The first season of Russian Doll is basically perfect, so the bar for a second season is especially high. There is also the Fleabag standard to contend with, in which a one-off limited series is extended to a second season after breakout success, and in Fleabag’s case, the second season is, somehow, better than the first. The question, then, is can Russian Doll do what Fleabag did and give us a second season at least as good as the first? The answer: Not quite. Four years have passed since Nadia (creator-writer-star Natasha Lyonne) and Alan (Charlie Barnett) got stuck in a time loop on the night of Nadia’s thirty-sixth birthday. Now on the cusp of turning forty, Nadia finds herself rocketed back in time by the 6 train, landing in 1982, her birth year, to discover she is inhabiting the body of her mother, Lenora (Chloe Sevigny).
The setup is fairly straightforward, as far as timey-wimey shenanigans go. Nadia has a chance to understand her late mother better by literally experiencing her life at a critical moment—not just the pending birth of Nadia herself, but also the time when Lenora loses the gold krugerrands meant to be the family fortune. Nadia decides to try and preserve the krugerrands, and thus change her future trajectory, as the loss of the gold caused a major rift between Lenora and her mother, Vera (Irén Bordán). I skipped all trailers and previews for Russian Doll, intending to go into the new season as unspoiled as possible, so imagine my delight when Sharlto Copley, emitting huge cocaine dirtbag energy, shows up as Lenora’s dirtbag boyfriend, Chez. Also new to the season is Annie Murphy, taking over as the young Ruth, Nadia’s godmother who raised her.
But beyond being pleasantly surprised to see Copley (whom I love from way back), season two doesn’t offer the same thrill as before. Some of it is the looser, less-connected nature of the story—Nadia and Alan’s respective trips through time have nothing to do with one another and thematically don’t connect well, either. But it’s also that we’ve seen rather a lot of space-time chicanery recently to explore generational trauma, and the freshness of the concept is expiring. That’s not Russian Doll’s fault, but it does feel like everyone had the same idea at once and now everything is multiverses and parallel dimensions as metaphors for family trauma. But what Russian Doll tries to do it does mostly well, especially in the later episodes as Nadia’s increasingly desperate efforts to “fix” her mother’s past, and then her grandmother’s past, results in an ever more screwed up present. You can’t really change the things that have happened, you can only learn to live with them, and move on. It’s a nice message and Russian Doll gets it across without becoming too obvious.
The disconnect between Nadia and Charlie, though, is a sore spot. They are so well integrated in season one because of how their fateful nights overlap, but there is no such organic ground in season two. It is apparent they have become close friends—it seems like their split timelines maybe merged? It’s not clear, but Nadia and Alan both remember their time loop nightmare four years on—but the new sci-fi mechanism for the season doesn’t bring them any closer. Alan goes back to his mother’s life in Cold War East Berlin, where she is studying engineering. He isn’t learning the same lesson as Nadia by making these trips into his mother’s life, though, nor is as much story space devoted to Alan as is to Nadia, who has a whole Nazi mystery to unravel, so Alan’s story ends up feeling rushed and undercooked. It feels like they should have either found a way to better integrate Alan into Nadia’s story, or just not brought him back at all. The half measure that exists doesn’t really work, and is the season’s weakest element.
Russian Doll is still fun to watch in its second season, a veritable verbal symphony for Lyonne (who also directs three of the seven episodes), who remains one of the coolest people on television, but it is unquestionably messier than season one. The balance, between characters, between story and theme, is slightly off in season two, and the spinning plates trick of season one doesn’t come off as cleanly in the second season. It’s still a good show, but a slightly less good one, with less surprises and less heady narrative tricks. The main thrill now is just watching Natasha Lyonne chew dialogue from New York to Nazi-occupied Budapest while wearing killer boots and really cool sunglasses. She is always entertaining to watch, but Russian Doll feels less special the second time around.
Russian Doll season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.