Time travel. What a concept.
It’s inspired countless iconic films and appears in everything from “Doctor Who” to “Back to the Future.” I mean, who can really resist the dual aesthetic appeal of a period piece and sci-fi thrown together into one? But perhaps more importantly, as a plot device, time travel holds the creative capacity to accomplish something we all fixate on from time to time: the elusive impossibility of somehow changing the past. In season two of Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” Nadia (Natasha Lyonne, “Orange Is the New Black”) gets the golden opportunity to do just that. Or so she thinks.
The question that drove Nadia’s existence in the first season was pretty much: “How do I stop dying?” But in the aftermath of escaping a time loop and the show expanding its horizons both spatially and temporally, she’s left to tackle the resulting conundrum: “How do I go on living?”
Aligning with the show’s casually chaotic tone we’ve grown quite familiar with, Nadia randomly discovers a wormhole on the 6 Train that transports her back to 1982. An offhand remark she makes about being a “time prisoner,” rather than a “time traveler,” becomes frighteningly fitting once she realizes she’s not just stuck in the 80s, but also trapped inside the body of her mother, Lenora (Chloë Sevigny, “The Girl from Plainville”), who is currently pregnant with, you guessed it, Nadia. (Get it? Like a literal “Russian doll”? Yeah okay, I’ll stop.)
Unfazed as ever, Nadia’s escapades into the past begin to take on a mission of their own, even as she finds herself unable to control the train’s sporadic nature or the universe’s enigmatic agenda that sends her bouncing between the respective time periods and geographic locations of her mother and grandmother’s life. She quickly resolves to recover the family fortune her mother lost in 1982 and effectively change the course of her life.
Although Nadia has undergone some serious character development by the end of the first season, no amount of premature grappling with mortality could’ve prepared her for the possibility of losing her godmother, Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley, “Stagecoach”). There’s a passion to Lyonne’s performance, an inimitable energy that she carries (maybe it’s the hair, who knows?) that makes Nadia witnessing the inevitability of Ruth’s trajectory this season all the more heartbreaking. The addition of Annie Murphy (“Schitt’s Creek”) as a young Ruth in the 80s is practically the nail in the coffin. In any decade, Ruth’s level-headed presence effectively offsets the whirlwind of chaos that seems to follow Nadia wherever she goes, a role that was previously held by our resident voice of reason, Alan (Charlie Barnett, “Chicago Fire”). Even though his appearances were rather infrequent, and his narrative felt rather sidelined and disjointed at times in comparison to Nadia’s, the few moments they did have together were pure magic. The stark contrast in their respective processing of paralleled events is a key aspect of the show’s brilliance.
At times, the weirdness of “Russian Doll” may come off as a purely aesthetic ploy to keep up with the ever-idiosyncratic Lyonne herself, but beneath the surface, there are so many layers contributing to the richly eccentric experience that is watching this show. Its narrative often reads like an intricate puzzle box of sorts, each word of dialogue meticulously chosen, every reference a double entendre to mull over. Horse (Brendan Sexton III, “Don’t Breathe 2”), for example, inexplicably refers to Nadia as “Nora” in 2022, well before she takes a joy-ride in her mom. The intentionality of its soundtrack also works on multiple levels. The season opens to Nadia coolly walking to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” like a deity resurrected, descends into the distorted cadence of Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” for her first warped venture into 1982 and closes out on Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” as she contentedly makes peace with her past.
Like all perfect things, this second installment of “Russian Doll” was never going to be able to top that first season, but at its heart, it’s still a darkly funny and ambitious show. As someone who’s rewatched it more times than I can count, “Russian Doll” is something of a rabbit hole that you can’t help but get lost in. I don’t know where (or when) the show is headed next, but I can rest assured knowing that Nadia’s got the survival instincts of a “cock-ah-roach,” and that everything Natasha Lyonne touches turns to gold.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.