The Ending to Netflix's 'Russian Doll' Explained
On first blush, the ending to Natasha Lyonne’s Russian Doll seems uncomplicated, if you’re looking at the series as a more straightforward take on Groundhog Day. Nadia Vulvokov (Lyonne) dies over and over again until she “solves” her issue and is allowed to move on as a more self-actualized person.
However, there are a number of wrinkles in Russian Doll — beyond the killer soundtrack, the sterling performances, and the New York setting — that move it far beyond the typical Groundhog Day clone. For one, the day is not just repeating for Nadia, but also Alan (Charlie Barnett). They’re not just stuck in the same time loop together, but they can use each other to help process and navigate their respective situations. They’re also both confronted with similar emotional challenges: They feel alone, and yet derive all of their self-worth based on the validation they get from others. Alan is so wrapped up in his failed relationship with Beatrice (Dascha Polanco) that he’s lost his own identity, while Nadia careens through her own self-destructive life borrowing worth from her friends and sexual partners but seems almost constitutionally incapable of returning it.
Stuck in a time loop together, however, Nadia and Alan begin what is essentially a transactional relationship — I’ll help you solve your problem, and you help me solve mine — that evolves into an altruistic one that, ironically, allows each to find their own self-worth. In each pass through the time-loop, Alan is allowed to try on a different approach with Beatrice — reconciliation attempts, guilt trips, revenge — before finding the one that fits: Simply letting go. Meanwhile, Nadia — even in her first several journeys through the time loop — stubbornly refuses to acknowledge what’s really at stake for her: She has to stop blaming herself for her mother’s death and move beyond the prison of guilt in which she feels trapped. At first, she doesn’t want to go there: She believes it’s as simple as not going home with the sleazeball, being a better friend, or having breakfast with the daughter of the man who blew up his marriage for her. But it’s deeper than that. It’s also more than simply “finding a solution”; each time through the time loop, Nadia and Alan find things they want to change about themselves beyond what is necessary to escape the loop.
The twist in Russian Doll, however, arrives when Alan and Nadia vanquish their respective demons — Alan lets go of Beatrice, and Nadia comes to terms with her mother’s death — and they finally escape from the time loop only to discover that they are in different timelines. In one timeline, Nadia awakens with all the knowledge she’s gained from her journeys through the time loop and she has to prevent version 1.0 of Alan — who sees Nadia as a stranger — from leaping to his death after Beatrice dumps him. In the other timeline, Alan — who is a stranger to Nadia — has to prevent Nadia from going home with the sleazebag and thus avoid being run over and killed by a taxi.
In both cases, it requires of Nadia and Alan to unselfishly illustrate what they’ve learned from their respective journeys — to listen, apply what they have learned to connect with a stranger and, in effect, enrich their own lives by saving the life of the other. In their respective timelines, Nadia and Alan vow to each other that, no matter what happens, they won’t be alone, and duos from each timeline march off to the same parade.
That’s when the final twist arrives, and I’ll be honest, I don’t know precisely what to make of it. As the two timelines converge upon this parade, the Nadia from two other timelines passes them by.
I understand that multidimensionality of it: Nadia alludes to it earlier in the series when she suggests that every time she dies, she leaves behind a timeline where her loved ones are grieving her. These Nadias in the parade are from other timelines, and we’re obviously not meant to take this image literally: Nadia is not actually walking by versions of herself in other timelines. But there are versions of herself in other timelines experiencing different realities. Or, as Lyonne’s co-writer (along with Amy Poehler) tells Polygon, the ending is up for interpretation:
At the end of the season, we’re not like, “And now they’re immortal!” I’m assuming those characters will die. Did they stop the loop, or were their minds just expanded a little bit more, and so now because they understand a little bit of what multidimensionality is, and the fact that we don’t have just one reality, does that mean anything to them? Does it not? Because one side of the duo is enlightened and the other one isn’t, does that mean they’re destined for failure or does that mean they can come to the same kind of working together? The possibilities are endless.
We may see at least a few of those possibilities in subsequent seasons. The show was pitched as a three-season series, and given the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Netflix series, I suspect that we’ll see seasons two and three in our future. Or at least, it will be renewed in some timelines, if not our own.
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