Netflix’s hit series “Russian Doll” is a kind of Jewish “Fleabag” that meets time travel, a mind-bending and extremely honest exploration of trauma. Trampling the streets of New York, Natasha Lyonne (of “Orange is the New Black” fame) plays the fast-talking, chain-smoking, and irrepressibly sarcastic Nadia Vulvokov as she navigates her personal and family history, the fabric of time warping. around her.
Much of “Russian Doll” is an exploration of Nadia’s subconscious, shaped by her identity as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, a propensity for drug addiction, and a childhood scarred by her mother’s schizophrenia. The show is a visual expression of the twists and turns of her psyche, the effects of generational trauma, and cycles of abuse that are difficult for Nadia to admit or articulate, yet persistent…earnestly– underlie his behavior.
As the writer, producer, and lead actress of “Russian Doll,” Natasha Lyonne understands this better than anyone. The similarities between the series and Natasha Lyonne’s own life are hard to ignore: Lyonne’s own identity as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, her struggle with addiction, her born-and-bred New York attitude. Lyonne hosted the season finale of “Saturday Night Live”; in her monologue, she traced her acting career from being a child star to her sudden (and public) fall from grace. With her signature blend of piercing vulnerability and caustic wit, she jokes, “So it’s okay and then knock knock, who’s there?” It’s multiple arrests and drug addiction!
Lyonne says she’s been working on “Russian Doll” in one version or another for almost 10 years. It’s kind of a culmination of her career as an actress and producer as well as her own life experiences. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that so much of “Russian Doll” reads like an exercise in self-therapy.
The similarities to Natasha Lyonne’s own life are hard to ignore: her identity as a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, her struggle with addiction, her New York attitude.
Season 2 of the show, which recently debuted on Netflix, explores how Nadia’s life has been shaped by the twin forces of mental illness and trauma that have defined the women in her family. First accidentally and then intentionally, Nadia travels back in time on the 6 subway train, finding herself in the bodies of her mother Nora, in New York in 1982, and then of her grandmother Vera, in Nazi-occupied Hungary. in 1944.
When Nadia travels back in time, she thinks she’ll fix her life by righting the wrongs of the past. Nadia’s struggle with drug addiction appears to stem from her unpredictable childhood, where her mentally ill mother squandered the family heirloom of 150 Krugerrand gold coins, worth $152,780.86. After Nadia’s grandmother saw her family taken to concentration camps and their belongings stolen, she traded the coins to protect the family from another Holocaust.
Nadia wants to prevent her mother from losing the inheritance, so that she (Nadia) can use it in the future; she views the Krugerrands not just as her birthright, but as a kind of reparation for her childhood trauma. But time travel is not so simple. Time, she discovers, is a closed loop; no matter how she tries to change the past, the future remains the same. Also, in the process of pursuing her goal, she discovers an unexpected, and in some ways unwanted, empathy for her mother. While living in Nora’s body, Nadia begins to experience hallucinations of Nora’s mind and eventually ends up institutionalized in a mental hospital. Seeing firsthand both Nora’s illness and Nora’s own difficult childhood raised by Vera’s disapproval, Nadia begins to understand for the first time the intense pressures Nora was under.
“Russian Doll” is a visual expression of the twists and turns of Nadia’s psyche, the effects of generational trauma, and cycles of abuse that are hard to admit or articulate.
The cycle of matrilineal pressure comes to a head towards the end of the season, when Nadia – in Nora’s body – gives birth on the platform of Train 6. Seeing herself as a baby in full knowledge of the childhood she will endure, Nadia swears to (re)suscitate herself in her present with the childhood she would have liked to have, in order to finally break the cycle.
It is a physical manifestation of the idea of reparenting, a therapeutic strategy of treating one’s “inner child” with the unconditional love and support that he lacked during childhood due to trauma or neglect. . Nadia cradles baby Nadia with a fierce protectiveness we’ve never seen from her, a motherly instinct that’s new to substance-abusing adult Nadia, “live and let live.” But when she brings little Nadia back to the present with her, it creates a temporal paradox that begins to unravel the fabric of reality. Despite her desperate desire to be the mother of her young self, Nadia is forced to return baby Nadia to her own timeline, under her mother’s care.
On the train that finally returns to the future once and for all, Nadia sees a line of women who shaped her: her mother, her grandmother and Ruth, a longtime friend of Nora and a rare symbol of stability in Nadia’s life.
Completely unaware of the damage she has done to Nadia, Nora asks, “If you could choose your mother anywhere, would you choose me again?” Nadia looks from Nora to Ruth, who has been her true mother figure throughout her life, then quips wryly, “I didn’t choose you the first time around.” It’s both an acknowledgment of the trauma of her upbringing and a sort of concession to the fact that her mother did her best, no matter how woefully inadequate. Nadia has the opportunity to take her mother to task for her failures and verbalize her clear and abiding desire to have Ruth as her mother instead. But whether out of love, resignation, or a newfound empathy, Nadia lets the moment pass. After an entire season of trying to change her past, it’s a rare and hard-earned moment of acceptance.
The show is a physical manifestation of the idea of reparenting, a therapeutic strategy of treating one’s “inner child” with the unconditional love we lacked during childhood.
Nadia knows that when she gets off the train and returns to the present, it will be in a world in which Ruth fell ill and died while Nadia was not there. By delving into the past, Nadia missed Ruth’s last days. It’s devastating. After a season of exploring the ways Nadia was abandoned by her real mother and grandmother, Ruth’s motherly love has never been more needed or so miserably out of reach. Watching a younger version of Ruth before she got off the time-traveling train and entered the present, Nadia said goodbye: “You had no obligations, but you loved me anyway, didn’t is this not ? Goodbye, Ruthie.
Accepting the immutable facts of her childhood and the reality that she must get off the train in a world where she will never see Ruth again requires a radical acceptance on Nadia’s part. It is a therapeutic technique in dialectical behavior therapy that focuses on accepting that something life-changing has happened. Instead of trying to deny her experience, she needs to accept the damage that has happened and think about how to adjust to a life in which that damage can now be a defining characteristic. Rather than trying to deny the reality of Ruth’s death and Nadia’s failure to be with her, she must instead radically accept the truth of the situation; instead of running away or trying to feel better, she must learn to move on.
“Russian Doll” has always been conceptualized as a three-season series. But it has yet to be confirmed for a third and final season, and amid Netflix’s declining profits, it could fall victim to Netflix’s classic two-season-and-cancel tactic. It would be a shame because the season ends in a kind of circularity, with Nadia unable to find a way out of the cycles of trauma and addiction. It’s telling that in the three years since the events of the first season, Nadia has changed very little. After two seasons of spinning in circles and not being able to escape her own shadow, a third season of “Russian Doll” should show Nadia that she needed to move on instead of starting over – a potentially difficult feat if the third season were to involve a time travel version of the series.
But after two mind-blowing seasons exploring trauma and growth, I trust Natasha Lyonne to do the job and do it well. After all, it seems to draw so heavily from its own life – perhaps a Season 3 could show how itself got out of the same cycle Nadia finds herself in. As Lyonne herself put it, closing her SNL monologue: hope in despair.