'Russian Doll' Bosses on How That "Haunting" Finale Sets Up Season 2 (and Beyond)

Natasha Lyonne and Leslye Headland speak to The Hollywood Reporter about their mind-bending Netflix dark comedy and why they hope it lingers with viewers long after the eight-episode binge.
Courtesy of Netflix
Natasha Lyonne in 'Russian Doll'

[This story contains spoilers from the season finale of Netflix's Russian Doll.]

By the time Russian Doll ends, Nadia's catchy theme song might still be playing on loop in viewers' heads. But Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up" is far from the only element of Russian Doll that will be hard to shake once Natasha Lyonne's character finally finds what she's been searching for and gets a second chance at life.

In between those two chances, Nadia (Lyonne) had countless opportunities to re-do the night she died — by dying again and again and re-starting her 36th birthday party, across many timelines, planes or parallel universes in downtown Manhattan. In the end, Nadia and Alan (Charlie Barnett) realized they first met on that fateful night of Nadia's birthday before Nadia was run over by a cab and Alan took his own life after his girlfriend (Dascha Polanco) turned down his marriage proposal. After spending the final episodes dealing with the trauma in each of their lives, they agreed to die one more time so they could go back to where they first crossed paths at the neighborhood bodega, but didn't take advantage of the small window they had to save one another. This time, they would interfere and set a new life course in the one timeline that matters.

"What I want is for one person to feel a little less alone, and a little bit like they’re OK and it’s OK and you can keep showing up to fight another day," Lyonne tells The Hollywood Reporter of how to interpret her existential adventure.

When Alan arrived, his existence became the key to solving Russian Doll. Nadia was no longer alone in her death time looping and Alan, serving as the perfect foil to Nadia and how she lives her life harboring a death wish, helped the protagonist solve her existential conundrum. Alan and Nadia are intrinsically and inexplicably linked to one another — when one of them dies, the other dies at the same time — and saving each other could break their purgatorial loops.

But when the pair went back one last time, they realized they were separated by the magical realism at the center of the show. The finale played out in two parallel timelines so both Nadia and Alan could confront their personal traumas in one, while saving each other in another. For Alan, that meant forgiving Beatrice (Polanco) and owning up to his flaws in the relationship; and for Nadia, that meant letting go of the guilt she has long carried over her mother's (played by Lyonne's close friend Chloe Sevigny) untimely death. It was only once they accomplished those tasks that their timelines merged, and they were able to walk off — together — amid a parade full of characters they've come across and ghosts they are now leaving behind. The versions left standing were the all-knowing Nadia and Alan, the ones who had gone through all of the time loops of Russian Doll and had emerged stronger and fulfilled.

Thinking of Alan and Nadia as each other's guardian angels is a "beautiful" way to look at Russian Doll, says Barnett. "They are that for each other as much as anyone walking down the street can be for you," he tells THR. "For Alan in the final scene, there’s a new air, a new breath that comes through and that’s from this relationship and experience with Nadia. He has a new outlook. As far as where that street leads, it doesn’t have an end. It’s like life, there’s always going to be something ahead."

Lyonne, who has been working on Russian Doll with co-creators Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland for the last seven years, built the high-concept premise of Russian Doll around many truths in her own life. The idea of wanting to self-destruct and then forming an accidental connection "feels very true to my experience around deciding to become a participating member of life," she had told THR of the themes of the story.

Now, she elaborates on how that theme is realized in the end. "In the '60s, you would see people dropping like flies at 27 and you felt, 'Oh that must be a drug thing,'" says Lyonne. "But as you move into modern times, we’re realizing that it’s very adult and very accomplished people who find that life is simply too much to bear. That’s a very real thing that we need to remove a cloak of shame around. I think we need to be discussing freely and openly the underlying brokenness of the human experience."

She continues, "We do a lot of worshipping false idols as a society, whether it’s the idea of a perfect job or relationship or body, or whatever. At the same time, there is so much incessant crazy shit happening that is so unjust in the news that is impossible to reconcile, and makes you feel very selfish for even trying to have goals in this life when you see the way the world is falling apart all the time. That whole discussion needs to be fair game to hold as part of our reality on a daily basis that we’re not afraid to talk about. And very much when I think about how we’re all watching Russian Doll."

Russian Doll was influenced by the personal experiences of its co-creators and saw a character fighting for an existential goal. "She really is like, 'What’s wrong with me?' And to ask that question truthfully is just something that women I do not think have access to," Headland had summed up to THR. Now, when speaking about the entire season, the writer and director sheds light on how the room attempted to answer that lofty question.

"A reference that Natasha brought up early on and one we kept alive during the writers room was All That Jazz — a montage of your life kind of thing," Headland tells THR. "The different choices that you’ve made and whether the choices would have made any difference. Are you making the same choices and getting different results, or are you changing your choices and still getting the same results? The main thrust in the writers room was about, what’s happening to this character emotionally and spiritually? And then, how does the narrative device, the magical realism of this, support that case? How does it challenge what this character thinks she already knows about herself and what she knows about life? And then, how do we push her into the next level?"

Headland, Lyonne and the writers broke the show by "loops," instead of episodes, which were secondary. "We designed Russian Doll to be binged, so we looked at it as loops and, what does she learn each loop that changes her worldview and, what did she learn last loop that she is or isn’t going to do this time?" Headland explains.

That required the writers to come up with two charts to map out the story and keep track of what was needed from every department when it came to shooting scenes. A vertical chart listed the loops (denoted as Loop A, B, C, etc. and then Loop AA, BB, CC, etc.) and a horizontal chart kept track of the time of day and what time frame the loop was happening. "It’s different lives happening over and over again so, like the levels of a video game, these things have to be recreated and very thoughtfully changed based on what happened in the previous loop," says Headland, rattling off an example like how Loop CC denotes a specific outfit for Barnett. "Things are starting to move, different choices were made so things are starting to disappear; flowers and living things are starting to die or appear to die. It's not just one day. We’re not back in the same moment with exactly all the same things are happening. There were more dimensions that we were considering."

That reasoning is also why Nadia, who has her own pop-culture arsenal, never references Groundhog Day. "You want this world to exist on its own without too much commenting on it, so to speak," says Headland.

As for how she hopes the audience will interpret the ending, Headland says that the co-creators had a three-pronged approach. "It’s important for the audience to go away with this feeling, it’s important that we stick the landing, and that we have the right amount of exposition here to explain the theory of relativity," she says with a laugh. She then adds, "I’m reluctant to say, 'This was my thought on it,' because I don’t think it matters."

Headland continues, "I always saw this show specifically as a ghost story. This person is haunted by something and what we’re going to do is that we’re going to watch her escape that and make peace with that." Headland says Russian Doll was her own psychological version of her favorite film, The Shining. "What happens in that movie is that you’re repeating the same behavior over and over again. It’s the same day over and over again, the only thing that’s changing is an impending sense of doom, which is that you’re being snowed in," she explains. "Your ability to escape and window to freedom is getting smaller and smaller. And it ultimately ends up that the most destructive part of you is hunting down the youngest most imaginative, beautiful part of you and having to face each other. If there was one thing that I would add to peoples’ experience of Russian Doll, it would be that it’s a little bit more of a haunting."

Lyonne, who has referred to Nadia as genderless, also wanted to open the conversation around what it means to have a female protagonist or a female-driven show. The result of Russian Doll's all-female writing and directing team was that the co-creators were able to write their own experiences into the story and work among a level of creative trust, one without pushback.

"I think, for all of us, we want to get to tell our perspective and how we see things. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve always been a bit of an outlier and indie figure, but I feel a very personal connection to the people and young women in particular that even care and watch my stuff," says Lyonne of who she is hoping to attract. "I hope they can feel like there are a lot of different types of women out there. We’re asking a lot of interesting questions like, what is gender? What is sexuality? My goal would be to say, 'Hey, there’s also another alternate option.' One that isn't the historically gendered idea of what we think. My only goal would be to open up the space, open up that door."

During Nadia's final encounter with the homeless man in Tompkins Square Park (Brendan Sexton III), she tells him, "We got time, we finally got time." As Russian Doll's finale fades to black, it begs the question: What happens to Nadia, and Alan, from here? Lyonne, Poehler and Headland pitched Russian Doll as a three-season series to Netflix and now, speaking to THR, both Lyonne and Headland say they hope to do more. 

"We definitely pitched it as this three-season idea and yet it’s so interesting to think about how that shapes and morphs in the time since making it," says Lyonne. "Who knows if we’ll be lucky enough to go back down the rabbit hole. That’s tomorrow’s question. But I think we have some ideas."

She elaborates, "What’s such a good thing not only about this show but about the state of present-day television is that it can be so many things. I definitely have ideas that range from the really out-there anthology to staying on board with our friend Nadia. And maybe it’s all one idea. Certainly, what we pitched and the heart and soul of Russian Doll, I’d love to continue to get to work in that way. It’s very satisfying and kind of wild. I guess this is what they mean by Peak TV, that the creators are getting to actually make the things that for some crazy reason, the buyers and viewers are actually interested in and that those two things are suddenly aligned. The idea that they would conceivably follow us on that course, should we jump off that cliff, it's pretty fun to even consider the fantasy."

Should Russian Doll continue with a second season, would it follow Nadia or is her story too neatly wrapped? Are there others out there, beyond Nadia and Alan, and could they haunt those people next? Headland says the trio have discussed all of those possibilities, and many, many more, and they involve Nadia remaining somehow as the heart of Russian Doll.

"We all have more to tell as artists," says Headland, careful to not divulge too many details. "When initially pitched, Nadia was a presence throughout all three of them. But it was not in a very conventional way, if that makes sense. She was always a presence, as we knew Lyonne would always be the beating heart and soul of this show. Whether she was being haunted or she was haunting the narrative, she would be there."

Headland adds that while they would love to do more, the renewal will depend on the audience response. "We learned a lot doing that first season — things we could not have known the first time we pitched this — and I think there’s a lot to be done there and I think it could be really fun." Either way, her biggest hope for Russian Doll is that the series lingers in the minds of those who binged it, much like "Gotta Get Up," the song that was picked by Lyonne herself since they wrote the pilot.

"What I love leaving an audience with, and something I think we really did do here, is a feeling both of unease and a sense of narrative fulfillment," says Headland. "There’s this lingering feeling of: 'I’m not quite sure about how I feel about what I just saw. And as a result, that means that I will be a little bit haunted by this story in my own life.' That’s what I always hope for. I just want to haunt your house for a little while and I want to remain in the chamber of your mind for as long as I can. And even if that means that you never think about it again until 25 years from now, and you say, 'Oh my God, that show Russian Doll,' then we’ve done our job as far as I’m concerned."

She continues, "What’s interesting about the show is that, as much as it might resemble a famous '90s comedy; as much as it might have a mystery-box show element to it, as much as it deals with time and time travel; the deeper and deeper into trauma and the coding of who we are as humans, and especially as women, and whether or not that’s something you can change. With all of that stuff, you hopefully can watch the show and take away a bunch of different things."