Russian Doll began as the perfect example of a miniseries. It uses every moment of its first season expertly without a wasted second, and in just eight episodes, the Natasha Lyonne-led series explored the inevitability of death and love, the strength it takes to be vulnerable, and how hard it can be to move on and forgive the sins of your parents. The conclusion of that season blew me away the first time I watched it, and has brought me to tears every single time since. Truth be told, I’m a closeted sap who relates too much to Nadia and her fear of allowing anyone in, and I absolutely love the content feeling of closure I get from the finale.
So ever since Netflix announced it was planning to move forward with a second season, I’ve been extremely wary. Of all the lovely shows the streaming giant cancels before they’ve had a chance to complete their stories (The OA, GLOW, etc.), why push forward with another season of Russian Doll and risk ruining the legacy of such a succinct and beautiful miniseries? As I fell deeper into the rabbit hole that is Season 2, unfortunately, this general question of “but, why?” never left me.
This isn’t to say Season 2 of Russian Doll is without its merits. Now that Nadia and Alan have escaped immortality, the death-cycle plot has been abandoned in exchange for a much wackier experiment of time and space. The sci-fi comedy is still fascinating and boundary-pushing, even if this time around it’s a little bit messier. And Lyonne’s dual roles as showrunner and star make Russian Doll career-defining work, but something’s certainly different here. Did a pandemic production change the scope of this follow-up? Was there a decision to move onward with a second season without fully fleshing out what that would look like? Whatever the case may be, the clear thoughtfulness that anchors Russian Doll’s first season is lacking here.
Without getting too far into spoiler-territory (and Netflix’s long list of “do not reveals”), it’s safe to say fans expecting another season of repeated deaths are in for a surprise. The new episodes of Russian Doll are off the rails and include a smattering of effective scenes and heartfelt moments, but they’re not without some confusing choices. With parts of the season taking place across multiple decades and countries, it’s quite literally all over the place. Perhaps even more offensively, Alan (Charlie Barnett) and Nadia don’t spend nearly enough time together. In fact, Barnett is arguably reduced to a guest actor in this season. Nadia and Alan’s relationship grounded Season 1, and they needed each other to figure out their place in their respective death-filled timelines. The step away from this dynamic to a more independent Nadia unfortunately strayed too far from the first season’s urgency to connect the two. Luckily, there’s still Maxine. Greta Lee continues to make the most of every single line she’s given and has a bit more to work with this season than her iconic “Sweet birthday baby!” moment. Her almost bimbo-like aura (and I mean that as the utmost compliment) plays perfectly against Lyonne’s brusque wit.
For the most part, while the experimental aspects of this season didn’t fully work, I do think the risks are worth taking. More TV should be weirder! As a proud member of Sense8’s abysmally small fanbase, I have no problem with television that forces you to just sit back and let confusing plot logistics wash over you. But with such a high bar to surpass in terms of themes, the finale left me wanting more this time around. I’ve always described myself as equal parts a cynic and a romantic, so it felt like Russian Doll was my soulmate series. Maybe not.
All eight episodes of Russian Doll Season 2 premiere Wednesday, April 20th on Netflix.
Kristen Reid is a writer, covering television for Paste Magazine, Vulture, and Film School Rejects. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.
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