I was a firm believer that Russian Doll season two should not exist. Season one is a perfectly contained story. And it’s one that rewards rewatches, too, so if you wanted more, you could just go back to the beginning. How do you keep a story going when there was already such a satisfying ending? Why upend closure?
I have never been more pleased to be so wrong.
Russian Doll season two is a mind-bending, time-bending, genre-bending wonder that more than proves its right to exist. It pushes the series and its characters into wild new directions, eventually bending those directions back into last season’s story, twisting them, creating a brand new labyrinth to play around in.
And, I suppose, true closure in life is evasive. Our stories keep going, even when some parts — a friendship, a relationship, an era of life like college or a specific job or a big move to a new city — come to a close. Russian Doll season two bakes questions of existence, revision, and expansion into its very narrative. Nadia and Alan lived through an impossible glitch in the universe, and now they’re living through another, separately for much of the season but still ultimately entwined. Their stories never stopped. In fact, even the stories of their dead relatives never stopped, not really. But I’ll get into that in a moment.
Even at the exact moment of writing this, I’m trying to decide how much to tell you about the story. I am personally someone who rarely cares about spoilers. And I often find the Netflix-enforced spoiler bans that critics receive with screeners baffling. This time around, they pretty much forbade critics publishing reviews ahead of the drop day from saying what the season’s premise is entirely. But the puzzle box has never really been the point of Russian Doll. In fact, the show doesn’t concern itself much with all of the whys of its story, and that’s especially true in season two. Nadia and Alan often wonder why us in season one, but now, they’re embracing the chaos, the unexplainable and impossible things that the universe throws at them. The mystery isn’t the point.
Anyway, that’s just my mini-rant on “spoiler lists,” which I feel ultimately misunderstand not just the point of shows but why people enjoy them in the first place. In any case, I’m publishing this review on the day the new season drops, so I don’t have to adhere to any of it! But here’s where I’ll say: If you do deeply care about spoilers (no judgment, I just can’t relate!), then you can stop reading now. I’m only going to spoil a few things, like the premise, because I don’t know how to write about the season without writing about its premise! And a few plot details here and there. I will NOT spoil what I consider to be the season’s most shocking and audacious maneuvers. Consider this your very thorough spoiler warning!
Rather than a time-loop conceit, this time Russian Doll plays with a combination time-travel and body-swap device. Nadia steps on a 6 train in 2022, just days before her 40th birthday, and hops off in 1982. As I said before, she doesn’t really question the universe’s glitches this time. She was a time looper before, and now she’s a time traveler, nothing weird to see here!
Well. Things do indeed get very, very weird. After running around having fun in 1982’s East Village for a bit, Nadia finally gets a look at herself in a mirror (I love mirrors and reflections as a recurring motif on this show). She isn’t herself at all. She’s her mother, Nora. Natasha Lyonne looks in a mirror, and Chloe Sevigny is reflected back. Nadia has stepped through time and into her mother’s body. And not only that, but Nora is pregnant. Nadia is pregnant…with herself, a mind-bendy scenario pushed to the most mind-bendy of lengths in a truly shocking and indelible scene that falls under the category of things I shall not spoil, because it’s just too good.
It’s an ambitious premise, to say the least — perhaps even moreso than its ambitious season one premise that, on paper and before I saw it, sounded more suited for a feature film than a series (another thing I was pleased to be wrong about!). Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland have crafted another stunning season of television on both the visual and story levels.
On top of a time-travel, body-swap story, season two also has touches of a heist movie. It’s a heist deeply rooted in family (which, to be fair, is true of all the best heist movies). Nadia’s attempts to rewrite the past hinge on her recovering the gold krugerrands her mother lost. Nadia thinks if she can just save this family wealth then maybe everything will be alright. Her grandmother will be alright, and her mother will be alright, and — ipso facto — she’ll be alright, too.
But the lost money isn’t the source of intergenerational trauma between these three generations of women; it’s a symptom of that trauma. As Nadia goes deeper and deeper into her family’s past, she also becomes her grandmother Vera, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. The pain that echoes across the different generations of this family can’t be undone by a simple heist. Nadia is only two generations removed from her family members who survived a genocide. It’s written in her blood. Nora and Vera and Nadia are their own people, but they’re also entwined. Nadia can’t just step into their lives and shift things. But when she becomes them, she experiences their pain — in the literal physical sense but also in the emotional. It shifts the ways she sees them and sees herself.
Since season one, Ruth has talked about Nadia’s impenetrable will to live, her fight and her bite. It’s easy to see where she gets that from when looking at the two women who helped shape her life, even when looking at the ways Nora failed her as a mother.
“Am I haunting you, or are you haunting me?” Nadia asks a man at a bar in 1982 when she first travels through the wormhole that brings her to the past and her mother’s body.
The question reverberates throughout the season. Nadia, her mother, her grandmother — they’re all haunting each other simultaneously. All stories about family are ghost stories if you ask me, and Russian Doll season two proves my point.
Not only does Nadia swap bodies with her relatives; she also shares their minds, providing a first-hand glimpse into her mother’s mental health. Russian Doll pushes the boundaries of both what body swapping and time travel can do for a story. Using the combination of both to explore intergenerational trauma is so smart, so effective.
Lyonne and Sevigny get to finally be scene partners in this season, and the results are excellent. Annie Murphy plays a younger version of Elizabeth Ashley’s Ruth, and the deeper development of Ruth’s relationships with Nora and Nadia in tandem and across timelines make for a gorgeous part of the season. Nadia’s so determined to rewrite her past that she ignores the things falling apart in her present. The Ruth of it all is a major key to the season’s emotional topography, and the penultimate episode, “Schrödinger’s Ruth” is a showcase for the immense talent of Elizabeth Ashley.
It’s a season not only about blood family but chosen family, too. And on that note, Greta Lee and Rebecca Henderson are back as Nadia’s best friends Maxine and Lizzy, providing plenty of comedy but also some emotional beats, too. (Without spoiling the specifics, “sweet birthday baby” makes a very earned returned.) And Vera’s very long friendship with another Hungarian woman named Delia mirrors Nora and Ruth’s and, eventually, Nadia and Ruth’s decades-spanning friendships.
Alan tells Nadia that pretty much every time travel movie says you can’t rewrite the past. And Russian Doll comes to that exact, well-established conclusion but in a way that’s still original and expansive. Again, it isn’t bogged down too much by the mechanics of machinations. So many time travel stories get bogged down by focusing too much on the plot implications of their own paradoxes. Russian Doll does look at choices and their consequences but in a way that centers its characters and their emotional arcs without getting lost in the logistics.
Alan also travels through time and becomes his own grandmother, a graduate student living in East Berlin in 1962. Unlike Nadia, he’s at first determined to merely bask in the past and not change it, but his emotional investment in one of the relationships in his grandmother’s past throws a wrench in that plan. The emotional and relationship stakes for both Nadia and Alan propel the premise and make it so much more than a gimmick. Alan becomes consumed with the thought that he’s supposed to do something in the past and can’t figure out what it is. His confusion and the uncertainty become part of the point. You can’t rewrite the past, remember Alan?
Alan and Nadia find themselves once again connecting in strange, often coincidental ways. If anything, I do wish there was a little more of that overlap and interplay between them. Natasha Lyonne and Charlie Barnett are so damn good together, and Nadia and Alan’s relationship is a special thing, difficult to describe with conventional terms. (What DO you call two people who used to die together? “Friends” doesn’t really seem to cut it.) The cross-sections of their season two stories deepen that connection and highlight their perpetual differences, but sometimes Nadia’s three-generations-of-women narrative overshadows Alan’s journey. I also would have liked to see a little more explicit engagement with the inherent queerness and transness of Alan seeming truly euphoric — like perhaps the most smiley he has EVER been on this show? — in the body of his grandmother and in a relationship with a man. Let Alan go on a date a man in the present timeline, too! Explore this!
As with the first season, sci-fi and horror elements are interwoven into the web of really compelling stories on family, friendship, and love. The sci-fi and horror bits heighten and conversate with the storytelling, providing more than just genre texture. Take, for example, a moment when Nadia-as-Lenora pulls a big out of her skin. It’s not just an empty display of body horror. It’s a huge turning point in Nadia’s arc, the first real hint that she has merged with her mother on a deeper level than just body swapping.
In one of my Yellowjackets recaps, I wrote that the narrative of Yellowjackets is like a Möbius strip, twisting and bending back into itself. The description applies to Russian Doll, too, especially because it not only reaches into the pasts of these characters and their relatives that we have not seen yet but also reaches back into their pasts that we have seen. Season two stands on its own against season one, but the narratives touch in brief, strange bursts that recontextualize and add to some of what happens in that first season. Even just within the context of season two, Nadia and Alan bend into each other. Nadia and her mother and her grandmother bend into each other. Time twists and loops.
(Omg, I feel like this review is full of tangents, but that also feels fitting for a labyrinth show like Russian Doll, but speaking of my Yellowjackets recaps, I really wish this were a show that released weekly, because I think it’d be so ripe for the recap treatment — even just for breaking down all the pop culture references!)
Also like Yellowjackets, Russian Doll provides an illuminating look on the nonlinear, uncontainable nature of grief, trauma, and survival. In this case, times a thousand. Russian Doll fucks with time and space in impossible ways, but doesn’t death sometimes feel like stepping out of time and space? Hell, doesn’t merely being with family sometimes feel like stepping out of time and space? Isn’t memory just time travel? Isn’t inherited trauma just body swapping? These devices are perfect vehicles for the story, because as mind-bendy as season two of Russian Doll gets, it isn’t ultimately a stretch of the mind to imagine these glitches in the universe.
Like season one, season two provides a complete, contained story. And as happy as I am that it lands what I thought to be an impossible feat, let’s maybe NOT go for the hat trick?