Even from a distance of only three years, it can be hard to express just how important the first season of Russian Doll felt. In early 2019, Netflix was still the biggest game in town in the streaming wars. But though it had produced some buzzy successes (chiefly Stranger Things), it had yet to deliver a true masterpiece. Russian Doll felt like a great leap forward. It was good, but more importantly, it was good in its own distinct way—a sci-fi tragicomedy about a prickly, cheerfully profane and determinedly single woman, deeply rooted in its East Village setting, and with strong lashings of magical realism.
It was a show that you could only imagine existing on a streaming service, and the fact that it was Netflix that had brought it to us burnished the streamer’s star, even in the face of the sameyness of most of its other offerings. So when it was announced that Russian Doll would be returning for a second season, despite its story reaching a very decisive ending, it was hard not to have faith that creators Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland weren’t merely being lured by a distributor desperate to keep a hit going. That they truly had more to say about this character, in this universe, in this particular, inimitable way.
The streaming landscape that Russian Doll returns to three years later is something entirely different. More crowded, more varied, and a great deal more competitive. Netflix, to say the least, has struggled to maintain its position. The promise seemingly made by the show’s first season, that here was a platform for experimental, boundary-pushing work, has mostly remained unfulfilled. Despite occasional groundbreaking work like Squid Game (a product of the streamer’s international development arm, the one place where it maintains an advantage over its competitors), its energies seem focused mostly on crowdpleasing fare like Bridgerton and The Witcher, whose seasons seem to disappear from the public conversation almost as soon as they’re released. The week that Russian Doll’s second season dropped, my Twitter feed was obsessed with Our Flag Means Death (HBO Max) and Severance (Apple TV+). If you didn’t know that the continuation of one of the most beloved, talked-about stories of 2019 had just been released, you might easily have missed it.
The point of this preamble is to say that if the second season of Russian Doll doesn’t live up to the expectations created by the first, that’s at least partly due to factors completely outside the show’s control. The television landscape has changed so much and so quickly, and incorporated so many of the innovations the show made (magical realism and a strong sense of place feel practically de rigueur, and there are probably more half-hour shows that don’t slot easily into either the comedy or drama categories than ones that do), that it would have been hard for any production team to keep up. At the same time, Russian Doll’s failure to make an argument for itself in this new landscape feels like a reflection of the state of its platform, if not the field as a whole, where for every genuinely exciting work there are at least ten shows that only seem to exist because of the constant need for more content.
The best way to describe Russian Doll’s second season is “messy.” You see this almost immediately in the two seasons’ respective choice of SFnal trope—in the first season, a time loop, a trope with clearly laid-out rules that inherently limits the story’s parameters; in the second season, time travel, an amorphous concept that offers almost limitless storytelling possibilities. Nadia (Lyonne), our chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, quintessential New Yorker heroine, is a few days short of her fortieth birthday when a trip on the subway lands her in 1982, inhabiting the body of her mother, Nora (Chloë Sevigny), who is heavily pregnant with Nadia herself. Nora has just stolen her own mother’s stash of gold Krugerrands, a loss that the adult Nadia has always been bitter about. Determined to retrieve the coins and somehow change her family’s fortunes, Nadia embarks on a madcap adventure that sees her retracing her mentally ill mother’s steps up and down Manhattan, traveling to Budapest in both the present day and 1944, and eventually stealing her own infant self and bringing her to the present, in the hopes of sparing her the damage of a chaotic upbringing.
Russian Doll’s first season felt almost like a precision instrument (a precision that contrasted nicely with Nadia’s chaotic nature), first introducing a familiar time loop premise, then complicating it [for example by revealing that Nadia is looping in concert with another man, Alan (Charlie Barnett]), then delving into the darkness of both main characters, before finally ending on a life-affirming, primal cry of human connection. The second season, in contrast, feels like it’s piling things on top of one another almost at random.
Time travel does whatever Nadia needs it to do in the moment. Sometimes it feels like a metaphor for her anxieties. Other times, she perpetuates the very history that she was trying to prevent, in a way that might not have happened if she hadn’t been there. A powerful mid-season arc sees Nora’s mental illness bleeding into Nadia’s psyche, the slide from eccentric to fully unhinged occurring with terrifying ease. But it also feels like a convenient plot development, a way of keeping the story going at a point where a Nadia in full possession of her faculties would have obviously put a stop to it.
This kind of throw everything at the wall approach reflects Nadia’s own state of mind, as the second season finds her desperate to avoid facing reality. If the first season was about nothing less than the death drive—in Alan’s case, having committed suicide on the night he entered the loop; in Nadia’s, keeping the world at arm’s length even at the risk of her own life—the second is about something far more mundane. Nadia’s beloved godmother Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) is experiencing increasingly persistent health problems, leaving Nadia to face the prospect of losing the last person who knew her as a child—as she puts it, the last witness to her past. Instead of trying to process this loss, Nadia becomes obsessed with the idea of rewriting the past, as if this will somehow prevent the inevitable.
As is often the case, however, just because something is done deliberately doesn’t mean it’s going to work, and the scattershot nature of Russian Doll’s plotting in its second season is alienating. Where the first season’s precision helped to put viewers in Nadia’s increasingly strained headspace, in the second season her growing desperation—and the universe’s willingness to accommodate her—only call attention to the artificiality of the whole exercise. A case in point is Alan—who doesn’t really have a role in this story, but has been shoehorned into it because it’s expected—traveling to 1962 East Germany to inhabit the body of his grandmother Agnes (Carolyn Michelle Smith), a Ghanian engineering student who is helping some dissidents dig a tunnel under the wall.
If the whole of Russian Doll’s second season doesn’t live up to expectations, however, the parts have significant charms that remind us why we fell in love with this show in the first place. The Alan subplot, for example, may not have a reason to exist in this iteration of the show, but even after three years it still perfectly grasps the character, and how his kindness and stolidness make for a perfect counterpoint to Nadia’s chaotic energy. The show doesn’t put a label on it when he happily steps into Agnes’s romance with wannabe escapee Lenny (Sandor Funtek)—is he bisexual, or just playing along? Rather, it recognizes that what’s important about this story is Alan’s open heart, how he instantly perceives Lenny as someone whom he should care for and protect, and how his inability to keep the past from playing out the way it always did reveals the bedrock of anxiety and depression that lie beneath his clean-cut persona.
Similarly, Nadia’s explorations of her family history delve into corners that American television rarely explores, and hardly ever with this much specificity. As the descendant of Holocaust escapees who purchased a trove of Krugerrands as a get-away-quick stash, which went on to become a familial bone of contention until everyone from that generation was dead, I never expected to see that aspect of my family history depicted in a Netflix series, and Russian Doll perfectly captures the rhythms and frustrations of Ashkenazi Jewish families. Nadia’s journey into the more distant past, as she tries to track down the possessions looted from her family by Hungarian officers collaborating with the Nazis, manages to encompass the awfulness of what’s being depicted without losing the show’s sardonic tone—for once, Nadia’s wisecracking, as she tries to talk her way past Nazi officers and anti-Semitic priests, has an undertone of rage, but also weary acceptance of the world’s awfulness.
Finally, there is simply the pleasure of spending more time with these characters, including some supporting figures whom the second season fleshes out. Chloë Sevigny was mostly a figure of horror in the first season, someone whose terrifying instability loomed over Nadia’s life years after her death. Getting more screen time in the second season doesn’t soften her, but it does clarify how terrible it must have been to be Nora, while also sketching in her other relationships—with her tough, emotionally withdrawn mother Vera (Irén Bordán), and with the younger version of Ruth (Annie Murphy, who is just starting to realize that she is going to spend the rest of her life caring for Nora and Nadia. Though Greta Lee’s Maxine doesn’t get the storyline that her scene-stealing appearances in the first season seemed to demand, she continues to be weird and delightful in equal measure. And, though the story keeps them apart for far too long, Nadia and Alan remain a thoroughly winning combination, her wildness and his passivity playing perfectly against each other, finally forcing them both to be better people.
Like a lot of recent stories, the second season of Russian Doll is about generational trauma, how Vera’s losses, and Nora’s instability, have impacted Nadia and shaped the person she is. Unlike a children’s story like Encanto or Turning Red, however, Russian Doll doesn’t believe that it is possible to fully put that past to rest. By trying to remake herself without the burden of her familial traumas, Nadia breaks time itself. Putting it back together is a matter of accepting her past—and saying goodbye to the last vestiges of it that are still around, like Ruth. The season finale is a psychedelic extravaganza that remixes both seasons, sending both Nadia and Alan on a quest to confront their past and personal demons, and culminating not in the first season’s vibrant embrace of life, but in a quieter acceptance of both characters’ flaws and limitations.
It’s a less exciting ending than the first season’s, and perhaps that’s entirely what the show intended. But though I could never regret another chance to spend time with Nadia—arguably one of the most unusual female characters on our TV screens—I also can’t say that the second season of Russian Doll really needed to be made. It feels like a metaphor for where Netflix itself is right now—something you keep up with because it’s there, and which is still capable of giving you a lot of pleasure. But is no longer capable of saying anything truly new.