'Russian Doll' Season 2 Review: Natasha Lyonne Breaks Time In A Flawed, But Still Compelling New Chapter

After a three-year break, Netflix’s Emmy-nominated dramedy “Russian Doll” is finally back. When last we saw Natasha Lyonne’s eccentric chain-smoking software engineer Nadia, she had finally broken out of a time loop in which she repeated her 36th birthday, including dying multiple heinous deaths, over and over. Teaming up with a suicidal man named Alan (Charlie Barnett), who was also stuck in the time loop, the two helped each other evade death (and embrace life), breaking the loop by warning each other in alternate timelines. 

Establishing alternate timelines in the season, one finale paved a path for this newest time-tripping installment. The season begins a week or so shy of Nadia’s 40th birthday. Still friends with Alan, their unique connection has bonded them for life. After a fender bender lands her godmother Ruthie (Elizabeth Ashley) in the emergency room, Nadia once again finds herself thinking about her tumultuous childhood. On her way home that night, Nadia becomes unstuck in time after taking the 6 Train at Astor Place Station, later seeing Alan stuck on his own train heading in the opposite direction. Get ready to do the time warp again, my sweet birthday babies. 

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In season one Nadia and Alan work on their relationships with themselves and those around them by repeating the same day over and over until they come to accept both the chaos and joy of being alive. Using time travel as a device in season two, the characters work through generational trauma specific to their immigrant backgrounds. Nadia investigates the life of her Jewish grandmother, who fled Nazi-occupied Budapest. Alan learns more about his Ghanaian grandmother’s unexpected journey to America. 

Equally as twisting and braided as season one, the threads of the past replay for Nadia and Alan like a feedback loop. Each must learn to decipher these past events in order to move forward towards their futures. But like any feedback loop, the only way forward is to go back, over and over. Given that we learned more about Nadia and her family history in season one, her inner journey is more fleshed out as she comes to terms with her childhood trauma while chasing the gold Krugerrands lost by her erratic mother, Nora (Chloë Sevigny).

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However, Alan’s character has always been less well defined, making his arc frustrating this season. Often his character disappears for long stretches, and his time-warped connection to Nadia is tenuous at best. This is a shame because not only is Barnett’s emotional fragility an excellent counter to Lyonne’s frenetic energy, the era he finds himself in deserves greater exploration.

Lyonne received an Emmy nomination for her bold, brash performance in the first season, and brings that same swagger with her in this new season. With an untamed mane of red hair, Lyonne’s Nadia makes her way through the streets of New York City with an effortless cool. Having written and directed the first episode, Lyonne plays to her strengths as an actress with rat-a-tat dialogue and shows prowess behind the camera with slick tracking shots that solidify the show’s hip vibe. 

The is vibe carried by the show’s stellar soundtrack that includes cuts from After the Fire, Brian Eno, and Nena. A riff from “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus replaces “Gotta Get Up” by Harry Nilsson as the season’s oft-repeated soundscape. This serves to set up the time warp to 1982, but it’s also a great nod to Nadia’s exploration of her Hungarian roots. Art imitates life as Lyonne peppers many references to fellow actor of supposed Hungarian descent Peter Falk into the show. 

While the “Columbo” references act as an Easter egg of sorts for Lyonne’s fans, Nadia herself becomes a bit of a detective, using the time warp to investigate her family’s past in a harebrained attempt to alter her future. However, unlike Columbo investigating strangers, she is not an objective viewer of her own life or her family’s history. The further she digs, the more disoriented and untethered she becomes within the feedback loop of time. 

Unfortunately, as the story becomes more tangled and focused on Nadia, the side characters get short-changed. Greta Lee and Rebecca Henderson return as Nadia’s friends Maxine and Lizzy; however, they are more like one-note caricatures of bohemian New Yorkers than they were in the previous season. Sevigny is always a welcomed presence on screen, but while she is given more scenes than her previous cameo, she too is underutilized. The same goes for newcomers Annie Murphy and Sharlto Copley, who are so good in their limited appearances that their lack is acutely felt when they’re not featured in an episode. 

Much of the season’s shortcomings stem from its ambitious multi-era structure and truncated seven-episode season. With so much plot crammed into episodes that clock in at 30 minutes or less, the season barrels along at a breakneck pace that borders on rushed. For a show with so much thematic richness, it would have benefited from either longer episodes or more episodes in order to give it time to breathe.

Too many threads are left unexplored to make this new season of “Russian Doll” as wholly satisfying as its dazzling debut. However, its exploration of how fruitless “what if” thinking is and the importance of taking agency in your own life despite your generational baggage builds wonderfully on the themes explored in the first season. Despite its flaws, if Nadia and Alan grow a little with each reality-bending experience they share, I look forward to whatever surreal adventure awaits them in season three. [B]