Russian Doll’s first season started off going great guns, before failing to stick the landing. This unnecessary – in as much as nothing about the original demanded more, beyond it proving something of a hit for Netflix, not least critically – second run doesn’t have that problem, mostly because it never even clears the runway.
Nadia: Well, inexplicable things happening is my entire modus operandi.
If in doubt, revert to a Quantum Leap/Back to the Future time-travel premise, by way of… er, that Nicholas Lyndhurst series (Goodnight, Sweetheart). This time, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) and Alan (Charlie Barnett) find themselves travelling back in time via the New York subway’s 6 Train. Nadia first visits 1982, then 1962, and then further back still, to 1944, as she takes generational leaps in attempts to solve her own familial disorders (this may also reflect, partially, Dark as an influence). Alan, meanwhile, spends most of his time in 1962 East Berlin, inhabiting his grandmother’s body as she dates a man called Lenny (who plans to burrow under the Berlin Wall… I know).
Alan: How, with all the time-travel stories about people accidentally obliterating themselves, do you find a way to make yourself double?
Alan has grown a moustache, which gives him a little more presence this time out, but not a lot; he’s in absolutely no danger of stealing the limelight from Nadia. Indeed, Carolyn Michelle Smith makes a significantly greater impression during her limited appearances as his alter/gran (Chloë Sevigny has zero chance of wresting attention from Lyonne in her comparable role, though). Further, Alan’s barely in the season until the fourth episode, such that you probably correctly get the impression that, like the first season, the character’s inclusion was more about filler than genuinely investing in him and having a story to tell.
Not that Nadia’s is hugely persuasive either, this time. Perhaps I’m a little fatigued with Lyonne, as a little of her schtick – like Joan Rivers chugging gravel – goes a long way. Season 1 sustained itself as long as it did thanks to a degree of WTF. There’s no such luck here, as it’s immediately evidently this is about coming to terms with one’s heritage/parentage (and extended parentage) that never engages beyond a passing interest, if that.
Heavily pregnant 1982 mom is a slapper, addicted to drugs and creeps (Sharlto Copley cast to type as a sleazoid). Drawing on both Lyonne’s actual grandparentage and Hollywood’s No.1 favourite staple – the Holocaust – much of Nadia’s efforts go towards attempting to ensure the family inheritance of gold Krugerrands doesn’t go astray. Inevitably, this being a causal time-travel plot, rather than allowing divergent timelines, anything she does – barring bringing herself back to the present – simply causes the events she knows.
At one point, Nadia comments – amid pithy Schindler’s List references – that she will “celebrate my birth by going back to where all my people died”; I mean, sheesh. Raiding the Holocaust for a plot is exactly as sincere and uncynical as that sounds. And not at all lazy. Having made all that show of her roots, Lyonne then delivers a fantasy-land World War II in 5: Exquisite Corpse, like she’s been taking notes on verisimilitude from Chris Carter’s Triangle X-Files episode.
The proceedings are replete with ’80s New York tropes – Guardian Angels, punks, scummy streets and graffiti-plastered subways – and music (much of it also to be found in Atomic Blonde). I guess you can give the makers the credit of a certain grimy sheen.
Lyonne and her collaborators are ever keen to show their smarts, so not only are the episodes littered with pop-culture references, to time travel and period, they’re also full of conceptual and literary allusions. Nadia references epigenetics as a potential justification for her foibles but knowingly caveats that its proponent Francis Galton was the father of eugenics. The Crazy Eddie employee (Malachi Nimmons) tells her he contributes to a fanzine on the subject of commodity fetishism and the Debordian Spectacle (a Marxist philosophical treatise that real life has been replaced by the representation thereof); you can’t get more materialist than the streets of NYC. And just to reassure us the crazy encounters and goings-on she experiences are entirely humanist in nature, the employee asks Nadia “You’re not a creationist, are you?” She replies to the affirmative (“Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone to blame?”)
Russian Doll is a show that wears hedonism on its chin – for all that it might be seen as a warning of unchecked debauchery, let’s not kid ourselves that, with its hard-drinking, chain-smoking, substance abuse to a giddy, montage-inspiring soundtrack, it isn’t embracing the same wholeheartedly. Lyonne knows a thing or two about excess, obviously, and you’re left wondering about a range of the remarks, imputations and dialogue here. She was, after all, a child actress, and she’d later comment “… it’s kind of a wacky idea to put your child in business at six years old”.
Hence, we are told of Nadia’s experiences “Trauma is a topographical map written on the child, and it takes a lifetime to read”. We’re presumably invited to read further into the statement. At one point, “Hungarian god” Kristof holds forth on the origins of acid, while observing “We weren’t allowed to study LSD, as it was deigned too dangerous for a communist country”. You mean, the KGB weren’t running their own equivalent of MKUltra with it, unlike the CIA? Trauma, trauma. At another juncture, Nadia tells us the Nazis were broke and drug-addicted speed freaks – she read a book about it (I’m assuming this is referring to Norman Ohler’s Blitzed).
Nadia: A little respect for the Butterfly Effect.
Elsewhere, being a product of Hollywood 2022, Russian Doll makes sure to muster the requisite progressive allusions. Alan, experiencing an attraction to a man while in the body of Agnes, embodies a quasi-surrogate trans metaphor. “Oh boy” as Sam Beckett would say. There’s a glimmer of interest early in 7: Matryoshka, when Nadia experiences a “fucking time bomb” after returning with her tiny-tot self and multiples of herself and others begin appearing in the same vicinity and time; this Escher-esque recursion briefly musters interest visually, but the proceedings quickly reduce to faux-surrealism, as Nadia and Alan are hit by duelling trains and fall into flooded rooms. Nadia being confronted by the question “If you could choose your mother all over again, would you choose me?” didn’t need seven episodes to resolve. But at least they were short.
The other part of the season that stood out was the occult referencing. “We’re Ashkenazi Jews, not wizards” (nor, presumably, Turks). “Why do you disgrace this enchantment?” asks someone, mistranslating (“What is this, the occult?” responds Nadia) “Goodnight, Hail Satan” intone the staff at the pawn shop. Appearing on a TV screen in the Crazy Eddie feedback loop, Nadia dutifully signals the all-seeing eye/eye of Lucifer. Later, at a grave, she appears to be approximating an Illuminati sign as she holds her lapels. In a strangle of mixed metaphors, Alan tells his friend “No Nadia, you cannot uncook that baby”. I’m sure Marina Abramovitch would agree. The season itself ends with the death of Ruth, her funeral/wake taking place on April 30, the beginning of Beltane. Hmmm. Probably all coincidence, right?
Nadia: Basic concepts like time and space are suddenly eluding me.
Mostly, Russian Doll Season 2 goes where many other sequels have. They didn’t really sustain a follow up either – Robocop, Die Hard, Shrek, you name it – so they’re left tilting rather hopeless at reheated tricks missing the essential tension of the first go round. Obviously, though, whether or not there’s a Season 3 will have nothing to do with quality and everything with how Netflix’s figures – taking a tumble since they’re upping their prices while ridding themselves of Russians, rather than dolls – fare.
First published by Now in Full Color on 29/04/22.