Photo: Bennett Raglin/Netflix
Even the staunchest fans of Russian doll (*cough* me *cough*) wondered how the show would follow the catharsis and joy of the first season. It’s not that the first eight episodes wrapped up all possible narrative threads (they didn’t) or that further exploration of Nadia and Alan’s lives was unwarranted (it most certainly was the case). Rather, it was about how Lyonne & Co. would manage to capture lightning in a bottle again.
But two episodes in, it seems clear that season two of Russian doll does not ask the same questions as its beginnings. The framing is also markedly different – rather than reliving her birthday, Nadia is reliving parts of the past. To be more precise, she relives her mother’s past. as his mother and discovering for the first time the circumstances surrounding his own birth. And even if, as she complains to her grandmother Vera in “Coney Island Baby,” she does know the story of the loss of the family fortune, it’s unclear what she’ll find out.
Not to mention that time travel is very different from the time loop (I guess; I haven’t read much about quantum immortality since the first season came out). The paradox of Nadia’s death was quite tricky, but how do you explain that you took a train in your mother’s body? That’s what we seem to be dealing with here because Nadia remains Nadia, even when she’s, um, inside Nora. Smoking, swearing, and general weariness are all present as Vera berates her daughter for stealing from her. “You just take and take,” Vera spits.
Nora probably didn’t suffer from her mother’s tirades, and neither did Nadia, who points to the “sick dynamic” between the two: Vera held the gold to her daughter’s head all her life, and Nora was never only too happy to choose Vera as a “puppeteer” and herself as a “victim”. As far as Nadia is concerned, that means the gold is hers by virtue of being less of an asshole than her mother or grandmother. Nadia may think she’s limited her damage to herself, despite her death-induced epiphanies four years ago.
She’s already hatching a plan: Nadia will once again rely on her problem-solving skills, find the gold coins, return them to Vera, and effectively fix her mother’s biggest mistake (according to his mother). Of course, the future, uh, present Nadia also has everything to gain by finding the pieces. In the four years since she last pondered their value (aloud, anyway), the value of Krugerrands has risen from $152,780.86 to $280,451.21. That’s enough for Nadia’s tuition…and a racehorse.
Seems pretty simple and dry, especially once Nadia actually has the pieces in her/Nora’s possession, thanks to some help from Young Ruth! Well, it’s actually Ruth, in her thirties (played here by Annie Murphy). This Ruth is grieving, but she won’t let something like her husband’s recent death stop her from helping her friend Nora. Her dedication is evident as she tries to stop Delia, Vera’s oldest friend, from packing up Nora’s apartment (which Vera won’t pay for anymore).
The two Ruths seem committed – or perhaps resigned? — to help Nora, no matter the situation. 1982’s Ruth barely blinks before putting down her engagement ring to help Nora secure the Krugerrands. This, after driving to the Alfa Romeo store to return the Alfa Romeo that the Nora sans Nadia bought with the parts money.
The lovely interaction between Elizabeth Ashley and Natasha Lyonne was one of the highlights of the first season, and we get a bit more of that here once Nadia decides to return to 2022 to reunite with Chez. Murphy is also a great stage partner, exuding the same wry warmth as Ashley, but his Ruth stands almost as upright as Alan; she has not been bent by age or, more likely, by grief. The 1982 Ruth was reeling from the loss of her husband but thought she at least had Nora to stabilize her.
But the Nora she’s talking to here is Nadia-Nora (that’s what we’ll call the Nora who was taken in by Nadia’s conscience), who only wants to advise her on buying Apple stock and Tyson Foods. Even if young Ruth could understand that she was getting stock tips from the future, that’s not what she needs right now. Her eyes sparkle with concern as Nadia-Nora talks about stocks, but Ruth quickly breaks down. At that moment, Nadia’s head – yes, Nadia, not Nadia as a mother – clears and she comforts the woman who was her mother’s closest friend. and her mother figure.
Throughout “Coney Island Baby” (and “Nowhen”), Russian doll uses highlights to distinguish Nadia and Nora. There are still those mirrors – and all the other kinds of reflective surfaces, like subway windows. Beyond that, writer Allison Silverman and director Alex Buono make sure we understand just how much control Nadia has over her mother’s body the moment Nadia (sigh) enters it. Even when Chloë Sevigny plays Nora, she adopts Lyonne’s ways (which is nice to see).
But when there are no mirrors and Nadia is, for example, following Chez in 1982 to find out what he did with the gold coins, the line between the two women blurs. Nadia knows Chez is a scum, but she also recognizes how Nora’s body reacts to her (as she will soon regretfully notice, her mother is sure to waste a few years on him). She has no idea what Nora is doing when she’s not around; Nadia can’t stop him from repeating the same mistakes. And, if his behavior around Ruth is any indication, Nora is starting to influence his.
Nadia is able to return the car and the furs and get the parts back, but she knows she won’t be able to stop her mother from making more mistakes. She can’t completely change her mother’s life, even though she literally makes her decisions for her now. So she prepares to bring the bag of coins to Vera, but first she leaves a message for Nora (in Nora’s voice, which is why she tells her to be “cool”) on her answering machine.
And it’s an absolute one-scene punch – Nadia’s resignation weighs so heavily that she leans into the receiver. It even flattens the usual (admittedly raspy) vibration of his voice. “Water seeks its own level,” she muses, referring to Nora’s choice of companions. But now that she’s seen with her own eyes how those pesky coins tore her family apart, she’s more determined than ever to fix the rift. Not just for herself, but for her mother and grandmother: “I bring the gold back to Vera, where it belongs, to, I don’t know, close this messed up fucking loop and bounce back. I hope this can be a second chance for you and that you don’t just destroy things. Even more heartbreaking is his signature: “I love you. I did my best.”
What a way for a Russian doll movie to maybe end, huh? But this is a TV series, and we’re only two episodes into it, so we know the parts won’t go to Vera. Nadia-Nora boards a train, believing she is headed for Vera’s house. But then she sees Alan on a moving train opposite, looking stunned but happy. And then the bag disappears, along with Nora’s (and maybe Nadia’s?) second chance. It’s not a fall through a cellar door, but it’s just as devastating.
• I know I just said we’re only two episodes away, but I’m having trouble with the “rules”, if you will, of this whole situation “get on a train to the consciousness of your mother”. Nadia gets on a train at the end, thinking of traveling to the past, but ends up traveling to 2022? Is that why she sees Alan? If so, is she unable to take a six train or any train in the past?
• The relationship between Max and Nadia has always been a little strained, and the tension is starting to show. Max is annoyed that Nadia didn’t meet Ruth in the hospital when she was released from the hospital, and Nadia is annoyed by Max’s “death fetishization”, even though that doesn’t stop her. no “really caring”.
• So I guess Alan also boarded the time travel express? Where do we think he went?
• Nadia’s web search for Chez seems to point to her real birthday: 11/23/55. He’s still a creep, especially after that “quads like a stallion” line. But Chez’s own early disappointment provides the episode’s title and taps into that universal feeling of “if only.”
• Speaking of Chez, Sharlto Copley should be commended for delivering two flavors of Dirtbag 40 years apart.
• “Are you giving my name to the baby? “Well, that’s a bummer.” Hey, according to this plaque, Nadia Koshal was the top seller for the fourth quarter of 1981!