• bchismire

Russian Doll — Season 2 — Adults Only

Updated: Aug 12

I can’t believe it’s been almost three years since I saw the first season of Russian Doll. It became one of the sassiest and most terrific shows I’ve ever seen, with some exquisite performances, a layered story, and surreal imagery and philosophies. Natasha Lyonne portrayed Nadia like a pro and arranged the show’s beginning “Groundhog Day”-inspired narrative to ultimately peel itself away to reveal newer, fresher, and more exciting elements hiding from underneath and waiting to break free. The result was a genuinely mind-warping experience I would have unhesitatingly revisited for all it had to offer.


Now, after all these years, Season 2 has finally come forth. And this time, I sensed some bigger fish for Nadia and Alan to fry. Why? Because this season, the show went from time looping to time traveling.



Three to four years after Nadia and Alan’s misadventures last season, Nadia went about her life in New York City, blissfully living life as any regular person would’ve. However, she found herself in yet another trippy predicament when Nadia boarded a subway train and noticed that the train car she stepped into was inundated with 80s memorabilia. But it wasn’t just the decorations. The people aboard the train with her all wore 80s-themed clothes, and some of them included policemen with dogs. But that was just the beginning; when Nadia stepped out of the train, everything about New York City felt unlike the New York City she left behind. This New York City felt a little grungier, and some passersby conversed about America’s nuclear plans. In short, Nadia was transported to 1982 New York City through the subway train.


The first thing Nadia did was follow a pickpocket named Chez, who seemed to take an interest in her. Being the playgirl that she was, Nadia voluntarily joined him in his room to make some love. However, the next thing Nadia discovered was that the man she agreed to sleep in bed with was her mother, Lenora’s, boyfriend. In this circumstance, he invited Lenora to partake in stealing a priceless heirloom that Lenora would eventually have passed on to Nadia: a collection of 150 Krugerrands, or South African gold coins. It horrified Nadia, for she still maintained the one gold coin left in the family and wore it around her like a necklace. So, this inevitably spurred Nadia to concoct plans to prevent Lenora from stealing the priceless gold coins, which were last buried in a Central Park walkway the last time Nadia’s grandmother – and Lenora’s mother – touched it. On top of that, what happened once Nadia walked into Chez’s bathroom? Did she experience another do-over of this past event? Did she discover something about herself that she hadn’t in the last season? Nope. Nadia instead found that her reflection wasn’t that of her but of Lenora. And not just Lenora, but Lenora when she was pregnant with Nadia. In other words, Nadia stepped into 1982 as her mother in each given moment. So, everything Nadia was doing in this timeline, her peers thought Lenora was doing, utterly oblivious to Nadia’s presence within her.


Even with this freaky discovery in mind, Nadia hoped to use this interpersonal mingling to her advantage and see if she could’ve prevented the theft of her family’s 150 gold coins from coming to fruition. Even in particular cases where the gold coins went missing after foiling the plans the first time, Nadia would have continued to hunt them down, no matter where they may have ended up. But when it turned out that her concoctions to secure the Krugerrands before they disappeared may have been for nothing, this compelled her to use the subway train to flip flop between 1982 NYC and present-day NYC to dig up some clues to the gold coins’ locations and disappearance. Eventually, it got to a point where she would’ve used the train to teleport herself as far back as 1944 Budapest, this time as her grandmother, Vera. Her ancestors lived there and purchased the Krugerrands, and Nadia took it upon herself to trace the origins of the gold coins before a single one of them fell into the wrong hands.


Agnes, Alan's grandmother, in 1962 East Berlin

Meanwhile, Alan also stumbled into the subway train and, just like last time, used it to his advantage once he picked up on its time-bending capabilities. His choice of destinations, geographical and time-wise, and his course of action, were once again separate from Nadia’s. He traveled back to 1962 East Berlin, where his grandmother, Agnes, lived with a group of cohorts who huddled together to construct a passageway that would’ve led them out of East Berlin into West Berlin and straight to freedom. His methods to alter the course of history were relatively simple, such as, for instance, asking them to cease building the tunnel and hold off for another couple of decades. We all know this was because the Berlin Wall would eventually have fallen in 1990. His hopes with this engagement were that he would’ve saved his grandmother and her friends from potential death and that they would’ve found ways to arrange their path to freedom and, above all, stay alive.


Though it took the show three years to continue as it meant to do in the first place, this season was well worth the wait. It continued its themes, ideas, and existential questions explored last season, only now it continued to demonstrate it through new methods of bending time. Part of that artistic display stemmed from what Nadia discovered about herself in the previous season and how the younger her who dealt with Lenora’s abuse slunk away inside her all along. It was an effective metaphor to demonstrate the different parts of herself that she sealed away since her awful experiences and never wanted to revisit until they confronted her, hence the title ‘Russian Doll”. This time, however, Russian Doll got to explore this interpersonal encounter by having Nadia go through it with the last person she would’ve felt comfortable exploring it with. In my opinion, this provided an engaging mirror for its viewers to reflect on what other people would emotionally have dealt with and allowed them to draw their conclusions on the matter.


In most other stories that involve time travel, you’d usually see someone from the present interacting with other people from the past or, in rarer cases, with their past selves. Here, the idea of a person from the present witnessing what went on in the past by being someone else instead of accompanying them felt dizzying yet refreshing. What added to the season’s appeal and weirdness was that Nadia had to uncover all that she did as Lenora in the past. This was prone to jumpstart a series of jokes and practical comedy as only Natasha Lyonne could’ve mastered.


To add to this bag of mixed nuts, what the season had to offer in addition felt equally as captivating. Last season, the objective was for Nadia and Alan to solve the mysteries concerning their continuous time loops and uncover why only they underwent their time loops and how to get out of them. However, this season, the objective became more epic yet intimate and personal. Nadia had to unleash her inner detective, get to the bottom of her mother’s Krugerrands’ location, and secure them before they got lost. This felt a little exciting since the one she wore around her neck was the last one she inherited from her ancestors. So, watching someone go on such personal journeys within a far larger scope guaranteed some more significant investment and captivating adventures through time and the mind.


Another thing I found interesting about this season was that Nadia wasn’t accompanied by Alan all the way through. While Nadia was off on her odyssey, so was Alan with his own. As I mentioned, he also was fortunate enough to have stumbled into the subway train and put it to good use. In his case, Alan intended to travel back into 1962 East Berlin and try to talk a band of vagabond men out of digging a tunnel underneath the Berlin Wall that would’ve led them to West Berlin. Like Nadia, he went into this space-time continuum for personal reasons, and he wanted to see to it that he would’ve saved them, especially the person he became—surreal enough, he came in as his grandmother, Agnes— from imminent death. Doing it this way, of course, subjected him to put up with some snide remarks and demands thrust on her back in the day, like when the Soviet officers urged ‘Agnes’ to be a little cheerier and smile more often. Of course, given how Agnes came to East Berlin from Tanzania and her cohorts may have come from all around the world, including Darius, who was Asian, this kind of snide prejudice felt like it was to be expected. However, the focus this season was on Nadia’s pursuits for her ancestors’ Krugerrands, which was engaging in and of itself. But the only downside is that it took away some of the engagement it could’ve had with Alan on his personal quests. So, I can’t help but feel like Alan was sidelined a bit this season. Last season, Alan and Nadia generally had an equal focus on their respective dilemmas and pursuits, and it all felt just right. Yet, as I further contemplated the outcome of the second season, I came to acknowledge that Nadia’s and Alan’s narrative focus felt just right, too. The reason is that Alan’s pursuits were only to try to change the course of her grandmother’s involvement in the Tunnel 5 operation, whereas Nadia’s pursuits were fixated on Vera’s gold coins, even if she had to travel across the world and further back in time to retrieve them. I guess part of me missed seeing Nadia and Alan together all the time, but it still worked the way it did this season.


The characters were all as engaging as ever in this second season, just like last season. Starting with the supporting characters, Maxine, played by Greta Lee, still felt like the classic, wisecracking bestie who tried to be all caught up on the latest trends, helping Nadia with the advice she offered through her wit. By contrast, Nadia’s other friend, Lizzy, didn’t have as much attention this season as last time. However, she still left a decent mark on their camaraderie just like in the previous season, even if it felt briefer by comparison.


However, the other supporting characters felt a little more compelling because of what they each represented. At the end of last season, Nadia’s mother, Lenora, was just introduced as an abusive, alcoholic, troubled woman. But this season, Nadia uncovered more and more of her past, and we suddenly started seeing why she did the things she did, especially with the last kind of man she should’ve gone out with. If what Nadia witnessed through her eyes were anything to judge her character by, she observed how her and her boyfriend’s plans of theft all went south and how this affected her relationship with her boyfriend, and especially her mother—and Nadia’s grandmother—Vera Peschauer, who inherited the 150 Krugerrands in the first place. Because she was involved in morally questionable activities, it would’ve made sense for Vera to have treated Lenora so harshly and acted so hostile whenever she was with Lenora or anyone within their social circle.



By contrast, if Vera gave Lenora the cold shoulder, then Lenora’s therapist, Ruth, felt more like the shoulder to cry on. And believe me, given how she was introduced last season, this was a pleasant surprise. This season, Ruth stuck by Lenora like glue, always attempting to lift her out of her pits of despair. In doing so, though, she also tried to assess some of her own troubles herself. It was nice to see her interact with Lenora this way in the past. But with the Ruth that interacted with Nadia in the present, she felt a little more careless compared to how she was last season, but not so much that Ruth no longer understood Nadia or remembered all that she went through with Lenora. This connection was especially helpful for Nadia whenever she went back and forth between different time periods and had to pick up on some clues for her to pursue, especially if they clued her into some whereabouts of the African gold coins either in New York or Budapest.


Part of Nadia’s quest for the gold coins in Budapest was arranged by booking a flight in the present to retrace Vera’s supervisor’s grave with Maxine accompanying Nadia. It even led to some funny scenarios where Nadia and Maxine crossed paths with a footloose man who was related to the Nazi officer who mistreated Vera and was around when Nadia’s ancestors retrieved the Krugerrands. This man was just a party animal with whom even Maxine shared a moment at one point.


But I digress. This season carried plenty of moments where Nadia was fully aware of Ruth’s health conditions in the present. It got to the point where she watched her smoking habits and made sure that Ruth didn’t jeopardize her health and longevity by doing things she shouldn’t be doing.


Alan felt as sensible, observant, and committed as he was last season, even if, just like Nadia’s other best friend, he didn’t have as much screen time as he might have. Nevertheless, it felt fascinating to watch him retrace his family lineage and trace it back to a time when his family was involved in an operation that could’ve guaranteed freedom at the expense of their own lives. Alan’s idea of arranging for freedom without any lives being lost was a fascinating portrayal of his character since he picked up on what he learned with and from Nadia last season and wondered if he could have applied it to his past ancestors. So, though his role felt slightly lessened this season, his adventures showcased how far he’s come along as a character.


And Nadia herself? What more did you expect out of her? She, too, picked up on what she learned from and with Alan this season, and she still stole the show with her moments of levity, sarcasm, and tender moments. As I said, she didn’t have the best treatment from her mother, but that was only when Lenora was still undergoing her treatments. So, watching her try to right the wrongs of the past on behalf of someone she might not have been incredibly close with felt engaging and endearing. Plus, this journey helped her see more clearly who she held so dear in her life, like Ruth. So, her attempts to help her fellow buddies and her desperation to do so despite Alan’s warnings about messing with the time continuum too much all added to a wild adventure that was just irresistible.


That reminds me, the acting was still fantastic across the board. Natasha Lyonne still maintained her sense of crass showmanship as Nadia, and she still held on to her wit even as she uncovered one buried truth after another about her and her family lineage. But, when she was in situations that evoked any emotion, confusion, or uncertainty, she still seeped into this range of emotions with pure delicacy and astuteness.


The way I saw him, Alan felt different yet not so different all at once. On the outside, he was different since he grew a mustache between the four years that passed, but Charlie Barnett allowed his character to express himself with the same low-key pensiveness he did last season. Not only that, but Barnett conveyed Alan with a little more confidence than last season, only I feel like he pulled it off with more subtlety.



I also thought the following three characters had the benefit of having more than one actress portray them in their younger and older selves, conveying each aspect with genuine conviction.


With Ruth, she was portrayed effectively by Elizabeth Ashley, who lent Ruth her more knowledgeable, experiential, common-sensical approach while also throwing in some slight unhinging out of her, as if to hone the more decrepit state into which she put herself. And Annie Murphy, I thought, felt truly genuine as her younger self. With her moments of tenderness and conscientiousness towards Lenora and uneasiness over some of her troubles, Ruth felt like a tender and sensible young woman whose personality left you understanding how she became such close friends with Lenora and her family in the first place.


With Lenora, Chloë Sevigny gave her character a wide range of conflicting expressions to demonstrate the uncertain and complicated messes she got herself into, whether they involved her conman boyfriend or the 150 Krugerrands she was supposed to have inherited from Vera. You can tell that Lenora went through a lot in this period in her life, and Sevigny displayed her character’s emotional devastations with such intriguing results. And, though she wasn’t around for most of the show, we’re treated to some lovely scenes of Lenora when she was a little girl. The actress, Vaughan Reilly, displayed her modest childlike sensitivities to pleasing effect, especially as Nadia approached her and engaged in a ballet routine with her.


And with Vera, the actresses portraying her all displayed a frequent show of strictness and simultaneous human modesty. Irén Bordán generally portrayed her character with more noticeable shades of senility, though it didn’t overshadow the committed and no-nonsense attitude she unleashed onto Lenora or their peers. And Ilona McCrea gave Vera a firmer, more severe method of portraying her character. When you look at the time period in which she played Vera at a young age, which was around the time of the Holocaust in Budapest in 1944, it lent her performance a range of time-focused and geographically-focused justification.



Greta Lee still felt bubbly as ever as Maxine. Like last season, she always excelled at livening her character up with her slick sense of compassion and humor, already throwing in comedic flair to some of the more trying moments in which Nadia found herself. Even more impressive was that Greta maintained it whether she, as Maxine, was in New York City or even in Budapest with Nadia. No matter where she wandered, she still took in everything that went on in front of her with a dash of shopgirl attitude and always in a way that invigorated herself, Nadia, or the situations in which they found themselves. Good for her.


The new actors who appeared this season were fantastic, but there was one new actress who lent only her voice this season, but whom we otherwise would instantly have recognized. Most of you may not have noticed this, but the subway loudspeakers announcing arriving train arrivals and departures? The voiceover of these announcements happened to come from none other than famed actress Rosie O’Donnell. I recalled seeing her name associated with this show, and all this time, I assumed she would’ve made a cameo in the show. But then I discovered she starred in Russian Doll through this background role. That’s quite a sly insertion of a big-name star in an already top-notch show.


Because this show was known for its freaky, mind-bending ideologies, I was also impressed with some of the surreal imagery this season, starting with its visual play. For example, at the beginning of Alan’s adventures in East Berlin, he spoke with Darius, and at the end of their conversation, he kissed Alan on the lips. At first, this seemed like another LGBTQ representation showcase. However, you eventually discover that, oh yeah, Alan wasn’t in this timeline as Alan, but rather, as Agnes when she was still alive during the revolution she and her bandmates attempted to assemble back then. I love how imagery like this played with your mind until you connect the two dots together and see who’s who every time this occurred.


However, if you concentrate hard enough on what Lenora was doing in 1982 NYC as Nadia inhabited her during then, it constantly would’ve left you wondering exactly how much influence Nadia had in her mother’s newfound moral compass concerning the Krugerrands. This kind of visual play was more insightful because it asked you to think long and hard about what kind of change, if possible, could’ve been arranged for the betterment of other people’s past lives.



But those are nothing compared to two surreal scenes that I thought may have uncovered Nadia’s relationships with others and the consequences of trying to correct them. First, in the episode ‘Brain Drain’, Nadia was seen talking to Lenora as if she finally manifested herself separately from her mother and started talking to her like a regular person. However, later on, Nadia—or was it Lenora?—was questioned about her sanity and was strapped in a straitjacket as she tried to tell the medical doctors that she was really there, even though the signs pointed that she wasn’t. It felt like a sly portrayal of mental illness, especially those, if any, coming from Nadia herself.


And the second scene felt even more surreal; when traveling in 1982 New York City as Lenora again, Nadia was about to move forth to her next adventure only to discover that her water broke and that, as Lenora, she was about to give birth to herself. Then, shortly afterwards, Nadia decided to seek herself as a baby in the hospital and carry her around until she found the answers she sought about the gold coins and Ruth. Both these scenes delved into the psychological fragments of Nadia’s consciousness as she attempted to assemble and piece together the bits of pieces of her history to set things right.


As we witnessed last season, the reason Nadia and Alan went through their continuous time loops was that there was a disruption in the space-time continuum – or a bug in the program – and that it occurred because of Nadia’s and Alan’s unwillingness to admit that they needed help, especially from each other. This season, however, decided to kick things up a notch by diving into the principles of time travel, and it did so far more differently, as you can tell, from most other time travel stories. I already pointed out one liberty it took with time travel and how it spiced things up by having the time traveler inherit the body of their past buddy to see things through them and how they could’ve set things right this way. However, one of the more intriguing questions this season was: can past events be changed? Would it ever have to be changed? And, at the end of the day, would it have ever mattered what you can change about the past if the inevitable remained inevitable? Whereas Back to the Future argued that messing with past events can have severe ramifications and whereas Avengers: Endgame argued that while some circumstances can be changed around, the results wouldn’t have been too drastic, anyway, Russian Doll’s second season brought its viewers along for the ride to confront both potential outcomes, which one seemed the most logically sound, and ultimately, whether any of the changes attempted to be made would’ve mattered at all. Yet again, this felt like another creative showcasing of Russian Doll’s talents. After changing around the formulas for what Groundhog Day mastered, it was changing around the formulas that time travel movies before it mastered. It’s honestly quite ingenious.


Frankly, after going through time loops and then time traveling, if Russian Doll ever gets picked up for a third season, I would not be surprised to see it cover dimension-hopping.


Until then, I can safely say that Russian Doll’s newest season literally and figuratively went places. It took its characters on unprecedented adventures through time and maybe even space, the story continued to subvert expectations no matter what it approached, the acting still lent the show its quirky nature, the characters themselves became more engaging than ever, and its themes and ideas contributed to the show’s existential edge underneath its bizarre imagery and methods.


It’s so nice to see you again, Russian Doll. And don’t be surprised if you, my reader, see a bit of yourself on the Madness Express!

My Rating

A



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