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‘Russian Doll’ Season 2: Time Tripping Through Nadia’s Traumatic Origin Story

Editor Todd Downing tells IndieWire how Season 2 was like "ripping the layers off and going deeper into a psychedelic, surreal world."

Russian Doll Season 2

“Russian Doll” Season 2


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If Season 1 of Netflix’s “Russian Doll” was like “Groundhog Day” with its fatalistic birthday time loop, then a time-traveling subway train, full-circle origin story, and emotional awakening make Season 2 a variation on “Back to the Future.” By the end, the mind-bending exploits of protagonist Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) have become the equivalent of her “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” thanks to the brilliant, “Oz”-like vision of co-creator Lyonne.

For returning editor Todd Downing, wrapping his head around Season 2 was like “ripping the layers off and going deeper into a psychedelic, surreal world.” “There’s much more of a dreamy aspect to it,” he told IndieWire.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot to unpack in the very first episode. A few days before her 40th birthday, Nadia boards the 6 Train and travels back to 1982, where she inhabits the body of her then-pregnant mother, Lenora (Chloe Sevigny). While she’s in the past, Nadia unwittingly comes into possession of her family inheritance of 150 gold coins, which she manages to lose, sending her on a wild goose chase in later episodes.

“The first episode was hard because it took time to hit the rhythm in setting it up,” Downing said. “Being inside the mother and what’s really bothering her. Is that she’s trapped in time? Is it her [bad relationship with her mom]? Letting those things build was difficult, but we got there in the end.”

For Downing — who looks to David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” as a surreal touchstone — it was a delicate balance of making the “weird feel normal” to achieve the right vibe. He explained that “it can be as simple as just offsetting a scene a bit to bring out the subtext, or something even more complex to ensure the viewer remains in tune with the world building, which included a subplot with fellow time traveler Alan (Charlie Barnett), who becomes trapped in his grandmother’s body in East Berlin in 1962.

Russian Doll Season 2

“Russian Doll” Season 2


Downing described Lyonne, who directed three episodes of Season 2 (including the opener and finale), as intense and a perfectionist, yet very liberating sometimes to work with. “She’s wildly creative and not afraid to go deep,” he added. “She has a wicked sense of humor on top of it, where she can be super intellectual and then do a shticky impression of something or a one-liner. She doesn’t like things too neat. I remember we cut a whole scene together and we just used the worst possible takes — people tripping, dropping stuff. We corrected it, but the scene wasn’t getting anywhere. It was kind of hilarious, but it does something to your head and you come back to it.”

One of the trickiest sequences was Nadia’s DMT trip in Budapest in Episode 4. Downing said he re-watched the memorable dream sequence in “Vertigo” as inspiration. “It’s the prototypical tripped-out sequence in mainstream movies so it would be hard to avoid,” he said. ““What shaped it as well was I lived in Berlin for a bit and experienced a few decadent warehouse-type parties in my time there. I was inspired by that, giving it an Eastern European, hardcore vibe but making sure it didn’t come off as too ‘cool’ and music video-y. I think maybe I was going for Hitchcock meets a bad trip at Berghain.”

In the sequence, Nadia journeys through a house party engulfed by green and red strobe lights and pummeled by Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” The camera turns it into a spinning fun house of memories and familiar associations, with Nadia staggering, falling, and drowning. It’s like passing through a train station of her subconscious. And she’s not alone: She’s accompanied at various times by her 9-year-old self, her mother, Alan, and others. It’s like a microcosm of Nadia’s death-rebirth journey.

Russian Doll. Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov in episode 205 of Russian Doll. Cr. András D. Hadjú/Netflix © 2022

“Russian Doll” Season 2


Ultimately, though, this bizarre origin story revolves around the trauma that has been passed down from mother to daughter since World War II, which Nadia tries to undo by changing the future. But it’s futile — she can’t alter destiny. “Trauma is a topographical map written on the child, and it takes a lifetime to read,” Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) tells Nadia. The therapist was her mother’s best friend and Nadia’s surrogate mother throughout her life. Turns out, her brush with death at the beginning of the season becomes the catalyst for Nadia’s time traveling escapade, which blows up in the finale when Nadia takes her baby self back home in 2022. She literally collapses time as a result of her selfishness, causing multiple versions of characters to appear in succession.

“These last two episodes are part of what made me fall in love with Season 2 when I read the scripts,” Downing said. “I thought it was so smart of the writers to not start where Season 1 left off, but rather have it loop around and end up in the first season at the end of the second season. It bends my brain in such a pleasurable way.”

Downing added that the ultimate goal was to marry the surreal and the emotional, seeing how far he could push the craziness while still keeping the viewer engaged with the characters and abstract story. There was nothing crazier than the moment when Nadia gives birth to herself in the subway station in the penultimate episode. “To me, that’s successful surrealism,” he said. “We added some ADR and lingered on certain things that are important. We didn’t want everything to be overly simplistic so it was minimal but you also don’t want to lose the audience in pure abstraction. The audience always has to feel they know what is going on, even when what they are seeing on-screen is a completely different logic than what they are used to in traditional TV storytelling.”

Russian Doll. (L to R) Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov, Ákos Orosz as Father Laszlo in episode 205 of Russian Doll. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

“Russian Doll” Season 2

Courtesy of Netflix

Downing said the ending was always there in the script, with two long oners after Nadia returns her baby self to her mother and finds herself staring at her reflection once again in the bathroom. Lyonne’s performance was spot on. The hard part was the musical choice, which they played with for a long time.

“We must have auditioned a few dozen songs, but always came back to ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ by Pink Floyd,” he said. “I’m not sure how to put the emotions sound and music give you into words, but that song is so complex and beautiful, it just felt like the right choice. The imagery and the audio just married in a very satisfying way, connecting the emotion and surrealism.”

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