I had been waiting with bated breath for season two of “Russian Doll,” Natasha Lyonne‘s trippy and dark Netflix dramedy that she created and stars in. As a longtime fan of the raspy-voiced Jewish actress, the prospect of another seven episodes of the bright red locks, billowing black coat and chain-smoke of Lyonne’s Nadia Vulvokov was irresistible, especially with how arresting and mindbending the first season was.
As expected, season two of the show is just as psychedelic and enthralling as the first. Instead of being caught in a time loop, reliving the day of their death on Nadia’s 36th birthday, this season finds Nadia and Alan (Charlie Barnett) traveling back in time through the New York City subway, inhabiting the bodies of their ancestors. Taking place in the weeks preceding Nadia’s 40th birthday, the new season has our protagonists finding new ways to address the concept of time, intergenerational trauma, psychological scars and the afterlife — you know, light stuff.
What I didn’t expect, though, was for this season to be even more Jewish than its predecessor — which was possibly one of the most Jewish seasons of TV I’ve ever seen, at least in a Netflix original show. While the second season doesn’t offer any conversations with rabbis, it is in ways — both fundamentally and superficially — so incredibly Jewish, delving deep into intergenerational Jewish family trauma and offering brilliant Jewish zingers along the way.
At the heart of the season is Nadia coming to terms with the flaws and wonders that are the Jewish mother figures in her life — her mother, Nora (Chloe Sevigny), her grandmother Vera (Irén Bordán and Ilona McRea), a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, and her mother’s best friend, Ruth Brenner, Nadia’s godmother who is played in the present by Elizabeth Ashley and in the past by the amazing Annie Murphy, who is so incredible in the role you will not recognize her as “Schitt’s Creek” Alexis at all.
When Nadia first finds out she can travel back through time to the 1980s, entering the body of her Jewish mother, she has one mission and one mission only: to retrieve the Krugerrands, the golden coins that meant the world to her grandmother. “Those coins were the only security we had — for when Hitler comes back,” Nadia’s Jewish Hungarian grandmother Vera explains. Nadia’s mentally ill mother stole the coins from her mother — irrevocably straining their relationship.
By retrieving the coins, Nadia not only wants to fix the rift between mother and daughter, but to secure her own future. When she discovers that Ruth is sick, she also hopes the coins can help pay the medical bills for the one stable parental figure in her life.
In her efforts to retrieve the Kruggerands, Nadia discovers that her Hungarian Jewish family’s possessions were stolen by the Nazis and put on the Nazi Gold Train, which later disappeared in the aftermath of World War II (the Gold train was a real train, and it’s likely that the possessions on it were looted by American soldiers).
Nadia journeys to Budapest — at first by plane in the present time. “I just want to celebrate my birth by, you know, going back to where all my people died,” she tells Ruth.
In the Budapest of 2022, Nadia doesn’t find many answers beyond a plaque with the names of Jews who lived in her building and a man whose grandfather registered their stolen possessions — who sends her on an LSD-induced trip to a local cemetery, where she finds the grave of a priest with stones on it. “It’s a Jewish thing… a sign of respect,” she tells her friend Maxine.
The “trip” helps her travel through time again — this time, back to 1944, where she embodies her grandmother Vera who, like Nadia, is dressed constantly in black, but in order to pass off as a widow. “They’re dressing like widows, you can’t tell who’s a widow and who’s a Jew rat,” a local explains.
We often see piles of possessions of victims as a way to somehow transmute the gravity of the loss. I remember choking up when I saw those piles of dusty suitcases and shoes at the Auschwitz Museum in Poland. But in one “Russian Doll” scene, Nadia finds herself in 1944, in a building full of looted Jewish goods. Gentle piano music plays as fellow Hungarians loot the possessions of their neighbors like they’re shopping at a local farmer’s market. Nadia’s breathless muttered curses at this moment express the depth of these horrors much more poignantly than many other recent explorations of the Holocaust in TV and film.
Yet, the season wouldn’t be as successful if it weren’t so darn funny and sobering. Even in that looting scene, Nadia doesn’t allow herself any maudlin sentimentality. She is as full of brilliant quips as she is of insight and vulnerability. And many of the funniest moments in the series are incredibly Jewish. In one scene, Nadia glibly accuses the priest who helped her family of having “kugel fever,” and jokes about Stephen Spielberg and “Schindler’s List.” These jokes are always offset by something that highlights how deeply informed by the Jewish experience the show is — as another priest offers her a greeting of welcome, she observes how that word in relation to Jews is a euphemism for tolerance, not actual welcome.
“Russian Doll” is perhaps also so Jewish because it dares to ask big questions and leave some of them unanswered, about time and space and psychological scars. Judaism is, after all, a religion of more questions than answers. In one of the season’s most mind-bending scenes, Alan and Nadia walk into a yeshiva class where a rabbi discusses the concept of “sheol” — the void, a Jewish idea of the afterlife.
Lyonne’s “Russian Doll” asks if we can fix intergenerational trauma through time travel. It’s perhaps the most out-there exploration of the concept recently visited by other Jewish creators like Amy Schumer and Mayim Bialik — but also, in many ways, perhaps the most enlightening.
There’s something particularly on-the-nose about looking at the mirror and seeing your mother — pregnant with you as a baby, no less — or your Jewish grandmother as your own reflection. It shouldn’t work, but it really, really does.