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Russian Doll Season 2 Review: Natasha Lyonne’s Metaphysical Comedy Continues to Screw With Time

But the new season is sticky enough to keep you chasing what it actually is until the final shot

Russian Doll Season 2 Review
Russian Doll (Netflix)
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    The Pitch: Nearly four years after the Birthday That Just Kept Killing Them, Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) and Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett) are still free of the cosmic death wishes that tied their fates together in the first place. Well, mostly. While neither seems in imminent danger of falling down a flight of stairs or getting walloped by an errant taxi, neither do they seem to have particularly warmed to the idea of being alive in a world that deals people such uneven hands.

    This means that as yet another of Nadia’s birthdays is approaching — and not just any birthday, but her milestone 40th — they are neither of them surprised when the universe decides to step in and screw with their experience of time once more.

    In Nadia’s case, this screwery takes the form of a No. 6 train that inexplicably spits her out in 1982 — which, you do the math. How she’s perceived in eighties New York is one of the key elements of the new season, so no spoilers on that front, but suffice it to say: After the lifetime of deadly looping birthdays she went through in 2018, she’s hardly fazed to find herself suddenly dropped into the year she was born. In fact, she’s not just unfazed when she walks into Mayor Koch’s New York, but decidedly open to every experience (read: drugs and dick) that crosses her path.

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    The ways in which this newest metaphysical twist screws with Alan are, as one might expect, similar, but as in the first season, they aren’t revealed until the fourth episode in. By then, Nadia has more or less determined what it is she thinks the universe is asking of her — and by extension, she’d probably argue if she stopped to think about him for more than a few seconds, Alan — and has started making plans to act on those requests.

    Some of those plans involve Budapest (which scenes the series shot on location); some, treasure maps; some, the madcap idea to just straight up break time. As for how those plans play out? Well, just ask Nadia’s godmother Ruthie (Elizabeth Ashley) what God does when anyone tries to make plans…

    russian doll greta lee natasha lyonne Russian Doll Season 2 Review: Natasha Lyonnes Metaphysical Comedy Continues to Screw With Time

    Russian Doll (Netflix)

    Metaphysics on the 6 Train Express: When news of Russian Doll’s renewal broke in the summer of 2019, it was met, at least on the critical level, with a certain degree of ambivalence. It wasn’t that skeptics thought the allusively rich, aesthetically idiosyncratic series couldn’t live up to its own high expectations. It was just that it seemed dead obvious it shouldn’t even be asked to try.

    The existential escape room that Lyonne, along with co-creators Amy Poehler and Leslye Hedlund, had so meticulously put together for that first morbid shock of a Happy Death Day season was so creatively and emotionally complete, it felt sacrilegious to even entertain the idea that it might be a world to which any of us might one day return.

    So now that we’re here, with the Season 2 premiere just around the corner, the cosmic elephant in the room is asking, were the skeptics right?

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    We’ll get to the final verdict below, but for now let’s go with: maybe. Not because the quality of the final product has suffered in any way for being a retread; on the contrary, with Lyonne now leading the production not just in front of the camera, but also behind it as official showrunner, the acting, costuming, production design, and needle drops are perhaps even sharper and more surprising than they were during the first go-round.

    Similarly, the addition of Annie Murphy as a younger version of Nadia’s beloved Ruthie isn’t just a fun treat for fans of the elevated sitcom form (Kevin Can F*** Himself hive represent!), but a real coup for what her version of the character is meant to accomplish this season, both narratively and emotionally.

    On that front, where the metaphysical death wish twistiness of the first season was rooted in a universal enough place that its trippy consequences could be enjoyed as much on a formal/comedic level as on a personal one, the Time Train tomfoolery that Nadia, in particular, is dealing with in Season 2 is running along the tracks of such a deeply specific map of inherited trauma that the watch experience is anything but universal.

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    Think clinical schizophrenia. Think marrow-deep matrilineal grief. Think the fate of Hungarian Jews in 1944. Think survivor’s guilt. Think Nazis.

    This isn’t to suggest that specificity isn’t good, especially when it comes to projects as idiosyncratic and singular as Russian Doll. Nor, too, is it to suggest that the trauma Nadia’s drowning in this time around is wildly different from that which fueled her death wish in Season 1.

    russian doll natasha lyonne annie murphy Russian Doll Season 2 Review: Natasha Lyonnes Metaphysical Comedy Continues to Screw With Time

    Russian Doll (Netflix)

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