‘Russian Doll’ season 2 review: Natasha Lyonne is gold in a time-bending, treasure hunt-filled sophomore season [Grade: B+]
The first season of Russian Doll premiered in 2019 and it feels like an entire lifetime has passed since then. COVID-19 halted the world for the better part of three years. A new president was elected. Jimmy Kimmel and Jennifer Aniston almost lit the Emmys on fire, then saved it! Much has happened since the first season premiered as fans have waited for the beloved series to return.
Russian Doll is back with a stellar sophomore season as the audience is thrusted back into the life of Natasha Lyonne’s fast-talking Nadia Vulvokov, who’s quickly approaching her 40th birthday. The second season opens nearly four years after the initial events of season one, when Nadia is thrust into a Groundhog Day-like situation that sees her reliving her death on the day of her 36th birthday party. This situation causes forced introspection for Nadia, who examined herself and understood herself more fully as the season ended. This season sees Nadia traveling through time, finding herself reconnecting with the past in the year 1982, as the New York subway becomes the portal for Nadia to time-travel through.
If the first season is about introspection and the relationship one has with oneself, season two is about understanding the relationship one has with others and the external world. By examining Nadia’s past a little more closely in relation to her family and those who have been around her for her entire life, the second season opens a new world of possibilities for the series. This is certainly a positive thing about the series, which could have been restrained due to its season one thematic elements and premise. This allows the series to flourish while expanding on its original themes, giving Nadia the chance to further grow while giving the audience a better chance at understanding her.
Exploring the nature of one’s relationships to the people and world around them is a heavy theme to dissect but Russian Doll manages to continue its exploration of its characters and topics while providing some of the best dialogue on current television. This is one of the places the series excels at: its writing shows Nadia as a complicated woman who doesn’t understand as much as she thinks she does. This is the way Lyonne plays Nadia, too, with a cigarette in her mouth and a confidence that radiates. It’s easy to believe what Nadia says because she seems to believe it herself (even when she’s talking to herself).
One such instance is in the opening scene of the season, after Nadia is reintroduced to the audience, as she stomps down the streets of New York City on her way to an undisclosed location. Soon, she shows up at an urgent care facility and walks in to meet up with Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), who’s looking a little banged up from a fender bender she just had. As season one proved by the end, Nadia does care about the people around her even if she can be a little self-absorbed. It’s interesting to begin season two with a scene like this, of Nadia going to care for her, because it shows that there has been evolution since season one. Nadia is in a different place and the first scene establishes that. While they’re in the waiting room together in passing conversation, Nadia tells her, “You don’t get to choose your genetics.” While this could be seen as a throwaway line, it seems to be a resonating theme of the entire season.
This line is telling of Nadia learning more about her family history in the second season, a foreshadowing of the familial themes explored in the season as well. While this is a season that dives into the relationships one has with the outside world, it has a specific interest in understanding oneself through the relationships we have with our closest confidantes, our family. Once again, this is where the series shines as it explores its themes, since it’s not exactly plot heavy. The show knows itself and the writers understand it, too, and provide the best work when Nadia is learning about her relationship with the past and her family members. Nadia’s relationships with her friends, including fan favorites Alan (Charlie Barnett), Maxine (Greta Lee) and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson), are pulled upon to bring attention to Nadia’s newfound closeness to the people around her, no longer a beacon of self-reliance. A highlight of the season involves scenes in the East Village in 1982, giving the audience a closer look at Nadia’s familial history while giving context to her present-day behavior. While there, she meets Annie Murphy (of Schitt’s Creek fame, new to Russian Doll this season) and their characters form a bond as the past reflects the present. What starts as an interesting mystery evolves into an exploration of one’s past that anyone could find relatable.
Alongside the writing, the direction of the series still manages to find moments of interesting shot composition and lighting that add to Nadia’s disorientation as she moves through New York City on the eve of her fortieth birthday. The camera follows Nadia with such precision, it becomes a guiding force as it details her every move. One such shot is on the subway, the camera begins on its side, matching Nadia; as she begins to sit upright, the camera matches her again. These simple camera movements create a connection with Nadia that furthers the audience’s empathy with the character through her chaotic movements as well as her slick declarations of confidence to nearby men.
Russian Doll accentuates its characters with an accuracy that will keep viewers entangled in the lives of Nadia and her loved ones. With dialogue that can bring philosophical depth as well as hilarious one-liners, the series brings back the magic that season one created in a different and unexpected way. An absorbing lead performance from Natasha Lyonne is the guiding light of the show’s success, and the actress continues to bring the same charisma she initially infused into the role.
All episodes of Russian Doll season 2 premiere on Netflix on April 20, 2022.