When you manage to create a perfect closed loop, how do you open it back up again? And should you?
These are the questions that face existential explorer Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) in the second season of Russian Doll. They’re also the questions that face the show itself, with new episodes streaming on Netflix after a three-year hiatus. Russian Doll‘s first incarnation felt as sui generis as its cocreator and star, Lyonne; The plot used a time loop to weave together Harry Nilsson, roast chicken, unprocessed grief, and New York’s East Village. By the time Nadia and fellow traveler Alan (Charlie Barnett) brought their vicious cycle to an end, Russian Doll appeared to reach the end of its specific, finite story. But now, it’s back — or rather, back again. Nadia’s no stranger to taking things from the top.
The issues raised by Russian Doll‘s reappearance may be fitting given the show’s premise, but they’re increasingly shared across television. Thanks to the flexibility of streaming formats and the increased leverage that comes with “prestige,” TV has never been less bound to strict schedules or categories. Once-limited series, like Big Little Lies, can come back for more; established shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm can take extended breaks between seasons; hits like Atlanta can choose to end on their own terms. But the freedom to make these decisions also comes with scrutiny towards their outcomes.
This week, The Flight Attendant takes off for a second season on HBO Max. The series, another comedy about a messy, 30-something woman whose extreme circumstances force a look in the mirror, already paired well with Russian Doll even before their proximate premieres. Unlike Russian Doll, The Flight Attendant was announced as a limited series, only to backtrack after its initial success. But both shows walk the same thin line. The pure plot (time travel caper, espionage thriller) may be addictive and easy to crave more of, but the deeper themes (a volatile childhood, family history of alcoholism) demand intention and restraint, lest stretching the story out sap some of the emotional punch.
How The Flight Attendant tackles that mutual challenge is a subject for another review. In this context, it’s largely a reminder that Russian Doll isn’t the only recent award-winning hit to try to find out if lightning can strike twice. Russian Doll has already repeated itself, many times over. For its second act, Lyonne — now acting as showrunner and frequent director after the departure of cocreator Leslye Headland — keeps tinkering with time. Now, it just runs backward.
We open four years after Alan and Nadia fixed their first bug in the universe’s code. (Nadia’s day job as a game designer helped inform her pragmatic approach to getting repeatedly run over by a taxi.) Our heroine is just a week shy of her 40th birthday, a more widely acknowledged milestone than Season 1’s 36th — the point at which Nadia officially outlived her mother Nora (Chloë Sevigny), a troubled soul responsible for her daughter’s unstable upbringing. Nilsson gives way to Depeche Mode, whose “Personal Jesus” perfectly matches Nadia’s Goth-adjacent wardrobe and stomping gait. And on a routine trip downtown, a southbound 6 train somehow brings Nadia not just 40 blocks south, but 40 years into her own past.
Russian Doll has always had a throwback feel. Lyonne’s rasping delivery is often compared to a Borscht Belt comedian, a doe-eyed young woman with the voice and bemused worldview of a kvetching old man. Nadia’s native East Village, a nocturnal den of artists and eccentrics, feels like a relic of pre-Bloomberg New York. Russian Doll can even trace its roots to a 2014 NBC pilot called Old Soul, riffing on cocreator Amy Poehler’s observation that Lyonne has “always been the oldest girl in the world.” By turning back the clock to 1982, Russian Doll literalizes what’s always been true. Surrounded by graffitied subway cars and Guardian Angels, Lyonne looks to be in her natural habitat.
But as she soon discovers, Nadia’s trans-temporal commute hasn’t just taken her into the past. In Season 1, every grisly death punted Nadia back into her bathroom, staring at her own reflection. The Season 2 premiere re-creates that now-iconic shot — except now, Nadia doesn’t see herself, because she isn’t herself. She’s her own mother, heavily pregnant with the future baby Nadia. At first, Nadia is relatively blasé about her latest adventure: “When the universe fucks with you, let it,” she tells a new friend, speaking from hard-won experience. The true extent of her transformation, however, is enough to puncture even a lifelong Manhattanite’s jaded cool.
While stuck in the loop, Nadia cautioned Alan against finding some deeper moral lesson in their shared situation: “This is not good or bad,” she warned. “It’s just a bug.” This time, Nadia ignores her own advice. Thrust back into the roots of her own trauma, Nadia fixates on tracking down the MacGuffin she’s convinced will fix her family: a stash of gold, South African Krugerrands her grandmother hoarded and her mother stole, then lost. The coins represent the wealth Nora’s mother Vera (Irén Bordán) smuggled out of Budapest while fleeing the Holocaust, and Nadia sees in them a way to secure her own future and mend the ruptures in her scarred, fractious matrilineage. But Nora’s dirtbag boyfriend Chez (Sharlto Copley), who may or may not be responsible for her disappearance, sees the coins for what they truly are. They’re what he calls a “Coney Island,” after the place where his father caught polio on one fateful trip that he spent the rest of his life regretting: “The thing that would’ve made everything better… It’s a fantasy. An ‘if only.’ ”
Considering Nadia lives in the shell of a former yeshiva, Russian Doll was already a profoundly Jewish enterprise. But in its exploration of deep psychological wounds that stretch back generations, a quest that sends Nadia ricocheting through the decades and across continents, the show walks in the footsteps of what might be one of the most Jewish works of the last 10 years: Transparent, the drama that ran into creative trouble even before reports of sexual harassment by its lead actor derailed its haphazard finale. Transparent thrived at the intersection of its many disparate interests, from gender identity to Judaism to sexuality to dysfunctional families to California cool. It also followed those threads long past the point where they organically came together, a path Russian Doll also seems to be walking.
For a show only in its second season, Russian Doll is already intensely self-referential. “Sweet birthday baby,” “what a concept,” and Lyonne’s pronunciation of “cock-a-roach” all became calling cards after Season 1, and each make an appearance in Season 2. But the running gags don’t weave together as tightly with the story and stakes into a cohesive unit, which is partly by design. Now firmly in the driver’s seat, Lyonne seems to revel in indulging her every esoteric impulse. When one character introduces themselves as “the assistant editor of a zine about commodity fetishism and Debordian spectacle,” we’re so deep into pop philosophy the viewer doesn’t bat an eye.
The shagginess can make Russian Doll feel like a less polished retread of its earlier self, revisiting familiar themes while losing track of other elements. As affecting as some of the flashbacks may be, Russian Doll was already a deft dissection of how Nadia still carries Vera’s and Nora’s emotional baggage. Meanwhile, Alan’s role ends up diminished, breaking up the unlikely soulmates that gave Russian Doll a solid foundation to its freewheeling chaos. Alan gets his own subplot, a connection to his Ghanaian grandmother that takes him to 1960s Berlin. Still, it’s separate from and smaller than Nadia’s journey, a mere satellite to the show’s increasingly wide orbit. Russian Doll keeps spinning out, and those who wish can keep following it further down the rabbit hole.