WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Russian Doll, now streaming on Netflix.
1993’s comedy classic Groundhog Day features Bill Murray in one of his finest roles. Hilarity ensues when his self-absorbed character, television news reporter Phil Connors, relives the same day over and over again while on assignment at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The concept of Phil breaking the time loop by finding love and understanding the error of his ways has numerous films, including the nascent horror franchise Happy Death Day.
While the formula has resulted in a few decent pieces of entertainment, Netflix’s Russian Doll is the best to have imitated the concept. It has the charm, charisma, heart and soul of Groundhog Day, but what makes it stand on its own is that it flips the script with a very comic book-esque twist in the first season’s final act.
Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia is, for all intents and purposes, the female counterpart to Murray’s Phil, except she’s toiling away as a video game coder in New York rather than covering Punxsutawney Phil’s annual shadow dodge. Arrogant, selfish and disenchanted with the world, Nadia takes her friends for granted even as they throw her a massive birthday party, opting to set off on a sexual tryst which ends with her getting killed by a cab. This kickstarts her death day, which she relives again and again while trying to figure out how to break the loop. Eventually, she meets someone similar, Charlie Barnett’s Alan, and realizes their fates are intertwined.
They eventually discover they must save each other on that fateful night they passed each other by as strangers, the night where Nadia was killed by a cab and Alan committed suicide after his fiancee dumped him. As they go through the motions, they figure out the solution to their time loop is accepting their fears and flaws; Nadia blamed herself for her mom’s suicide, and Alan refused to believe he drove his fiancee away. However, when both achieve this closure, the season finale, “Ariadne” throws us for a loop with a plot twist that maroons them in a different timeline.
We’re left waiting for a “woke” Nadia and Alan to meet up, but they simply meet the pitiful versions of each other from the night they died. A healthy Nadia meets a depressed Alan, while an optimistic Alan meets a self-destructive Nadia, leaving us wondering why they didn’t meet up in the prime universe, the first reality they both died in. As both try to get back to the healed versions of each other, an earlier geeky theory Nadia came up actually turns out to be true. She posited they’re simply various versions of each other strewn across a multiverse, and each time they wake up, they’re in an alternate reality, leaving a more tragic one behind.
They assumed fixing their hang-ups would have taken them back to the first reality where everything went wrong, but Russian Doll’s multiverse doesn’t work that way. Wiser now, both decide to stay in the new reality they’re in, with Alan convincing a belligerent Nadia to stay with him rather than go off on a sex and drugs bender to fill the loss in her life, while Nadia convinces a suicidal Alan she’s his best friend and is here to help him overcome his depression over his break-up.
The episode’s title is a nod to Greek mythology where Ariadne gave Theseus a thread to find his way out of the Minotaur’s lair, back to the real world. Except in this case, Russian Doll simply wants each protagonist to be the family the other never had, healing the other and helping their flawed versions grow. It’s an intriguing concept, one which ends with both realities having a parade downtown where both couples finally accept happiness and that they’re not meant to alter reality, just each other.
Season 1 of Russian Doll, starring Natasha Lyonne, Greta Lee as Maxine, Yul Vazquez, Charlie Barnett as Alan Zaveri, Elizabeth Ashley and Chloë Sevigny, is streaming now on Netflix.