This will probably sound counterintuitive given the hectic opening and mindfuck closing of the penultimate episode of Russian Doll season two, but “Schrödinger’s Ruth” presents an opportunity to catch our breath, to step back and take in the big picture before the finale. That feels necessary, considering this go-round is one installment shy of the last. Also the first three minutes of this episode see Nadia giving birth to herself as her mother, Nora, while Alan’s grandmother Agnes and a gaggle of subway riders look on — so, you know, it’s probably best if we don’t rush through things.
“Schrödinger’s Ruth” shares the propulsive action of its predecessor, “The Way Out,” as well as a poignant revelation about the Nadia-Ruth relationship. But as season two unfolded, Ruth was gradually pushed to the periphery, waiting in the wings as Nadia insisted on going on this journey of self-discovery (mostly) on her own. And this really has been much more of a solo outing for Nadia and series star and multi-hyphenate Natasha Lyonne. Sure, Alan was skeptical of “taking the 6 train into my mom,” but even once he was on board, Nadia pushed him away because he wasn’t as eager to mess with the past as she was. Well, maybe “pushed” is too forceful a phrase — more like she left him behind as she ventured further and further into the past, convinced she could alter her family’s history enough to change her mother and grandmother’s future. (Or is it present? Whatever, it’s all the past now.)
Alan isn’t the only one left behind: Until the penultimate episode, Lizzie’s role had been hardly more than a cameo. Maxine’s had a greater presence this season, but that was mostly due to her gameness for an impromptu trip to Europe. This hasn’t entirely been intentional on Nadia’s part; I don’t think she meant to push her friends out of her life, but her obsession with fixing the past has left room for little else. She might be telling herself that she can focus on her present-day relationships once she’s sorted through her own “issues,” that she’ll be better equipped for them or just “better.” Isn’t that what so many self-help books and reality-TV host catchphrases push on audiences? This notion that you’ve first got to get right with yourself before you can do right by others — or, less generously, that you have to make yourself worthy of love first, even though progress (and the world of Russian Doll) doesn’t move in such a linear way?
The first season suggested we’re all works in progress, and it was a lesson Nadia seemed to have learned along with realizing that she doesn’t have to go through any of this alone. But Russian Doll has never been strictly linear, either, so it looks as if Nadia’s getting a refresher course. I don’t necessarily mind this underlining of themes, though it ultimately leaves little room for anything but Nadia’s narrative. The increasingly singular focus is likely intentional: Last season, Alan described Nadia as the “most selfish person” he’d ever met, and Maxine said she embraced Nadia’s flaws because they made her feel “superior.” Nadia also spent a huge chunk of her adolescence and some of her adulthood on her own, so it would probably take more than four years to learn to let people help you.
As Nadia herself said in the premiere, “There’s no witnesses. There’s nobody who’s been there since the beginning. It’s only Ruth.” I initially interpreted that to mean that no one in Nadia’s life has been there since the beginning but Ruth came the closest. But “Schrödinger’s Ruth” shows that Ruth was actually there the moment Nadia first entered this world — on the platform for the 6 train, surrounded by strangers as well as her grandmother and Delia. Now I wonder if Nadia was saying Ruth is the only person who has been there from the beginning. Season one didn’t establish just how long Ruth had been in Nadia’s life, though she obviously took on a much more significant role around 1991 (the year given for the Nora-centered flashback in “The Way Out”). So it’s possible she’s always been there, which means the question might now be if Future Nadia’s (that is, 2022 Nadia’s) meddling led to Ruth being present for her birth.
It’s difficult to trace the ripples created by Nadia’s actions. In season one, Nadia’s live-die-repeat cycle was heralded by the extended absence of Oatmeal. All the times she and Alan died and reset affected the world around them — fruit rotted from the outside only, fish and people began to disappear, etc. Nadia’s tinkering with her timeline (and Nora’s and Vera’s) really begins to manifest in “Schrödinger’s Ruth,” no doubt because of her traveling with her infant self to the present day. When Nadia tells Lizzy that “time is collapsing,” she’s not being glib. People from different eras are popping up all over the place. Alan walks past his 2019 self — inebriated, natch — and 2019 Ferran meets Ferran’s dad, who died three years ago.
Nadia can’t quite grasp the consequences of deciding that the best mother for herself is … herself. When she returns to 2022 with baby Nadia, she gets a barrage of texts including birthday wishes (hi, John!), a reminder from Ruth about their backgammon-and-Bogart night, and an urgent message from Maxine telling her to call. Nadia arrives at Lenox Hill again … and again … and again, encountering the Ruth of a couple weeks ago, the Ruth who was getting ready to be discharged, and the Ruth who expels smoke from her lungs. No matter where she turns, she can’t find the Ruth she expected to see. The Ruth who may no longer be.
Nadia also doesn’t know what day it is; she’s told it’s March 22 but believes it’s March 30. Is her disorientation a result of her latest (and biggest) time “tweak,” or has she spent weeks traveling to the past? Russian Doll’s never spelled this out, and it’s not likely to do so with only one episode left and yet another paradox to resolve. This is all troubling enough, but again, the consequences of her actions haven’t really sunk in yet. She knows something is off with Ruth, but now there’s also something wrong with literally everything else in the world.
When Nadia leaves the hospital with baby Nadia in search of Alan, it’s because she can’t bear to think of what’s happened to Ruth, so it’s better to let her live in the quantum state hinted at by the episode’s title. Despite her inability to change anything about the past, she believes she can do something about whatever’s happened to Ruth. And, I mean, of course she thinks that — she just gave birth to herself then brought her infant self into the present, after all. Anything can happen when the 6 train takes you into the past and across the Atlantic.
But this might be too great a loss for Nadia to understand. Ruth is the “only one who’s been there since the beginning,” the one whose words were a balm and a rallying cry in season one. When Nadia despaired that she caused Nora’s death because she secretly wanted to live with Ruth, her godmother reassured her, “You wanted to live. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.” Her gentle question — “Where is that gorgeous piece of you pushing to be a part of this world?” — elicited one of Nadia’s greatest displays of vulnerability. Time and again, Ruth has been there for Nadia, and for the past four years, Nadia has sought to return that favor. Now she feels as if she abandoned Ruth when her godmother needed her most. At least she’ll feel that way when she allows herself to even consider that Ruth is gone.
Because of the groundwork laid in season one and Lyonne and Elizabeth Ashley’s exceptionally moving performances, the audience already feels Ruth’s loss. Annie Murphy has done some fine work as well, but Ruth’s backstory is spotty at best. We never learned how she and Nora met and became friends or how she spent any of the intervening years between Nadia’s birth and the present day. Like Alan in season two, Ruth mostly exists in service of Nadia’s story. We’re about to see how Nadia reacts to that realization, but more broadly speaking, giving these key characters short shrift has undercut some of this season’s emotional resonance.
A Krugerrand for Your Thoughts
• Maxine’s always been a bit more caustic toward Nadia, but her “over-under on whether Nadia showing up at all” remark is mean even for her.
• I guess we now know what links Alan and Nadia — his grandmother was on the subway platform the day Nadia was born, which I suppose is also the reason the 6 train serves as a time machine for them?
• Episode writer Cirocco Dunlap also penned “Alan’s Routine,” and I wish she’d been able to delve into his reactions to not being able to help Lenny. We saw how Nora started to alter Nadia’s personality; how did Agnes’s mind affect her grandson’s?
• “All my mother gave me was a subway token and an eating disorder.” Now we have context for both of these things: the former refers to being born in a subway station (though Nadia probably didn’t remember that), and the latter probably alludes to all the watermelon.