Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread so that he might slay the Minotaur and retrace his steps out of the labyrinth. Russian Doll (2019), created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, is a labyrinthine story all about retracing steps and battling the Minotaurs of the past. Protagonists Nadia (coder, “lady with a death wish”) and Alan (gamer, despondent lover) get stuck in a time loop that has been compared to Groundhog Day but is really more like a video game, with a dwindling set of extra lives and an entropic world raining accidents upon them. Together they search the past for their fatal error, the secret door that might lead them out of the decaying labyrinth and into the rest of their lives.
The show’s elegant structure reaches an apex in the season finale “Ariadne,” written and directed by Lyonne. Nadia finds herself once again in a black bathroom with Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” playing; Alan is back in his white bathroom, against a Beethoven rondo. This time, to their delight, they find the damage of previous cycles repaired, the world restored. In split screen, and then in alternating scenes, Nadia rushes to Alan’s apartment, while Alan heads out to find Nadia. Their paths finally cross, as they were always going to, in the bodega where they first saw each other.
Right then, their joy shatters, for the Alan Nadia sees is not the Alan she knows, and vice versa. They have exited the labyrinth, but into different worlds. Their task is not to escape the loop, but to save the other as the lost stranger they originally were.
There’s a lot to admire about Russian Doll, from its clever use of video game rhythms to its surprisingly humane sense of morality. The ending is perfect: all the intricate plotting releases into the joyful noise of carnival. Both pairs of Nadia and Alan happen upon an ad hoc street festival led by their homeless neighbor, Horse, and his costumed friends. In that moment, the split screens converge, the parallel worlds collapse, and a riot of selves pass each other by.
Caroline Hovanec teaches English at the University of Tampa. She enjoys reading, looking at birds, and watching TV, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation.