Readers … I dunno. We’re now officially in the back end of Russian Doll’s first season and I’ve got a lot of theories — inklings of ideas, flashes of smart-sounding whatnot I want to say — but I really don’t know how to tie them all together. So for this recap, let’s just start from the beginning and see where we end up. We’ll say it’s on purpose, like we’re pulling a Nadia-and-Alan. You know, like when they’re in the bathroom debating how they got stuck in their cruel limbo state and Alan doesn’t buy Nadia’s belief that the blue vagina-looking art installation on the door is “an incredibly dense gravitational field that is gaining consciousness and is now deliberately fucking with us. Kind of the black hole meets They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Like that! I’ll come up with some theories about what’s going on, and you can be the one who shoots them down, k?
The episode begins with Alan taking up Nadia’s offer to swing by her birthday party. “Welcome to yesterday!” a surprised Nadia says when she sees him. But Alan’s already got, as Nadia would say, bigger fish to fry: Mike, Beatrice’s sidepiece, is right there, talking to her on the phone. “He’s gonna propose? What a bummer,” Mike tells Bea — which suggests to me that Alan has just changed up his usual routine (that routine he loved so much) by going to Nadia’s party instead of going to Bea’s apartment like he always does. (Remember, Bea is usually on the phone with Mike when Alan comes to her door.) Bea the change you want to see in the world, Alan!
“Why do you think this is happening to us?” Alan asks Nadia, suggesting it’s “purgatory or punishment for being a bad person.” Nadia rejects that idea. “What is this, bad person? There’s Hitler and then there’s everybody else,” she says. “Even Wile E. Coyote, he’s out there, he’s looking for a hot meal.”
(I am tempted to make my recaps nothing but Nadia dialogue. Almost everything she says cracks me up.)
To prove she’s not a bad person, Nadia asks Max and Lizzy and everyone else at the party to let her know if she’s ever “committed some serious misdeeds” against them, but all she gets is Lizzy telling her, “If it wasn’t for you, I’d have a completely different life.” (Same as Alan, who’s slowly starting to have a completely different life because of Nadia.)
Just as Nadia’s about to get off scot-free, in walks the person she’s treated the worst this whole time, John. “You skipped out on meeting his daughter and you broke up his marriage?” Alan asks after Nadia makes the mistake of politely asking John how Lucy’s doing.
Alan insinuates that Nadia’s failure to make amends with John is a failure to redeem herself. Failing to redeem herself makes her, in Alan’s concept of their world, a bad person who needs to figure out how to become a good person if she wants to get unstuck. In turn, Nadia feels guilted enough to finally try to do right by John and Lucy. She says she’ll go home with him tonight, then meet Lucy at breakfast the next morning. She’ll even give Lucy the book she’d been (halfheartedly) meaning to give her since before their breakup: Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery, who more famously authored the Anne of Green Gables series. In fact, she grows so eager to carry out her good deed that she lets herself into Ruth’s house at 6 a.m. the next day to retrieve her childhood copy of the book. At Ruth’s, Nadia espies an actual Russian doll (GEE, I WONDER WHAT THAT COULD BE ABOUT). She also notices the bowl of fruit in Ruth’s safe, nourishing kitchen. It’s rotting — just like the flowers that were wilting in episode 2.
So even though Nadia and Alan are trapped in some sort of time loop, time is still progressing forward in some way. And a couple of fatal gas explosions later, after Ruth accidentally shoots Nadia to death, fearing her to be the “somebody in the neighborhood” she’s been paranoid about, Nadia begins to consider that their time loop may not be a self-enclosed circle. “I thought what was happening to us wasn’t hurting anybody else,” she explains to Alan. Having seen the anguish on Ruth’s face as she bled out, Nadia now worries, “15 times, Ruth has grieved for me. In 15 universes, she’s alone.”
One more thing I noticed about all these timelines and whether or not they vanish or continue: Toward the end of this episode, when Alan wakes up in Max and Lizzy’s apartment, those two are rehashing (or just straight-up re-having) their cyanide/Jim Jones/starting a religion conversation from episode three. Have there been individual timelines unspooling from each “reset” and somehow Alan woke up in this particular one? Because I believe that so far, Nadia has twice woken up after the party on the living room couch. She sees the fuckpile both times, but the first time, Max wasn’t there; Lizzy said that since it’s Monday, she’d be at Gyrotonic class. It was the second time Nadia woke up there, when she first went and talked to the little old lady with the “lovely cart” about the yeshiva’s history, that the cyanide, etc. chat happened. (And I went back and checked and Max is clearly in sleeping clothes in that scene, not I-just-got-back-from-Gyrotonic clothes.) So maybe Nadia is right; maybe each of these resets establishes a new, separate universe. (Of course, that doesn’t explain why Alan woke up in this universe, the cyanide-conversation universe, when it seemingly took place several deaths ago.) Furthermore, in this episode, we only hear that cyanide conversation from Alan’s vantage point of the bedroom; we don’t see it. Could it be that Nadia’s actually out there in the living room, even as she’s simultaneously buzzing him at his apartment? (That doesn’t seem plausible even by Russian Doll’s high tolerance for implausibility, but like I said, I’m still working things out, people!)
Reset! Back at Ruth’s, Nadia asks her, “If you died today, would you be at peace with you life?” “Yes and no,” Ruth replies. “Holding two incompatible ideas in your head at the same time and accepting both of them, that’s the best of being human.”
Pause! Duality is another motif in this episode. As Ruth goes on, “I’m looking at you as you are today while also looking at you as the peculiar little girl I knew.” Later, Alan tells Nadia, “There are good guys and bad guys and I am a good guy.” As he says that, there’s a shot of him standing opposite a mirror; it looks like a split screen, as if he and his reflection are facing each other … his good side and his bad side, both of which he needs to accept?
I’ll go deeper still. I Googled “holding two ideas at once” and the first result that pops up suggests that Russian Doll borrowed Ruth’s “incompatible ideas” line from F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” he wrote in a 1945 essay collection tellingly titled “The Crack-Up.” The first essay’s first sentence begins, “Of course all life is a process of breaking down.”
Folks, I honestly did not think I had signed on to recap the most intertextual TV series since Masterpiece Theatre, but here we are. And I haven’t even touched on the whole Emily of New Moon thing yet. “Everybody loves Anne, but I like Emily. She’s dark,” Nadia says. She then reads from the book: “She despised Rhoda more than ever for trying to get back with her.” Rhoda, she informs Ruth, was “the cunt of the story, obviously.” What does that mean? Who is Nadia in that excerpt, “dark” Emily or “cunt” Rhoda? Is she both, considering this episode is about accepting both sides of yourself? I never read the Emily books! (Although Wikipedia tells me that, like Nadia pretty much was as a child, Emily’s an orphan.) Someone enlighten me?
Last random thought: I am not entirely sure what to make of Mike and Max’s art talk. (I am definitely the Alan of that convo, having what’s sure to be nothing insightful to say.) I did notice that when Alan looked at the art on the wall in a Ferris Bueller-at-the-museum close-up, it seemed that the piece was composed entirely of hand-drawn numbers. Those made me think of Alan and the way he counts his resets aloud. Mike and Max also talk about plagiarism, and plagiarism is a form of repetition. Even by Russian Doll standards, there’s a lot of repetition in this episode. Alan keeps trying different ways to confront Mike at the party: He follows him around, he assaults him, and finally, he just walks up and calmly introduces himself. Meanwhile, Nadia repeatedly tries to make things right with John and Lucy, fast-tracking her mission with ever-increasing efficiency each time she resets.
In the end, Nadia can’t bring herself to meet Lucy after all. Despite being instantly charmed by Lucy’s “perfect” middle finger, which she raises at Nadia through the restaurant windows, Nadia fears she might die in front of Lucy just like she did to Ruth. (She even concernedly pulls John off the restaurant’s sidewalk cellar doors, haha.) “I’m not rejecting her, I’m protecting her,” Nadia insists — and while those two things are indistinguishable in John’s eyes, we can see that Nadia means it. Her selfishness is finally being stripped away and she’s taking on a guardian-of-the-universe role. She heads to Alan’s building and, while waiting for him, calls in Ruth’s gas leak, which she tells 311 she’ll be doing “every fucking day.”
As for Alan, we learn through Mike that yes, Alan has had mental health issues, “that you’re sick and you won’t get help.” In another iteration of their birthday-party confrontation, Alan says to Mike that Bea “chose you and you don’t love her. You’re not faithful. You never get punished.” He’s still trying to make this a good-versus-evil thing, a place where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Mike responds, “She didn’t choose me, Alan. The only choice she made was not you. Nobody chooses me. I’m the hole” — the abyss! — “where a choice should be.” In episode one, before Nadia’s first death, she looks around the party and says, “Let’s make some choices.”
Alan has been passively waiting for a suitably cruel fate to befall the people he thinks are “bad.” Through this episode, he starts becoming more proactive, a little “choosier” like Nadia, just as Nadia starts becoming more selfless. Nadia is trying to make amends with the people she’s caused the most grief as the cheater, while Alan is confronting the people who’ve caused him the most grief as the cheated-upon. Maybe Nadia’s right; maybe they are two sides of the same person? One theory I did manage to hit on the head: Alan and Nadia’s resets are indeed in sync. Including the one that ends this episode. And talk about hit on the head! Falling HVAC unit. SPLAT.