The first season of Netflix’s Russian Doll was a revelation. Its quirky, twisty, and imaginative take on the time traveler trope was fun and edgy, with a touch of melancholy and authenticity, centered around an addictively unique and charming character played to gritty perfection by Natasha Lyonne. It was hard to know where Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler, Russian Doll’s trio of creators, would be able to take the narrative once the first season ended, as the show seemed to be lightning in a bottle, a feast of the senses that offered a quick hit of sensory overload, akin to a sugar high. It’s not always possible to turn a sprinter into a long-distance runner—the fear was, if forced to draw out the series beyond its natural, organic life span, it might lose all of its sparkle.
Well, the good news about season two of Russian Doll is there still is a whole lot of sparkle. The bad news is, it’s much less captivating and doesn’t come anywhere close to the true genius of the first season. Still, that first season set a very high bar, so even though season two can easily be classified as a disappointment, there is still much to delight in.
Lyonne returns as cynical New Yorker Nadia Vulvokov, who discovered in season one that she is stuck in a seemingly perpetual time loop of the same day, which happens to be her birthday. It’s not just that she keeps repeating the same day; it’s that she dies multiple ways and keeps coming back, forced to start again from the same spot. Before ultimately consenting to the fact that she’s gone insane, she meets Alan, played by Charlie Barnett, who is also stuck in a life-death time loop, which he discovers after killing himself in the aftermath of being dumped by his girlfriend. At the end of season one, Nadia and Alan come to realize that there must be a reason they have found each other, and they make a promise to help each other get out of their mutual purgatories.
At the start of season two, Nadia and Alan have seemingly settled in and accepted their respective fates. Their cyclical patterns have slowed down considerably, but they still are keeping an eye on each other to make sure neither gets too lost. But when Nadia gets on the subway a few days before her 40th birthday and the doors close, she finds herself in 1982 and sees her pregnant mother’s face (Chloë Sevigny) when she looks into the mirror. It seems as if Nadia has traveled back to the year of her birth, and she figures out the universe has tasked her with righting a family wrong, which involves getting back something that was stolen from them.
Meanwhile, Alan finds himself in a similar predicament, but instead of New York in 1982, he gets off the train and finds himself in East Berlin in 1962. He also has traveled back to a family member, but this time he’s jumped a generation and embodies his grandmother, who was a Kenyan student studying in Berlin during the height of the Cold War.
Both Nadia and Alan believe they have been sent back in time to do something, but neither is quite sure what that something is. But while Nadia gladly chases down any clue she can get, Alan is resistant, afraid of what it could mean to alter things in the past. Still, they each travel down their metaphysical rabbit holes anyway, unable to resist the universe telling them there is some purpose in their being there.
With the freshness of the show’s concept gone from season one, the biggest challenge for the creators in season two is to build on the goodwill they had, which mainly surrounds the audience’s love affair with the characters of Nadia and Alan. What Lyonne and Bennett bring to their respective roles is a depth of character and a richness of personality, a vulnerability, and a longing for connection. The writers in season two attempt to expand on and explore those elements but get too bogged down in plot, especially with Nadia, whose adventures trying to rescue her family’s fortunes take the show too far off course. Too much time is spent with Nadia trying to peel away at her mother’s mental instabilities while jumping back and forth through time, Quantum Leap-style, trying to fix things. But getting lost in this show is all part of the fun, and going on Nadia’s crazy ride is the whole point.
The new characters in season two aren’t nearly as charming and fun to spend time with as they were in season one, but the centrifugal force that is Nadia still generates the same power, a vortex of personality now swirling through multiple dimensions, her own version of Doctor Strange, ruling over her own multi-verse. The addition of Annie Murphy, who plays the younger version of Nadia’s godmother Ruth, played in the elder version by Elizabeth Ashley, is utter perfection, but she is sadly under-used. Ashley, however, is in fine form, serving as Nadia’s grounding agent and calm eye of the storm. The relationship between Nadia and Ruth is the emotional center of the series, and even though it would have been nice to have had more scenes with them together, the ones we do get are sublime. It’s also nice to see Greta Lee and Rebecca Henderson back as Maxine and Lizzy, Nadia’s daffy but loyal friends who keep Nadia focused.
The biggest disappointment of season two is the lack of story for Alan, a character the writers seemingly don’t know what to do with. Even so, Barnett is so charming in this role. Whatever we get is magic—I just wish there was more of it.
Alan gets lost in Nadia’s shadow, but that’s to be expected with a character like this. There is no imagining anyone else as Nadia than Lyonne, whose cynical, whirling dervish of an addition-addled human hurricane both creates and eases anxiety in the audience, a rare confluence of actor and character that is perfectly synchronized and impossible to resist. From Nadia’s under-her-breath grunts when trying to figure something out to her purposeful stride to her casually cool cigarette habit, Lyonne delivers a full-bodied performance, punctuated by impeccable line delivery and a way-too-cool-for-school vibe that most would kill for.
But it is in the dialogue that Nadia is given where Lyonne and Russian Doll really soar. The writing has always been the best part of Russian Doll, and season two is no different, as Poehler, Lyonne, and Headland continue to write the most crackling, edgy, and darkly clever dialogue, delivered by Lyonne with biting angst. Lyonne is a significant creative force behind the scenes as well, not just a producer but a writer and director as well. There is clearly a synergy between creators and performers, as the entire female-driven team is working as one, firing on all cylinders.
Even though the story may wander off track just a little, the production elements of this series continue to wow in season two, just as they did in season one. The costumes, cinematography, and production design that won Emmys for season one are just as good in season two, if not better—if that’s even possible. It sounds better too, as the score’s goth-infused, punk-funk atmosphere is driven home by perfectly-calibrated needle drops, with music from Bauhaus, Pink Floyd, and Depeche Mode just the tip of the musical iceberg.
Season two of Russian Doll comes so close to continuing the perfection of season one, which is a rare and difficult thing to achieve. While it does try to do a little too much, story-wise, in the end, there is no denying its essential charms and irresistible vibe, as Russian Doll continues to be one loop we hope to stay in.