Reviews · TV

Natasha Lyonne Rules In The Time Traveling Second Season of ‘Russian Doll’

Nadia takes a time train to the ‘80s in Russian Doll’s unique, rewarding second season.
Russian Doll Season Review
By  · Published on April 16th, 2022

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) cannot stay still. Even when she’s not unstuck from time or trying to escape a loop of endless birthdays, the woman is in a perpetual state of motion, jaunting down New York City streets with a cigarette in hand. She’s the perfect tour guide, then, for Russian Doll season two. The series’ long-awaited second season is unfamiliar and expansive, but it succeeds by rooting itself once more in Nadia’s spunky approach to all things existential.

The series’ second season picks up roughly four years after the first, days ahead of Nadia’s 40th birthday. Despite the show’s cathartic season one finale, viewers aren’t given much chance to see the fruits of Nadia’s time-loop-besting labors. Within the first few minutes of the premiere, she’s on a subway train back in time. “What is this, some kind of eighties flash mob?” she says before quickly realizing she’s been transported back to 1982–with a killer soundtrack to match.

Russian Doll’s second season bears only a passing resemblance to its first, but series writers use its freedom from the previous Groundhog Day structure well. This go-round, Nadia isn’t trapped by time but captivated by it. As her godmother Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) endures a health scare in the present day, Nadia finds herself burrowing into the past in hopes of “fixing” the future. “The only reason to go into the past is to change s**t, alright?” she tells Alan (Charlie Barnett) upon discovering her partner in time can also experience the temporally shifting train. “Haven’t you ever seen a movie?” Alan insists that the movies actually say the opposite, but Nadia’s roving curiosity can’t be stopped.

The show’s supporting cast is excellent, from Barnett and Ashley to Greta Lee as Nadia’s edgy performance artist friend, freed from her chorus of “Sweet birthday baby!” just enough to get in on some ridiculous new punchlines. Chloë Sevigny also reappears, albeit in a different form, as Nadia’s mother. Lenora is the lynchpin in Nadia’s wheel of intergenerational trauma, the memory-made force that propelled her through the climax of season one. In the new season, the show gets even closer to the root of the pair’s shared pain, creatively humanizing Lenora.

Russian Doll’s second season is shaggier than the first, more meandering and prone to narrative tangents, but they all cohere into a breathtaking bigger picture. Nadia often seems to be on the wrong track, but the universe, as co-creators Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler conceive of it, is always willing to course-correct. The show is less concerned with the whys of its own magical realist mechanisms than ever, making Nadia’s journey feel at once literal and metaphorical. Fans of the show’s more straightforward, classically sci-fi first outing may take longer to adjust to the new premise than Nadia, but it’s well worth getting on board for.

Any slightly alienating unfamiliarity in the new season is tempered by Lyonne’s absolute firecracker performance. The series is built around her. And to her, even when the world’s at its strangest, Nadia can still meet it with a raspy quip and a wave of her hands. She’s such a perfectly classic New York weirdo that if you told me she and not Midnight Cowboy’s Rizzo invented the phrase “I’m walkin’ here!” I’d believe you. The show’s scripts also bend to meet her, resulting in some truly unique syntax. Her one-liners are as knotted and hilarious as some of Succession’s best-scripted contortions.

Russian Doll may be entering uncharted territory in its sophomore season, but like the first, it does ramp up its profound, freaky magic throughout its seven episodes. This means the season-enders are a chance for daring, mind-melting choices on the part of the writers and filmmakers alike. Documentary Now! Filmmaker Alex Buono directs the season’s penultimate episode, also its trippiest and most visually interesting. Lyonne’s performance may make the series soar, but Russian Doll’s brilliance lies in its ability to give Nadia new and ever-more-unusual situations to react to constantly. As her journey through time grows ever more convoluted, her foulmouthed retorts shift from snarky to sincere.

With the vastness of history at its fingertips, Russian Doll chooses once again to make its speculative fiction premise personal. If we could go anywhere and do anything, would we save the whole world? No, we’d probably try to make our own worlds hurt a little less. The series is not only funny, moving, and mind-bending: it’s also honest. Like its first outing, it doesn’t leave us with easy answers, nor does it pretend those answers even exist. In an era of blockbuster films trying to find tidiness and unity within the chaos of the multiverse, Russian Doll lets the weird time-and-reality river flow in whatever direction it may go. The result is a sprawling, entertaining, and profound follow-up to a true original. As Nadia says, “When the universe f**ks with you, let it.”

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)