Your Mind and Your Heart Will Break Watching Season 2 of Russian Doll
That’s One of the Reasons I Love It
The season finale of Saturday Night Live will be forever noted for being the episode where long time cast members Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson and Aidy Bryant gave misty farewells. Even that hadn’t been the case I would have still watched it for the presence of Natasha Lyonne who at the very least is clearly the diamond that McKinnon and Bryant have been. In her opening monologue, Lyonne remarked that she starred in Russian Doll on Netflix and added: “Because those are two words you want to be associated with right now: Russia and Netflix.” For understandable reasons, that got one of her biggest laughs of the night. That being said, there are four words that right now you want associated with Netflix: Russian Doll and Natasha Lyonne.
I’ve just finished watching the second season of Russian Doll. I watched seven episodes in about a month, which as anyone who reads this column knows is my equivalent of binge-watching. I’ve heard critically divergent opinions of the series: The New York Post thought it was a wonder, while New York Magazine thought it was too complicated. I’m still trying to figure out where I come down, but my emotional reactions are is that it is a wonder of a series. It may not make a lot of sense to a viewer, but that’s not necessarily a drawback because to Nadia and Alan, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to them. You can read this as a metaphor for life in general or if you’re narrower minded maybe how the series views itself. What I do know is that Season 2 was ultimately purely hysterical and incredibly painful, often in the same scene.
We spent most of the season following Nadia, who had been using the subway to travel back to the 1980s, as she try to fix everything that was wrong with her family by finding the gold Krugerrands that her mother stole from her grandmother before she was born and has led to hardship ever since. This led to Nadia traveling to Budapest, both in the present and during World War II, her occupying the body of Leonora, her mother (yes Chloe Sevigny did get some more to do this season) and eventually her grandmother too, being inside her mother’s body and having conversations with her anyway, having long conversations with the younger version of her spiritual mother (Annie Murphy, showing infinitely more range than she’s allowed to do on Kevin Can Go F…. Himself) and eventually while still in the body of her mother, giving birth to herself. And even that wasn’t the weirdest part of the season.
Alan (Charlie Barnett) her own time-traveling soulmate, has been going through a similar journey. Like her, he has been spending his time in the body of an ancestor, only for him, it was his mother in 1962 East Berlin. Alan seemed less concerned about the fact that he was in the body of a woman, who was clearly have some kind of sexual relationship with a fellow (male) student, or by the fact that he seemed to be enjoying being in the middle of a Communist controlled country. There has always been a part of Alan that likes routine, and I suppose being part of a dictatorship really applied to him — so much so that when he learned that he’d been helping that student and his friends’ tunnel out of East Berlin to West Berlin and freedom, he actually tried to stop them. The fact that he used an argument that the Berlin Wall was going to come down in 27 years anyway probably wouldn’t help his case. Alan spent much of the season arguing whether or not it was his lot to change history or not change it.
Nadia kept trying her hardest to change it to the point that in the final two episodes, she took the infant version of herself back into the present. She came back just in time to learn that Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) who has been suffering from increasingly poor health all season, had suffered an embolism in her lung and was dying. When she got to the hospital, it became clear that time was beginning to collapse. She kept encountering version of Ruth and her friends in an advancing timeline, ended up in a morgue where she encountered infinite corpses of herself and Alan. Alan began to see the similar deterioration…and in the end, they ended up back where they started: in the bathroom of the time looping party where the series began.
It is a measure of how utterly broken Nadia seems to be that she genuinely seemed willing to let the universe collapse upon itself than grow up the way she had before. Eventually, it got to the point where she kept seeing multiple versions of Ruth climbing the stairs that she realized she had to fix things. (Though, just to be safe, she and Alan left via the fire escape.)
The second season finale showed just how badly things were going. Nadia and Alan ended up in the subway, unable to find the same train that has been taking her to and from the past. Eventually, they had to walk down the tunnel to find the train — only to learn that now it was going to the future…and horribly, to Ruth’s wake.
Just as in Season 1, Alan and Nadia ended up being separated halfway through the finale: this time falling through a sewer into another tunnel. Nadia was given a choice to grab the Krugerrands or her infant self and she chose the latter. Alan didn’t have a similar decision, but he still ended up in a void where his mother was waiting for him.
As we learned this season Alan never knew his mother. In a way he was only able to share with Nadia in a time of utter desperation, he revealed how fundamentally broken he is, how unable he is to make even the most elementary decision that ‘look so easy for everybody else.’ His mother didn’t have any answers for him, but just told me that he was ‘her perfectly perfect little boy’ and that was enough to get him going.
Nadia had a similar talk with Nora, this time in the subway. Nora asked her simply: “Would you still have had me as your mother?” And it’s clear that Nadia would, because she handed ‘herself’ back to Nora. She also got a chance to say goodbye to Ruth in the past the way she never would in the present. And in the last scene, we saw Nadia walking confidently through the streets of New York to David Bowie, into Greta’s apartment for Ruth’s wake, speaking among her friends and perhaps inevitably, back into that bathroom, looking at the mirror.
Some of the complaints I have heard about Russian Doll’s second season is that it was too complicated. I prefer to look at it as ambitious. And I have always preferred a series that tries to be ambitious and fails than yet another reboot or traditional procedural. A more realistic complaint might be that the second season runs twice as fast to end up back in the same place: that for all the time traveling and body traveling, both Nadia and Alan end up back where they started with nothing gained. But the thing is, that’s discussed more than a few times during Season 2, with Nadia admitting as much in the fifth episode when, after everything she’s done to make sure her family gets its fortune back, she just ends up with the same Krugerrands. She ends up telling the young version of her mother that. The fact that she’s willing to break the universe to give herself a better future may seem to give lie to that, but honestly, how many of us would do the same given the opportunity? There are so many dysfunctional people throughout history who were willing to destroy everything to make up for their own complexes — the major difference being, they had the power and wealth to do it. Are we supposed to believe the meek and mild might not want to do the same thing given the chance?
I’m not sure yet whether Russian Doll will make it on my top ten list this year or if it is truly a masterpiece yet (that will depend how it ends whenever Lyonne and company get the third season done). Nor am I even willing to admit that the series deserves an Emmy nomination for Best Comedy (though to be fair, there’s going to be a lot of great competition) What I do know is that Lyonne is one of the great talents of our time, and that walking her stride purposely through the streets of New York, whether in the present or the past, wearing a long coat and a cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth, always with a brilliant line of sarcastic dialogue about anything, has created in Nadia one of the great characters in TV history. I know the next one has been cast already, but if it’s at all possible I would like to nominate Lyonne for the first American Doctor Who. She’s already got the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff down cold, and after decades of seeing relentlessly cheery doctors, male and female, it would be a burst of fresh air to see one who looks at the breakdown of entropy and seeing younger versions of herself with utter deadpan. (I can just seeing looking at the TARDIS for the first time: “Bigger than it looks. Is it rent-controlled?”)
As someone who can’t say what Netflix’s future looks like any more than Nadia can see what hers will be, I’ll just say this: if it can continue to produce shows like Russian Doll, maybe it won’t collapse the same way the world seems to do at the end of every season of the series. Hell, maybe Lyonne can make that the plot point for the final season. She’d make it fun.
My score: 4.75 stars.