Why is Ariadne important to Russian Doll?
Ariadne is a character from Greek Myths who is name-checked twice during the first season of Russian Doll:
- The name of the video game Nadia designed. In Episode 6 Alan sums up the game’s experience as such: “You created an impossible game with a single character who has to solve everything entirely on her own. It’s stupid.” Nadia tries to play the game and she can’t even beat it.
- The Episode 8 title of Russian Doll. This is the final episode of the season, and the video game does not appear. The title reflects something other than the literal.
These two pivotal points—and their placement within the season’s plot structure—show that Ariadne’s original myth is the framework for the show’s first season.
Ariadne is intertwined with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur
The myth begins with Minos striving to become king. He achieved his rise to power because Poseidon granted him a favor: a sea bull, that Minos was supposed to return once he gained the throne he desired. Except Minos liked the bull so much he kept it. Poseidon got mad at the mortal’s broken promise and cursed Minos’ wife Pasiphae to fall in love with a bull. It was a “you love it so much, why doesn’t your wife mate with it” kind of move. Pasiphae fell in love immediately with a normal bull, and Minos had no choice but to accept her lust as a real thing.
Daedalus was tasked to make a mating machine, and in true myth fashion Pasiphae became pregnant with a son. The Minotaur–complete with a man’s body and head of a bull—was that son. Minos once again called on Daedalus to create a place where the Minotaur could be hidden and kept safe from revealing the family’s shame. This place was the labyrinth.
At the point Theseus enters the myth, Ariadne—the daughter of Pasiphae and Minos, and therefore the half-sister of the Minotaur on their mother’s side—was staying in the labyrinth with the Minotaur. Theseus arrived and she created a thread of glittering jewels so he could find his way out after defeating the Minotaur. And in return, Theseus needed to take Ariadne with him and marry her.
Nadia is Ariadne
Nadia’s video game version of Ariadne had a main character who was trying to escape a labyrinth without any need for a hero. Because she’s a tough lady who can do it by herself, thank you very much. The Ariadne video game appears to be a metaphor for how she lives her life: stuck in a labyrinth away from people, trying to win the game alone. The game reflects Nadia’s lifestyle and outlook at the beginning of Russian Doll before she’d entered—or learned anything from—her quantum existential crisis.
Ariadne’s main character has no choice but to fall into pits. The first episodes of Russian Doll have Nadia falling constantly as well: into pits, down stairs, an elevator. Nadia’s life appears to be reflecting her art. The time loops are the structure of Nadia’s labyrinth, and she keeps losing lives. She’s getting lost in her life as easily as she could in a maze, and—just like a person who doesn’t have a thread to find their way out—she’s so lost that she can’t navigate through the particular juncture of crisis which is her 36th birthday. Her life beyond 36 years old is impossible because it’s just outside the confines of the labyrinth.
And just like Ariadne is an unbeatable game, it appears Nadia can’t turn 36 even if there’s a roomful of people attending a party “for her.” I get the distinct impression her birthday is just an excuse for those folks to have a party. They have plenty of fun whether she’s in the room or not, after all. Only Maxine–the woman putting on the party for her–is there for her for real, as we see later on when even the mirror starts disappearing. And even Maxine regularly seems to have it up to here with Nadia’s attitude. Nadia alienates people even if they want to help her.
Creating a game such as she did suggests to me at least part of Nadia knows she’s stuck in a labyrinth. Part of her is trying to cope and escape just as much as she’s trying to avoid getting on a Minotaur’s bad side.
Trauma is the Minotaur
You can look away and pretend trauma isn’t there but it’ll get you just like the Minotaur if you go too deep in your labyrinth.
In the Greek myth, there are three reasons for the Minotaur’s birth: Minos’ hubris for the throne, Poseidon’s anger for Minos breaking his promise, and Pasiphae’s god-given lust for the object Minos broke his promise over.
In Russian Doll, these are three analogous reasons for Nadia’s central trauma: no fatherly presence, strange quantum entanglement, and her mother’s probable addictions and/or mental instabilities.
Conjecture suggests the trauma could have begun when Nadia’s father wanted to be a capital-S Someone like Minos did, got involved in a fast lifestyle, and got Nadia’s mom mixed up in it as well. The time glitch can easily be compared to Poseidon’s godlike interference or a spurned higher force that was not chosen over hubris. And the trauma Nadia is dealing with in her quantum entanglement-shaped labyrinth was born from her mother’s issues. For the metaphor, this makes the trauma and Nadia half-siblings on their mother’s side.
In the myth, Ariadne is the Minotaur’s only companion in the labyrinth. Some versions have the Minotaur filled with sadness and Ariadne keeping him company by telling him stories. This tracks well with the underlying sadness behind Nadia’s façade, and with how she coexists with her trauma.
You tell your trauma stories when you feel it has to stay with you. You carry around your issues inside a prison or labyrinth and you accept the fact that every once in a while the trauma will show up in a full rage that belongs to the maze as much as you do. Russian Doll’s Minotaur is a metaphor of going into the dark areas of oneself and revealing what you’d find. And this Minotaur is made from shards of glass and mirrors.
I think Nadia enjoys a labyrinth that is purely hers, and the belief that her trauma is unique. She knows what to expect from this particular place and this particular trauma, just like Alan was telling Beatrice her breakup lines before she said them. There’s a comfort that comes with knowing what to expect, even if it’s bad news.
The Minotaur of Greek Myth demands ritual sacrifice, and as I wrote earlier Nadia seems to regularly sacrifice potential friendship connections to her trauma. Her “friends” begin to disappear as she gets further into her time loops. How many people are interested in helping her get over her fear of stairs? Most of her friends just take the fire escape with her because it’s easier going along with her learned behaviors rather than helping her work through them by taking on the Minotaur.
Ruth is Daedalus
Much as Daedalus was tasked to make the machine for Pasiphae’s bullish tryst and then create the labyrinth to house the Minotaur, Ruth enables Nadia’s mother to foster the eventual root trauma in Nadia’s life. Nadia’s mother “was a genius,” after all. Ruth didn’t like how Nadia was treated by her mother, but she couldn’t help more than offering advice to the women. Thus in her way Ruth stood by while Nadia’s mother was allowed to self-destruct, disappear, and die.
Ruth tasked herself with giving Nadia coping mechanisms so she wouldn’t break further. If Nadia couldn’t accept help, Ruth knew the only option was to contain the trauma’s damage until Nadia would be ready to defeat it.
Ruth created the home environment that kept Nadia safe but also cordoned off from others while she lived with her unprocessed trauma. The coping mechanisms are Nadia’s labyrinth.
Alan is Theseus
Alan shows up in Episode 3 of Russian Doll just after Nadia fixes a glitch at a work meeting. They meet in the elevator. She’s stuck in her labyrinth and he literally walks into it. Then in Episode 4 we immediately get Alan’s journey up to now. Total myth hero stuff.
Alan’s version of the time trap is repeating the day when his big hero plan falls apart. He willingly repeats his biggest victory—proposing perfectly to Beatrice–turning into his biggest defeat when she breaks up with Alan and reveals she’s cheating on him. This upending of his understanding is how he enters the state of labyrinth.
Alan repeats his same steps through the maze, with no changes. He shows up almost as a willing sacrifice to trauma. He doesn’t listen, just moves forward. Quite a bit like Theseus, if you ask me.
Theseus willingly volunteered to enter the labyrinth and take on the Minotaur. He hoped his feat would bring him and his father good fortune. Theseus is one of those Greek Heroes after all. That’s the kind of thing they do. It gives you pride and impeccably good posture.
As Alan’s sacrifice is to trauma rather than a true Minotaur, his willingness to dive into the labyrinth causes him to be unable to connect with anyone. Except for a woman in his exact time-looped circumstances. The two unconnectable people connect when they find themselves in the same maze, just like how it happened in the myth with Ariadne and Theseus.
And just like in the myth, Alan and Nadia connect strongly in the face of their adversity, but their connection doesn’t last long. When they finally know how to get out of their labyrinth, they’re already becoming two different people again. They’re on different timelines when they finally make their escape from the labyrinth. They are still helping each other, but they’re helping a version of the other that doesn’t recognize them back.
The thread they use
Alan and Nadia team up just like Ariadne and Theseus: Nadia wove the thread that got Alan out of the labyrinth and he took her with him. But it’s not bejeweled thread this time; it’s coping mechanisms by way of logic. Nadia gave Alan the scientific method.
This is the theory they test: remember how Alan died the first time and that’ll fix the glitch and remove the time loops. Nadia was already using the scientific method by figuring out what was in Maxine’s cigarette, then Jewish mysticism, and everything else. Those investigations are some of the beads on the thread she handed to Alan. Every comparable jewel to Ariadne’s thread in Russian Doll is a moment of deeper understanding in Nadia’s hypothesis testing. And after they learn Alan committed suicide, she figures out helping Alan is the next part of the thread. Connecting with people beats this version of the Minotaur.
How is the glitch “solved” in Episode 8? By protecting Ruth, helping Horse, finding Oatmeal, and accepting Alan’s help when she didn’t even know who Alan was. Connecting with people is what finally seemed to do it. Each time someone was helped, the experience became part of the thread back outside.
But why were they on different timelines when they got the solution?
We see Alan and Nadia both achieving their goal in their one-player timelines in Episode 8, but they only do so by winning the trust of a version of each other who doesn’t recognize them. If connecting is the trigger that solved the whole shebang, why are Alan and Nadia only successful when separated?
It’s symbolic of Theseus and Ariadne when he leaves her on Naxos after they sail away. The Greek myth characters say they’re going to get married when they escape, but their stories don’t end together. In fact their stories end in drastically different places once their escape became certain. Theseus continues on his hero’s journey while Ariadne marries the god Dionysus.
Natasha Lyonne, in an interview with Variety, says of Alan, “he was going to be Nadia’s love interest, but he morphed into something that transcended.” Later she adds, “they’re both stuck in a similar trip in a way that we are all kind of saddled with our own albatrosses and bogeymen in this life, and it’s a question of how we shake them.”
Hence, in Nadia and Alan we are presented with less of a star-crossed Emily/Teddy relationship as in the heavily referenced book Emily of New Moon, and more of the decidedly-not-perfect pairing that mirrors Ariadne and Theseus.
Even during Russian Doll’s planning stages, writers learned Alan and Nadia work well together but their partnership didn’t need to last. They were two different people with different life goals, just like Theseus and Ariadne.
The separating timelines during the Episode 8 escape seem to signify the split already happening between Alan and Nadia. It’s just like how Ariadne’s marriage plans evolved from something worldly into something more godlike by the end of her story.
The real myth has multiple endings as well
Another bit of kismet between Nadia and Alan’s timelines and the Greek Myths is how many fates Ariadne has.
Sometimes Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos after falling in love with another woman. Dionysus then sees Ariadne and immediately decides to marry her.
Sometimes Dionysus sees Ariadne and hard-sells Theseus to leave her on the island so Dionysus can marry her.
There’s a further ending where Ariadne is killed by Perseus.
Another has Ariadne hanging herself. Dionysus then goes to Hades to bring both her and his mother Semele to Mount Olympus.
Do all these different myth endings remind you of the different Nadia timelines? Absolutely. And does seeing all the Ariadne endings listed together make you think about that final scene with all those different Nadias?
Regardless of her destination, the Ariadne metaphor seems to have served its purpose just like the mystery of Maxine’s cigarette. It’s time to leave the labyrinth behind and sail into uncharted territory.