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How Netflix's 'Russian Doll' lost itself

The second season shows how surrealism and improbable twists can be a distraction, if not a cop-out.
Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov in Russian Doll.
Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov in Russian Doll.András D. Hadjú / Netflix

The first season of “Russian Doll” in 2019 was a time-scrambling absurdist comedy about how broken people can change. The second season, just released, is a time-scrambling absurdist comedy about how they can’t. That’s a significant shift in focus, and one that, unfortunately, doesn’t really work.

In the initial eight-episode series, grumpy programmer Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) keeps dying and returning to the night of her 36th birthday party. It’s a significant anniversary because her neglectful and mentally ill mother, Lenora (Chloë Sevigny), died at 35. Nadia eventually learns that her fate is tied to that of Alan (Charlie Barnett), a man who kills himself after his girlfriend dumps him — and then keeps getting similarly resurrected. The series ends as Nadia helps Alan accept himself, and vice versa. The final scenes are of a masked parade through the city, in a communal carnivalesque triumph over death, hopelessness and pain.

(Mild spoilers for season 2 follow.)

The seven-episode second season begins a few years later and has a different mind-bending premise. Nadia discovers she can take the subway train to the 1980s. There she inhabits her pregnant mother’s life in the months before Nadia herself was born. That initial train ride leads to others, as Nadia and Alan check in with their ancestors at various points across the decades — and Nadia tries to recover a family fortune stolen by the Nazis.

Season 1 was about coping with personal pain, an individual struggle that, with the help of friends, can be addressed on an individual level. Season 2 is about generational trauma, which is a lot harder to heal or address in one’s own lifetime.

The series acknowledges as much. Nadia changed her own destiny (with some help) in the first season. In the second, though, her efforts to change her mother’s and grandmother’s fates are at best ineffective. At worst, her obsession with the past leads her to disconnect from those closest to her in the present.

Stories about the relentless grinding of fate and injustice, and the inescapable reproduction of harm, are generally, as you’d imagine, downbeat.

Stories about the relentless grinding of fate and injustice, and the inescapable reproduction of harm, are generally, as you’d imagine, downbeat. Octavia Butler’s novel “Kindred,” about a Black woman who inadvertently time travels back to the slave-holding South, is about how the past brutally and bitterly scars the present. Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir “Maus,” about his father’s Holocaust experiences, offers little in the way of consolation or catharsis; the story explains, to some extent, but it doesn’t heal. Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins” is a long elegy for a life that could have been but for World War II. It renders its fictional biography in meticulous, time-hopping, kaleidoscopic detail, before erasing itself in a rush of despair.

The second season of “Russian Doll” doesn’t follow the blueprint of Butler, Spiegelman or Atkinson, though. Instead it tries to treat grim material with the same freewheeling kinetic hopefulness that powered the first season.

The results are confused. The writers try to keep things light by having Nadia incessantly wisecrack her way through history, uncowed even as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Budapest. The affect is all wrong; it’s like she’s watching a historical documentary rather than living in the past or learning about the struggles and terror of people she cares about and loves.

Jumbled narrative and the relentless and glib ironic distancing robs the series of much of its emotional force.

This jumbled narrative and the relentless and glib ironic distancing robs the series of much of its emotional force. That’s most evident in the development of Nadia’s relationship with her chosen mother figure, Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley).

In the first series, we learned that Ruth, a psychiatrist, stepped in to parent Nadia when Lenora had to be committed. Ruth, at various points in the timeline, is more central to the second season. And yet we don’t learn much more about her relationship with Nadia, and virtually nothing more about her life outside that relationship. She smokes and utters occasional nuggets of wisdom. (“Trauma is a topographical map written on the child and it takes a lifetime to read.”) But that doesn’t add up to a well-drawn character.

Towards the end of the series, the escalating time-travel chaos keeps Nadia from connecting with Ruth, which is a source of anxiety and guilt for her. But it also keeps the viewer from connecting with Ruth, or from fully understanding who she is or what she means to Nadia. We’d be better served by an episode where the two just get to talk to each other for half an hour. The surrealist elements get in the way of the show’s thematic and emotional goals.

There are similar problems with Nadia’s relationship with Alan. The first series cleverly intertwined their narrative, as each alternate pathway led them inexorably into each other’s lives and stories. But in the second series, Alan seems like an afterthought, and the efforts to connect him and Nadia are halfhearted and unconvincing. Important questions about Alan’s sexuality and gender are simply shrugged aside for more and more scenes of Nadia running about frantically to get nowhere in particular.

The time loop “Russian Doll” worked because it was about Nadia and Alan circling compulsively around truths they didn’t want to face. The time travel “Russian Doll” is instead about Nadia running away from herself — and the show running away with her. When unconventional storytelling expands on or resonates with its themes, the results can be exhilarating, as they were in season 1 of the series. But season 2 shows that surrealism and improbable twists can also be a distraction, if not a cop-out. This time out, “Russian Doll” needed fewer nested reveals and more heart.