Right off the bat, jettisoning the time loop for a tale of time travel feels like a smart decision. The first season had explored the loop concept thoroughly and tied all the loose ends up in a satisfying, self-contained way. Unlike the loop, Russian Doll doesn’t waste too much time explaining the rules of time travel in its story, sticking to the basic Back to the Future concepts that most audiences are well-versed in. The addition to the concept that I do love, however, is the element of “real time”. If Nadia spends the night in 1982, a night will have passed in 2022. It underlines the darkly comedic shenanigans of Nadia with a sense of stakes and sacrifice.
And that’s what the second season is all about (for the most part). Nadia’s godmother/therapist Ruth Brenner (Elizabeth Ashley) has been unwell and hospitalized, showing physical decline as it approaches Nadia’s 40th Birthday. In Nadia’s efforts to change the course of her family history, she loses such time coming to her 40th. It’s quite an understated feature of the concept, but is immensely important in the show’s exploration of the present.
In fact, “understated” just about sums up this new story. Though there are moments of the psychedelic towards the end of the season, Russian Doll’s drama and emotional beats are played with beautiful elegance. The show owes a lot to the performances of Elizabeth Ashley and Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy, who play the present and younger version of Ruth, respectively. Though the series follows the existential crises of Nadia, this season is very much about Ruth – her worries, her selflessness, and her desire to prevent generational trauma through patience and kindness.
This season doesn’t tie Alan and Nadia as closely together as the first season, relegating Alan to more of a B-plot than a co-lead in the A-plot. Alan also experiences the joys of the train, landing in the body of his grandmother when she studied in East Berlin and dated a man named Lenny. When this plot was introduced, I was convinced this would be used to explore Alan’s sexuality, especially since the season begins by showing his continued boredom in dating women. It wasn’t to be, but the story’s message of lack of closure is still a resonant one.
Russian Doll’s second season isn’t quite as satisfyingly conclusive as the first, but its message wouldn’t hit nearly as hard if it were.