Russian Doll Season 1 Recap: Let’s Do the Time Loop Again

Before Nadia and Alan go back in time in Russian Doll season 2, let’s relive the first time loop(s) that brought them together.

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) wields a turkey in Russian Doll season 1
Photo: Netflix

This article contains spoilers for Russian Doll season 1.

It’s trippy to think that Russian Doll premiered on Netflix all the way back in 2019—the day before Groundhog Day, no less. It was of course fitting timing for the high-concept television series from Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, and Amy Poehler about New York City video game designer Nadia Vulvokov (Lyonne), stuck in a time loop where she keeps dying over and over, only to reawaken at her 36th birthday party to the sounds of Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up.” As with many series, the pandemic delayed production on season 2, but it’s finally returning to the streamer on April 20. 

With Nadia and fellow looper Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett) seemingly achieving closure for their respective timelines, their time travel—or, as Nadia calls it, time imprisonment—is going to be markedly different on this go-round. But first let’s refresh our memories as to how they broke the morbidly hilarious and poignantly affecting cycle in season 1.

A Russian Doll recap—what a concept.

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Nadia’s Time Loop

Even before she knows the night is going to end with her a crumpled corpse on First Avenue, Nadia’s 36th birthday is not going well: Stuck at a party thrown by her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) that she doesn’t want to be at, Nadia engages in plenty of self-destructive behavior—going on a bender, engaging in an ill-advised hookup—in order to make it through the night. But when she gets hit by a cab in the first of many quintessential New York deaths, it teleports her right back to the bathroom at that party… and no one else knows that she’s died and is reliving the night.

Though she initially chalks it up to some crazy-strong weed, the actual why of Nadia’s time loop is not immediately apparent. Subsequent experiments with her own mortality (including falling down stairs and into a sidewalk grate, another New Yorker nightmare) as well as investigations at a local synagogue are all for naught: No matter how many days past her birthday Nadia makes it, when she dies she returns to the bathroom, albeit armed with new knowledge. Though the series, like Groundhog Day, at first plays the montage of deaths for dark humor, Nadia gets increasingly desperate that she will never escape; or, worse, that she could get far enough out from her birthday to think she’s safe, only for these surreal laws of physics to strike her down again.

And then she meets Alan in an elevator plummeting to their deaths.

Alan’s Time Loop

Nadia and Alan meet in one of the series’ best moments: “Didn’t you get the news?” she demands as their elevator picks up speed. “We’re about to die.” And he calmly responds, “It doesn’t matter. I die all the time.” In the next episode that temporarily switches perspective, we learn that Alan is indeed caught in his own infinitely repeating day, but his involves the added emotional trauma of going to propose to his girlfriend Beatrice (Dascha Polanco), only to learn that she’s been cheating on him, ironically with Nadia’s on-again, off-again hookup Mike (Jeremy Bobb).

Unlike Nadia casting about haphazardly for how to avoid her constant deaths and resurrections, Alan establishes a very precise routine in the hopes of making his awful day end in any other way than the humiliation of losing Bea.

And then he meets Nadia in the elevator and realizes how little control he has, but that he’s not actually alone.

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As Nadia and Alan team up to figure out why they’re both stuck in this bizarre purgatory, they ultimately discover that his first death was suicide by jumping off his building. It’s only as they retrace these chronological steps that he hits upon a potential reason: Each of them had the chance to help the other before their original deaths, but being bad people, they failed to notice someone else in the universe hurting.

And even though they seem to resurrect over and over without consequence, Nadia begins noticing rotting fruit and wilting flowers—implying that there must be a finite number of resurrections before their time loops begin decaying their respective worlds.

How They Break Out of Their Loops

Once they both acknowledge that this all goes back beyond their first deaths, Alan but especially Nadia must confront where in their lives they’ve gone astray. Flashbacks fill in details of her unstable childhood, from her eccentric mother Lenora (Chloë Sevigny) who didn’t make it to her own 36th birthday. Even more disconcerting for Nadia is the realization that in every reality in which she has died, she’s been mourned by her mother’s best friend and her mentor figure Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), who even accidentally shoots her in one scenario where she thinks Nadia is a burglar.

Nadia’s emotional journey involves making amends with her ex John (Yul Vazquez) and finally meeting his daughter Lucy, though that goes awry when she offers the girl her beloved childhood copy of Emily of New Moon and then gruesomely coughs up blood and pieces of a shattered mirror before succumbing to the death loop. The same goes for realizing that Horse (Brendan Sexton III), the homeless man she passes in Tompkins Square Park in various realities, is someone she might actually know. She even has sex with Alan in one loop, which isn’t exactly the way out but isn’t the worst idea, either.

However, the only way in which Nadia and Alan can actually break the cycle is to each help the other when they cross paths at the deli… the only problem being, each resurrects into a reality in which the other doesn’t know them and is indeed at their most supremely self-destructive. The season 1 finale “Ariadne” features the Nadia and the Alan who we’ve watched learn hard truths about themselves from their many deaths and half-lives using that growth to reach out to the other when each of them most needs a kind stranger. 

While that would have been a bittersweet note to end on, the parallel realities converge when they each join a procession—led by Horse—of the parade of life through a tunnel in the East Village. As the split-screen effect shows the two parades seemingly encountering one another, we see one Nadia pass several others, and then suddenly our Nadia and our Alan find each other again, this time in life instead of death.

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Russian Doll Season 2

So, what to expect from Nadia and Alan’s further adventures in time? According to Netflix, season 2 is set four years later, though the official synopsis is still pretty vague:

Discovering a fate even worse than endless death, this season finds Nadia and Alan delving deeper into their pasts through an unexpected time portal located in one of Manhattan’s most notorious locations. At first they experience this as an ever-expanding, era-spanning, intergenerational adventure but they soon discover this extraordinary event might be more than they bargained for and, together, must search for a way out.

This time travel has a literal vehicle: the New York City subway, which transports Nadia and Alan to different points in time: 1982 (the year she was born), but also decades before that, as she unravels her family’s inherited trauma by way of the Holocaust but also delves into a mystery of gold lost twice via trains. While Alan seems to join her in breaking time, he also has his own time periods to (re)visit.

Lyonne likened the narrative to Back to the Future in a recent interview with The New Yorker, especially with the emphasis on exploring the lives of Nadia’s mother and grandmother. In addition to Sevigny returning as Lenora Vulvokov, other big names joining the season 2 cast include Annie Murphy (Schitt’s Creek) and Sharlto Copley (District 9, Chappie). Plus, Greta, Ruth, and other familiar faces will return and possibly even join the time shenanigans.

Leslye Headland is working on the Star Wars series The Acolyte, so Lyonne stepped in as showrunner, calling this season less of a matryoshka doll and more of an Easter egg for her iconic character. “I figured out how to stop dying,” she said of season 1. “How do I learn how to live?”

Russian Doll season 2 premieres April 20 on Netflix.

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