Mirrors are tricky objects: we see ourselves and we don’t see ourselves. We see a reflection, a reversal. Sometimes mirrors are a tool for adjusting makeup or an errant hair; other times they’re an enemy, showing us something we don’t want to see. In Russian Doll season 1, Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) wakes up in the bathroom, standing at the sink, on her 36th birthday, looking at herself in the mirror. It is often easy to latch onto the central hook of Russian Doll’s first season: that Nadia is doomed — or maybe blessed — to die and wake up at her 36th birthday party over and over again. Over the course of the season, Nadia links up with a man named Alan (Charlie Barnett) who is also doomed — or maybe blessed — to meet the same fate. He, too, emerges from death standing in front of his bathroom mirror.
Together, they wend their way through New York City’s Lower East Side to solve the mystery of what is happening to them. Are they caught in a wormhole? A glitch in the Matrix? Is this a moral quandary? A mystic curse? A Jewish Groundhog Day? Why are these two people, Nadia and Alan, united in this cosmic hiccup? Nadia, helmed by Lyonne’s signature wryness and smoker’s rasp, courts death with every inhale. She’ll bravely ingest anything and anyone, never missing a chance to live a little harder. Alan, on the other hand, is faithful to routine, sucking all the potential for joy and surprise out of his life. He is in good shape, careful, and polite. She indulges; he refrains. And yet they die and die and die.
The second season of Russian Doll is less of an exploration of death, less a lesson in living and reliving, and more of a journey through a hall of mirrors. This works to the show’s advantage: we don’t need to see the tedium of the same day over and over again, let alone in the midst of an on-going pandemic. But Russian Doll’s second season elides a sense of relatability almost completely, instead indulging in its protagonist’s self-obsessed journey towards healing.
The joy in Russian Doll is discovery, but in thinking about the form and function of its second season, consider the name of the show itself: Russian Doll — a matryoshka. A big mother doll — the word “matryoshka” translates literally to matron — nests three smaller dolls inside of her body. They are a distinctly Eastern European traditional artifact dating back to the 19th century, coming in all shapes and colors and clothing and expressions. Within them, they nest history and artfulness, a harkening back to women of the past.
Indeed, the second season of Russian Doll takes Nadia on a journey not through death but through time, using the 6 train to rocket backwards into her past, physically embodying key matriarchal figures. First she inhabits her mother, Nora (Chloë Seveigny), then her grandmother, on an ill-begotten search through history to locate her family’s lost krugerrands. If only she can get the money back to her mother — and keep her mother from losing it — then maybe there’s a hope for all of them. In part, because we’ve seen the first season of Russian Doll, we know things aren’t that simple. Life is not filled with possible macguffins, and there’s not time to delve into what ramifications this could have on the time-space continuum.
In fact, in the first episode of the second season of Russian Doll, a man on the street asks Nadia, “Do you believe in the future of humanity?” “Define ‘future,’” she snaps. It’s true: for Nadia, the future is not of the utmost importance, and it’s true: in a life that becomes repetitive and routine, our minds give way to nostalgia. No longer is it enough that Nadia once got to live the same handful of days (if she was lucky) over and over again — now she wants to apply this kind of thinking, this adjustable, editorial mindset, to her whole history. The versions of herself, our Russian doll, unpack and unfold in front of the viewer. Maybe there’s a way for this to have all gone right, not only for her, but for everyone she cares about. But this savior complex is also addressed in the question she’s asked: the future of humanity. Nadia can’t afford to think about everyone else. She’s got her people, the ones who made her, to look out for.
It’s easy to be skeptical about the second season of Russian Doll, in part because its first season, crafted for almost a decade by Lyonne alongside Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, felt so self-contained, its finale equal parts cathartic and ambiguous. A three-year hiatus in the world of streaming might as well be a decade. Turning on a new episode feels, in a sense, like waking up from dying, if not an odd dream. Despite its twists and turns, its unfolding and refolding in season 2, Russian Doll is still the Russian Doll we know and love. Its humor, its darkness, its curiosity in the history of the self in the context of greater history — what it means, specifically, for Nadia to be Jewish now, after a long and tormented history of her ancestors being Jewish then — let it stand apart in the television landscape. Equal parts unpredictable and intellectual, Nadia hurtles forward through her own history, unpacking the stacked figurines that live inside her. Because that’s the other thing about a matryoshka doll: it contains itself. There are not small populations inside of it. The Russian doll doesn’t have friends. And in turn, this season is an isolated journey, more introspective and exclusive, in its storytelling. It’s quite a ride to go on.
To this point, Russian Doll’s second season doesn’t require too much familiarity with the first: it functions almost more as prequel than sequel. The show is not quick to catch you up on the lives of the characters in the years since we’ve seen them; the show is quick to catch you up with Nadia. Those returning to the new season, especially those whose memory of the past three years has blurred beyond the point of recognition, may want to revisit later episodes in the show’s first season, not because of any grand Easter eggs, but rather in making note of the eccentricities and obsessions of Nadia’s mother, Nora (Chloë Sevigny), who appeared in flashback. She, too, had a fascination with mirrors, and a destructive obsession with destroying them.
In its first season, it felt like Russian Doll brought Nora in, in part, because Sevigny and Lyonne are longtime New York friends. Though the two never shared scenes in season 1, they had a tangible connection, not only in their suffering but in their wryness and humor. The doubling down on Nora in the second season, however, feels strained: she is tormented, certainly, in a way that suggests these troubles started long before Nadia was in the picture. Every woman in Russian Doll suffers (maybe Maxine the least of all, if only because she’s made a career out of annoyance), but the source of Nora’s pain felt, in the tail end of season 1, to be almost a throwaway affliction. Though season 2 works to rectify that, a little, she never feels any more specific. And her hatred of mirrors, or fear, maybe, lingers incoherently through the second season’s early episodes.
But the mirrors don’t only bother Nora now. Here they come for Nadia. In the first season, when Nadia shows Alan the back of her friend’s bathroom door, the mirror lingers over their shoulder. Nadia and Alan, however, focus on the blue swirling light.
“Yeah, my bathroom doesn’t have a black hole, so …” Alan sighs, when little do they know the thing both bathrooms have — a mirror — hangs right behind them, and when they look into it, what they see is never the same as the last time they glanced inside. It’s the kind of quiet, funny moment that is often lacking in the show’s second season. Because it’s so plot-rich and character-dense, there’s little time for these moments of humanity. That Nadia is now capable of traveling back in time get a blink, maybe a double-take, before it’s time to move on.
That Nadia and Alan have moved passed the point of needing to solve every oddity in their life is a welcome change into the second season, but without a mystery that unites them in a meaningful sense, their relationship — so much the paramount of the first season — gets abandoned, left to a mere “so, uh, how are you doing?” catch-up conversation midway through the episodes.
In lieu of their dynamic, the second season gives way to plottiness and complexity; at times, it felt appropriate to watch and take meticulous notes. Whereas Nadia’s trip through the past should be thrilling and illuminating, it’s often frustrating to watch the show indulge in twists and turns above its characters. There are new side characters that flit in and out of Nadia’s worlds, none of them sticking around too long to make much of an impression. Sharlto Copley is around for a minute, teasing a greater role than he’s given. The most delightful of the new faces is Ephraim Sykes, always around to give a helping hand. But they, like Alan, have been shunted in lieu of Nadia’s journey of self-discovery. Though the second season hints at a strong development in his character, this all goes relatively unexplored, left to the viewer to parse.
Part of what was so thrilling about its first season was how fun its core cast was: the great Elizabeth Ashley as Ruth, the hilarious Greta Lee as Maxine, the charming Rebecca Henderson as Lizzy. That these characters take to the sidelines in service of Nadia’s journey is remarked upon and noted — doesn’t all time travel amount to the realization that living in the present is more valuable than fixing the past? In the first season of Russian Doll, Nadia got to cryptically share her existential struggles with her friends, and in turn, we got to learn more about them. Here, Maxine comes along to Budapest and doesn’t do much more than quip and kiss. We know it’s possible for an ensemble television show to arrange itself around a self-centered and self-motivated protagonist; we saw it in season 1 of Russian Doll. Nadia’s journey, here, is so hyper-specific that it gives her no recourse other than to go it alone. Though it may work better for some than others, it’s still undeniably sad.
Whereas Russian Doll’s first season asked: “Why is this happening to me?,” its second season asks, “Why am I like this?” We are all the products of those before and around us, collapsing inward in love and frustration. A journey forward, backward, sideways — it’s always ultimately a journey through an experience. That Russian Doll’s new season leans into abstraction and mystery is certainly a leap, a risk, and only those who land, sure-footed, on the other side will be certain if it was worth it.