This article contains spoilers for all of Russian Doll season 2.
Believe it or not, but people didn’t always wish their favorite TV show would end after one season.
In the pre-streaming “before time”, the goal of most television programs, particularly comedies, was to stick around for as long as audiences would have them. Now, as the TV globe grows more vast and viewer’s understanding of story grows more sophisticated, there’s often a desire for shows to get out while the getting is good. One great season of television is enough of a miracle. Why risk ruining that with a second? Of all the recent candidates for a one-and-done run, few seemed more apt to crawl into and enjoy their early grave than Netflix’s Russian Doll.
Premiering in 2019, this brilliant sci-fi comedy created by Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler, and Natasha Lyonne (who also stars) told about as complete a story as any season of television could aspire to. Throughout the season’s eight episodes, sardonic New York game designer Nadia Vulvokov (Lyonne) finds herself relieving her 36th birthday party over and over again after the universe tosses her into a time loop where she repeatedly dies only to “respawn” in her friend’s apartment’s bathroom just as Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” begins to play.
For what reason has the universe sentenced Nadia to an eternity of death and Harry Nilsson? Well, that’s the question isn’t it? And it’s a question that Russian Doll season 1 explores and eventually answers in a supremely satisfying fashion. Nadia’s journey in season 1 is so satisfying, in fact, that a second season of the show seemed unnecessary to many. Not among that crowd, however, was the show’s creators.
Following the conclusion of season 1, Lyonne mentioned in an interview to The Hollywood Reporter that she, Headland, and Poehler pitched the show as a three-season concept. Netflix was apparently into that concept as Russian Doll season 2 was greenlit and released to the streaming service on April 20. Now that Russian Doll season 2 has finally arrived, are its creators vindicated in envisioning multiple seasons of storytelling? Or was the one-season-only TV death cult right all along?
Score this one to Lyonne and company because Russian Doll season 2 is a worthy followup…sometimes equal to and sometimes even better than its progenitor.
Instead of completely copying season 1’s Groundhog Day-ian time loop procedure, season 2 opts for an entirely new bit of temporal madness altogether. In episode 1, Nadia accidentally discovers that boarding the 6 train at 77th Street transports her back to 1982. Not only that, but the trip back in time finds her inhabiting her mother’s body. Suddenly Russian Doll’s nesting doll title makes even more sense (and lends credence to the existence of the creators’ three-season plan).
Season 2’s approach to time travel doesn’t provide the same manic energy as season 1’s time loops. For one, each trip to the past isn’t accompanied by the preposterously jaunty Harry Nilsson piano intro (though it must be said the show’s Pink Floyd-ified soundtrack this year is superb). Also, Nadia (and later Alan) can choose to enter train 6622 to take a trip to the past whenever they’d like, stripping the plot of the never-ending sense of immediacy and urgency that season 1 enjoyed. Still, this more conventional timey-wimeyness opens Russian Doll up to a whole new world of emotional resonance.
Nadia, it must be said, appears to be quite comfortable in the past, probably because she’s a bit of a throwback herself. While she appears to everyone else as her time period-appropriate mother Nora (Chloë Sevigny), Nadia appears to us as her 2022 self and doesn’t look one bit out of place amongst trains full of peacoats and cigarette smoke. It’s only by placing Nadia in the past that Russian Doll can reveal to us how much she is stuck in it. Some of season 1’s best episodes dealt with Nora and how her deteriorating mental health affected Nadia, but here we (and Nadia) get to actually live it. We get to see how much Nadia reveres, misses, and emulates her mother – as though she were living out a vibrant adulthood that Nora ever got to see.
That all really comes through due to Lyonne’s performance, which is pitch perfect once again. Lyonne’s Nadia really is the perfect heroine for temporal nonsense. After handling season 1’s death loops with aplomb, Nadia is even more of a pro with this year’s time travel, and Lyonne is able to believably depict her as one. This is of tremendous use to the show as treating this truly awe-inspiring temporal phenomena with a shrug, a quip, and another drag of the cigarette buys everyone time that would otherwise be spent on obsessing over the rules of this thing and “what it all means”. Nadia is presented with a tool, accepts its applications and limitations immediately, and gets moving.
But even beyond just her character’s utility to the plot, Lyonne uncovers whole new layers of humanity within Nadia this year. In episode three, the spacetime continuum finally buckles under Nadia’s continued ‘80s incursions and both adult Nadia and adult Nora are present in the same space rather than the former occupying the latter’s body. Nadia’s adaptation to this new reality is immediate and profoundly touching. Whether she’s doing this naturally or merely experiencing the “Brain Drain” of the episode’s title, Nadia becomes paradoxically more child-like and motherly towards her mother at the same time.
The camera angles down so that Nadia seems smaller in Nora’s presence and she continually refers to Nora as “mommy.” Later on, however, as Nadia feverishly works to uncover where her family’s gold krugerrands were first recovered in the past, she assures Nora that she’s going to fix everything and tenderly kisses her forehead. Depicting a fraying mother/daughter relationship where both women play each role simultaneously before their brains completely fall apart is emotionally complex, thrilling stuff. It’s also not the kind of thing that Russian Doll had in its season 1 toolbox. Sure, the timeloops of yesteryear came along with profound moral messaging of its own about how we’re all connected and even true strangers owe one another something. But season 2’s time explorations feel even more personal to Nadia and eventually Alan, which in the usual bit of good storytelling alchemy makes them feel more universal.
The middle portion of Russian Doll season 2 does drag a little before an affecting conclusion. Nadia’s journey even further back in time to the World War II era to recover her family’s treasures is ultimately one big rabbit hole too far that proves what all savvy sci-fi viewers already know: certain elements of time can never be changed in the first place. By the time the season enters its seventh and final episode, however, Russian Doll makes time for one last bit of emotional release.
After experiencing her 36th birthday party and all the Harry Nilsson that entails once again, Nadia finally accepts that the universe isn’t going to allow her to raise herself. Something or someone always came before you and God-willing, something or someone will always come after. Nadia and Alan fall into the void, an empty pocket of space in time “left over from a job not completed.” There, both Alan and Nadia’s respective mothers are allowed to set them straight one last time.
“Just because I came before you doesn’t mean I have all the answers,” Nora tells Nadia.
Nadia takes that lesson to heart, stops looking for what could have been, and accepts what is. She exits the train forever to attend Ruthie’s wake with Alan and the rest of friends, reveling in what she had instead of what she didn’t (all with the help of Pink Floyd, of course). It’s a wonderfully moving ending … that seems like it couldn’t possibly be followed up.
But, of course, we know now it probably can.
All seven episodes of Russian Doll are available to stream now on Netflix.