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‘Russian Doll’ Season 1 Recap: Because We Know You Need It

The Natasha Lyonne-starring series premiered more than three years ago

“Russian Doll” — the multi-Emmy-winning series hailing from creators Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland and star Natasha Lyonne — is finally back for Season 2 after a more than three-year pandemic-induced hiatus. The mind-melting show, often compared to “Groundhog Day” in its exploration of a cynical New York City woman’s escapades in an inexplicable time loop, is heady enough without a monthslong break cutting through its storyline. Below, we’re recapping all of the most important highlights from “Russian Doll” Season 1 to get you up to speed before you binge-watch Season 2 on Netflix.

“Staring down the barrel of my own mortality”

Netflix

Episode 1 opens with Nadia (Lyonne) staring intently at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Unbeknownst to her, this will be her beginning point nearly every day for the duration of the season. As she emerges from her sanctuary, an action ironically set to Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” (foreshadowing what’s to come), Nadia makes the typical rounds at her 36th birthday party — that is, greeting a number of loose acquaintances, smoking a cocaine-laced joint and failing to escape her mounting existential dread. (It’s worth noting that the symbolism of the show is ripe: The bathroom door handle is shaped like a revolver, opening after Nadia presses the trigger.)

Soon, we get a clearer picture of Nadia: She’s a freelance software engineer who recently misplaced her cat, Oatmeal. After hitting off with professor Mike (Jeremy Bobb), the two leave the festivities and wander out onto the street, where Nadia thinks she recognizes a houseless man (possibly suggesting that we began following her story after her first turn in the time loop).

A banal trip to the bodega for condoms and “provisions,” where Nadia witnesses the owner Farran’s (Ritesh Rajan) friend have the worst time of his life fighting with bowls of ramen and is grossly hit on by a group of men, turns into a nightcap with Mike. After musing about her eventual death and plans for marriage at 60, she calls him an Uber and moves on with her night. Missing a pack of cigarettes, she heads down to the store once again only to run into her missing cat. Chasing after it, she’s hit by a taxi and dies.

That’s when things start to get weird.

“I think I’m dead.” 

Netflix

Waking up in the bathroom, Nadia dazedly makes her way through the party once more, naturally internally freaking out as she pieces together what happened. She tries to talk to her adopted mother, therapist Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), and opens up further to her ex John (Yul Vazquez) about what’s going on. While the night ends differently — John saves her from the taxi as they look for Oatmeal — she ends up dying anyway, falling off the railing into the Hudson after she realizes her cat has disappeared from her lap. 

“You’re a cockroach.”

Once again waking up in the bathroom — this time, coughing up water — Nadia realizes something is horribly, horribly wrong. She manages to escape the party quickly, now keenly aware of her singular, eerie predicament. Finally making it to another day, she begins retracing her steps, seeking out the help of drug dealer War Dog (Waris Ahluwalia). At her wit’s end, she desperately hopes her friend Maxine’s (Greta Lee) joint is the root of her transdimensional crisis. But before she can get answers, she dies after falling into a trap door. 

Cue “Gotta Get Up” and Lyonne’s impeccable slippery slope performance as her mental stability disintegrates further: Beelining out of the party and confronting War Dog, she discovers that the joint actually contains ketamine, a powerful (sometimes hallucinogenic) anesthetic that can aid in treating depression. But that doesn’t help make sense of her situation either, as a self-proclaimed drug connoisseur who has tried every substance known to man. It doesn’t end up mattering anyway, as the trap door sabotages her again.

“So…you don’t want chicken?”

Netflix

Increasingly unhinged (and understandably so), Nadia attempts to escape her party even faster. In her agitated state, she trips down the stairs to her death — not once, twice or thrice, but a total of four times — each time producing a hilarious and unnerving blend of absurd comical timing and existential dread.

Realizing she’s stuck and seriously considering that she’s experiencing a psychotic break, Nadia gives in and parties the night away. Waking up in the morning, she tries a different approach, seeking Ruth’s counsel. Alluding to Nadia’s late mother’s history with mental illness, Nadia utters a safe word that lets Ruth know she’s in danger. EMT services arrive to take her to a psychiatric hospital, but after a struggle with the pompous male workers, the van crashes and she’s sent back to the beginning.

“Thursday! What a concept.”

Nadia has officially surrendered to time — but that doesn’t mean she’s not looking for clues anywhere and everywhere. Episode 3 opens with the following day as she seeks answers from the congregation that owns the Yeshiva building in which the party took place. Seeking John’s help, the two reconnect only to later fall out over his proposal that they should give their relationship a real chance. Taking to the street (and the bottle), Nadia befriends the houseless man from earlier, Horse (Brendan Sexton III), who gives her a haircut. The two fall asleep outside, huddled together under a thin blanket, and she wakes up in the bathroom after freezing to death. 

Leaving the party to ensure Horse’s safety at a homeless shelter overnight, she makes it to Monday. A freak elevator accident is the cause of her (literal) downfall this time around, but a curious encounter with Alan (Charlie Barnett) — also in the elevator, seconds from dying — opens up another time-bending black box: He dies all the time too.

“No one can do anything by themselves.”

Netflix

The polar opposite to Nadia’s hurricane in human form persona, Alan is a straight-laced obsessive, keeping meticulous track of the number of times he has now “Groundhog Day”-ed. Agonizingly memorizing his routine (his reincarnation theme song is a concerto), he makes his way over to his girlfriend Beatrice’s (Dascha Polanco) apartment, knowing he was going to propose and that she was going to break up with him instead.

Unbeknownst to Alan and Nadia, they have crossed paths before — both on the street and in the bodega (he’s Farran’s friend who was fighting with the soups). Inextricably linked, Alan also discovers that Beatrice has been cheating on him with Mike, the know-it-all, arrogant professor Nadia slept with earlier. Knowing that Alan is all she has, Nadia seeks him out, but the former is too consumed in his own dumpster fire of a life to engage. He lashes out at Mike, attacking him in his office, and throws his engagement ring into the Hudson, only to be electrocuted by an exposed wire. Upon awakening, he notices the ring is still gone. Even more concerning (but something he does not notice), his pet fish has disappeared.

“Yeah, my bathroom doesn’t have a black hole so…”

Netflix

Episode 5 sees Alan acquiesce to joining forces with Nadia in an attempt to figure out what the hell is going on. The two contemplate myriad theories, including that their death loop stems from a geode-like black hole in the bathroom and is the result of “purgatorial punishment” for being immoral. 

As the cursed duo try their best to find a silver lining — Nadia agrees to meet John’s daughter Lucy after previously breaking up his marriage and skipping out on her, while Alan attempts to confront Mike and achieve some semblance of closure — signs of decay abound, as evidenced by Ruth’s bowl of rotting apples. Several deaths later — to be precise, two gas explosions and an accidental shooting for Nadia and a bike accident, car accident and mace-induced asthma attack for Alan — and the two realize they’re dying at the same time. Even worse, they may be unwittingly impacting the people around them.

“We are very unreliable narrators of our own stories.”

Netflix

Nadia, upon finding out that Alan doesn’t recall his first death, seeks Ruth’s advice. While there, the two go deeper into issues of mental health; Ruth recounts an incident with Nadia’s mother, where she shattered all of the mirrors in the house and left a young Nadia with shards of glass in her hair. Alan, it’s revealed, also has deeply rooted fears of therapy and of being deemed “crazy.”

After dying from countless stings from a rogue hive of honeybees, the duo decide to retrace his steps. As they recreate Alan’s night getting drunk at a bar, Nadia opens up about her mother, who she reveals wasted the totality of her college fund. Later, they have (sloppy, awkward) sex. When delivering Alan’s shoes to Horse and taking him to the bodega, Nadia realizes Alan and she crossed paths that fateful first night. Returning home, she finds Alan has resurfaced her mother’s mementos from underneath her bed, prompting her to kick him out. 

As the world continues to collapse upon itself — aside from the rotting fruit and flowers, the next time the pair wake up there are no mirrors around them — Alan recounts that his first death was by suicide.

“A bug in the code”

Just as Nadia realizes how to break free from their macabre hellscape, the nouns around her and Alan — namely, people and objects — start disappearing with alarming alacrity. The duo set a plan to recreate their first meeting at the bodega, where they were passersby who failed to help each other avoid certain death, in order to reset linear time. 

Season 1’s penultimate episode — spliced with flashbacks of Nadia’s tumultuous childhood featuring her mother Lenora (Chloë Sevigny) in various manic episodes — sees the current version of Nadia confronted by her younger self popping up all over the place. The paradox invariably leads to her death via a heart attack, and in a particularly disturbing meeting, her younger self opens her mouth only for a healthy stream of blood to pour out.

“This aching, gnawing feeling of being an absolute failure”

Netflix

Alan, realizing both of them are on borrowed time, finally goes to seek closure with Beatrice, lamenting his blasé treatment of their relationship and life itself. Meanwhile, Nadia confronts a misguided yet long-held sense of guilt that she single-handedly brought about her mother’s death by implicitly choosing to live with Ruth. As a result, she’s been living to extremes, clearly disregarding the value of her own existence. 

Deciding to make amends with Lucy, Nadia gifts her a book. However, it’s only a matter of time before she begins bleeding, choking out a piece of glass reminiscent of the shards produced during one of her mother’s episodic outbursts in her younger years.

“Life is like a box of timelines”

At the beginning of the Season 1 finale, everything seemingly resets — mirrors and people abound. With one last shot, Alan and Nadia seek each other out, hoping to put an end to the time loop once and for all. To their mutual horror, however, they each encounter the other in the initial — and therefore wholly incorrect — timeline, prior to their meeting and eventual fatalistic friendship. 

Despite this, their persistence with each other eventually leads to trust, and both manage to successfully rescue the other from their respective ends. In one final shot, the two timelines merge as the pair stumble upon a carnival led by Horse, indicating their triumph over certain cyclical death. But just before the final curtain call, the audience sees flashes of two red-headed curly-haired women pass by Nadia, possibly suggesting that the timeline has wildly destabilized, which is likely to be explored in some form in Season 2. 

A visual treatise on mental illness and breaking cycles — whether it be related to generational trauma or debilitating feelings of inadequacy — “Russian Doll” Season 2 will pick up four years following Alan and Nadia’s successful escape from the time loop. This go around, they will face off against a time portal, and judging by new cast member Annie Murphy’s anachronistic look, it’s sure to be — as Lyonne puts it — “deeply off-the-wall.”

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