“Compulsively entertaining and addictive in the sense that it has a way of leaving room for future possibilities of more stories down the line“
Time travel. What a concept!
In the first season of Russian Doll, Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) and Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett) escape their “purgatorial punishment,” or a Groundhog Day-esque situation. Nadia’s experience with the never-ending time loops makes her more self-aware of time travel between generations and countries, and she goes back in time to make things right for her family. The second season dives into the intergenerational trauma, motherhood, and Nadia’s crisis of holding onto her surrogate mother, Ruth Brenner (Elizabeth Ashley). The episodes are bewitching as they delve into the do’s and don’ts of time travel, and the temporal train of madness begins again.
After four years of escaping the first season’s events and ten days before Nadia turns 40, she visits Ruth at the hospital due to a minor accident. Her best friend Maxine (Greta Lee) plots another birthday party but Nadia prefers to spend time with Alan, considering what they have been through together (and also because they want to avoid getting lost again in another time loop). When Nadia gets on the subway, however, she notices a movie poster of Cats the musical and passengers smoking and reading newspapers and realises that she has travelled back to 1982 New York City. She is able to freely slip between the past and present, bewildered that it isn’t a permanent condition like the last time, and meets Alan to tell him about the new developments. But the intricacies of time-travelling are much more complicated than Nadia has imagined, as she tries to recover her family heirloom and heal the wounds of the past.
Lyonne, along with her fellow show creators, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, is committed to pulling off a time-changing and globe-trotting adventurous journey as well as confronting the buried traumas of the past. The second season is chaotic and energetic, and it doesn’t attempt to explain the rules of time travel because the assumption is that the audience is already aware of the complexities of it all. Nadia and Alan don’t question the subway station/time-travelling phenomenon either—after all, they are already veterans! It’s more entertaining to watch these two characters, connected through time loops, figure out the cosmic rules and eventually help each other out. Much of this season also has the same energy and humour as its predecessor, as Lyonne mutters “cock-a-roach” in her thick New York accent and brings back the “What a concept” joke. Yet Lyonne’s portrayal of Nadia finds new feelings of confusion and shock left by her wounded childhood and her biological mother’s mental illness and death.
The show uses science fiction elements to dive into emotional issues. Nadia is in an existential crisis, of sorts. She watches as her godmother’s health progressively worsens and how mental illness runs in her family, particularly how her biological mother, Nora (Chloë Sevigny), suffered from schizophrenia. This time, time travel exists as a metaphor and Nadia’s fear of inheriting Nora’s mental illness is interwoven into the emotional journey. Though she is reluctant to face it, Nadia confronts her mother’s past and trauma by fixing herself through time travel. Apart from Lyonne and Barnett’s exceptional chemistry, Ashley brings an emotional and deeply moving performance while Sevigny brings a raw and dynamic performance as a young mother struggling to raise her child in the 1980s.
Perhaps the one aspect that the second season of Russian Doll could have better utilized is Alan. In the first season, Nadia and Alan’s histories are intertwined, as the latter spends much of his time learning about his family’s backstory through transporting train rides. Their experiences form a singular connection in which they save themselves from self-destruction. Yet in the second season, this narrative point falls short. Nadia and Alan are on their own paths, forming and confronting their personal traumas.
Russian Doll experiments on the boundaries of science fiction and time travel. The show is compulsively entertaining and addictive in the sense that it has a way of leaving room for future possibilities of more stories down the line, and it is definitely risky as it doesn’t pretend to overexplain time-travelling to the audience. It constructs and deconstructs the science fiction tropes, and justifies the rules by not following strict rules. It allows Nadia and Alan to lose control of their place in time and their conviction of their family’s riveting history. If there is one thing the audience is going to miss, it’s Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”—but that finds its way back to Nadia and Alan just in time for the real fun to begin.