Russian Doll season 2 review: a new train of thought and new levels

As Nadia Vulvokov realized how she was trapped in a never-ending cycle of death and do-overs in Russian Doll’s first season, her familiarity with the concept of time loops helped her escape one. Nadia’s self-awareness about her predicament was a major part of what kept Russian Doll from feeling like a simple Groundhog Day riff with little to add to the genre. That cosmic knowingness is also one of the reasons Russian Doll’s second season makes for such an unexpectedly different and fascinating puzzle box as it takes the series to its next level with another tale of metaphysical birthday madness.

Russian Doll’s second season picks up a few years after the previous and just days before Nadia’s (Natasha Lyonne) 40th birthday. As always, Nadia fully intends to spend the day of her birth with loved ones like Maxine (Greta Lee) and Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), and she’s confident that she’s going to be able to make good on her plans because — for the first time in a while — she feels in control of her life.

Nadia trying to figure out which train she’s catching.
Netflix

More than any specific setting details, it’s Nadia’s interactions with neighborhood pillars like Horse (Brendan Sexton III) and bodega owner Farran (Ritesh Rajan) that give you a sense of how much everyone has lived in the gap between Russian Doll’s first and second seasons. After spending the past few of Nadia’s birthdays together and on high alert in case they were sucked into another loop, she and Alan (Charlie Barnett) have had the chance to develop a genuine friendship and shared sense of safety with one another that helps keep them both grounded.

Despite Alan and Nadia having more than earned their right to be in perpetual states of anxiety about their places in the universe, Russian Doll’s second chapter leads with the idea that their previous experiences have changed them for the better. Neither Nadia nor Alan’s neuroses are ever all that far away, though, and a substantial part of Russian Doll’s story here is a mind-bending exploration of how the two of them got to be that way in the first place. Similar to how the new season of Russian Doll doesn’t spend as much time reminding you that Nadia’s a video game developer, the show doesn’t try to frame its new time-traveling conceit as a surprise. Rather, Russian Doll presents it as the universe challenging both Alan and Nadia to better understand themselves and how uniquely situated in reality they’ve always been.

Russian Doll once again presumes that you, like Nadia, have consumed enough stories about time travel to know the rules about what people should and shouldn’t do if they spontaneously find themselves transported to the distant past. Season two raises the stakes and puts a unique spin on the genre, though, by padding its story with a healthy dose of urban legends and batshit left turns that all complement Lyonne’s performance as a consummate New Yorker who — mostly — knows no fear.

The importance of living in the moment is one of the larger ideas that shapes much of Russian Doll’s plot as Nadia and Alan begin bouncing back and forth between the present day and important moments from their past that are somehow connected by New York’s subway system. In any other series, the absurdity of a time-traveling MTA train guiding people to crucial points in their lives might almost be enough to derail the entire endeavor, but it works here because of this season’s focus on how nonsensical things become important parts of people’s identities.

Alan waiting for a train at Astor Place.
Netflix

Though much of this season is about Nadia looking back on her life, Russian Doll also delves into her interiority by way of her mother, Lenora (Chloë Sevigny), a paranoid schizophrenic with her own history of moving through the world in ways that “normal” people don’t. Russian Doll’s first season gave us a taste of what Nadia’s childhood with Lenora was like, but season 2 is a proper study of what it meant for Lenora to be a single mother in the ’80s struggling to support a family with few resources at her disposal. Both Lyonne — who also serves as showrunner — and Sevigny bring Nadia and Lenora to life with a raw intensity that feels new despite it gelling with what we’ve seen of the characters in the past.

While Russian Doll’s taking on a slightly different kind of sci-fi / supernatural trope this season, what’s pleasantly surprising is how uninterested the series is in deconstructing said trope outside of a handful of jokes. Russian Doll knows that you’ve probably seen Back to the Future and thought about what sorts of investments you’d want to make if you woke up in the past, which is why it spends so much of its time pushing you and its protagonists to think more deeply about what’s happening to them.

The more you settle into the Murakami-like pacing and sensibilities of Russian Doll’s new mystery, the more satisfying this seven-episode-long season ends up being as it begins to increasingly rely on a fuzzy kind of dream logic. The clarity that Nadia and Alan are initially able to view their situations with doesn’t endure, but it’s replaced by a perspective that’s far more interesting and leaves open the possibility for even more Russian Doll down the line.

Russian Doll also stars Annie Murphy, Rebecca Henderson, Waris Ahluwalia, and Lillias White. The show’s second season hit Netflix on April 20th.

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