The Cruel Twist of Russian Doll
The show’s second season is more audacious, but also harder to bear.
This article contains spoilers through the second season of Russian Doll.
In a much-discussed essay for The New Yorker late last year, the critic Parul Sehgal analyzed the recent ubiquity of the trauma plot; the reliance, in books and on television, on stories that define characters by their pain, their guilt, the weight of their suffering. Trauma narratives, Sehgal wrote, are limited by their need to portray what trauma does: “annihilate the self, freeze the imagination, force stasis and repetition.” None of this was true of the first season of Russian Doll, a fascinating and mind-bending series about a woman stuck in a time loop, dying over and over on her 36th birthday. Yes, Nadia (played with raspy old-man panache by the show’s co-creator Natasha Lyonne) was entrenched in a recurring cycle, but each trip toward death was equally puzzling and revealing. The show’s revelation that she wasn’t alone in her time loop blew up the parameters of the story and led to a conclusion that was affirming, even celebratory. No one, Russian Doll seemed to be saying, can truly survive alone, or without attending to others.
Season 2, which debuted on Netflix this week, is somehow even more ambitious, even denser with layers (“I don’t think you want to peel that onion,” Nadia tells a man in one scene who asks her who she is), allusions, and belly flops right into the temporal paradox. Instead of being trapped within loops of time, Nadia finds herself vaulting back into the past, via a mystical subway that sends her into the bodies of her mother and grandmother. The show’s examination of inherited trauma—Nadia’s grandparents, like Lyonne’s, were Holocaust survivors—through the Back to the Future–esque conceit of time travel seems ripe with potential. But as the season unfurls, it’s also raw, bruising, and existentially heavier than its predecessor. If the first installment felt miraculously complete, the seven new episodes feel instead like a slide down into a darker space. They end (abundant spoilers from this point on) with Nadia realizing she’s left the only person who ever meaningfully cared for her to die alone. The final scene—in which she pulls heavily on a joint at the wake of her beloved “aunt” Ruth and smiles wanly into the mirror where she kept finding herself alive during Season 1—feels static, even cruel. Trying to escape a legacy of guilt and pain, which are banded with drugs and alcohol into one trippy mille-feuille, Nadia only loads herself up with more of both.
The questions the new season seems to ask are: What do you do when so much of your fate seems to have been determined by forces you can’t control? How much historical trauma can one person bear? Focusing on this immensely weighted subject is Lyonne’s prerogative, and it’s a bold choice for an artist to make. (It’s fair to say that Nadia is a non-sober version of Lyonne, whose childhood was similarly turbulent and unstable.) In Season 1, I assumed the Russian nesting dolls of the show’s title were alluding to layers of time contained within one another; Season 2 makes clear with its finale, “Matryoshka,” that the show title’s referent is also the layers of matriarchal heritage each person contains. As a character asks Nadia in the fifth episode, without sensing any fraught subtext: “Do you want to wind up like your mother?”
These kinds of queries are fascinating for a TV comedy to consider. But they also flatten Nadia as a character, making her overwhelmingly passive in the face of the universe’s meddling. The first season introduced the character of Horse (Brendan Sexton III), an eccentric homeless person Nadia kept encountering around New York City’s Tompkins Square Park. Trying during one of her loops to keep him from freezing to death, she encountered Alan (Charlie Barnett), who was her temperamental opposite in every way but who appeared to be stuck in the same loop she was. Leslye Headland, the writer who co-created Season 1 with Lyonne and Amy Poehler, has likened Horse to Pan, the Greek god of nature and wildness. But in Season 2, Horse is more like a malevolent trickster god, or a portal to the underworld. When Nadia sees him on a subway platform in the first episode, he calls her “Nora,” her dead mother’s name. Minutes later, the train Nadia boards appears to have transported her both back in time to 1982, and into—she finds out shortly—her mother’s body, pregnant with herself.
As the episodes play out, Russian Doll juxtaposes this body-swap plotline with an investigation of deep familial wounds. Nadia isn’t trapped inside her mother’s body, exactly; she can ride the 6 train back to her 2022 self anytime she wants. But the longer she remains in it, the more she seems compelled to make decisions that aren’t fully her own. The forceful thrill of Nadia’s detective work—she struts around Manhattan in shades and a heavy coat like a steampunk Columbo—is lessened by how quickly and instinctively she makes bad and erratic choices. “I just need you to be right here with me. Right here, right now. Can you do that?” Ruth (played in the 1982 scenes by Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy) asks Nadia-as-Nora in one scene, a recurring plea. Nadia can’t. Fate’s (or Horse’s) arbitrary interference has forced her to focus almost monomaniacally on fulfilling a mission that never makes sense: fixing one of her mother’s worst mistakes to try to correct the course of her own childhood.
Ruth’s ongoing request for Nadia to try to slow down and connect with the people she loves instead of spiraling through space and time seems like advice the show should have followed, too. There’s just so much happening. The structural discipline of the first season is gone, replaced with classic-film references and oddball non sequiturs. (“Polio!” Nadia randomly shouts while walking to meet Ruth at Lenox Hill Hospital. “Legs are the bicycles on the ride of life,” she declares in another episode.) In one scene, Nadia makes the conventional trip to her ancestral home of Budapest on an airplane; in another, she arrives in the same city in 1944 via otherworldly subway car.
The characters, too, feel less precisely drawn, in large part because the intricacies of the time-travel plot take up so much space. Alan, whose story line and anxious tendencies put Nadia’s chaotic personality into perfect balance in the first season, is largely sidelined to an odd subplot that places him in his grandmother’s body in 1960s East Berlin. (The profound relief he appears to feel living in a female body isn’t given the space here that it seems to deserve.) Nadia begins to experience, in her mother’s body, what Nora’s schizophrenia must have felt like, but that’s the only kind of connection the pair have. Nora (Chloë Sevigny) is still a cipher, a character defined by her mental-health issues instead of her desires, her dreams, even her personality. Nadia’s grandmother Vera, whose body Nadia occupies in 1944 Budapest, shortly after Vera’s possessions were looted by the Nazis, is even less of a discernible presence in her own right.
Throughout the new season, Russian Doll posits that Nadia is the bruised container for the pain her female forebears felt. Her grandmother’s hypervigilance and obsession with survival places a burden on Nora that the latter can’t carry. Nora, in turn, smokes, drinks, and uses drugs while pregnant, all stressors that seem to condemn Nadia to a life of her own addictions. (“Tabula rasa,” Nadia says about her own newborn self, not seeming to understand that according to studies of transgenerational trauma, some of the damage has already been done.) Throughout Nadia’s travels, Ruth, in both her 1982 and 2022 timelines, keeps telling her things she needs to hear but won’t attend to: that, in the end, nothing can absolve us but ourselves. That inherited trauma is too complicated to try to patch with a Quantum Leap jaunt through history. That the only way to bear what Nadia can’t change is to accept that she can’t change it.
Nadia heeds none of this and seems to cede control of her own story, losing Ruth in the process. It’s a devastating way to leave a show that, at its outset, underlined how connection with other people could bring hope, joy, and redemption. Lyonne has said that Russian Doll has always been designed to have a three-season arc, which is hopefully why Season 2’s final moments feel so shatteringly incomplete. To end here, with Nadia high, grieving, and staring, hollow-eyed, into a mirror that once signified her stubborn survival, would be a callous conclusion to a character who has embodied resilience in the face of impossible challenges. Now all Nadia can do is surrender.