Russian Doll and accepting the things you can’t change
In the first season of Russian Doll, death is an inescapable hazard of New York City life. Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) is stuck in a death-driven time loop, perishing in all sorts of bizarre, gruesome, and cursed accidents. Each round, she resurrects to the night of her 36th birthday party as Henry Nilsson’s jaunty “Gotta Get Up” blares in the background. Death, it seems, is her only path forward. It is the existential engine that propels Nadia and Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett), her partner in purgatory, toward their indeterminate futures.
Instead of death, the second season, set four years after the first, derives its momentum from Nadia’s matrilineal past. Nadia stumbles through a mysterious time wormhole on the southbound 6 train and confronts the pains, traumas, and misgivings of her schizophrenic mother Nora (Chloë Sevigny) and grandmother Vera (Ilona McCrea), a widowed Holocaust survivor. This time, Nadia and Alan are under much less existential pressure than before. They can return to reality — linear time — by train. Their access to the MTA-operated past doesn’t seem to be a glitch in the system to resolve, but a version of fated events to observe and learn from.
Russian Doll is a show about trauma — how it manifests, festers, and embeds in its characters’ lives — and the possibility of healing these deep-seated wounds. Last season, Nadia and Alan had to reckon with the pain that predated their Groundhog Day loop, which was set off by their failure to help one another on that fateful night. They emerged from the trappings of death with another chance at life. The second season probes further into the murky source of their lingering struggles by way of Nadia’s (and to a much lesser extent, Alan’s) maternal relations. It is an ambitious but ultimately lacking attempt at illustrating how trauma is inherited from one generation to the next, at the expense of the protagonists’ development and season one friendship. There is no strong emotional thread binding Alan and Nadia together, and despite their parallel time travel journeys, the pair’s interactions feel forced and disjointed.
Nadia is hunched and hardy as ever, and her newfound time-traveling abilities allow her to inhabit the bodies of Nora and Vera at various points in their lives. This ignites an obsession with her family’s history. She begins to entertain the archetypal delusion of most time travelers — that the past can be changed to create a better future. Nadia believes she can improve Nora’s and Vera’s fates by remedying the wrongs inflicted upon them by the world and by one another. As a result, her unborn self will inherit the material and emotional benefits of these changes: a sane mother, a happier childhood, and a college trust fund worth 150 Krugerrands.
Meanwhile, Alan finds himself in Berlin Wall-era Germany in the shoes of his maternal grandmother, an exchange student from Ghana. Alan tries to dissuade Nadia from her mission, urging her to take on a passive time-traveling role. (It’s worth noting that Alan’s arc this season is horribly underdeveloped.) His advice goes unheeded; Nadia insists that she has to “close the fucking deranged loop and bounce,” as the two did in the first season to escape perpetual death. Her efforts to rewrite the past, however, prove to be futile.
While inhabiting Nora’s body, Nadia learns that her mother stole the Krugerrands from her grandmother Vera to buy a car. Nadia, as Nora, manages to get the money back, only to lose it all on the subway. Nadia then ventures further back in time to help Vera find her family’s belongings, which were seized during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Once Vera discovers these long-lost goods, she pawns them off for the Krugerrands that Nora later steals and eventually loses. The “fucking deranged loop,” Nadia realizes, is already closed. Despite her resistance, she is operating within its constraints to fulfill a predetermined destiny.
Her matrilineal past and pain are unchangeable. Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a psychotherapist and Nadia’s stand-in maternal figure, delivers some of the most poignant lines of the season, foreshadowing the truth that Nadia struggles to accept. “Nothing can absolve us but ourselves,” Ruth says, with the ease of a wizened philosopher. Later, she adds: “Trauma is a topographical map written on the child and it takes a lifetime to read.”
This is where the second season disappoints. The protagonists do not traverse across new territory on their topological maps, even while embarking on a roundabout journey to their pasts. Nadia’s persistent familial conflicts are rehashed without fully exploring the nuances of Nora’s and Vera’s traumas beyond Nadia’s solipsistic considerations. We learn little about the origins of Nora’s mental health problems, Vera’s struggles as a widowed immigrant, and how their mother-daughter relationship grew so contentious.
At its lowest points, Russian Doll falls into the basic trappings of the trauma plot. “The trauma plot,” writes New Yorker critic Parul Sehgal, “does not direct our curiosity toward the future but back into the past.” Characters are “created in order to be dispatched into the past, to truffle for trauma,” which has been “synonymous with backstory.” Trauma as a plot device threatens to ascribe a character’s actions and decisions to a series of preexisting symptoms, born from an unchangeable yet ever-looming past. The first season put a funny, thrilling, profound, and existential twist on the nature of trauma. The second season was redeemed by its final episodes from falling head-first into this hackneyed trope.
The space-time continuum begins to fray in the penultimate episode, and Nadia learns it’s risky dwelling in the past for too long. She starts to miss out on real life. The present does not pause for Alan and Nadia as they journey further down their respective time loops. On her 40th birthday, Nadia tries to bring her newborn self to the present where she can parent her (“Tabula rasa!” she declaims), trapping her and Alan in a time-warped dimension where the past, present, and future intersect. There is no climactic return to linear time, no jovial celebration for escaping the loop.
Instead, Nadia’s catharsis comes in the form of grief. She learns that she wasn’t at the hospital to witness Ruth’s death, which occurred on Nadia’s 40th birthday. Nadia interacted with various past versions of Ruth during her time-bending blip, but ultimately missed out on Ruth’s final moments in the present. Nadia’s time arc barrels past the death of her loved one (“Grief doesn’t move you in a straight line,” says one of her friends) into the future. She emerges from the 6 train on the day of Ruth’s wake, a month after her death.
What then, I wondered, was the point of all that time traveling? The show offers an unclear explanation. Maybe it was a means for Nadia to approach her family’s psychological burdens with greater empathy, acceptance, and forgiveness. Or maybe the futile, fatalist nature of Nadia’s time-traveling endeavor was its grand takeaway.
Her journey back in time was all just a “Coney Island.” It’s a phrase that one of her mother’s old boyfriends deploys to describe “the thing that would’ve made everything better if only it had happened, or didn’t happen.” It’s a fantasy, he explains. An “if only” that leads people to dwell on the possibility of a better life. Russian Doll ends on this staid note of hope. Nadia’s present is a state of resigned grief, and she is no longer plagued by the Coney Islands of her trauma-laden past. The show leaves behind many unanswered questions, but the past, for now, is behind us.