The first season of Russian Doll was all about coming to terms with the past in order to move ahead into the future and doing so with the help of others. It emphasized the interconnection of humanity, a community of suffering in which oftentimes the best thing we can do is simply show up for each other, and the worst thing is to suffer alone. When the protagonist realizes her existence is inextricably linked to someone else’s, she says, “Our lives depend on each other for eternity? That’s my own personal nightmare.”
That protagonist is Nadia, brought to life in possibly Natasha Lyonne’s best performance. She’s an instantly iconic character, a hilarious and tragic hybrid of Little Orphan Annie, Woody Allen, and Friedrich Nietzsche; impeccably dressed to the nines in a black coat, asymmetrical tie, and dark eyeliner, sporting red hair fiery enough to light the ever-dangling cigarette in her mouth, Nadia is usually the smartest person in the room, but also the most selfish and misanthropic . At least, until being stuck in the same dayreturning to the bathroom of her birthday party each time she dies.
Russian Doll Time Jumps to Season Two
Season one of Russian Doll, like many time-loop tales, saw Nadia grow as a person. She met Alan, who was also caught up in the same time loop on the day his soon-to-be fiancé dumped him, and he fell into suicidal, drunken oblivion. These two oddballs seemingly could not have been any more dissimilar, yet they were both united in their solitude, extremely resistant to any outside help. Nadia is a video game designer, and after Alan plays one of her games, he tells her, “You created an impossible game with a single character who has to solve everything entirely on her own,” essentially describing their predicament until the two discovered that they had to help each other overcome their own personal demons in order to break the loop.
Now, season two of Russian Doll introduces Nadia as slightly more compassionate, but still, the same sarcastic, cynical smooth-talker audiences know and love. This season takes place nearly four years after the first, as Nadia approaches her 40th birthday, and the season wastes no time in launching directly into its world. At a breakneck pace, Russian Doll is off to the races from the start, exuding a personal style almost as stylish as Nadia herself. The show is still brimming with humorous pop-culture references – Nick Cave, Samuel Beckett, and Sigmund Freud are mentioned nearly back-to-back, along with more obscure citations (“I do not expect you to get that, it’s a Star 80 reference, very deep cut, “Nadia says).
It also has not lost any of its quotable, one-line wit, with lines like “every time you compliment me, a cockroach gets its wings” ringing through the great soundscape of the show (which is also stuffed with excellent needle drops). This rapid-fire humor has always been a crucial element in balancing the mind-bending sci-fi and philosophy of the show, along with its immersion into death, mental health conditions, and other dark themes. Russian Doll has not lost an ounce of its wry humor, with Nadia remaining one of the most naturally funny characters on television right now. It’s just simply a joy to be back in her world and follow her around, even if she frustratingly reverts to some of the more self-centered thought patterns which kept her stuck in a time loop to begin with.
From Time Loop to Time Travel in Russian Doll
The show also wastes no time delving directly into this season’s distinct plot, and before the viewer can say “Sweet birthday baby,” it’s riding a new train down a different path. Instead of a single-day time loop, Russian Doll now playfully adopts a more standard time-travel concept, spanning 80 years. While the idea is hardly breaking any new grounds, the show has never been simply about its sci-fi-style premise. What made Russian Doll more than a Groundhog Day knockoff and set it apart from other time-loop stories was not its reliance on the tropes, nor even fun subversions of them, but the emotional content of the characters (alongside the excellent aesthetic form of the show itself).
Sure, Nadia came to terms with some things at the end of season one, such as her issues with her mother; that character (Nora, played by Chloe Sevigny) and her storyline came to be one of the most devastating portraits of schizophrenia in recent years, and was excellent. Nadia effectively dealt with a lot of the traumas from her childhood throughout the season but, when given the opportunity to go back in time and try to fix things four years later in season two, it’s understandable that she could not help but try.
Coming to terms with the past and the hand one is dealt with makes for powerful healing, but many people, even if it’s only in the darkest recesses of the human condition, would choose to go back and prevent things like suffering, pain, death, abuse, and trauma. It hardly matters how well-balanced and mature a person is; if given the opportunity to, for instance, prevent the Holocaust (as in the standard “would you kill baby Hitler” time-travel concept) or even prevent one’s mother from deteriorating into insanity and dying by suicide, most people would make the attempt. It almost seems like an ethical imperative to do so.
So when Nadia takes a train and steps out onto the platform in 1982, she is faced with some tempting opportunities. She is also inhabiting the body of her mother Nora, who is pregnant with her (in a rather literal instance of the show’s title). Being able to control her mother’s actions, Nadia sets out to right some wrongs from the past in hopes of helping her mother and giving herself a better future. Except, as in most tales about time travel, rectification is a slippery slope, and fixing one thing tends to ruin another. Alan knows this and tries to warn Nadia, to no avail.
Alan, Nadia, and the Theme of Regret
Alan’s story this time around is honestly disappointing. It’s great to see him included, and there are moments of his storyline that are surprising, sweet, and funny, but he is generally wasted in this season. His story makes little to no difference, and is often just a distraction from the Nadia narrative, unfortunately. He does, however, add to the thematic momentum of Russian Doll and serves a larger purpose in its final episode, but his character and story are simply underwritten.
That thematic content is fleshed out very well, though. Season two of Russian Doll ultimately gets to the beating, bloody heart of regret, and what it really means. While season one showed that people are interconnected and that no one can really exist on their own, season two shows that time is really interconnected, and that no one moment can exist on its own. The show expertly depicts how it is not enough to come to terms with just the past; one must come to terms with the present, also, because the present moment is a consequence of the past. As such, regret isn’t only past-tense, it’s also very present.
The present moment only exists as an amalgam of every other moment which has existed, so if one regrets the past, then one is simply dissatisfied with the present. If one were to change the past, one would be a completely different person. Nadia has so many regrets (for herself, her mother, her godmother Ruth, her grandparents, the world) which essentially signify that she dislikes herself and how she turned out, because again, one cannot regret the past and still be satisfied with who they are in the present. Thus, while season one of Russian Doll was about coming to terms with the past, season two is largely about coming to terms with the present and does so in a paradoxical way by exploring the 80 years which led up to it.
If all this sounds heady and cerebral, it certainly is, but Russian Doll has a unique knack for exploring intellectual sci-fi ideas with stylistic aplomb and aesthetic finesse and does so while being extremely entertaining and maintaining a sense of fun. It is self-aware and ironic, a real blast, no matter how complicated its notions or serious its themes get. Like Nadia herself, it contains multitudes and has a great time peeling the onion (and invoking some tears as a result).
Perhaps some fans may have wished to stay in the world of season one and explore the split universes which ended it. The two multiversal timelines at the end of that season aren’t explored here, with Russian Doll opting to stay with the self-aware Nadia rather than the self-aware Alan, and again, that may be another wasted opportunity. Then again, the audience can not go back and change what the show did. There is no point regretting the path that season two took because it’s wonderful just the way it is. The seven-episode season two of Russian Doll is streaming now on Netflix.
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