TV Review | Natasha Lyonne Goes Full Steam Ahead in Russian Doll Season 2
“I don’t think you want to peel that onion.” – Nadia Vulvokov
After the triumph of 2019’s mind-bending Netflix series Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne revisits her twisted moral compass, Nadia Vulvokov. With the praise and awards for the first series – including a Television Critics Award for Outstanding New Program – a second outing was always a given. And thankfully this second series does not disappoint. Again, Lyonne has written all seven episodes and directs the bulk of what you see. The second season of Russian Doll is stylish, at times claustrophobic and intelligent – bringing us an original concept based on familiar ideas.
Whereas the first season of Russian Doll was “Groundhog Day on acid“, the second is more layered, where you will find the payoff is bigger and the landscape is much wider. Moving away from Groundhog Day, the emphasis here is different, and while the universe once again is propelling her in various directions, there is no starting point. In the first season Nadia leaves her own birthday party and suddenly dies, but soon appears back at the party, standing in front of a mirror. Stuck in what seems to be an infinite time loop, she is left to figure out why this is happening? Every time she arrives back at the party, her world would become smaller – people who were originally at the party were no longer there – giving meaning to the show’s title, Russian Doll.
Lyonne gives plenty of depth to the new season that is both traumatizing for the audience and at the same time raises questions of our own existence. Now, that may sound heavy, but that is because the many layers and themes of Russian Doll are for the most part immersed in anguish. This would be a full examination of pain if it were not for the charismatic character of Nadia, who, through quickfire wit and a carefree take on her own self-destructive behavior, is a figure you actually are drawn to. This makes the viewing experience light, while tackling some aspects of how to deal with past trauma that weighs on the shoulders of its main protagonist.
So how does this season succeed? The initial trailers released were a giveaway to the overall narrative. A lot of the storyline hinges on movement: the movement of a subway train in particular, as Nadia steps onboard a train only to step off it in 1982. Through the use of genius reflections in glass we discover she is back in time as her pregnant mother – pregnant with her: the russian doll symbolism is more prominent this season. From there Nadia plans to right the wrongs and misfortunes of her family. Her adventures include avoiding Nazi’s in the Second World War, chasing down stolen family heirlooms, and trying to re-write the past in order to change the future. The quirky nature and non-stop babbling of Lyonne can weigh things down, but the show’s humour does help in smoothing out a character that can become annoying at times.
Most of the original cast return, in particular Nadia’s time loop comrade, Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett), who, after Nadia explains the subway train is a doorway to the past, is inspired by the noble cause. Alan then arrives in East Berlin in 1962 in the guise of his grandmother Agnes as she tries to help a group of students to flee into West Berlin. Granted, the paths of Alan and Nadia do not converge until time itself starts to implode. They take different journeys along the same impulse to heal the future by correcting the past.
“We can’t spend our lives so scared of making the wrong move that we never live at all.” – Agnes
Ultimately, this is a slick work of pop culture. In the first episode alone the soundtrack involves Depeche Mode, The Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin, and a very heavy (but brilliant) use of Pink Floyd towards the final episode. But even though the majority of this season is far more adventurous, the ending may not prove as fruitful as the first. Nevertheless, the take away moral is simply this: spend your time living in the past, and you forget to live in the present. Otherwise, this is entertainment, and what plans Natasha Lyonne has for her alter-ego Nadia are very hard to speculate, for now, it may not be “brain candy” but season 2 of Russian Doll is certainly not boring.