What Is Russian Doll Actually About?

The spectacular new Netflix series is packed with twists and clues that help demystify its true meaning.

Alan (Charlie Barnett) and Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) in 'Russian Doll'
Charlie Barnett and Natasha Lyonne star in Russian Doll. (Netflix)

This article contains spoilers through all eight episodes of Russian Doll.

In the third episode of Russian Doll, “A Warm Body,” Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) tries to investigate the spiritual significance of her ongoing deaths, having already considered (and rejected) the idea that she’s simply having a bad drug trip. Her attempts to consult a rabbi are blocked by the rabbi’s resolute assistant (Tami Sagher), but after Nadia eventually wears down Sagher’s character with her tenacity and her confessions about uterine fibroids, the woman offers Nadia a prayer. It translates, she says, as “Angels are all around us.”

Nadia rolls her eyes at this offering, the kind of cozy sentiment that’s more typically encountered on fridge magnets and embroidered throw pillows. A few scenes later, though, she’s compelled to spend a night guarding a homeless man’s shoes so he won’t leave the shelter and freeze to death. Then she meets another man, Alan (Charlie Barnett), in an elevator, and he upends the show entirely when it’s revealed that he dies repeatedly, too, just like she does. It’s entirely possible that the scene in the rabbi’s office is just an entertaining interlude, or a way to divert suspicions that the building that Nadia keeps being resurrected in is in some way meaningful. But the prayer also sets up an idea that reverberates throughout the episodes to come: Every person has the potential to make a profound difference in another person’s life, angel or not.

Russian Doll could just as easily be titled Onion, because the layers of the new Netflix series feel endless. Your interpretation of whether it’s primarily about addiction, trauma, video-game narratives, existential questions about the construction of the universe, the imperative of human connection, the redeeming power of pets, or the purgatorial experience will likely depend on your own formative life experiences. Somehow, though, Russian Doll manages to be about all these things and more, weaving myriad themes and cultural references into a tight three-and-a-half-hour running time. What starts out feeling like a zany homage to Groundhog Day ends up being darker, deeper, and much more complex as the show moves forward, with clues and references that often reward closer attention.

One of the most straightforward threads of Russian Doll considers addiction. Lyonne, who co-created the series with the playwright Leslye Headland and the actor and producer Amy Poehler, has spoken about how parts of the story were inspired by her own history with drugs, even if the series isn’t specifically autobiographical. Throughout the show Nadia binges on drugs and alcohol, usually after a climactic emotional confrontation she wants to avoid thinking about. Every time she dies and returns to the loft bathroom where her story repeatedly reboots, viewers hear the same song, Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”—a work that speaks about wanting to move beyond partying, recorded by an artist whose own addictions contributed to his early death at 52. And a bravura sped-up scene in the second episode alludes darkly to Nadia’s self-destruction when it shows her inhaling from a pipe that’s in the shape of a gun—just like the door handle of the bathroom she keeps returning to.

The cyclical structure of the show also feels like a metaphor for addiction, and for Nadia’s habit of repeating the same patterns of behavior over and over. Her “emergency” code word that she shares with her aunt Ruth is record player—yet more imagery of an object spinning round and round. But Russian Doll makes it clear, too, that Nadia is emotionally wounded, and that she self-medicates with drugs and alcohol as a way to try to paper over the trauma in her past. (As the rabbi puts it, “Buildings aren’t haunted. People are.”) Nor is she unique in doing so: In the second episode, when she seeks out a drug dealer by invoking the spectacular passion project Jodorowsky’s Dune, one of the chemists she meets tells her he’s been “working on this new thing to help people with depression,” i.e., joints spiked with ketamine.

All this context is further unfurled in the seventh episode, which features flashbacks to Nadia’s childhood spent with her mentally ill mother (Chloë Sevigny). As her loops get less and less stable, Nadia’s trauma and guilt begin to manifest in the form of herself as a child. During that time, she tells Alan, “things with my mom were not good.” Her confrontation with herself is the most obvious representation of the enduring pain she continues to carry as an adult, but others are more subtle. In the third episode, long before Sevigny’s character has been introduced, Nadia holds coffee and a carton of sliced watermelon in one hand—a nod to the memory in a later episode of Nadia’s mother obsessively buying watermelons in a bodega. In the sixth, Nadia gives Horse (Brendan Sexton III) the last gold sovereign from her Holocaust-survivor grandparents, telling him that the necklace, her only inheritance, is “too heavy.”

The question of exactly what’s happening to Nadia—and, later, to Alan—is one of the most intriguing parts of Russian Doll’s story. Nadia’s ongoing loops of existence, in which her reality gets smaller and smaller as people and things begin to disappear, mimic the structure of a matryoshka, better known as the Russian nesting dolls of the show’s title. But they also mimic the structure of video games, in which characters die repeatedly and return to the most recent point at which a player has pressed “save.” Nadia, a video-game developer, briefly goes to work in the second episode, where she fixes a bug in code she’s written that keeps a character suspended in time rather than animated. Later, after she meets Alan, they discuss a game she once helped design that he insists is impossible to complete. “You created an unsolvable game with a single character who has to solve entirely everything on her own,” he tells her. She counters that the game is actually solvable, only to find that, like Alan, she keeps falling into a trap and dying before she completes it.

The theory that Nadia’s ongoing loops are part of a simulation her brain has created to help her process her trauma and “complete” her recovery is an enticing one. (In several of her deaths, Nadia falls down an open sidewalk cellar door that resembles the firepit her game character repeatedly perishes in.) This thesis is complicated midway through the series, though, by Alan, a stranger whose fate somehow seems inexplicably tied to Nadia’s. Alan, in many ways, is Nadia’s polar opposite, the yin to her yang. She’s unfettered, chaotic, messy, outspoken, commitment-phobic; he’s buttoned-up, obsessive-compulsive, repressed, intent on proposing. The pets that both characters are attached to—a park-dwelling bodega cat and a loner fish enclosed in a tank—feel like external representations of their inner selves.

On the night that Alan and Nadia first meet, while she’s buying condoms in the bodega and he’s apparently smashing containers of marinara sauce, Alan has decided to end his life. Nadia later concludes that her failure to help him in this moment causes some kind of rupture, or a “bug in the code,” that splits their reality into an ongoing loop of different paths. Their fates are irrevocably entwined, and the only way for the pair to break out of the cycle is to try to help each other. As an explanation for everything that’s happened in the show so far, a rupture in the space-time continuum is both plausibly scientific and oddly spiritual. Nadia and Alan, brought together as two halves, form one entity that sparks a powerful reaction, trapping them within parallel threads of existence until they manage to save each other. Both, without schmaltz, become the other’s guardian angel in the final episode, when they’re separated and placed in two different loops.

In Alan’s version of reality, he goes to Nadia’s party, makes amends with her friend Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson) for an ongoing feud involving mastiff puppies (the emotional power of pets, again), and is given a scarf containing “good karma.” In Nadia’s timeline, her friend Max (Greta Lee) throws a drink on Nadia, then gives her a clean white shirt to wear. In the final scene, as two pairs of Nadia-and-Alans meet at a parade, they walk past each other and disappear, leaving the sentient Alan (in his scarf) and the sentient Nadia (in the white shirt) together, reunited.

Multiple questions are left hanging in the air, naturally. How does this conclusive ending fit into a supposed three-season plan? Are the multiple Nadias in gray coats seen in the midst of the parade a sign that there are multiple planes of reality running alongside one another beyond the time loops? Are the references to Dolores Huerta and the similarity of the parade to Bread and Puppet Theater protests signs of Russian Doll’s progressive politics? Is there any spiritual hope for the slimy academic, Mike (Jeremy Bobb)? Will Nadia ever make it to breakfast with her bruised ex, John (Yul Vazquez), and his daughter?

One of my favorite moments in Russian Doll comes right near the end, when Nadia banters for a brief moment with Alan’s elderly neighbor. He chastises her for smoking, telling her that his wife died of lung cancer. She says something about life being a box of timelines. They both seem charmed by each other. The scene doesn’t serve any enduring purpose or offer any heightened meaning. But it represents a moment of connection with a stranger—the kind of connection that, for Alan and Nadia, becomes the essence of everything.