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This article contains spoilers for “Russian Doll”.
In the second season of “Russian Doll”, Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne, and Alan, played by Charlie Barnett, are trapped again. The couple travel involuntarily through time, discovering the world as their mothers and grandmothers did, delving into the complex family relationships that shaped them.
Nadia describes herself as a “prisoner of time”, and this is not the first unreal experience that she and Alan have shared. In the first season, the two are stuck in a time loop, dying over and over again, reliving a single day. They learn that the only way to break free is to lean on each other, and when each is able to help the other survive the night, the circle closes. The second season delves deeper into the emotional baggage the characters carried throughout the first – Alan’s anxious perfectionism and Nadia’s strained relationship with her mother.
This season, like the first, is rooted in Lyonne’s instantly recognizable and expressive hair, deep voice, and commanding performance as the caustic Nadia. Lyonne finds the perfect balance of toughness and tenderness as Nadia comes to terms with her feelings for her flawed mother and comes to understand her parenting perspective in a new way. Nadia visits both 1980s New York and 1940s Budapest on her journey to right the mistakes made by her ancestors, and her plot is a natural extension of her season one arc, but still distinct enough to deserve its own exploration.
Unfortunately, by focusing on Nadia’s story, the series loses sight of its other protagonist, Alan. The balance between Nadia and Alan was one of the strengths of the first season – Alan’s sensitivity acts as a key contrast to Nadia’s headstrong outlook. This season, Alan finds himself transported to 1960s East Berlin – where his grandmother lived as a young graduate student – grappling with the responsibility of knowing the region’s future as his grandmother’s friends mother plan their escape. Barnett’s performance as Alan is endearing, but his character gets a lot less time this season compared to the first season, and the purpose of his time-traveling adventure is never made clear. Alan’s sidelining feels like a missed opportunity to develop a gripping story.
The second season also lacks the clean, cyclical rhythm of the first season. The first season’s time-loop format created a tight structure that lent itself to the theme of Nadia’s emotional spiral and the audience’s growing understanding of the nature of her situation. It repeatedly anchored itself to the same time and place, revealing every unsettling change in Nadia’s surroundings as she detached herself from reality. Season two’s scope is broader and its structure is more fluid, losing the sharpness that came with the repeat of the first season.
But besides these weaknesses, this season also has a lot of strengths. The soundtrack is memorable, using thematic nods to the setting with Falco’s “Der Kommissar” and to the previous season with Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up.” The distorted reality visuals of Nadia and Alan are beautifully dreamlike.
The new actors of the season represent another strength. Annie Murphy joins the cast as the younger version of Ruth – the surrogate mother who raised Nadia in the absence of her real mother – and she stands out in the role. Murphy, along with Elizabeth Ashley as the older Ruth, act as moving and effective emotional anchors throughout the season.
The show is also enduringly clever, and this season introduces us to an exploration of time travel that is mind-blowing and original. “Russian Doll” creatively signals the characters’ surreal experiences, and the role of an unassuming subway train in transporting Nadia and Alan through time and space is particularly well crafted.
This new season of “Russian Doll” doesn’t seem entirely necessary, but that’s okay. Creators Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland and Natasha Lyonne make the smart choice not to take on the task of explaining why this is happening to Nadia and Alan for the second time. Instead, they trust the emotional truth of the subject to justify the story, and it works.
“Russian Doll” tackles generational trauma with wit and empathy, backed by excellent performances from every cast member. It’s not perfect, but it’s clever, original and full of real emotion.