In Netflix’s Russian Doll (2019), Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne, also co-creator, writer and director) and Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett) find themselves stuck in a time loop on the same night. Every time they die (which happens a lot), the pair wake up back where they started. It remains a refreshing piece of streaming TV, not least for how open-ended it is. Ask two people what Russian Doll season one ‘is about’ and you’ll get three different answers. Holding a certain interpretation may cut you off from other ones. Season two (2022), on the other hand, is very insistent on what it’s about. It’s very insistent on what made the first season such a widespread hit. Both series, despite being made by the same creative team, are polar opposites – and represent a microcosm of triumphs and mistakes common in modern pop culture.
Season one is clever, and this extends to the protagonist. Nadia always has a wry comment in her back pocket. She drops philosophical musings into conversations just for her own amusement. She keeps a lighter tied to her belt, and is proud to have taken every drug under the sun. Had she been written by a man, it would be easy to call Nadia an edgier interpretation of the manic pixie dream girl.
Russian Doll is very conscious of how this all seems. The writing on display is self-aware, even down to its setting. It’s very conscious of New York at night. It’s all neon signs and yellow taxi cabs, puddles and rising steam on the streets. Nadia starts using a rickety fire escape which descends into a grimy alleyway because she keeps dying on the stairs. It’s a pitch perfect recreation of the idea of the city. It’s a fake, endlessly repeating a scrapbook of holiday Instagram posts and I HEART NYC tat. Of course, Nadia doesn’t fit in. Of course, she’s repeating her own 36th birthday party, dying at every street corner. It’s just a simulacrum of the place, one where pianos are hoisted above pavements by rope and access to high-rise rooftops is undisputed.
There’s a philosopher whose works had a huge impact on how I view art – Mark Fisher – and the resonance Russian Doll has with his writing can often be uncanny. In Ghosts of My Life, Fisher writes about hauntology, or ‘lost futures’. In his own words; “21st century culture is marked by… anachronism and inertia… But this stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of newness, of perpetual movement.” Whilst our technological and economic ability to create art has continued to increase, for Fisher that’s “only to disguise the disappearance of the future”. Think of Stranger Things, another Netflix Original – did that show need to be set in the 1980s? Undeniably so, because it’s very DNA has been ripped from that decade. Without Spielberg and King, E.T. and IT, there is no Stranger Things. No character or story beat. No tonal or aesthetic cue. Take away the 80s periphery, and the entire show dissipates. Set Stranger Things in the modern day and, by necessity, it would become something entirely different. It would have to be, for instance, more political – it would have to confront the idea of government experiments on stolen children, without the anaesthetic sounds of The Clash to distract itself.
Whereas enforced nostalgia is “so prevalent that it is no longer even noticed”, Russian Doll season one is relentlessly – painfully – in the present. Nadia can’t escape the present. Even in death, she’s still in 2019. She’s still in the bathroom during her birthday party, the same song (1971’s “Gotta Get Up” by Harry Nilsson) playing nostalgically outside the door. Her friend says the same line, “Happy birthday, baby!”, whenever Nadia resets – the delivery differs slightly, but the content is the same. Alan is still in his apartment, brushing his teeth before meeting with his girlfriend. He’s still only hours away from drunkenly throwing himself off the roof of his building – but every time he succeeds, he’s back at square one. Their futures, or lack of, have been lost. Now they’re living through the same patchwork moments that become more familiar, and yet more uncanny, with each mortal failure.
In an astounding return to pop culture’s status quo, season two opens with Nadia finding herself in 1982. She’s inhabiting her abusive mother’s body, days before her own birth. Nadia transcends time and space on a wild goose chase through her family’s timeline, their activities as a Jewish family during the war, all in a quest for her lost inheritance.
There’s an integral problem with any theoretical second season of Russian Doll, just as there was with another Netflix Original – Bojack Horseman. The inherent nature of a continuing series relies on failure. Bojack can promise to get better all he wants, but this is season four out of six so I’m not holding my breath. Nadia, comparatively, fails. Whatever season one was about for you, she had succeeded; her terrible childhood, her self-destructive behaviour, her alienation from modern living. In tearing herself out of the loop, she’d won her struggle. Season two, to the contrary, wants the audience to believe that her struggle is explicitly tied to her family and its Judaism, the trauma of being a European Jew during the 1940s and how that carries through the generations.
Season one was conscious in its endlessness – what did it all mean? Was it about feeling alienated from the modern world? Was it a meditation on trauma, loneliness, and self-destruction? Or simply a drug-fuelled hallucination? The second season, to its very core, is “a superficial frenzy of newness”. It’s an unconscious display of video feedback, repeating eternally on an era-accurate monitor. Take the scene where Nadia is high on DMT – it’s all just pounding music, flashing coloured lights, and jumbled imagery from across her timeline. What does that mean? I don’t think it means anything, other than ‘look how crazy drugs can be!’ Season two is so close to season one, but it’s that closeness – an unconscious repetitiveness – where it stumbles. Nadia even repeats her infamous “what a concept!” line from season one. In the season’s own words, “we can’t escape being a product of things we can’t change.”
In season one, Nadia’s imperturbable temperament, like a chain-smoking Alice in Wonderland, contrasted and complimented the cycle she was trapped in. The modern world is strange, but we don’t really notice. The time loop made the 21st century seem new and disorienting purely through its own mundanity and repetitiveness; Happy birthday, baby! In season two, for both protagonist and viewer, it’s simply an endless procession of time periods and intergenerational traumas. An NYC subway train pulls into a station in Nazi-occupied Budapest. Step off the train in the 1960s, where Nadia is getting recovered Nazi treasure appraised so she can buy herself a better childhood. She inhabits the bodies of her mother and her grandmother; she gives birth to herself, in a literal representation of ‘inner child work’. She finds her own corpses, all the versions of herself she killed to restart in the previous season. It’s a fine line between surreal and unreal, meaningful and meaningless. In Russian Doll season two, almost antithetical to the first season, the “jumbling up of time, the montaging of earlier eras, has ceased to be worthy of comment; it is now so prevalent that it is no longer even noticed.”