As Nadia spends more time in the past, Russian Doll commits to 1980s aesthetics. When Nadia accidentally boarded her first time-traveling train, she found herself surrounded by all these signifiers: the Travis Bickle lookalike; the Cats and Sophie’s Choice posters; and, of course, the newspaper with the John LeBoutillier column and the huge ad for Tab. By the time we get to “Brain Drain,” the third entry in season two, the ’80s have taken over — the episode has a much grainier look, recalling films and footage from 40-plus years ago.
It’s a smart choice by Lyonne, who directs from a script she co-wrote with Alice Ju, one that works on multiple levels. It allows her to tell the story with distinct élan, but it also demonstrates how caught up Nadia is in her mission — she’s starting to see things differently. It also gives Nadia’s scenes with Nora, who suddenly appears on her “own,” the look of home movies they almost certainly never made, rendering the moments even more bittersweet.
“Brain Drain” is the most harrowing episode yet — tinged with paranoia, its humor giving way to body horror. The first time I watched Nadia scramble across a New York Public Library, I laughed, because who does that? On my second viewing, it took on more of an eerie look. It’s not a spider crawl down some stairs, but it’s definitely more than a little unsettling and yet another sign that walking around in her mother’s body is having an effect on her.
In the previous episode, Vera noticed that Nora was acting differently, and that’s because Nora was Nadia at the time. But as we head toward the season’s halfway mark, it’s Nadia who’s changing. She has the same vaudevillian voice, but her cadence is much more rushed, her thinking jumbled. It actually started in “Coney Island Baby,” when Nadia interrupted the racquetball game. The “tight 1980s shorts” joke is hers, but the stuff about beaming up sperm to the “Federation starship”? Not so much. Even she looked unsure of what she was saying at the time. Now it seems she may be hallucinating — the cop from the train in “Nowhen” appears in the library and toward the end of this episode. But this is Russian Doll — is the same cop appearing multiple times (like the three stooges from season one) for reasons other than some kind of psychological breakdown?
I have as many questions as Nadia, who wakes up on the 6 train in the pregnant Nora’s body and decides to stick around in 1982 and regroup at Ruth’s apartment. She’s still technically herself, though all her mentions of “Nora” aren’t lost on her friend. Ruth looks concerned, as does Nadia, who now finds that she enjoys menthol cigarettes.
A trip to the obstetrician’s office only raises more red flags for Ruth and Vera, who sets aside her anger long enough to attend her daughter’s ultrasound. Vera almost lets down her guard to tell Nadia-Nora about the “gold train” that spirited away the treasures of so many Hungarian Jewish families in 1944. But Vera says she has always feared that people will think she’s “insane” if she talks about the “miracle” Delia referred to in the last episode. Nadia-Nora tries to reassure her: “Well, inexplicable things happening is my entire modus operandi.” After everything she’s been through, Nadia’s prepared to believe anything.
Here, we see one of season one’s themes reemerge, as characters question whether mental illness is the source of these “inexplicable things” or if it’s something almost mystical. Then we realize how much trauma is in that public restroom: Vera, a Holocaust survivor; Nora, who had to try to live up to her mother’s toughness while also living with schizophrenia; and Nadia, whose guilt over her will to live may have sent her careening through the multiverse.
So many recent movies and TV shows have purported to “be about trauma,” and only a handful of them have handled that subject matter thoughtfully. In a recent New Yorker profile, Lyonne said intergenerational trauma and the role it plays in our lives is one of the questions she wanted to wrestle with in the new season. My ears certainly pricked up at Nadia’s multiple references to epigenetics (“Find the train, mitigate the epigenetic K-hole before it begins”), but it’s something Ruth says during the ultrasound that viewers will parse: “Nora, being born doesn’t make you a victim.”
I interpreted Ruth’s words as one of the ways people view the notion of inherited trauma. The other side of that coin is if, for example, you’re the child of a Holocaust survivor, then you’re born a survivor. I’m still feeling this out, though; I only started (slowly) reading about epigenetic research in the past few years, mostly as it pertains to Black Americans. There’s clearly so much that is ripe for discussion about this, not the least of which is how Lyonne and the team use what’s happening to Nadia to understand what Nora and Vera went through.
The growing body-horror element could be another manifestation, although we might also view the merging of Nadia and Nora as a tale of possession. Possession stories have their own extensive history, and, of course, demonic possession was once conflated with “madness.” I’m not suggesting Russian Doll is going full horror episode with “Brain Drain,” but David Cronenberg’s influence is undeniable: the video feedback loop scene at Crazy Eddie’s, the bug that Nadia-Nora pulls out of one of her abrasions. Hell, even the episode title sounds like a riff on a Cronenberg movie.
Lyonne’s experimentation pays off in “Brain Drain,” which is a nail-biter even before Nadia announces her plans to go to Budapest. Nadia-Nora’s behavior isn’t lost on Vera or Ruth. In the final third of the episode, Nora somehow splinters off from Nadia and accuses Vera of putting bugs under her skin and lying about the mold in her apartment. She then calls Ruth and tells her she’s with her daughter Nadia, which might make sense to Nadia, Nora, or Nadia-Nora but definitely does not to Ruth or Nora’s super, who has her committed. (I suppose Vera could have signed off on it, but, as the MTA worker tells Nadia-Nora at the start of the episode, it’s disturbingly easy for a stranger/police to have someone committed against their will.)
At the hospital, it becomes clear that, despite Lyonne and Sevigny’s shared screen time, Nadia is still very much in Nora’s body, and she’s being scrutinized the way her mother has been all her life. It probably doesn’t help that Nadia introduces herself as, well, herself while saying she’s merely “eccentric.” The doctor just wants to give “them” Thorazine until Nora delivers the baby, after which she’ll probably be locked up for the rest of her life.
Nadia asks, “Is this what every day was like for you, Mommy?” as Nora nestles against her. She’s almost childlike even as she talks about figuring out how to “fix” her mother. Nora reassures her as a mother would, telling Nadia that “nobody’s gonna lock us up.” Lyonne frames the shot so beautifully here — the women’s foreheads touching, Nora’s strawberry blond tresses mixing with Nadia’s fiery ones. Nadia thought she knew what it was like to be in her mother’s shoes, but she didn’t really grasp it until this moment. It’s probably the closest they’ve ever been to each other, and it may just be a fantasy.
Before you can say “McMurphy,” Nadia escapes and prepares to return to 2022 — or maybe not. She tells Nora, “I think if we can just get back far enough, we can circumnavigate this whole future hellscape, and then you’ll never have to go through any of this.” “Get back far enough” suggests venturing further into Nora’s past to head off the looming tragedy somehow. Nadia does find the receipt for the Peschauer family’s valuables, but surely, the 6 train doesn’t travel to 1940s Budapest, does it?
A Krugerrand For Your thoughts
• When the cop arrives at Nora’s apartment, he says, “Looking for Nora Vulvokov,” and both Nadia and Nora say, “That’s me.” This is the first time Nadia refers to herself as anything other than Nadia (in the past, that is), so she may have separated herself just in time.
• Between “I’m the Norm of this Cheers” and “‘Weird, weird, weird.’ Little Jodie Foster, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore? That’s around now, right?,” Nadia really wants one of her references to land.
• I’m still not sure how the train works — or if there is indeed any logic to it — so Nadia could very well just need to ride it to a different stop to end up in a different decade.
• When Nadia makes it home, she finds a note from Alan, who seems worried or excited to see her. What did he find on his trip aboard the time-travel train? I’m ready to see their stories converge a bit more this season.
• From Nora’s notepad: “Accountability is the answer. When the Judgement Day reveals the ugly underbelly of discontent. We are forced to agonize over the delicate balance between truth and reality. The masses cannot adequately evaluate the substance of this conundrum. At some point, the will of your soul supersedes the needs of daily life and physical needs.”