In the eighth and final episode of the first season of Russian Doll, Alan and Nadia find each other. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Russian Doll.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of death, grief, mental illness, suicide
What if we could all know that we could go through life without experiencing it alone?
It’s unsurprising to me (in the best way) to come to the realization that much of Russian Doll was about loneliness. It’s there in the fabric of the show, even in the very opening scene. Even though Maxine’s apartment is overflowing with people, most of whom ostensibly know Nadia, does Nadia really belong there? What choices does she make in the context of how she feels about her own life? Alan was in a relationship for years, something most people would love to experience. But did he feel truly seen and supported? Did he view himself with love and respect? Or was he in this partnership out of convenience? Was it comfortable for him to live in dysfunction because that’s the world that he’d become used to? And in the end, did he feel like he had someone to turn to?
“Ariadne” is about death wishes. Charlie wanted to die literally. Nadia was so apathetic about herself that she “chased” death. And on one night, these two people—lost because of their inability to see themselves as valuable and worthy of love for completely different reasons—became lost in a different way. They were trapped inside of a labyrinth. Not one that twisted and turned in a hopeless, complex maze. No, this was a labyrinth that reset over and over again, placing Alan and Charlie at the center and asking them to find their way out. They are the minotaurs of their own lives, doomed to repeat a futile exercise. Like Sisyphus, pushing that stone up the mountain, only to watch it roll down again.
Over the course of this season, something happened. I am still so utterly impressed with the “twist” of the show. (And thrilled that it wasn’t spoiled.) It’s one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve experienced in fiction, and I’m even more happy that the execution of it was better than I could have ever imagined. Even if there is no definitive answer to the mechanism behind these loops, it doesn’t dilute the story. Because I just got to watch Alan and Nadia become the ball of string for one another. They led their friend out of the labyrinth.
It is a tortuous and difficult thing to watch how they’ve gotten to this point. Well, it’s also been HILARIOUS, and I don’t want to ignore that. There are SO MANY good lines and moments throughout Russian Doll. (I am certain that the Andrew Dice Clay/Merida joke is absolutely the best one in the whole run.) But it’s also been a challenge to watch people make toxic decisions. To de-value themselves. To see Alan and Nadia reject help from people who genuinely do care for them. Which is why this is so satisfying to experience, too! The end of this show made me feel so good without descending into any sort of saccharine sappiness. It took Nadia’s nihilism and didn’t so much destroy it as ask Nadia whether it was what she really wanted to feel. It took Alan’s helplessness and sense of failure and asked him how things would be different if he felt like someone truly saw him.
And all of this wouldn’t have unfolded as it did if it wasn’t for yet another brilliantly executed twist: in their final loops, Alan and Nadia showed up in parallel timelines, each of their “veteran” selves helping the other in the original timeline. So, Loop Alan meets Nadia in the deli as she is preparing to hook up with Mike. Loop Nadia sees Alan, drunk and distraught and ready to kill himself, in Ferran’s deli. Each of them, after having experienced twenty or so loops, is so much more experienced than their original selves. Thus, they become balls of string. They are tightly wound by the trauma of repeated deaths, but they have knowledge. They have the wisdom of knowing what put them in that exact position in their life. Alan is able to recognize why Beatrice cheated on him and needed to break up; Nadia has accepted that the trauma of her mother has set her on a path that is destructive and lacking self-love. But it’s also literal. Loop Alan is able to get Nadia’s attention because he knew the cost of the education that Lenora squandered; Loop Nadia knows what Alan is about to do and is able to coax him away from suicide.
Make no mistake: watching the Loop characters unravel in order to save the original timeline version of their friends is painful and suspenseful. Here, Russian Doll tempts us with fatalism. Are these events always determined? No matter how hard each person tries, will Nadia always get hit by a taxi? Will Alan always step off of the roof?
Definitively, this show says no. It says it in one of the most heartfelt ways possible. That scene on Nadia’s roof is fucking heartbreaking. Nadia thought she failed. Yet even when she discovers that Alan is alive, she doesn’t serve him platitudes. She does not offer him fake positivity. She simply tells him that whatever happens in his life after he leaves that roof, he will not be alone. Will he be happy? Fuck if she knows! Fuck if any of us know if happiness will come to our lives. Look, did any of us think we’d be suffering this global nightmare like this? No. Instead, Nadia tells Alan the truth. And that truth is that happiness and satisfaction is never guaranteed in this nightmare world, in our nightmare existence. Rather, she will be there for him, so that whatever he goes through, he will not be alone.
That’s what Alan needed the entire time. On a street corner not far from where this takes place—but in a different timeline—Alan offers the same thing for Nadia. He can’t promise happiness or certainty. There will assuredly be bad days. But what does he offer her? Trust. He asks Nadia—tough-as-nails, no-nonsense Nadia, who refuses to let people truly love her, who is afraid that love can be poisoned because of how it was poisoned when she was a child—to be vulnerable with her. To just trust him.
And then he fucking saves her life.
Which she just did to him… in another timeline. Life is a fucking box of timelines, isn’t it? Fuck, isn’t that what this whole labyrinthine existence comes down to? A box of timelines and possibilities, and it’s our responsibility to find our way out of it.
The final image of “Ariadne” is beautiful. Haunting. I know there’s supposed to be a second season, but if we never get it, this show ends on the perfect note. The parade that Horse leads is probably packed with meaning, and I feel like I gotta watch it ten more times to pick things out. But as these two timelines collide, it is possible they converged, too. Are we meant to believe that as Nadia and Loop Nadia finally come so close to one another, the walls between these realities disappear? Is Alan’s utter joy his realization that the timelines collided to provide them all with the way out of this maze? Is Horse the minotaur?
I don’t need to know. I really don’t. Because there’s still an immense closure here, even if the next season is about two parallel timelines. And that closure comes from the writing team for Russian Doll deeply caring about the people it wrote about. I love how this show talks about mental health. It never, ever felt cruel to me, even in some of the more difficult moments that spoke to how unaddressed mental illness can hurt so very, very much. I love that everyone here is allowed sympathy and empathy. Well, except for Mike, because FUCK THAT GUY. I actually adore that he never seems redeemed in any of this!!! He’s just an asshole in every timeline!!!!
It’s that care and love that elevates this show to something magical. Miraculous, even. It shouldn’t have been this good, but it fucking was. I also acknowledge that while I’ve focused on some aspects of this finale, I feel like there are ten different ways to analyze what just happened. Y’all, I haven’t felt terribly qualified enough to comment on how much Russian Doll is about the East Village, despite that I lived there for six months last year and this year. I’m not a native New Yorker, yet I was able to recognize how specific this show is to that neighborhood. It wouldn’t quite work set in another neighborhood, let alone another city. And there’s this undercurrent about gentrification and the ill effects of it that, again, I’m not remotely knowledgable enough to speak on, but I feel like it’s definitely there? And super important to what the showrunners and writing team were trying to comment?
And I also can’t ignore that it landed in my life at exactly the right time. I know my struggle with grief, regret, and self-love is not over. That’s okay. But as someone who has been trapped in maze built out of trauma, watching this show made me feel like I’ve finally got a grasp of the string. Because I’m not alone. I am really not. There are so many people in the world struggling with depression and anxiety and loneliness, and this was a beautiful and honest reminder of that. Russian Doll might be about gentrification. Or loneliness. Or love. Or it might just be an experience that Nadia would tell me to enjoy and stop over-thinking. But for me, it was about trauma and what we build out of it.
So I’m gonna do it.
I’m gonna follow the strings, friends.
I’m going to find my way out.
The video for “Ariadne” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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