Before I can review the new season of Russian Doll I need to address the elephant in the room. Does the season need to exist? The first season of Natasha Lyonne’s brilliantly wacky and downright strange comedy was an immediate hit. The announcement of a second season seemed an odd one as the season wrapped up perfectly and I think even the most die-hard fan would be happy not revisiting Nadia or her mixed-up world again, but, and I should just accept this at this point, If something it’s a hit its return is almost inevitable. If you’ve been visiting the site for years you’ll know I’m a big champion of finishing a story and not bringing it back just because it was a surprise hit. Having seen all of this second season, I’m still wrestling with the idea of whether we really needed more of this story and “I think” I have decided that yes, it tells a worthwhile and surprising story, and despite myself, I enjoyed being back with these characters.
Thankfully, Netflix provides a recap of Season 1 before this one starts. It’s handy given the three-year gap between this and the first. For those who’d like it here – Star, Co-creator (her fellow creators Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler are still onboard here) director Natasha Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a self-destructive software designer who kept dying and being resurrected at her 36th birthday party. Nadia is a one-off. Foul-mouthed, eccentric and uber confident. It was funny enough that she couldn’t escape her own birthday party and kept dying in more over the top ways, but the season really came into its own in the fourth episode with the introduction of a new character who suggested Nadia wasn’t the only one living the same day over and over. The deeply repressed and down on his luck Alan (the instantly charming Charlie Barnett) meets Nadia in an elevator and when everyone else around them dies, the pair realise there must be a bigger reason for the strange new happenings in their lives. The pair have great chemistry and watching them work together to solve the bigger mystery at play was part of what made the first season such a joy.
Season 2 picks up four years after the events of the first. with Nadia 10 days away from her 40th Birthday. When her surrogate mother Ruthie (the scene-stealing Elizabeth Ashley) has a minor accident, Nadia is, once again, facing an existential crisis tied to mortality. This isn’t a great time for her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) to once again be plotting a grand birthday gala, especially since Nadia would rather spend that evening with Alan. As she puts it, as she puts it, “Look, we ended up in the same timeline. I’ve gotta make sure we keep it that way.”
Getting on the train prior to her big party, Nadia is unwillingly transported back to 1982, the heyday of her mother, Nora (Chloë Sevigny, who gets far more to do this season). It’s a deeply clever device that feels fresh and exciting. Nadia, now an old hat at time travel takes her new surroundings in her stride, not altering herself to the bemused customers she encounters at a bar/strip joint. The majority of the season finds Nadia out of her comfort zone, but Lyonne’s larger than life performance works in every setting.
One of the new season’s strong points is that it delves deeper into the dark and destructive mother-daughter relationship that was touched on in the last few episodes of the first. If the first season was about Nadia confronting the difficulties of her past, this one is about her forming a deeper understanding of the women before her as well as learning what made her the woman she is. For the most part, the story succeeds. I will confess to struggling to follow some threads, particularly when Nadia and friend Maxine go to Budapest, but I couldn’t help but think the story needed more of Alan and Nadia together.
Alan goes on his own time travelling adventure through the same methods as Nadia (Netflix have prevented me from fully explaining how the dynamics of the season) but there isn’t enough of them facing their new challenges as a pair.
A big majority of the seven episodes focus on Nadia’s quest for a treasure stolen from her Hungarian Jewish ancestors in World War II. If she can retrieve these long lost family heirlooms she might be able to change her mother’s fate. It’s the part of the story that feels deeply personal for Lyonne who borrows from her own family’s Hungarian-Jewish roots and, in general, a far more Semitic approach to the spiritual underpinnings of the story. Nadia’s personal story can often leave Alan’s feeling like an afterthought.
When Nadia and Alan catch up to compare notes on where (and in some cases when) they’ve been, Nadia is disappointed to learn that Alan hasn’t opted to alter anything. She tells him “Alan, the only reason to go into the past is to change shit, alright? I mean, haven’t you ever seen a movie?” There is no sense that the changes Nadia makes, and there are a lot, have any effect on the past or the present. Perhaps signalling that your life is your life.
I admire the way the show doesn’t treat the science fiction elements as a gimmick but rather as a device to tell much deeper stories of mental illness, fear and family trauma. This season isn’t as overtly funny as the first. Nadia’s quips are razor-sharp but the ground being covered here feels more serious and occasionally there is a sense of a tonal imbalance.
So, did we need a second series of Russian Doll? Probably not, but this series isn’t a cash in on the first. It takes the groundwork built in the first and takes it to interesting and possibly deeper levels.
Season 2 of Russian Doll will be available on Wednesday 20th April on Netflix.