In the Loop: Russian Doll

It’s a joke now that we’ve all been repeating the same day over and over for more than a year now. I had been thinking about this and also my unapologetic love of time loop movies.

Welcome to In the Loop, a project where I will write about time loop movies (and on occasion, TV shows) once a week.

Note: I will be writing about all of these movies as if you’ve seen them, so spoilers ahead!

Russian Doll (2019, created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler)

  • Time until the loop begins: 9 minutes
  • The cause of the loop/inciting incident: Nadia and Alan’s failure to help each other
  • Number of time loops: 22
  • Lessons learned: We can’t go through life alone

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In the first episode of Russian Doll, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) gets drunk, smokes a joint laced with cocaine, and ditches the 36th birthday party thrown in her honor by her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) to go have sex with a man she just met. Typically in most time loop narratives, these would all be examples of Nadia’s self-destructive tendencies that she’ll unlearn on the path to becoming a better person.

But Russian Doll is smarter than that. Nadia is already pretty good to begin with. It is, as the title alludes to, about removing the layers of personality to find one’s hidden vulnerabilities.

Nadia could be incredibly obnoxious but Lyonne gives her such charm and compassion. She’s your exhausting friend that you love anyway. There’s a warmth to her Nadia, combined with Lyonne’s wild red hair and huge eyes, that gives her an almost childlike quality without making her seem girlish. She’s funny and playful and while she may be an unapologetic mess, she’s also confident and driven. I also appreciate how she immediately starts to do things differently, quickly figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.

For the first three episodes, as Nadia runs around trying to figure out what is causing her to repeatedly die and return to life, the show does go along an expected time loop pace, but the twist — so much that there is one — is that Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a man who is caught in the time loop with her.

Alan’s basically been reliving his worst day (11 times when they first meet). He’s going to propose to his girlfriend, Beatrice, but instead, she breaks up with him. Alan mostly does the same thing over and over — he still goes to his girlfriend’s apartment, despite knowing the outcome. Meeting Nadia pulls him out of that pattern.

Nadia and Alan aren’t necessarily the sort who would be friends in normal circumstances and the show doesn’t force them into a romance, but their connection is a human one and that’s the point. They initially saw each other before the loop began — Nadia was drunk and taking home a man from her party and Alan was drunk and sad — but Nadia didn’t stop to help Alan, despite wanting to (she decided to tell off some Wall Street bros instead).

Nadia, for her part, is haunted by the guilt she feels over her mother’s mental illness and death (by the seventh episode, she’s literally seeing an image of herself as a child). Alan was also depressed before the time loop started (as it turns out, his first death was by suicide). While Nadia’s consoled by Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) that she was not responsible for her mother and takes tentative steps in owning up to her own behavior with regard to her ex, John (Yul Vazquez), there are no easy fixes here. Alan is also only cautious when it comes to taking ownership of his own mental state. The time loop may have revealed more of who Nadia and Alan are to themselves but it’s only the beginning of change.

As the loops progress, things (and people!) start disappearing. This show never hits the metaphor too hard, but it’s definitely about stripping away what does and does not matter (Maxine is left as the lone party guest at Nadia’s birthday in a particularly haunting sequence).

By the last episode, the timeline has split again and Nadia and Alan encounter the pre-loop versions of each other. Of course, they’re going to convince the pre-loop versions and save them from their fates, but it culminates with the slow rumble of magic that’s been throughout the show in the background — for instance, is Horse (Brendan Sexton III)  just a homeless man or is he more?). Will both versions of Nadia and Alan be friends now? Does it matter? It’s enough they found a way to connect. They have more than one future ahead of them and that can be whatever future they want.

Next week on June 22: Run Lola Run

In the Loop logo by Sarah Burnett. If you’d like to support this project, buy one of my Polaroids.