abusive situations. The escape that literature, music, film, etc. can have for a lonely child with no friends is indeed a life-force as Nadia calls it. When Nadia finally does manage to meet John’s daughter Lucy at the restaurant to gift her Emily of New Moon, as they had planned in a prior loop, this time Lucy is alone. The universe has been cruelly altered by having John now gone from existence as well and another little girl left alone. Nadia’s worst fears about scarring another child for life come to terrifying fruition when, after handing Lucy the book, Nadia begins to violently spew up blood all over poor little Lucy.

Oddly, Lucy does not act as if this is strange, she does not offer help; she stares on as Nadia chokes on her own blood and coldly announces that “she’s still inside of you” as Nadia pulls a blood-soaked piece of mirror from her throat before she drops dead again in the restaurant. As Nadia bleeds out, convulsing on the floor, her childhood self appears before her again asking, “Are you ready to let her go? This is the day we get free.”

Nadia’s greatest nightmare come to life 

Snapping to into our final episode “Ariadne” after that horrifying moment, which brought us into the beginning of the series’ climax, seemingly, everything is back to normal. Well, at least as normal as things can get in a time loop. The bathroom is back the way it was originally, everything at the party is back, patrons and all, and Alan’s fish is even back. Could the loop be broken? Not so fast. Remember, when something appears to be too good to be true, it almost always is. Nadia goes to Alan’s apartment, but he has already gone out. They have seemingly just missed each other.

Everything converges at the deli where Alan and Nadia both saw each other that first night before Nadia was struck down by the car; when Alan was drunkenly headed toward a swan dive off his apartment roof. This is where the code was broken. This is where they needed to help each other to survive, but much like Nadia’s video game they both were relying solely on themselves, which led to their deaths/being trapped in a time loop. Fixing the glitch in the code might fix the universe, but this ultimately shows that none of us knows how such things could possibly work.

There are now two different universes: one where Alan is self aware and has to convince Nadia that he has to help her to survive, and a mirror universe where Nadia is following a depressed blackout drunk Alan in hopes that he does not kill himself. Do they pull it off? Does this set the universe back to the way it was before? Is there a way to set anything back to the way it was before? Or do they somehow merge forward in the end, bleeding multiple universes together and moving boldly forward into a brand new timeline? This is bound to be a point of contention for years to come. Everything has led to this do or die moment for both Nadia and Alan wherein they are required to selflessly help the other in a different universe where the other does not believe them. In other words, these two maladjusted lost souls have to have learned enough in their time throughout Russian Doll to be able to convince the other to take a leap of faith and trust a total stranger, even though they know nothing of the events that have unfolded throughout the entire series.

Thankfully in the end, Nadia and Alan believe in themselves and each other enough to move forward and out of the time loop.  The “aware” Nadia saves the “pre-loop” Alan from killing himself, while in the other mirror universe the “aware” Alan saves the “pre-loop” Nadia from jumping in front of that taxi cab. Then in a final segment that will surely keep people arguing forever, the screen splits straight down the middle and both realities give way to a new one led by both the versions of Nadia and Alan that we have come to know and love. The final shot sees them lead a band of merry homeless people, like a scene ripped from Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, through an underpass in the park and out the other side into the night of the city. Nadia is front and center, holding a torch, with Alan by her side, as they all march together into a seemingly brand new world where hopefully they do not have to be alone or live in a cycle of their own making of any kind.

But is this the happy ending that it appears to be on the surface? If every time the loop reset a new universe went forward, while Nadia and Alan stayed trapped in one timeline, how can we as an audience see the people that permeate all those other timelines as anything less than the versions the series focuses on, simply because the series is told from their specific point of view? Midway through the show Nadia posits that there could possibly be up to fifteen universes filled with versions of the people that they both know and love, who are grieving without them at that point. By the end the number is entirely unknown.

Another darker thought is what became of  the universes that were unstable to begin with, wherein more and more people and objects disappeared from existence and old wounds disguised as ghosts seemed to play tricks from the shadows? Surely there was something in those timelines that kept right on disintegrating even after Nadia and Alan died in them. Or was it their presence that caused the instability? These and other possibilities and themes are all worth their own article. There is so much to dive into. For instance, we as an audience know that the Nadia we have come to know and love is leading the way in the end parade shot because she is wearing her pirate shirt and the same for Alan as he is wearing his scarf. But look closely and you will see not one, but two different Nadias slip past our Nadia, each dressed in her trench coat. What does this say? Can one ever truly close a loop once it is open? What do you think?

This author views Russian Doll as a complete and total success on all fronts. The multiple turns throughout the plot could be seen as exhaustive, but they work every single time in Russian Doll, serving as a testament to just how perfectly executed the series as a whole is. There is nothing that does not work in this show. The performances from Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett (Alan), Greta Lee (Maxine), Elizabeth Ashley (Ruth), and Jeremy Bobb (Mike) are all standouts. The direction from Jamie Babbit (3 episodes), series co-creator Leslye Headland (4 episodes) and series co-creator/lead Natasha Lyonne (one episode) also deserve a shout out for crafting such beautiful cohesive work that seems like it came from one voice. The camerawork and lighting is intoxicating, the pacing manic but never rushed, Russian Doll is not a series that is simply worthy of your time. It is by far and away a series quite unlike any other that, much like Twin Peaks before it, will likely have people theorizing over the points just made above and more.

So why let them have all the fun? Be sure to be on the lookout for part three where I will be providing a deeper analysis of the possibilities that the ending of the series presents and its possible implications concerning the workings of multiple timelines, as well as taking a deeper look at some recurring themes throughout the series; namely the topic of recovering from substance abuse. Last but not least I will be taking a much closer look at the parallels between Nadia’s favorite childhood book Emily of New Moon and how that book relates to the story being told in Russian Doll.

Written by steve wandling

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