This article contains spoilers for the ending of Russian Doll.
It’s important to know what you’re getting into when you watch Russian Doll on Netflix. Yes, there’s the Groundhog Day aspect of the repeating time loop and although this show was pitched long before Happy Death Day came on the scene, the similarities are unmistakable. But this show is more of a metaphysical journey with the moral philosophy of The Good Place and the surreal, dark humor of Being John Malkovich, and there’s of course Natasha Lyonne capturing the audience’s imagination with her unmistakable brand of New York snarky charm. When she discovers she’s living her 36th birthday over and over again, dying repeatedly to reset events, the obvious question is, “Why is this happening?” But when viewers get to the finale of the eight-episode season, the question is replaced by, “What really happened and how did it all end?”
The time travel in Russian Doll is more in the vein of magic realism rather than the science fiction or supernatural genre, so although the journey of personal discovery is largely symbolic, the audience has an understandable desire to ascribe meaning to the final acts of Nadia (Lyonne) and Alan (Charlie Barnett). Geek audiences typically want their shows to have rules that remain internally consistent even if their logic is incompatible with reality. That is, if the show decides that there are multiple timelines that the characters inhabit separately, then that principle should carry across the entire concept of the show, including its ending. Fortunately, Russian Doll dropped hints about its hidden nature long before the finale.
The first indication that we might be dealing with multiple realities rather than a single self-erasing loop happens in episode 5, “Superiority Complex.” Up until that point, Nadia hardly cared about what changes she made to other people’s lives, and both she and Alan were rather cavalier about the consequences of their deaths. But then she snuck into Ruth’s house to get her copy of Emily of New Moon (the relevance of which could get its own article) and was shot by her aunt as a possible burglar. Upon resurrection, Nadia realizes there may be a world in which Ruth must deal with the awful tragedy of having killed her own niece.
Before reaching the end of Russian Doll, some viewers may have simply considered Nadia’s tearful regret to be an emotional response to a horrible event that only she remembers. They may have even wanted her to meet with John’s daughter Lucy as she originally intended rather than abandoning the breakfast date out of a misguided attempt to protect the young girl from a reality in which the woman she just met dies a horrible death. But it’s an important distinction that Nadia makes on behalf of the audience: this isn’t a video game with a single continuity broken only by failed levels and repeating lives.
In fact, there is one clear indicator that the multiple timelines exist, although not necessarily side-by-side, and that’s the rotting fruit. Although everyone around Nadia and Alan may be experiencing Sunday and Monday over and over again, elements of nature are feeling the same subjective time as the loopers. Obviously, the deli owner and Auth Ruth and everyone else who has a display of fruit don’t see the moldy oranges or the wilting flowers, but in the multi-dimensional universe, the progression of events in each loop that lead Nadia and Alan through their journeys of self-discovery are all a part of the stream of time. Their existence matters.
Which is why the self-actualized versions of Nadia and Alan must save the destructive incarnations of each other in separate timelines. Putting aside the question of who or what is forcing them to repair their damaged lives (we’re focusing on the what and the how here, not the why), it also wants them to acknowledge their connection to each other by preventing the deaths that started the loop in the first place. The problem with this, though, is that even though each healed version of Nadia and Alan is successful in saving the lives of their counterparts, the suicidal Alan and the narcissistic Nadia are still broken in their respective realities.
And that’s why the final moments of the Russian Doll finale are so important. In both realities, the pair heads towards a tunnel in which the metaphorical parade of life is in progress, and at the last second, the audience’s perspective switches from the split-screen existences to the single view of Nadia with her bright white pirate shirt and Alan with his karma-infused scarf walking side by side, reunited in their success. Even more significantly, we see not one but two gray-frocked damaged Nadias brushing past in the opposite direction, merging with the crowd. The timelines have all become one and the loop is broken!
If we had only seen one Nadia in the gray coat, there might have been some question as to whether the dual realities were still happening simultaneously, but two Nadias evoke the many loops and repeated existences that brought them to this point, like the titular matryoshki all being placed inside the largest of their kind. We might question why we didn’t also see a couple of beige-sweatered Alans traipsing by as well, but Nadia has the advantage of her beautifully recognizable red hair to keep the image from being too muddied and crowded.
Is this the definitive answer to what really happened at the end of Russian Doll? Certainly not. But in the same way that Nadia cannot guarantee the suicidal Alan happiness if he doesn’t jump, we can guarantee that our theory doesn’t need to stand alone. The beauty of this most literary of television experiences Is that it’s open to interpretation. In the end, we must all draw our own conclusions, but as Nadia learned, we don’t have to do everything by ourselves.
Listen to the latest Sci Fi Fidelity podcast (Russian Doll discussed in ep. 43):