Spoiler warning: Russian Doll Season 2
Created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, Russian Doll returned with a second season on Netflix after three years. While the first season, exploring eternal death in a time loop, left audiences wanting more, the second season confused some, as stories often do with time travel. Without going into technical detail, here time travel is used as a way to delve into intergenerational trauma, which gives the second season fable-like charm and ambiguity.
We end up having a deeply witty story, and like good art, with one of the most awesome soundtracks to boot, Russian Doll, quite deeply, moves something in you. It makes you feel connected, understood, seen and heard, all at the same time. Watching Nadia come to terms with the inevitability of human frailty and the frailty of her own mother (Chloë Sevigny), grandmother (Irén Bordán) and Ruthie (Elizabeth Ashley; Annie Murphy plays the younger version) becomes an act therapy for the public.
Time travel as a way to heal generational trauma
We find Nadia Vulvokov de Lyonne four years after the ordeal of the first season, which occurred on the evening of her 36th birthday. As Nadia nears her 40th birthday in Season 2, she finds herself facing another paradox in the space-time continuum. This Nadia is much more evolved than the one we meet at the very beginning, but she is still not cured. His journey continues.
Nadia finds a wormhole in the New York subway and manages to travel to the past. As she stumbles into 1982, she finds herself occupying her mother, Lenora’s psyche, just as Lenora was ready to bring Nadia into the world and inflict on her the love and hurt we see her sift through in the first season. As the story progresses, Nadia travels back to 1944 and becomes a spectator of the lives of her grandmother Vera and her inscrutable best friend, Delia.
We are often told that we wouldn’t be who we are if all the terrible and horrible things that have happened to us never happened to us. The fallacy of this claim, often thrown at those struggling to live with their lacerated selves, is that it is only partially true, if at all. We don’t become who we are because of the bad things that happen to us.
Trauma, especially those caused in early childhood, affect the brain in ways that can leave lasting changes in the very way we function. This effectively hinders the way we grow as full and successful human beings, once full of potential. Many would choose not to face their trauma when given the choice, sometimes without fully considering the consequences. A theme very recently treated in the series of psychological thrillers Breakup created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle. But a bit like Adam Scott’s Mark in Breakup, Nadia cannot escape the torment she has inherited. Our traumatized self is fragmenting, always seeking the wholeness and absolution that would never come.
When Nadia has the chance to transform her past, she takes the bet. It takes his collapse of spatio-temporal harmony to finally accept the ineffability of all that life imposes on us. The “many worlds”, as quantum mechanics explains it, collide as Nadia foolishly exerts her will to change the indelible past. Time is a loop, and we are all just cosmic pawns.
Epigenetics and the surreal magic of chaos
This season Russian doll leaves behind the narrative of video game and purgatory-style time travel forays. He stands on the border between science and spirituality by delving into epigenetics, myths and the surreal magic of chaos.
Much like the mythical Charon, Horse (played by Brendan Sexton III) reappears as the homeless man who will show you the way and save your skin by charging a pretty penny in return. One could even see Horse as a fae being – full of mischief, mayhem and Delphic knowledge – holding the various timelines together but at the cost of his lucidity, reminiscent of the Yellow Card Man character in Stephen King’s novel. 11/22/63.
At one point Nadia mentions epigenetics, the study of how our behaviors and environment can cause changes in our cells that affect how our genes work without altering our DNA sequence. This may sound like another of Nadia’s neurotic ramblings, but several studies have proven that the behavior of our ancestors affects us. Everything from food to the smoking habits of grandfathers can cause epigenetic effects in their grandchildren. Likewise, circumstantial evidence suggests that trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes that can then be passed on from generation to generation. But that doesn’t mean we have to repeat the looping sequence of pain and suffering over and over again.
Break the cycle
Along the way, in the second season of Russian doll, there is a nod to the fact that it takes a village to raise a child and that blood is not the only family we can rely on in this life. On the one hand, Nadia experiences Lenora’s horrors of living with mental illness, but also witnesses the beauty of the tenderness that Ruthie brings to their lives. Just as Nadia and her mother had Ruthie, her grandmother Vera had Delia; similarly, Nadia has Maxine, Lizzy, and Alan.
As Ruthie tells Lenora while Nadia plays her, “I’d rather be alive with you,” the truth finally comes to light about Nadia. The endearing devotion of others, their promises to bear witness to life with us, make life worth living. the bad only makes up for that human experience. In her grace, strength, and acceptance of life as it comes, Ruthie becomes the true oracle, even though Nadia jokes about being one.
Nadia finally let go and said goodbye to Ruthie with this sentence: “You had no obligation, but you loved me anyway. Goodbye, Ruthie. It’s the last act that brings Nadia to break the cycle. She ends it not by rewriting the past but by accepting it and adapting to it. And his healing continues.
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