Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) is still alive when Horse (Brendan Sexton III) first appears in Russian Doll. Or rather, she hasn’t died yet. “I think I know that guy,” she says, as she peers at him from across the street. Momentarily, he meets her gaze, as the beat stretches out a little too long to be entirely comfortable. But she lets it go, and moves on.
The second time — on the same night, but in Nadia’s re-living of the moment — he’s still hanging off of the same fence at Tompkins Square Park. “I think I know this guy,” Nadia says, before calling out, “Do we know each other?” Based on Horse’s response (“Fuck off!”), the answer would be “no.”
But the deeper Russian Doll gets into Nadia’s spacetime conundrum, the clearer it becomes that Horse still bears some significance to her story. The series is too carefully plotted for a sense of déjà vu planted before the live-die-repeat cycle kicks in to be entirely coincidental.
Rather than being doomed to repeat himself like Nadia or Alan (Charlie Barnett), or being utterly oblivious, as all of Nadia and Alan’s friends and family appear to be, Horse seems to possess some grain of agency or knowledge that places him just out of that frame — he’s almost a shepherd. The first hint as to his possibly otherworldly nature is Nadia’s sense of déjà vu; the second is the first full encounter between them, in which he tells her he wants to cut her hair.
Nadia’s hair — besides looking great — is also something of an emotional burden. Her mother (Chloë Sevigny) had loved her hair (“It’s your crowning glory”), not least because it resembled her own; in other words, Nadia’s hair is a literal embodiment of her maternal inheritance, a physical symbol of the emotional trauma she’s been carrying. Horse is fixated on cutting it off.
“This is the old you,” he says, as he brandishes the severed locks. “This is who you were day after day after day, but it’s gone now.” It’s an offer he makes her during later cycles, too, though she doesn’t have the time to take him up on it.
Horse’s first conversation with Nadia also marks yet another one of Nadia’s deaths. As they talk, she jokes that he could murder her. He passes on the opportunity, opting to cut her hair instead, but they both die that night, freezing to death after sleeping outside. In combination with what she does next — following Horse to the shelter where he’s been sleeping in order to ensure that his shoes don’t get stolen — it’s the part of the series that mostly closely recalls the other great cyclical work of our time, Groundhog Day.
One of the threads running through the Harold Ramis film is Phil Connors’ (Bill Murray) quest to save a local homeless man from dying, specifically from freezing to death in an alleyway. Similarly, Nadia’s efforts are diverted towards making sure that Horse doesn’t suffer that same fate, as she knows he was only sleeping outside because his shoes had been taken the night before. And, in yet another minor mirroring, it’s the first time has made any significant effort during her re-lived time to use her prior knowledge for the sake of others. She even brings him new shoes in another cycle, and bestows upon him her Kruggerand — her literal inheritance — telling him that it’s become “too heavy.”
Alan’s presence magnifies Russian Doll’s message about helping and accepting help from others, but Horse serves as a key impetus for Nadia’s finding the path. That isn’t to say, however, that he’s a solely benevolent force. His appearance in the enlightened Nadia’s (but unenlightened Alan’s) timeline at the end of the series suggests that he’s capable of malevolence, too. “We got one,” he tells his compatriots, as he lures an impaired Alan back to his hideout, though Nadia prevents anything worse than shaking Alan down from happening.
“He’s neither creation nor destruction,” Russian Doll co-creator Leslye Headland told Polygon, explaining her personal take on the character. “To me, Horse is the god Pan. He lives in the woods in Tompkins Square Park, and he is all of our unconscious or subconscious selves.”
Pan — the Greek god of the wild, of shepherds, of chaos — makes sense as a point of comparison given Horse’s inherently chaotic nature. He says he helped to found the Dark Web, which, regardless of whether or not it’s true, paints a certain picture. Horse also appears as the leader of the boisterous, mysterious procession that ends the series. As Nadia and Alan’s timelines finally re-sync, with both of them on the other side of their cyclical ordeal, Horse appears, donning a papier-mâché deer’s head as he commands a parade of revelers — which includes Nadia’s past iterations.
It’s a scene that intentionally recalls the end of Federico Fellini’s 8½, which sees figures from director Guido Anselmi’s (Marcello Mastroianni) life pour forth onto his set as he finally accepts that he can’t go it alone. Which is to say, it’s joyous, if also a little bittersweet, but more importantly, leans into the supernatural aspect of the show, and of Horse himself.
Horse is present to shepherd Nadia along the twists and turns of her altered circumstances, seemingly aided by an unusual amount of insight into her past. He’s neither good nor bad (he’s also never seen in the daylight), and his appearance at Russian Doll’s conclusion, if nothing else, suggests that he may transcend that binary entirely.
“Now you can be whoever you wanna be,” he tells the newly-shorn Nadia, early on in the series. The scene is almost prophetic. By the time she joins Horse’s parade, she’s shaken off some of that weight; she’s broken out of the cycle that was keeping her prisoner, and is ready to move on and become somebody new.