R29 Binge Club: Russian Doll Recaps

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Russian Doll, unlike its namesake, doesn’t actually have that many layers — at first. Over its eight 30-minute episodes, the Netflix show slowly reveals a logic board of complexities. It does so at such a careful rate that none of it feels extraordinarily complicated. For the most part — and in the early episodes especially — this is a simple show. Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) dies on her 36th birthday. After she dies, she is plopped right back into her 36th birthday party, forced to relive the events of the night until she dies once more. This process repeats itself until Nadia figures out how to stop it. So: simple.
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Created by Lyonne alongside comedy great Amy Poehler and Sleeping with Other People writer Leslye Headland, Russian Doll doesn’t have a lot of time for traditional TV formalities. Characters are introduced suddenly and assuredly, without regard to exposition, and at no point does the universe try to explain itself. You will figure it out as you go along! So, incidentally, will Nadia, who’s just as desperate to understand her loop as you are.
In the case of watching a show, though, the loop is helpful. Characters recur with such frequency that they literally become recurring characters. As they repeat the same actions, they reveal their strangest and most illuminating tendencies. Places do the same, as do the literal frames of the show — look closely in that corner of the shot and you might see something a future loop will explore. In that regard, Russian Doll is surprisingly intimate. And fairly easy to understand, so long as you don’t dig into the metaphysics of it all.
I’ll do my best.
Episode 1: "Nothing In This World Is Easy"
The most off-putting thing about Russian Doll’s pilot is that the characters already seem like they’re on a loop. They make loose references to things that haven’t yet been introduced, and they (along with the show) allude to metaphors that haven’t quite stuck the landing. The cast of characters present as archetypes, each with a square personality that, on most TV shows, would qualify them as a fine, if somewhat standard, character. There’s Nadia, who is beloved but grouchy. She’s turning 36 today, and she’s not feeling particularly festive.
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“Staring down the barrel of my own mortality always beats fun,” Nadia tells her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) about her birthday mood. Maxine is a Brooklyn Blair Waldorf; bedecked in art deco leggings and matching blue eyeshadow, she is alt-prim, obsessed with making the perfect chicken and hosting the perfect party. Maxine is determined to ensure Nadia has a good night, even if Nadia is determined to have the opposite. (“It’s my party, I’ll cry if I want to!”) Such is the push-pull of Nadia and most of the world around her.
Next is Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson), the Lady Casanova of the group, who’s currently seeing a 22-year-old. Another sort of archetype, she wears overalls and translucent frames. Like Maxine, Lizzy’s focused on Nadia’s happiness, shepherding people out of the bathroom right when Nadia needs some solitude.
But Nadia, as her friends begin to sense, is having a small crisis. For starters, this is her 36th birthday. Nadia’s mother died at 35, which makes this the year especially poignant and fraught. This is the year Nadia escapes her mother, ostensibly. Because of this, Nadia’s feeling a strange need to escape, period. She takes up with an off-putting stranger named Mike (Jeremy Bob) just for the hell of it and leaves her own party — this is where the first loop begins.
The first episode contains two “loops,” both of them frantic. The first starts shortly after Nadia leaves Mike, her one-night-stand, in search of Oatmeal, the local deli cat. Oatmeal starts to feel like a loose stand-in for Nadia herself; the cat, Nadia tells Maxine, can withstand anything because it’s already survived everything. Oatmeal is a survivor, just like Nadia.
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“For me and Oatmeal, it’s a prison,” Nadia says. Okay! Metaphor received here: Nadia is a survivor, and she’s not happy about it.
Post-coitus — she and Mike have off-camera, presumably boring, sex — Nadia wanders the streets of New York looking for Oatmeal. She catches a glimpse of the cat and wanders into the path of a taxi. Just like that, she’s dead, which means she’s right back in the bathroom.
Loop #1
Welcome back to Max’s party for Nadia! In this first take, Nadia is convinced that she’s on drugs or having a crisis. She tells Max that she feels “profoundly empty” and becomes convinced that the bathroom — where the loops begin — has some sort of magical power. (The bathroom does have a blueish vaginal crystal on the walls. Plus, the door handle is a gun?)
In the process, two new characters enter Nadia’s orbit: John (Yul Vazquez, who also appears in TNT’s I Am the Night) and Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley). Ruth is Nadia’s guardian, while John is Nadia’s doleful ex.
This loop ends with Oatmeal again, oddly enough. After an argument with John, who wants to reconcile with her, she wanders into the night, eventually discovering Oatmeal. She then goes to a pier near the Hudson River. Cradling Oatmeal to her chest, Nadia seems at peace.
Then, Oatmeal disappears and Nadia falls into the river, seemingly pushed by an unseen force. Rude.
Loop #2
Now, Nadia knows something is happening. She’s not sure if the loops are the result of a drug or if they’re part of something larger. “The universe is trying to fuck with me. And I refuse to engage,” Nadia yells at the sky, seething. “And I don’t give a fuck if you disappeared my cat!”
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Amid Nadia’s fury, her friends grow concerned — or maybe they’re just hurt. Max, frustrated that Nadia isn’t having a good time, calls Nadia a “cockroach” because she simply cannot be destroyed. It’s as if Max knows Nadia’s on a survival quest.
“You’ll never die!” Max yells, irate. She’s semi-right. On Nadia’s way out of the party, she knocks into Mike, the Updike-obsessed professor she slept with on the initial night. He catches her before she falls down the stairs, effectively saving her life. He’s not the first person to do that this episode — previously, John stopped Nadia from walking into traffic. It’s as if...there are certain people who can prevent her from dying.
Peeved at her friends, Nadia wanders back out into the night, convinced, at this point, that the problem is drugs.
The Sweetest Birthday Baby:
Russian Doll is filled with great quotes, most of them delivered by Nadia, the sweet birthday baby. Here, we’ll catalog the best of the episode.
Ruth: “Nothing in this world is easy, except pissing in the shower.”
Maxine: “This is New York. Real estate is sacred.”
Mike: “Why don’t you come over here and sit on my face?”
Nadia [to Mike]: “I would, but I just called you an Uber.”
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Episode 2: "The Great Escape"
The second episode sees Nadia at her most frantic. If episode one was “This is weird!” then episode two is “This is sincerely fucked up!” Nadia’s loops become more frequent, and her conviction in the insidiousness of it all grows much stronger. Her problem-solving abilities, meanwhile, are first-rate: She comes up with and eradicates two theories in the space of an episode. Congrats, Nadia, we’re several loops closer to the truth.
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She begins at home, having made it through the first night. This is how Russian Doll differs from Groundhog Day. (The comparisons to the Bill Murray vehicle are inevitable. It doesn't help that the show is premiering days before the real Groundhog Day.) So long as Nadia doesn’t die, she will continue to live her life. This is technically still loop #2 — she’s only died twice, and things could turn out to be entirely normal.
So, she goes about her day. This is one of the few times Nadia is in her normal, day-to-day life. She wakes up and mixes a raw egg cocktail for her hangover. As she does so, Maxine calls to apologize for her outburst the previous night. “Cooking brings me great joy, but it alters my personality,” Maxine says, sighing.
This leads to one of the few instances where we see Nadia doing her job. She’s a computer programmer, as stated in the first episode. This is 100% relevant to her current loops, although I’m not entirely sure how. When she goes to a coding meeting in this episode, one of the programmers (played by Yoni Lotan, who appeared in the previous episode as a Wall Street bro) points out that there’s a bug in Nadia’s code. She fixes the bug — it wasn’t hers, anyway — and leaves the meeting early. The “bug” feels like some allusion to Nadia’s predicament. Is there a bug in Nadia’s code?
If there is, Nadia will figure out what the bug is. Her first theory is drugs, something that seems obvious. Maxine fed her an “Israeli” cigarette, which included cocaine. Nadia hurries to meet War Dog (Waris Ahluwalia), Maxine’s orgy-loving drug dealer, to find out the truth. Before, she can, though, she receives a call from John, the ex.
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The pattern hasn’t yet emerged, but it does seem like Nadia’s deaths often happen shortly after (or during) her interactions with men. For her first death, she’d just left Professor Mike behind. For her second, she was scurrying away from John, who, it turned out, just wanted to sleep with her. Here, Nadia is on the phone with John when she falls into a basement grate. New York City hazards!
Loop #3
Fresh off her basement death — a New Yorker’s biggest fear — Nadia is still convinced that drugs are the answer. She immediately leaves the party to go find War Dog, who didn’t answer her question earlier. She gets a minor lead via War Dog’s doctor accomplice, but it ultimately leads right where we expected it to: Nadia is not experiencing the effect of drugs. This would be a very boring show if she were.
Still, Nadia’s problem-solving is helpful for ironing out plot holes that we might come up with. If you thought this was about some weird acid trip, well, you thought wrong! If you thought this was about a woman on the brink of insanity, you also thought wrong. Nadia is lucid; the universe is just, as she said earlier, fucking with her.
Loop #3 is relatively short, although it does bring up an important point. In loop #2, Nadia had a burn on her finger from a cigarette. Come loop #3, the burn is gone. She is magically healing between loops.
This death comes about in an Oatmeal-ish way: Nadia sees Ferran (Stitchers' Ritesh Rajan) stumbling towards a bar with his friend, and immediately runs toward him. Ferran’s friend (who is as of yet nameless) has become a sort of pseudo Oatmeal in these past episodes. If Nadia was worried about Oatmeal before, now, she’s worried about both Oatmeal and this nameless, faceless friend who’s having a tough night. In episode one, this person dismantled an entire aisle in Ferran’s deli. Here, he’s just stumbling towards a bar using Ferran as his support. Like she did for Oatmeal, Nadia starts running towards them both. As she does so, she falls into a basement grate — again.
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Loop #4
With the knowledge that there’s ketamine in the cigarettes, Nadia goes immediately to Maxine to complain. When Maxine isn’t helpful, Nadia strides away and down the stairs — where she falls to her death.
Loop #5
A rabid, furious Nadia runs to Maxine, asking, “Why are you doing this to me?” Maxine is the new villain in this narrative. Angry, Nadia falls down the stairs once more. (“Fuck!”)
Loop #6
Another argument with Maxine, who just wants to show her friend a good time. Another fall down the stairs.
Yells Nadia, “This is like the game. I’m Michael Douglas!”
Loop #7
This time, Nadia’s only goal is to get down the stairs. So, she yells, “Stay the fuck away from me. I’m coming down the stairs!” She still manages to fall to her death.
Loop #8
Obviously, the only answer is for Nadia to stay at the party, at least for now. Nadia manages to survive the night by soldiering through — she wanders through her party, sipping wine and smoking cigarettes. At the end of the night, she falls asleep on a couch, where she, thankfully, does not die. Her drugs theory has been squashed, so Nadia is officially out of options.
Except for insanity, that is.
The loops that fold into day two are always illuminating, but this one especially. Nadia goes to the home of Ruth, her childhood guardian, where Nadia reveals that her mother was mentally ill. What if Nadia has the same issues? What if Nadia is that dreaded word: crazy? She confesses to Ruth her plight; like most of the other characters in the show, Ruth thinks Nadia is going a little bananas.
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I have a lot of questions about this show, but I want to start with this recurring group of actors (led by UCB veteran Yoni Lotan). They return once more as the medics in the ambulance taking Nadia to the psych ward at Bellevue. Once again, they are slightly douchey. They also lead to Nadia’s death, as their reckless driving causes an accident. Bye, Nadia, and bye, recurring douchesbros. The recurrence of the actors — who don’t return as the same characters — appears to indicate something, especially because the actors almost always precede a death.
Loop #9
At long last, Nadia is comfortable in her loop. In the final loop of the episode, Nadia has finally decided to enjoy the nihilism of it all.
“It’s never gonna be Thursday again!” she hollers. Meanwhile, Maxine is glowing at the idea that Nadia is actually having fun at this party. The episode ends with John — mournful, deeply-in-love John — arriving at the party.
The Sweetest Birthday Baby:
Russian Doll is filled with great quotes, most of them delivered by Nadia, the sweet birthday baby. Here, we’ll catalog the best of the episode.
Lizzy: “Oh, shit. Looks like I got mixed up in something very nice.”
Nadia: “Is it the nicest psych ward?”
Ruth: “It’s definitely the closest.”
Nadia: “Do me a favor, John, and start fucking other people. It’s been six months!”
John [to Nadia]: “Hey, I fuck a lot of people!”
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Episode 3: "A Warm Body"
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Episode 3 marks a turning point for both Nadia and Russian Doll. Just as Nadia is realizing that there’s a method to this madness, Russian Doll throws in one more element, revealing that the logic board is way more complex than initially presented. The big secret: Nadia isn’t the only one on a loop.
But before this wrench arrives, Nadia starts to develop a rule for herself: Do a kind deed, stay a bit longer in the loop. There are other rules she appears to be making, such as “don’t tell other people about the loop.” (“I can’t tell you. There are too many moving parts,” she tells John wanly.) The more Nadia keeps to herself, the easier this mishmosh is to navigate.
There are only two loops in this episode, and they’re both strategic. It helps that the episode starts in the middle of a loop — Nadia awakens on Maxine’s couch with a Champagne cage ensnared in her hair. For the most part, things are normal. Except, at this point, Nadia knows there’s some sort of pattern to this mission, and she needs to find the “bug” in the pattern. Never forget that Nadia is a video game programmer and this is how her brain works.
There are two wise men that she enlists in this episode for help: a rabbi, and a homeless man named Horse (Brendan Sexton III), both of whom lend at least a little wisdom.
First, the rabbi. The “bug,” Nadia assumes, has to do with where Maxine lives. The Lower East Side apartment used to be a Yeshiva school, which Nadia assumes bears some significance. Unable to translate the Hebrew on the door in front of Maxine’s home, Nadia skips to the synagogue that used to own the school. There, she’ll find answers.
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Instead, she finds a sexist secretary (Tami Sagher) who won’t let Nadia speak to the Rabbi without a husband. This feels like the universe working against Nadia — because this will force Nadia to give John a call. Remember John? There’s something about his and Nadia’s relationship that isn’t clear yet, and the show finally reveals John’s past in this episode. The mopey real estate agent left his wife for Nadia, and he needs Nadia’s approval to move forward with his life. John’s going through his own loop, here, encountering Nadia in several different incarnations throughout the show. In most of their interactions, Nadia is abrasive and cruel, insisting that John move on with his life. In this mini rom-com, though, Nadia and John have to pretend to be husband and wife. Like The Proposal, but very much not.
“Just so you know, I’m not Jewish, but I am circumcised,” John nervously tells the rabbi.
John gets more help from the rabbi than Nadia does — he essentially gets a really lovely therapy lesson. “Mysticism teaches us that there is wisdom inaccessible to the intellect. You can only reach it through surrender,” the rabbi tells John. Maybe Nadia also has to surrender?
This is the only episode that gives us heartfelt John-Nadia time. This couple may have been loving at one point, and they might still have the chance to do so. Clearly, though, both of them have to unpack some other things first. Their couple-y night ends in a fight (sigh) and Nadia rushes into the night — always a mistake, in the case of her loops. What happens when Nadia runs away? In general, she meets death.
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Out in the world, Nadia meets Horse, the homeless man she spotted in the first episode, who gives her a haircut. Falling asleep next to her hairstylist/new friend, Nadia dies once more. The cold can do that to you!
Loop #10
This might be the first loop in which Nadia demonstrates that she really, truly learned something. This is also the loop that throws Nadia for a loop, introducing an utterly new character. Nadia is immediately confident in this new loop, navigating with ease. She leaves her own party, hollering at Max that she has to do something “important.” She needs to save Horse, who probably also froze to death the night before. Plus, someone stole Horse’s shoes the night of Nadia’s party, so Nadia can prevent this. She spends the night at the homeless shelter, snoozing next to Horse and watching over his shoes.
When she awakens, she sees a note about her upcoming code review. Remember when she went to that code review in episode one? It hath returned, and it’s fitting that this is what brings Nadia to something entirely new. At her office building, she meets a tall stranger carrying a ring box who also keeps dying.
This unravels a lot of what Nadia has already put together. She thought this was her, alone, figuring out this mess. Now, seemingly, she has an ally.
The Sweetest Birthday Baby:
Russian Doll is filled with great quotes, most of them delivered by Nadia, the sweet birthday baby. Here, we’ll catalog the best of the episode.
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John: “This is your apartment!”
Nadia: “Wow, you really are in real estate.”
Nadia: “Yeah, well, I’ll suck your cock anyway, but if you come down here, it’ll give it a fun transactional quality.”
John: “I look like Columbo.”
Nadia: “Well, no one’s mad at Peter Falk.”
Nadia: “I did not kill somebody. If I killed somebody, I do something cool, like move to Mexico and start a band.”
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Episode 4: "Alan's Routine"
There’s a lot to appreciate in Russian Doll’s fourth episode, the first thing being Charlie Barnett. Barnett is exactly what this show’s been missing. He plays Alan, Nadia’s new comrade in mystery-solving, and his breathless performance is the perfect antidote to Lyonne’s capricious one. While Nadia has been firing on all cylinders to solve this loop, Alan has been nestling in the safety of his. He likes the loops. He’s comforted by them. He’s also conveniently counting the loops aloud as they happen, so I can stop counting. (Thank you, Russian Doll writers.)
Because Alan is so tightly-wound, Russian Doll has to do almost no explaining. The episode begins in the tenth loop, a loop that Nadia just encountered. Midway through this loop, Alan furiously walks past Nadia in Tompkins Square Park. She’s out looking for the homeless shelter, where she’ll go save Horse’s shoes. The moment is a reminder that this show has recently changed perspectives. Nadia, you’re on your own. We’re with Alan, now.
Alan’s life is, on the outside, far more organized than Nadia’s. He has a girlfriend to whom he’s about to propose. His home is orderly and decorated with mostly pebble tones. He has a fish named Boba Fett, and, he’ll be paying a neighbor (a pitch-perfect Mirirai Sithole) to watch it when he’s gone. Alan works out; Alan is always dressed well. Alan listens to daily affirmations for success. (E.g. “I am loved and deserved love. I am in control.”) Alan is perfectly fine with the loops because they allow him to keep trying over again.
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The loops are the perfect situation for a perfectionist, and Alan is trying to perfect something that’s pretty irrevocable. His loops are happening atop a breakup. Just as he proposes to his girlfriend Beatrice (Dascha Polanco), she ends the relationship, rerouting his perfectly-planned life. But wait! Alan gets to try again!
Despite his obsession with orderliness — or maybe because of it — Alan’s life is more on edge than Nadia’s. Nadia may be unorthodox, but she’s always coolly in control. Alan is always this far away from his breaking point. In fact, in this episode, he reaches it. In his first post-meeting-Nadia loop, Alan learns that Beatrice has been sleeping with her CUNY professor. In a delightful twist, that professor is the same guy who slept with Nadia in the first episode. (This professor is Jeremy Bobb, a wonderful actor with stern lips and the perfect professorish monotone. ) Stunned, Alan whispers, “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
He’s wrong, though. His interaction with Nadia and the subsequent revelation about Beatrice feel like the first things in the series that were supposed to happen. The universe is screwing with both of them and has now brought them together. Nadia is quicker on the uptake than Alan is, though, deciding at once that her job is to find Alan in the next loop. She’s strategic; if someone else keeps dying, why shouldn’t she find him and compare theories?
Which brings us to Russian Doll’s big, grand point: No one can do anything alone. If Russian Doll has a thesis, it’s this. Ferran even says it aloud this episode, telling Alan sternly, “No one can do anything alone.” Annoying and preach-y as it is, this lesson does appear to be what Nadia and Alan are picking up from their loops. As a result of her loops, Nadia was forced to reconnect and apologize to her ex. Alan was forced to confront the issues with his ex. Both have had in-depth conversations with close friends and mentors, although Alan flat-out lies to his mother (Lillias White) in this episode. Clearly, something teach-y is going on here.
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Nadia and Alan’s first real meeting isn’t fruitful. Alan hollers at our protagonist for messing with his loop. She offers a few theories as to why they’re both dying. Are they the same person? Is this a romantic comedy? Is this Groundhog Day but with two much more delightful individuals and a new riddle?
If this were a 120-minute romantic comedy (and it kind of is), then Alan’s big break in this episode would have been the end of the first act in the movie. In this case, it’s the closing scene :Alan, furious at Beatrice’s professor, heads to CUNY to throw a few punches. This isn’t unlike Nadia’s quest for War Dog in episode two. Barnett is at his most exacting in this scene, falling apart just as he tries to crush someone else. He’s furious, but he’s also shifting into breakdown mode.
“You are an asshole!” he yells at Mike. Alan, is that the best insult you could muster?
Alan’s final death this episode is an electrocution via a street lamp and a puddle of water. When he awakens — loop #12! — Boba Fett is gone.
The Sweetest Birthday Baby:
Russian Doll is filled with great quotes, most of them delivered by Nadia, the sweet birthday baby. Here, we’ll catalog the best of the episode.
Beatrice: “For the millionth time, it’s Updike and the suburban imaginary!”
Liana: “Oh, come on. You’re fucking with me. I mean, people love to fuck with me.”
Alan’s neighbor: “How do I know you’re not a murderer?”
Nadia: “My sparkling personality?”
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Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Episode 5: "Superiority Complex"
If I’m remembering my high school physics well enough, Schrödinger’s Cat equation, or mind puzzle, suggests that before a cat in a box is observed, the cat is both alive and dead. Once the observer opens the box, the cat has to pick a form. Russian Doll’s big reveal in episode five is that this has been an exercise in opening the box over and over and over again. Nadia makes the realization to Alan, pointing out, eyes wide, “What if they keep going?” Her point is that every loop isn’t a loop, per se. They’re different universes, and somehow, Nadia and Alan are skipping between them. There’s a video game connection to be made here; they’re using up their lives trying to get the equation right.
This also means that there’s a “right choice” to be made, which brings in some philosophical questions. Now that Alan and Nadia are a team, they can compare notes. Alan’s notes suggest that this is all about morality. Clearly, he and Nadia have bad karma. (It’s fitting that the insecure perfectionist thinks this loop is his fault. Ouch.) Unconventional Nadia rules out this theory quickly by asking everyone at her party if they think she’s a bad person. It’s not an ineffective way to get a poll done quickly, but this certainly isn’t a gold star on Nadia’s record.
“I love that you’re a cunt. It makes me feel morally superior,” Max snipes, summarizing her character thus far.
Nadia assumes from this poll that Alan’s theory is incorrect. This isn’t a dark, East Village iteration of The Good Place. (Or maybe it is?) Before they get much further on it, though, Nadia and Alan diverge and take their own paths. Nadia meets up with John once more, who’s meeting Nadia at her party for the umpteenth time.
“It’s been a while!” he tells her.
“I guess, for you, it has, huh?” she replies.
Nadia’s quest in this episode then becomes: fixing her fractured relationship with John. Nadia isn’t at fault for John’s mistakes — he cheated on his wife — but Nadia did neglect to meet John’s daughter. Suddenly, Nadia decides meeting John’s daughter is the solution. She’s even going to give her a book, Emily of New Moon.
Meanwhile, Alan’s mission becomes to ruin Mike’s night. He’s on the opposite path of Nadia, trying his hardest to become a vindictive asshole in the little time he has left. Or, he’s going full Kill Bill on a manipulative academic who sleeps with his students. Either way, the descent is fun.
He marvels at Mike’s picking up women at the party..”
A bike accident and a gas explosion lead to…
Loop #13
Desperate to get the book to John’s daughter, Nadia leaves the party immediately to go fetch it. Alan picks another awesome fight with Mike.
“You are fucking garbage and someone needs to bag you up and take you outside, throw you into the East River, and put everyone who can smell your fucking stench out of their goddamn misery,” he hollers at him.
Loop #14
Another attempt at each mission, foiled by an allergic reaction to pepper spray (courtesy of comedian Michelle Buteau) and Ruth, who mistakes Nadia for an invader and shoots her.
Loop #15
The final showdown. After several tries at this, Nadia finally gives up. If we’re running with this video game metaphor, then Nadia has discovered that this give-the-book-to-John’s-daughter route doesn’t help solve the puzzle. Just as she’s about to meet John’s daughter for breakfast, she halts the operation. She’s on the verge of death, she realizes. At all times. Nadia could die at the breakfast table, impaled on a steak knife or drowned in a carafe of cold brew. To keep going, she must disappoint John. This is good for Nadia, but bad for fans of Yul Vazquez’s very kind eyes. (Hi, hello, it's me.)
Meanwhile, Alan has yet another showdown with Mike. In this one, he goes so far as to cockblock another woman (playwright Jocelyn Bioh).
Both missions, this case, proved futile. Except for this: The universes keep going, that much is clear. Nadia and Alan are hopping between them, discovering different and new ways to peer in on Schrödinger’s cat. They just can’t get the equation right l. Their final death is gruesome: They die under a falling A/C unit.
The Sweetest Birthday Baby:
Russian Doll is filled with great quotes, most of them delivered by Nadia, the sweet birthday baby. Here, we’ll catalog the best of the episode.
Max: “Either you two suck each other’s dicks or get out of my apartment.”
Max: “I think there’s a lot of merit in copying. I’m interested in art as plagiarism.”
Mike: “She didn’t choose me, Alan. The only choice she made was not you. Nobody chooses me. I’m the hole where a choice should be.”
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Episode 6: "Reflection"
Despite all its complications, Russian Doll has stayed away from melodrama, at least until now. It kept things relatively low-key, even as the world started crumbling. Even if Nadia and Alan wanted to solve the riddle, they weren’t necessarily in hives over it.
That changes with episode six. The world has slowly been devolving in the past few episodes, but not dramatically so. Boba Fett disappeared in episode four, and, if you’ve been watching closely, fruit that once looked fresh is rotting. Now, mirrors start disappearing. There are also noticeably fewer people at Nadia’s birthday party, and when she asks Max about the bathroom mirror, Max replies that there never was a bathroom mirror anyway. (Too narcissistic.) Meanwhile, the deli is filled with rotting fruit, as is Ruth’s home, and both Nadia and Alan are getting nervous. QED, the melodrama has arrived.
This episode is also the first with a real, solvable mystery at its core — that of Alan’s first death. During some casual chitchat, Alan reveals that he can’t remember how he died the first time.
As Alan and Nadia dive into investigating Alan’s first fatal night, the episode takes the form of a mini-movie. As they launch their mission, Alan is peeved at Nadia, but they’re stuck together. Then, once they start doing the work, they become fast friends, and Nadia can lash out at Beatrice on his behalf.
“Where’d you get this art from? Is it all from Urban Outfitters or just a couple pieces?” Nadia, snarky as ever, asks Beatrice.
Then, in the heat of the moment, they have some fast-casual sex, with Nadia role-playing as Mike and Alan role-playing as Beatrice. For a minute, Russian Doll delivers rollicking rom-com fun.
This changes with a perceived betrayal: Post-coitus, Alan cleans Nadia’s home. This is effectively what Nadia has been doing for him — she’s helping him clean up his act — but Nadia isn’t as amenable to change. She lashes out, ending their 24-hour friendship. Things happen fast in Russian Doll.
But of course, death also happens fast here, and nothing is scarier than a lonely death. Nadia’s this time around is choking on a chicken bone. Alone in Ruth’s home and unable to scream, she dies. Alan’s demise is never made clear, but it can be assumed he died in some similarly horrific way. (Earlier in the episode, they die via a swarm of bees. This hasn’t been pretty.) After this death, Nadia rushes back to Alan, breathlessly apologizing. Yes, she was mad. But she doesn’t want to keep dying, especially now that it seems their time is running out.
It should be noted that this episode brings back the “video game,” theme as Nadia and Alan play a game that Nadia programmed. Later, after their fight, Alan plays the game by himself. The game is supposedly frustrating, with a level so hard it feels undefeatable. That’s a pretty bonk-you-over-the-head metaphor.
Through this trial, Alan discovers, in horror, the answer they’ve been seeking: His first death was a suicide. He leapt off a building. At the same time, Nadia realizes that she saw Alan the first night at the deli near Max’s home. He was the drunk partygoer knocking over salsas in the deli. This connection runs deep.
The Sweetest Birthday Baby:
Russian Doll is filled with great quotes, most of them delivered by Nadia, the sweet birthday baby. Here, we’ll catalog the best of the episode.
Nadia: “It’s like somebody threw a gauntlet right into my puss-puss.”
Nadia: “I never stick out my neck out for anybody, but I feel like fucking Rocky right now.”
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Episode 7: “The Way Out”
What’s a late-in-season show to do when its formula grows (slightly) tiring? It turns to an entirely new narrative, one that’s equally important if not equally riveting. Remember in Stranger Things season 2 when episode 7 took a large swerve into the Chicago punk scene? That’s effectively what Russian Doll does, too, slipping for the first time into a flashback. The episode begins with a young Nadia (Brooke Timber, who also starred in Netflix’s Maniac) and her mother, who is played by Chloë Sevigny. Nadia’s mother is in the middle of stealing a watermelon in the beginning of the episode — clearly, she led a reckless life with little Nadia by her side.
These memories start haunting Nadia just as she and Alan come to an answer to the ongoing riddle: They’re on this loop because they neglected to intervene in the other’s life. Nadia could have prevented Alan from dying by suicide. Alan could have prevented Nadia from being hit by a taxi. Because they didn’t do this, they’ve created a bug in the code — not unlike the bug that Nadia fixed way back in episode 1.
Nadia’s memories with her mother are less powerful than the current action, though. Despite Sevigny’s admirable performance, the information is too little, too late, and too obvious. Earlier episodes have implied that Nadia’s mother was mentally ill, and that she died because of it. (She died at 35, the age that Nadia just passed.)
The more frightening part of the episode is that young Nadia — the same girl in the flashbacks — has started haunting adult Nadia. As soon as Nadia sees her younger self, she starts dying. First, she has a seizure. Later, she has an asthma attack. At another point, she gets a vicious nosebleed and collapses in the deli. Nadia’s younger self is a harbinger of death.
“I think she’s lost,” a harried Nadia tells Alan. She has to reroute her younger self to fix this. This is a harder task, and where Russian Doll gets extremely nitty-gritty. The task of fixing the “bug” is also going to require, essentially, extensive talk therapy. (This is also a bonk-you-over-the-head metaphor.)
As they dig deeper into their history, some old issues return. Remember Beatrice? Alan wants to break up with her for real, this time, and he wants to do it kindly.
“I let somebody help me,” he tells Beatrice, weeping a little. This is Charlie Barnett’s Emmy moment!
Things are far hairier in Nadia-land, where she’s busy trying to redeem herself in the eyes of John’s daughter, a wily 12-year-old with no time for shenanigans. She’s one big eyeroll in a leather jacket, and appears to be privy to the universe’s machinations.
“She’s still inside you,” she tells Nadia when Nadia begins to cough up a shard of glass. She appears to be talking about Nadia’s mother. Is that the mirror from Max’s bathroom? Or is it the mirror that Nadia’s mother broke back when Nadia was a little girl? Later, John’s daughter morphs into Young Nadia, who whispers, “This is the day we get free.”
The flashbacks with Nadia’s mother don’t provide a ton of information, beyond the fact that watermelon is a trigger for Nadia, who was seen eating watermelon earlier in the series. The more intriguing information arrives during the present — for example, when Nadia tells Ruth that she feels responsible for her mother’s death. Or when Ruth says that young Nadia had a burning desire to live, which she appears to have lost. It’s here that Lyonne’s talents are pulled into the foreground. She’s been happily carrying the narrative for the past six episodes, but she’s done so in very matter-of-factly, breezing through plot points like a mailman on a delivery route. Here, she’s forced to slow down and deliver a bit more melodrama. Have you ever noticed that Natasha Lyonne’s eyes are huge and magnetic? You’ll notice in this episode.
In an earlier episode, Nadia suggested that she might die in front of John’s daughter. That was foreshadowing, because in this episode, she does just that, convulsing on the floor of a restaurant.
The Sweetest Birthday Baby:
Russian Doll is filled with great quotes, most of them delivered by Nadia, the sweet birthday baby. Here, we’ll catalog the best of the episode.
Max: “So, too many colonics is definitely a thing.”
Alan: “Thank you for changing my life. Lives are hard to change.”
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Episode 8: “Adriadne”
Is it possible that Alan and Nadia’s timelines havebeen moving closer together? At the start of Russian Doll’s devastating finale, the two’s days start side-by-side, with a fly flitting from Alan’s home over to Nadia’s bathroom. Magically, things are reappearing now: The ring is back, the fish Boba Fett is back, and all the party guests are at Max’s home. Seemingly, they are back at the beginning again.
The metaphysics here get confusing, especially as Alan and Nadia’s timelines intersect, but I’ll try to dissect it all. Once they’ve returned to the original “loop,” both Alan and Nadia somehow end up within the other’s original night. Except in this version, the other is completely oblivious to the machinations of the universe. Alan is interacting with a loop-free Nadia — the same Nadia who slept with Mike all those episodes ago. And Nadia is interacting with a loop-free Alan, the same Alan who leapt off a building. They’ve ended up here because, well, this is what their task has been all along. Nadia had to stop Alan from killing himself. Alan had to stop Nadia from getting hit by a car. The mission is: Save each other.
How this happens is still unclear, but my money is on Oatmeal the bodega cat: Things go wonky after Alan follows Oatmeal to the back of the deli, where, presumably, a wormhole exists. There’s even a sign that says “employees only + Oatmeal” in the back — if that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.
The mix-up is there for a reason — to save the original Nadia and Alan — but it’s still immeasurably painful. All of a sudden, Nadia has no idea who Alan is.
“You know, give me a little space, hippie, nice scarf!” original Nadia barks at Alan. Neither person was prepared for this level of mission. Solving the loops, yes, easy. Convincing a belligerent Nadia not to go home with smarmy Mike? Impossible. Convincing a despondent Alan not to self-harm? Also impossible.
What we didn’t realize is that the characters have, throughout the series, been accruing skills and tools that will eventually help them in this final task; it’s just like a video game.
“I do know her! I know her better than she knows herself right now,” Alan tells a confused Farran in Nadia’s timeline. This was the point of it all; they got to know each other so well that they would have a better idea as to how to save each other.
This is where Russian Doll reveals its true genius. A half-assed detail from a previous episode, all of a sudden, becomes Alan’s key to saving Nadia. Remember, Nadia told Alan that in modern dollars, her coin is worth $150,780.86. This is a number Nadia won’t forget, and, incidentally, Alan now has it memorized. Moreover, he knows that the key to Nadia’s heart is Oatmeal.
Meanwhile, in Alan’s timeline, a sloshed Alan presents a much easier task. “Nothing even matters anymore. A failure is a failure is a failure,” a drunk Alan mutters to Nadia. Determined to save him, she takes him to his home, where they lie down while she recites a story. You’ve heard the one about the broken boy and the girl with the death wish? (The girl, Nadia says, looked like if the girl from Brave and Andrew Dice Clay had a baby.)
The actual saving proves much easier than either of them expected: Alan simply holds Nadia back from entering the street, and Nadia manages to convince Alan to stay put.
“You promise me I’ll be happy?” he asks.
“No. But I can promise you you will never be alone,” she replies.
How did we end up here? The show that started as a cynical thrill ride is suddenly serving tear-worthy moments. You’ll never be alone? This is some Oscar and Hammerstein shit, and only Natasha Lyonne could pull of this level of deep sincerity. This also loops back to the show’s hammer-headed thesis. You can’t do anything alone. Nadia needed Max to walk her down the stairs. All Alan needed was someone to tell him he’d never be alone. (And some cake, too. This boy loves cake.) All Nadia needed was for someone to prevent her from crossing the street. All they ever needed was each other.
The show ends on a wild note, with both Nadias and Alans joining a parade hosted by none other than Horse the homeless man. Turns out Horse is also a puppeteer with a horse head. Hence the name. Did the two timelines morph together? Or do they continue on, parallel to one another? The ending suggests that the two timelines keep going, with two happy Nadias and two happy Alans. Of course, given the loops, there are many, many more unhappy Alans and Nadias. All that matters, though, is that in the most important timeline, they’re surviving and thriving.
The Sweetest Birthday Baby:
Russian Doll is filled with great quotes, most of them delivered by Nadia, the sweet birthday baby. Here, we’ll catalog the best of the episode.
Nadia: “Co-dependently speaking, I would love to tell you the truth, but I think our friendship can handle me lying to you!”
Max: “What’s wrong? You don’t like that shirt? Too much pirate?”
Nadia: “Well, this little fucking slut belongs to no one, but yes, that’s my cat.”
Nadia: [to the Wall Street bros] “You are making me want to throw up, Daffy Dick.”
Nadia: “Now, do guys like blow jobs, or is that just a rumor?”
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