We’re Back In Time To Go Back in Time
Russian Doll Returns for Another (Time) Trippy Season
In July of 2019, not long after that year’s Emmy nominations, I ended up watching Russian Doll on Netflix after it was one of that year’s nominees for Best Comedy Series. Like so many streaming series I had not gotten into it on its initial run — I spent just as much time that year catching up on Fleabag, which would deservedly dominate the Emmys that year — and I might still have ignored it had it not been for the presence of Natasha Lyonne, an actress whose work I had admired even before she ended up breaking big in Orange is the New Black.
In my initial review of the series, I was cautiously favorable to it — the formula was unlike most shows even on Netflix. Lyonne had written herself the role of Nadia Vulvokov, a New Yorker at her thirty-sixth birthday part, bright hair, cigarette always hanging out of her mouth, looking ready to celebrate. As those of you who watched the first season of Russian Doll know, that’s what she did for that entire season — she spent it in a time loop, somehow always dying and regaining consciousness at the mirror of her birthday party. The comedy was bloodthirsty, the jokes barbed and the longer the series went on, the more philosophical and scientific questions kept being asked as the universe around her began to deteriorate. Eventually with the help of the only person who knew what was happening, a milquetoast named Alan (Charlie Barnett) that finally managed to escape the time loop and deal with the mental issues in their background. It was an entertaining ride — and given what would happen in the world not long after it premiered, something we all seemed to live through. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t entirely certain it would work for a second season. But absence makes the heart go fonder, and when Russian Doll dropped last week, I violated almost every rule I’ve done with streaming series since this became part of entertainment and started watching it the day after it premiered. And I’m happy to say I’m gratified to be back.
It’s Nadia’s fortieth birthday. Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) one of her mother’s oldest friends is beginning to deteriorate physically. Considering what happened in Season 1, she has spent the last three birthdays quietly celebrating with Alan, just in case something goes wrong. She has every intention of doing the same this year, except this time she goes into the subway, sees that everybody is in 1980s clothes (in Nadia style her first reaction is its some kind of 1980s flash mob) only to find she has traveled back to 1982. And while the explanation as to what was happening in Season 1 was more of the wibbly-wobbly we’re used on Doctor Who, both Nadia and the audience get a very clear explanation as to what’s happened: Nadia has traveled back to a few months before she was born — and inside the body of her mother Leonora, who was talked about as being immensely unstable and suicidal in the first season.
Perhaps because she was expected this (or because of who she is) there’s none of the freakiness that was in the early parts of Season 1. Nadia rolls with every bit of the weirdness, even accounting for the fact that her mother is in the reflection of every mirror she sees. She has no problem dealing the con man Chaz and seems to get a message as to why she’s here very quickly — Chaz and Nora stole all of the gold that her grandmother has been hoarding all her life (she survived Auschwitz) , something that has been held over her for years. Unlike the previous season, Nadia has control of her time travel; she just hops a subway that has a car with the digits 22 on the end. (Still travels more efficiently than the L Train.) She is completely blasé over everything she does, even more so than before in fact. At a bar in the season premiere, when a man shows his card saying he works for the notorious Crazy Eddie, she tells him that his boss will be indicted for securities fraud. Nadia is interested in changing her future, no one else — that is; until she meets the younger Ruth (well played by Emmy winner Annie Murphy). We see clearly the devotion she shows to Nora and a similar desire to roll with things. But she also knows that there is too much madness below the surface and that there is some shit from her friend she will not take. We actually see sadness in her that the decades have clearly eroded.
I’ve only seen the first two episodes, so obviously there are many questions that remain to be answered. What’s the real reason Nadia is traveling back and forth through time and in her mother’s body? What deeper secrets does Nora hold and is she aware of what is happening? And how is Alan, who went in the subway in the season premiere and who Nadia sees in a passing train in the final minutes of the second episode, linked to her this time? (I’m told that he ends up traveling to Cold War era Berlin, which considering the nature of Alan makes me even more intrigued than what’s going to happen with Nadia.)
Russian Doll is a far better series than I gave it credit for being in my initial review three years. It’s helped that so many actresses that I love are in these series. I loved Ashley’s work in Season 1, I like what Murphy is doing and I hope Chloe Sevigny, who is playing the young Nora, gets to do more than appear in reflections. But as always this series is all about Lyonne, who continues to delight in every aspect of her work. Almost every line out of her mouth is a gem (she looks as a phone book at one point and asks: “How did people do things before the Internet?”) But there’s also signs that she is confronting her deeper sadness, particularly in her scenes with the young Ruth, and in a particular memorable conversation (sure to be used at Emmy time) of her leaving a message to her mother, and telling her in no uncertain terms how badly she screwed up her life.
I don’t pretend Russian Doll is a perfect series, and I’m not yet sure the flaws in Season 1 can be easily corrected in Season 2. It’s hard to know whether the characters that were so interesting last season will get a similar level of screen time. And it’s so heavily a series about New York that I don’t think a lot of the references will translate well beyond people like me who have lived here all their lives. But Lyonne and her crew continue to engage us all the way, and make us want to follow her through whatever time warps or loops she goes too. I’m sorry the series is going to end after three seasons (though who knows, maybe in the Russian Doll verse, it’ll just keep going forever) but I look forward to the ride as long as they keep going.
My score: 4.25 stars.