“Nowhen,” the season-two premiere of Russian Doll, opens with a familiar sound (water running), sight (a close-up of a woman with a head of magnificent red hair), and irreverence (“Holy shit,” the woman mouths when she spies something). But just as we came to expect from the many resets in the first season of this inventive and empathetic Netflix series, there are some variations. In these early moments, the woman we see isn’t our protagonist Nadia, the game designer (or is it engineer?) whose surly exterior hides a heart of gold. There’s no staring dolefully into a mirror, either; the woman, whose bouffant suggests this early scene takes place in the 1960s, excitedly breaks through a wall in a tunnel and makes off with a leather bag.
It’s a cheeky feint and a deft (re)introduction to a show that captivated viewers with its puzzle-box storytelling and rumination on human connection in 2019. It has raised all kinds of questions in the three years since about where it will go in its second outing. There are your basic logistical ones, e.g., how does this fit into the three-season framework that series co-creators Natasha Lyonne (who’s taken over as showrunner), Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland pitched to Netflix? Will Oatmeal make an appearance? So on and so on. But the far more pressing ones center on what’s changed for Nadia and Alan, the doomed-until-they-weren’t duo of season one, who learned to be vulnerable and embrace life’s uncertainties.
Nadia and Alan were caught up in their own distinct cycles when we first met them, but they both kept people at arm’s length. She avoided commitment like the plague (one of the few causes of death we didn’t see last season), while he refused to be put off from a path once he committed to it. They helped each other break free and moved unflinchingly into the future. As hopeful as the closing moments of the season-one finale, “Ariadne,” seemed, the show didn’t pretend that all of Nadia’s and Alan’s troubles had been resolved. Like Nadia, who could only swear to Alan that he wouldn’t have to face his problems alone, Russian Doll gave its two leads another chance at life but no promise of a happy ending.
Sometimes that’s more than enough. (And as season finales go, “Ariadne” is one of the smartest and most life affirming.) But season two takes a closer look at what they’ve done with that second chance. The premiere picks up four years after Alan and Nadia got their new lease on life, with Nadia’s 40th birthday only ten days away. She’s reintroduced stalking through New York City — relieved of her death wish, more open to human connection, and as effortlessly charming as ever. At one point, her journey to a subway station is accompanied by Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” a likely nod to Nadia’s resurrection (or is it a rebirth?). Since Nadia and Alan prevented each other’s deaths in the season-one finale, are they in the original timeline prior to their “first” deaths, or are they in some brand-spankin’-new one now? (There are still so many lingering questions about season one, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of season two! Let’s just argue about that one in the comments.)
Written and directed by Lyonne, “Nowhen” is as rambunctious an opener as “Nothing In This World Is Easy,” but in some ways, it’s less dark. The body count remains at zero as we catch up with Nadia, who has made some changes in her life. She’s cut back on the cigarettes (because she recognizes her lungs are like “two shriveled-up Nick Caves”) and is looking after Ruth, who’s a little worse for wear here after a “little fender bender.” Nadia shows Ruth the same compassion her godmother has always offered her, but she also admits to Maxine that she’s struggling with her role as caretaker. There’s an undercurrent of fear, too: “There’s nobody who’s been there since the beginning. It’s only Ruth.” Nadia’s used to facing her own mortality, but what will she do when she has to consider Ruth’s? She learned about the importance of being there for others after her previous milestone birthday, but can she really shoulder these new responsibilities?
I’ve never doubted Nadia’s love for Ruth, so I can’t imagine she’ll buckle under the strain. But she may still find it difficult to fulfill her obligations — Nadia’s tendency to just drop dead last season was a real head-scratcher, but her predicament is a bit more difficult to parse here, as it involves time travel and a more conventional mode of travel. (Public transportation! What a concept!) She doesn’t just journey to the year 1982 when she boards that six train (No. 6622, which will come up again later); she also inhabits the body of her mother, Lenora, who’s seven months pregnant (with Nadia).
At this time in her life, Lenora’s entangled with an “outstanding prick” by the name of Chezzare Carrera. Ruth tells Nadia that he played some role in Lenora (or Nora, as she’s also known) losing the family money, a.k.a., the 150 Krugerrands that her grandmother — a Holocaust survivor — bought to ensure the future of her family. Whenever Nadia goes to the past, she finds herself in this guy’s arms or with his tongue down her throat. Even more unsettling is that fetus Nadia is also in the mix, which makes Chez’s admonition that “there’s two of you now” a double entendre we could unpack for hours. So forget purgatory; this might just be hell for Nadia. “The universe finally found something worse than death,” she announces to Alan at his doorstep. “Being my mother.”
While digging into Nadia’s new metaphysical quandary, the episode offers more of a glimpse at what her relationship with Alan is like now (though not before a pointed needle drop in the form of Danzig’s “Mother”). They don’t seem especially close, despite the fact that Nadia has a key to his place (for “emergencies”), which I find a little surprising, though I’m not entirely sure why. Near-death experiences are just as likely to foster a meaningful connection as they are to drive people apart. For now, there is a fork in the road, as Alan seems to have settled into a new routine (“a date a week,” thanks to his mom’s relentless matchmaking), while Nadia remains much more open to chaos (she gets right back on the train to the past after their talk).
“I expected you to be more on board with this,” Nadia tells Alan, a bit dismayed that he’d be so incurious that she just Being John Malkovich–ed her way into her mom. But he does have his doubts, even asking if he “needs to worry about” her, i.e., is she finally breaking down for real? She immediately asks the same of him because his answer to her query about whether or not he’s happy reeks of the old Alan: “Yeah, I’m fine. I just … I think this is what life feels like.”
Clearly, Alan and Nadia still have some things to work out, both together and independently. And maybe Alan is aware of how stifling this new routine is because, after another middling date, he also gets on the six train — more than a little trepidatious but still eager to see what comes of it.
In interviews, Lyonne has said that season two is inspired by Back to the Future. Marty McFly’s time-traveling exploits, incestuous though they may be, pale in comparison with making out with the seedy cokehead who stole your family’s money while in the body of your mom, who is pregnant with you. But Nadia is also struck with the desire to right some old wrongs; she urges her mother (herself?) to grab the bag with the coins (the one that was recovered by — you guessed it — Vera Vulvokov at the start of the episode): “Just get ’em back. They’re all right there for you.”
Of course, the “outstanding prick” runs off with the bag, but Nora/Nadia might still have a shot at regaining the family fortune. There’s no telling what the reverberations of that change will be, but as Nadia tells her new friend Danny (of the fictionalized version of the real Crazy Eddie electronics store in New York), “When the universe fucks with you, let it.” It’s quite the departure from her early season-one stance: “The universe is trying to fuck with me, and I refuse to engage.” Unlike Alan, Nadia’s definitely keeping an open mind (or two).
A Krugerrand for Your Thoughts
• When Nadia sees Horse on the subway platform, he calls her “Nora,” which hints at what’s to come. But if he knew Nadia’s mom 40 years ago, he must be a lot older than he looks. This could support what Leslye Headland’s said about Horse being a manifestation of the god Pan.
• When Nadia walks past Maxine’s place in 1982, it’s still a yeshiva. I know the rabbi said “buildings aren’t haunted, people are,” but maybe the yeshiva has some role to play in Nadia’s attempts to undo the past?
• Chez’s birthday is June 22 or 6/22, which is very similar to the number of the train Nadia boards to the past (and back to the present): 6622.
• Nadia’s Star 80 reference could build to something later, or it could just be Lyonne nodding to one of her biggest influences, Bob Fosse, who directed that true-crime movie.
• Nora has a vintage poster for the French National Railway Company in her bathroom.
• “Me? I’ve never been young.” This could be a reference to Amy Poehler calling Lyonne the “oldest little girl,” or it could be an acknowledgment of Nadia’s upbringing, which saw her take care of her mom. But what if it’s hinting at a previous time- or mortality-related crisis in Nadia’s life? In any case, Lyonne delivers the line in a way that has a little more bitterness every time I hear it.
• A lot of great lines in this episode, but “I wish I knew what to say, but I’m just not taking the six train into my mom. Nah,” wins for being such a distinctly Natasha Lyonne line.