The penultimate episode of Russian Doll was titled “The Way Out” and I thought they were talking about Nadia’s mom. I thought the title was alluding to how Nadia finally expelled her mom out of her body, out from deep inside her, when she coughed up that mirror shard. Young Nadia had said she needed to let her mother die — and likewise, to stop letting her mother kill her from the inside — if she wanted to “get free.”
Now I see “The Way Out” refers to the way forward for Nadia and Alan, which is also the way back. So much of life is a circle, a loop, repetitions, but in order for them to get back to life as we know it, they must get back to a forward-moving, linear existence. That means they must finally find a way forward from what’s emotionally and metaphysically holding them back.
I realized all of this because the season finale of Russian Doll is titled “Ariadne.” (If you’d like to fall deep into the Russian Doll abyss with me, please note that “Ariadne” is an anagram for “Re-Nadia” and that anagrams were a frequent trope on Lost.) In Greek mythology, Ariadne helped Theseus survive the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Nadia and Alan aren’t just stuck in loops; they’re stuck in a maze. Each time they’ve reset, it’s because they’ve hit a (literal) dead end. “Life is like a box of timelines,” Nadia jokes to the old man who lives in Alan’s building; what is a maze if not a box of timelines? Each time you run into a dead end, you try to find a new “way out.”
It’s Alan and Nadia’s self-loathing, and in Nadia’s case perhaps also her self-centeredness, that’s rendered them stuck. “Life was too painful or they were too fragile. They just couldn’t hack it,” is how Nadia describes themselves to Alan in her bedtime fable about “a very special boy” and “a very tough lady.” Until “one night, something miraculous happened. They made it through alive.”
Having just died at the end of episode 7 — with Nadia coughing up the mirror shard and Alan presumably experiencing a simpatico, internal-organ issue — they begin episode 8 in their respective bathrooms and are elated to find things back to normal. The bathrooms have mirrors, Nadia’s birthday party teems with guests, both Alan’s and Maxine’s fish have returned, and Beatrice’s engagement ring — which disappeared after Alan tossed it into the East River — is in its box. We are seemingly back to the original timeline, so perhaps the way out has already been found? Nadia and Alan seem eager as ever to track each other down. Is that so they can confirm with the other that the loops are gone? Or is because they still need to “rewrite” their original interaction? (Also, why didn’t these two ever exchange phone numbers? This could all be so easy!)
Either way, these resets — “oh, fuck; oh, fuck” — somehow go awry. Who Alan meets at the bodega isn’t Looping Nadia, but Original Nadia, who’s about to have first-night, drunken sex with Mike. Meanwhile, in a similar-but-different time line, Looping Nadia heads to the bodega and encounters drunk, heartbroken Original Alan, who’s just been dumped by Beatrice. The Originals have no idea who the Loopers are. If all this sounds confusing, the show tries to make it not look confusing; Looping Alan wears a red (Nadia’s color!) scarf he received from Lizzy’s ladyfriend, while Looping Nadia changes into a white (Alan’s color!) pirate shirt after Max throws a drink at her.
“If you’re not the Nadia who remembers me, you could die permanently,” Looping Alan tells Original Nadia. Clues fucking abound that dying permanently is what Nadia subconsciously wanted. “Look at you now, chasing down death on every corner,” Ruth said to her in episode 7. (Nadia’s first death took place at the corner of East 7th and Avenue B.) Mike and Original Nadia leave the bodega without condoms, which is “not a dealbreaker” for her; at her place, when he initiates sex before she can rummage up a condom, she says, “Don’t worry about it.” (Remember Mike dispassionately discussing the AIDS crisis in episode 5?) If all that’s too subtle, there’s a poster on Nadia’s wall that reads, “Life Is a Killer,” and Looping Nadia refers to herself in her bedtime story as “a lady with a death wish.”
Suicidal Alan’s death wish, on the other hand, is literal and conscious. Whether we are talking about their relative death wishes, or how one of them identifies with the girl from Brave and the other identifies with Andrew Dice Clay (two halves of Nadia’s whole), what exquisitely complementary soulmates Nadia and Alan have become. The opening bathroom scene shows their bathroom mirrors back to back as they face one another. Their distinct musical themes (classical for him, “Gotta Get Up” for her) play simultaneously; the fly that appears in his bathroom at every reset appears in hers for the first time. Their lives have merged into one. They have become each other’s mirror, each other’s reflection. (Psst! They’re each other’s constants! Like Lost!) And what a pure celebration of friendship this episode is. Original Nadia vehemently rejected full-on attachment to another being, preferring the live-and-let-live (live-and-let-die?) rapport she enjoyed with Oatmeal, who only sort-of belonged to her. Now, Looping Nadia tells Alan as he contemplates jumping off the roof, “I can promise that you will not be alone.”
They rewrite the code. Not only does Looping Nadia’s concern and companionship dissuade Original Alan from jumping to his original death, but once she has assured him he’ll never be alone, they head downstairs in… an elevator. It’s a smooth ride. Meanwhile, Looping Alan finally convinces Original Nadia to put her trust in him — which necessitates a few tricks up his sleeve, including remembering the precise value of her Krugerrand (aha!) — and likewise prevents her original death by pulling her back onto the sidewalk as a taxi whizzes past. Nadia is stunned that Alan saved her life, tells him she can’t handle this shit, but ultimately returns to him. “It’s wild how they don’t hit you when you look both ways,” she says as she successfully crosses the road.
Both sets of soulmates — Original Alan with Looping Nadia, and Looping Alan with Original Nadia — improbably encounter a dreamlike, uproarious parade, led by Horse. (Horse wears a wedding dress, which is funny considering Alan “proposed” to him earlier. He also wears a deer mask, which is going to drive me bonkers for eternity. Is it supposed to be a bull mask and he’s the minotaur? This show may be driving me insane with conspiracy theories, but I still know the difference between a bull, a horse, and a deer.) Heading toward the parade, the two Alans merge into one another at the middle of the split screen and now there are two Nadias walking side by side. A moment later, they too disappear into the crowd – and then, out of two Nadias walking away comes one marching forward, leading the parade. It’s Looping Nadia, our-timeline Nadia. She is bewildered and beatific. An ecstatic Alan is by her side. The song that plays is called “Alone Again Or.” It’s by a band called Love.