Russian Doll Returns for Season 2 with a New Existential Dilemma

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) holding a glass of liquor looking to the left in a dingy bar
Photo courtesy of Netflix

The following contains spoilers for Russian Doll Season 2, S2E1, “Nowhen” (written and directed by Natasha Lyonne), and S2E2, “Coney Island Baby” (written by Allison Silverman & Zakiyyah Alexander and directed by Alex Buono)

When the first season of Natasha Lyonne’s Netflix series, Russian Doll, debuted back in 2019 it was an unexpected critical sensation. The metaphysical meditation on death created by Lyonne along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler was the perfect delivery vehicle for the creative, chaotic, compelling, presence that makes Lyonne one of the more captivating working actors today. Adding a Groundhog Day inspired plot and a whole lot of commentary on life, death, and the ways we get caught in spiraling hells, both physical and mental, the series seemed to have delivered such perfect alchemy that when it ended most critics thought that it shouldn’t come back. Thankfully, Lyonne and the rest of the creative team decided that they would be the judges of that.

Russian Doll Season 2 starts with Nadia (Lyonne) beginning to deal with another of life’s existential crises, the overwhelming feelings of wanting to go back and change the past. After finally breaking the cycle of repeating deaths in Season 1, Nadia seems to have basically returned to her normal life, complete with her many vices. It is once again nearing her birthday, but this time the emphasis is not so much on Nadia’s failings as it is on how she seems to be pushing away those around her, even her closest supporter and surrogate mother, Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley). It is quickly established that Nadia’s experiences in Season 1 may have affected her in less than positive ways and she seems almost on the lookout for another magically encouraging journey.

Early in Russian Doll S2E1, Nadia gets what she is looking for, courtesy of the New York City subway system. She once again sees Horse (Brendan Sexton III), who was the cause of and eventually the path out of, the events of Season 1. Upon seeing him, her subway car morphs and Nadia has been transported in time to 1982. Of course, Russian Doll Season 2 does not want to tell a run-of-the-mill time travel story. Instead, Lyonne is interested in the ways in which the mistakes of the past inform the present. And the spectacular power that mistakes and regrets can hold over multiple generations. Lyonne, who also wrote and directed S2E1, is not content to let the show be exactly what it was before. Instead “Nowhen” lets the audience know from the start that Russian Doll Season 2, while still being exceptionally well-paced and hilarious, is here to deconstruct the very ideas that it presented in Season 1.

Nadia on the subway looking at a newspaper
Courtesy of Netflix

Nadia has not just traveled through time, she has pulled a Quantum Leap into her mother Nora’s (Chloë Sevigny) body. The fact that this barely fazes Nadia speaks to just how profoundly she has been changed by Season 1, or to the fact that the character is pretty profoundly twisted. Nadia, in her mother’s body, which also happens to be pregnant with Nadia herself, drinks, smokes, does drugs, and sleeps with Nora’s boyfriend Chez (Sharlto Copley)—who thankfully is not also Nadia’s father. Nadia is still the perfect encapsulation of the chaotic id that is so in line with Lyonne’s public persona. The character is also more at home in the chain-smoking, grungy, violent New York of the ’80s than she had ever been in her own era.

In a great twist on the formula, Nadia quickly figures out how to use the time-travel/body swap shenanigans to her own benefit. She can travel back and forth between the times almost at will and uses her friends and connection in the present to inform her actions in the past. By the end of Russian Doll S2E1, Nadia has decided to use the trips to stop the loss of their family’s stockpile of gold pieces that her grandmother saved from the Nazis. Chez and Nora stole the gold, but—almost certainly because Nadia was there—Chez stole from Nora.

Unfortunately, S2E2 is basically about Nadia learning all the ways that this plan will not work. Nadia flips back and forth between timelines, using the resources of the present to guide her through the past, including visiting old Chez to get him to lead her to the gold. Unfortunately, Nadia learns that Chez and Nora immediately made up and he gave her back the gold. But this is secondary to the real key conversation. Chez explains to Nadia that her quest to get the gold is a “Coney Island”— the thing that she and her family think would have made everything better, but actually can do no such thing. This revelation does nothing to change Nadia’s determination, but it does inform the audience that everything she is doing is almost certainly in opposition to what she needs to learn from this experience.

Nadia and Young Ruth standing in front of a teal sign
Courtesy of Netflix

In her obsession with traveling to the past, Nadia also starts to lose her grasp on the present. She misses getting Ruth out of the hospital and seems to be actively ignoring the clear evidence that Ruth is extremely sick. In yet another example of Russian Doll Season 2 pointing out how the events of Season 1 may have actually changed Nadia for the worse, one of the things she mentions in regards to this is basically, “if she dies, I can change that.” Then all of this is reinforced doubly as during one of her trips to the past Nadia comes face to face with Young Ruth (Annie Murphy).

Ruth had been well established as the constant guiding presence in both Nadia and Nora’s lives, their one real source of light and comfort, so immediately Nadia makes moves that might actually create rifts in those relationships. Murphy is spectacular in everything and from her first scene here she brings Young Ruth a depth and pained compassion that draws the viewer to the character. She and Nora/Nadia also seem to have a previously unexplored romantic chemistry (or maybe that is just between Lyonne and Murphy, either way, it is compelling to watch). Ruth helps Nadia get back the lost gold, at the cost of her wedding ring, which could either be a positive break or the creation of her own “Coney Island”.

As was the case in Season 1, Alan (Charlie Bennet) does not feature heavily in these first couple of episodes. But he is established as still being a key figure in the universe. Since he and Nadia working together was so beautiful and essential to Season 1’s success, I hope his stories here will start to overlap with Nadia’s again at some point. In any case, I feel certain that once we do follow him, it will be an equally compelling adventure.

Alan about to get on a subway adventure of his own
Courtesy of Netflix

“Coney Island Baby” ends with Nadia, having gotten most of the gold back, attempting to get it back to her grandmother. Unsurprisingly, this does not work. The gold is a “Coney Island” and the time-loops are definitely not there to get Nadia and Nora out of their spirals by a financial windfall. Of course, Nadia also seems to have created some clear additional hurdles for herself, her mother, and Ruth, in both timelines. So things end with Nadia seeing Alan traveling on a different train, quite likely on a parallel adventure, and then panicking. As we zoom out, it is Sevigny we see, spinning in circles on the graffiti-covered train, unable to find the answers she needs so deeply.

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. They are the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. They live in New York City with their girlfriend and their two chonky cats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *