CHANNEL 366: “RUSSIAN DOLL,” SEASON 2

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FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, , , ,

PLOT: Having escaped the time loop that imprisoned her in Season 1, Nadia now finds that she can visit her own past via the New York City subway system, and uses this power to try to salvage her family legacy of stolen Krugerrands—with troublesome and paradoxical results.

Still from Russian Doll, Season 2

COMMENTS: Just a few years after resolving the time loop that saw her killed nightly, Nadia steps onto the 6 train and finds herself transported back in time to 1982. Her smartphone is gone; in its place is a matchbook cover with a note scrawled telling her to meet one “Chaz” at the Black Gumball at 8. The Gumball turns out to be a go-go bar with a topless dancer gyrating on the counter, and when Nadia orders a bourbon, the bartender asks her if she’s sure. Launching into one of her typical raspy monologues, she responds, “It’s arguably the only thing I’m sure of. Basic concepts like time and space are suddenly eluding me. Last night this place was mayhem because the wi-fi went out, but in the new here and now, apparently gratuitous nudity is back in play. My past, your future. Begs the question: am I haunting you, or are you haunting me?”

Circumstances have changed, but Lyonne’s unflappable (or at least, very rarely flapped) Nadia—streaming’s quirky, acerbic breakout character of 2019—is a constant. She’s the kind of middle-aged arrested adolescent who grabs a cocktail first thing in the morning (after lighting a cigarette, of course), chooses both when offered a choice of uppers and downers, and impulsively sleeps with creeps from other eras she barely knows and likes even less. She acts drunk even when sober, but she’s grown into her identity: she’s permanently tipsy and supremely confident, with a mouth like Dorothy Parker if she been raised by a company of Jewish longshoremen. She’s a treasure, and the sole justification for reviving a series that successfully closed its loop back in 2019.

Lyonne puts her mark on the series, directing three of seven episodes this season (as opposed to only the finale of Season 1). She also becomes the only person credited with writing on every episode in the series: while the team of Lyonne and co-creators Leslye Headland and SNL-alum Amy Poehler wrote all of Season 1 together, Season 2 features a wider variety of scripters, with Lyonne the only constant. We suspect that her main contribution is Nadia’s dialogue, which remains as sharp as ever (“every time you compliment me, a cockroach gets its wings.”) Perhaps as a result of the larger writing staff, Season 2 is looser, almost reckless compared to the relatively tight focus of the debut season. The setting is no longer confined to modern day New York City, but ranges through time and space, from the crime-ridden city of 1982 (patrolled by red-bereted Guardian Angels) to Nazi-era Hungary and Cold War Berlin to an allegorical subway labyrinth of memory and regret.

Despite being as acerbic as ever, Nadia has become even more blasé about her dislocated realities, barely batting an eye (and definitely not dropping her cigarette) when she finds herself thrown backwards in time. This matter-of-factness reflects a thematic decision to never even hint why Nadia, and the similarly-situated but far more neurotic Alan, are the subjects of such wrenching temporal anomalies. This approach allows the story to focus purely on its symbolic meaning, which, in Nadia’s case, is coming to terms with her family’s dysfunctional past: she believes that if she can rescue the family Krugerrands, she can redeem her family’s legacy. Of course, things are never that simple, and in the series’ final two episodes the weirdness blooms as Nadia has created a series of paradoxes that throw her carefully laid plans into complete chaos.

It’s inevitable that Netflix’s “Russian Doll” will be compared to Amazon Prime’s “Undone“: two slightly trippy time-travel stories starring strong and sarcastic female leads, centered around the investigation of family histories. The main difference is cosmetic, if significant:”Undone”‘s uncanny valley rotoscoping versus “Doll”‘s traditional live action setting. “Doll” has more comedy (Nadia’s comebacks are a lot spikier than Alma’s); “Undone” takes its science fictional conceit more seriously, delving into time travel mechanics and hinting at some possible causes for the family’s gifts. I’ve tried, and I can’t pick a favorite between them. Stream them both, if you can.

The series’ nesting title is more apt this season (you’ll see why soon enough). Both seasons of “Russian Doll” stream exclusively on Netflix for the foreseeable future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages to pack in big laughs, real emotional moments, and an effective time-traveling plot that fits right in with what happened during the show’s trippy first season.”–Joel Keller, Decider (contemporaneous)

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