Even the most ardent fans of Russian Doll (*cough* me *cough*) wondered how the series would follow up 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’s and Alan’s lives was unwarranted (it most certainly was). It was more a question of how Lyonne & Co. would manage to capture lightning in a bottle all over again.
But two episodes in, it seems clear that season two of Russian Doll isn’t posing the same questions as its debut. The framing is also markedly different — rather than relive her birthday, Nadia is reliving parts of the past. To be more accurate, she’s reliving her mother’s past as her mother and learning about the circumstances around her own birth for the first time. And even though, as she complains to her grandmother Vera in “Coney Island Baby,” she’s familiar with the story of how the family fortune was lost, there’s no telling what she’ll uncover.
Not to mention, time travel is very different from time looping (I assume; I haven’t read much about quantum immortality since the first season came out). Nadia’s death paradox was tricky enough, but how do you explain taking a train into your mother’s body? That’s what we seem to be dealing with here because Nadia remains Nadia, even when she’s, ahem, inside of Nora. The smoking, swearing, and general weariness are all present as Vera chastises her daughter for stealing from her. “You do nothing but take and take,” Vera spits out.
Nora probably didn’t suffer her mother’s tirades, and neither does Nadia, who points out the “sick dynamics” between the two: Vera held the gold over her daughter’s head her entire life, and Nora was only too happy to cast Vera as a “puppet master” and herself as “the victim.” As far as Nadia’s concerned, this means the gold belongs to her by virtue of being less of an asshole than either 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 lean into her problem-solving skills, track down the gold coins, return them to Vera, and effectively undo her mother’s biggest mistake (according to her mother). Of course, future, er, present Nadia also stands to gain from tracking down the coins. In the four years since she last pondered their value (aloud, anyway), the Krugerrands have increased in value from $152,780.86 to $280,451.21. That’s enough for Nadia’s college tuition … and a racehorse.
This seems pretty cut and dry, especially once Nadia actually has the coins in her/Nora’s possession, thanks to an assist from Young Ruth! Well, it’s actually 30-something Ruth (played here by Annie Murphy). This Ruth is in mourning, but she won’t let a thing like her husband’s recent death stop her from helping her friend Nora. Her devotion is obvious as she tries to stop Delia, Vera’s oldest friend, from packing up Nora’s apartment (which Vera will no longer be paying for).
Both Ruths seem committed — or maybe resigned? — to help Nora, no matter what the situation is. Ruth of 1982 barely even blinks before plunking 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 Nadia-less Nora purchased with the cash from the coins.
The lovely interplay between Elizabeth Ashley and Natasha Lyonne was one of the highlights of season one, and we get a bit more of that here once Nadia decides to return to 2022 to track down Chez. Murphy also makes for a great scene partner, exuding the same wry warmth as Ashley, but her Ruth stands nearly as straight as Alan; she hasn’t been bowed by age or, more likely, grief. The Ruth of 1982 was reeling from the loss of her husband but thought she at least had Nora to steady her.
But the Nora she speaks to here is Nadia-Nora (that’s what we’ll call the Nora who’s been taken over by Nadia’s consciousness), who only wants to advise her on buying stock in Apple and Tyson Foods. Even if the younger Ruth could grasp that she’s getting stock tips from the future, that’s not what she needs at the moment. Her eyes flash with concern as Nadia-Nora rambles about stocks, but Ruth soon breaks down. At this moment, Nadia’s — yes, Nadia, not Nadia as her mother — head clears, and she comforts the woman who was her mother’s greatest friend and her mother figure.
Throughout “Coney Island Baby” (and “Nowhen”), Russian Doll uses reflections to distinguish between Nadia and Nora. There go those mirrors again — and all other manner of reflective surfaces, like subway windows. Beyond that, writer Allison Silverman and director Alex Buono make sure we understand how in control Nadia is of her mother’s body the moment Nadia (sigh) enters it. Even when Chloë Sevigny plays Nora, she adopts Lyonne’s mannerisms (which is a delight to witness).
But when there are no mirrors and Nadia is, say, tailing Chez in 1982 to find out what he did with the gold coins, the line between the two women blurs. Nadia knows Chez is scum, but she also recognizes how Nora’s body responds to him (as she’ll soon ruefully note, her mom will almost certainly waste a few years with him). She has no idea what Nora gets up to when she’s not around; Nadia can’t keep her from repeating the same mistakes. And, if her behavior around Ruth is any indication, Nora is starting to influence her.
Nadia is able to return the car and the furs and recover the coins, but she knows that she won’t be able to stop her mother from making other mistakes. She can’t completely alter her mother’s life, not even if she is literally making her decisions for her now. So she prepares to take 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 gut-punch of a scene — Nadia’s resignation weighs so heavily that she stoops over the receiver. It even flattens the usual (admittedly raspy) vibrance of her voice. “Water seeks its own level,” she muses, referring to Nora’s choice of companions. But now that she’s seen firsthand how those damn coins tore her family apart, she’s more determined than ever to mend the rift. Not just for herself, but for her mother and grandmother: “I’m bringing the gold back to Vera, where it belongs, to, I don’t know, close this deranged fucking loop and bounce. I hope that this can be a second chance for you guys and that you don’t just destroy things.” Even more heartbreaking is her sign-off: “I love you. I tried 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 in, so we know that the coins aren’t going to make their way back to Vera. Nadia-Nora boards a train, believing she’s heading to Vera’s place. But then she sees Alan on a moving train across the way, looking stunned yet happy. And at that moment, the bag disappears, and so does Nora’s (and maybe Nadia’s?) second chance. It’s not a fall through a set of cellar doors, but it’s just as devastating.
A Krugerrand for Your Thoughts
• I know I just said we’re only two episodes in, but I’m struggling with the “rules,” if you will, of this whole “board a train to your mom’s consciousness” situation. Nadia gets on a train at the end, thinking she’s traveling in the past, but she ends up traveling back to 2022? Is that why she sees Alan? If so, is she unable to take a six train or any train in the past?
• Max and Nadia’s relationship has always been a bit fraught, and the tension is starting to show. Max is annoyed with Nadia for not meeting Ruth at the hospital when she was discharged, and Nadia is annoyed by Max’s “fetishization of death,” even though it doesn’t prohibit her from “genuinely 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 turn up his 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 title and taps into that universal feeling of “if only.”
• Speaking of Chez, Sharlto Copley should be lauded for delivering two flavors of dirtbag 40 years apart.
• “You’re naming the baby after me?” “Well, that’s a letdown.” Hey, according to that plaque, Nadia Koshal was best in sales for Q4 in 1981!