What the Ambiguous Ending of Netflix's 'Russian Doll' Means for the Show
The seemingly random parade filled with crust punks who have emerged from Tompkins Square Park in a sort of jubilee is a nod to the Italian master Federico Fellini.
This post contains spoilers for season 1 of Russian Doll.
When crafting the final moments of the first season of Netflix's Russian Doll, creators Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler didn't want to crib from Groundhog Day -- the film to which their series is most frequently compared given that its heroine, played by Lyonne, keeps reliving the same day over and over. Instead, the seemingly random parade filled with crust punks who have emerged from Tompkins Square Park in a sort of jubilee is a nod to the Italian master Federico Fellini.
"I believe that a lot of it kind of sparked from the acknowledgment that this has been a performance, which is how I interpret those Fellini endings," says Headland, who is best known for her pitch-black comedy Bachelorette. "But also, I felt like it was such a New York thing. You would just come around a corner and suddenly there's a parade happening, and you're like, 'Oh, well I guess we're part of this now.' Symbolically and existentially it summed up kind of going with the flow in a way that I think these characters had not been up until then, and sort of visually symbolizes their journey."
In Russian Doll, Lyonne is Nadia, a hard-living software engineer who's celebrating her own birthday at her friend Maxine's (Greta Lee) place. There's chicken and a joint laced with cocaine. She goes home with a guy, leaves him to go looking for the missing cat she shares with a bodega, and then gets hit by a cab. But she doesn't die, exactly -- she wakes up in the bathroom at Maxine's, the party raging. She's trapped in a loop and just keeps dying. Midway through the season she meets Alan (Charlie Barnett) in an elevator that's about to crash, and finds out he's in the exact same predicament.
On the surface, they couldn't be more different. While Nadia is a chainsmoker with a laissez-faire attitude toward just about everything, Alan is a buttoned-up planner living perfectly in line. He actually enjoys the experience of revisiting the same day because he knows what to expect, even though it means breaking up with his longtime girlfriend again and again. The introduction of Alan was "necessary" from a plot standpoint, according to Headland. "I don't think we should just tell the same story from just one character's point of view," she says.
As the episodes draw to a close, Nadia and Alan figure out that saving themselves means confronting their trauma. For Nadia, it's dealing with the psychological damage inflicted by her mother (Chloë Sevigny, in flashbacks); for Alan, it's remembering that he actually died by suicide. But as soon as they solve that puzzle, an equally bizarre metaphysical situation unfolds: They're trapped in separate timelines, which means that when they go to meet up, they find the old version of their companion. An enlightened Nadia discovers Alan wasted, planning to kill himself, while a serene Alan encounters Nadia hooking up with the same asshole, destined to get hit by a cab. Thus, the evolved incarnations of Alan and Nadia need to convince the oblivious, reckless versions of each other to save themselves.
"There's a lot of very real reasons in this life where it becomes a tempting concept to stop participating," Lyonne says about the parallels between the two central characters. "I think, especially in putting together these final episodes, it started to crystallize in a way that the show is commenting on just that. From the end of six through the end of eight, it almost becomes a show saying, 'Hey kids, don't take yourselves out. Give yourself a chance.' Emotionally, Nadia and Alan were two characters who were very self-destructive in very different ways, but sort of find this common ground in each other of a reason to continue to show up for life, if not only for themselves then for each other."
Those final conflicts lead to a beautiful, moving resolution when both Alans and Nadias go off with each other. That's when they run into that exuberant procession of people bearing large puppets -- scored by the song "Alone Again Or" by Love -- and walk into the night, Nadia grabbing hold of a torch.
Headland explains that the writers weren't looking for an ending that was traditionally romantic, even though Nadia and Alan do hook up at one point. They were more interested in one that touched on the mysteries of the universe, more Romantic with a capital-R. It all goes back to the initial pitch for the show, which got a little more academic than one might expect for a half-hour fantasy. "When we pitched the show, we put this -- now I'm going to sound really pretentious -- but we put this Albert Camus quote, which is, 'Life is the sum of your choices,'" Headland says. "I think a joking way to put Russian Doll is that life is the sum of your timelines. There are all these different versions of you because -- even if they don't physically happen in a time-travel, magical-realism way -- in your head you're still living that life where you made the choice to marry that guy, where you made the choice to stop talking to your family. It's always kind of lingering out there: You could have been a better or worse person."
But there are more literal questions those final shots provoke. For example, Nadia passes two people in the crowd with her mass of red hair, implying there may be more versions of her walking around. Is that the case? Headland doesn't really have an answer. "I'm kind of interested to see what the fan theories are," she says. "To me it's more of an impressionistic ending. Like I said, there's always a million yous walking around. It just depends on which one you're going to put on today." Lyonne also doesn't offer up anything concrete, only posing new possibilities. "It raises the question of how many versions [of the characters] are there all together? That's certainly something that was considered," she says. "In this video game sense, it presents a question of do they in fact just enter a whole new sort of scenario in that moment, that they kind of completed that round?"
Even though the first season tells a complete story -- with the ending a perfect coda -- this all could be fodder for more in the Russian Doll universe. Headland confirms that she and the team initially pitched three seasons, but if there are more, it's not guaranteed that they would stay in this realm. "Certainly there's additional things that we would love to explore if it makes sense to do it," Lyonne says. "Some of my ideas veer pretty wildly from exactly this world, some sort of stay in it."
For now, though, those last shots are a form of catharsis -- for both Nadia and the viewer.
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