in a screenshot from Russian Doll, a woman with red hair peeks out of a subway car door
Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) looks out of her magic train car apprehensively in the second season of "Russian Doll." (Photo/Netflix)

In ‘Russian Doll,’ inherited Holocaust trauma spills through generations — via time travel

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When I saw they were making a new season of “Russian Doll” — Natasha Lyonne’s mind-bending Netflix series about being stuck repeating a single day à la “Groundhog Day” — I was upset.

The first season of “Russian Doll” was, like its subject, a perfect loop. The story felt like a philosophical thought experiment about the nature of time. And it ended artfully, with just the right amount of mystery. What were they going to do with another season, make their protagonist get stuck reliving another day?

The new season of “Russian Doll,” arriving three years after the first thanks to COVID delays, does involve time travel — this time backward, instead of in circles. But this installment is completely different from its predecessor. Sprawling where the first was tightly controlled, the second season uses the supernatural to address not the pressures of modern New York but the Holocaust’s reverberating impact across time.

When the show picks up , several years after the end of the first season, Lyonne’s character Nadia seems to have settled down, leaving behind the self-destructive behaviors of season one for a relatively stable life. That is, until she gets on a 6 train in Manhattan that catapults her to 1982, the year of her birth and a pivotal time in her dysfunctional family’s history.

See, Nadia’s grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and Nadia is convinced that everything that went wrong in her life – including her mother’s mental illness – is due to the inherited trauma of the war. Thrown back in time, she becomes certain that her job is to change the past — to “mitigate the epigenetic k-hole before it begins,” as she says grimly.

This time around, Nadia can control how she travels through time. Able to take her magic subway both directions through the timeline, she starts feverishly researching and experimenting with her history, cross-referencing library information about the Nazi treatment of Jews in Budapest (part of the season was filmed on location in Hungary) with the information she’s gleaning firsthand from her family. After the Holocaust, her grandmother turned all the valuables she had left into gold coins for security upon the inevitable return of violent antisemitism — but Nadia’s mother stole and lost the gold, resulting in a massive familial breakdown. Nadia is fixated on the idea that if she can just get the coins back, everything will be fine.

What follows doesn’t always make exact sense — but it doesn’t need to. The complicated emotions triggered by family and history and war don’t follow logic. In “Russian Doll,” the exact rules of time travel or the facts of epigenetics or psychology are beside the point — the entire thing is visceral and artistic. The show’s rambling style — its many digressions include nods to old movies, arcane philosophy and schizophrenia — evokes the turmoil Nadia experiences rather than explaining or rationalizing it.

Though on the surface, the show is about Nadia’s attempts to help her mother and grandmother, the real subject of her efforts is herself. All of Nadia’s attempts to change the past are an attempt to tame her own demons, undoing her family’s past pain to better her own future. “I mean, it goes all the way down the line like turtles,” she says.

“Russian Doll” is a much heavier show in its second season, its witticisms outweighed by its serious questions. After all, it deals with mental illness, the complex harm mothers can do to their daughters and, of course, the Holocaust; there’s only so much lightheartedness to be had. But, of course, it’s still peppered with the darkly funny quips Lyonne is known for – “Swear to god, this f—ing re-parenting is going to give me an aneurysm,” she says upon meeting her infant self in the past at one point.

Nadia finds herself transported to Nazi-era Hungary. (Photo/Netflix)
Nadia finds herself transported to Nazi-era Hungary. (Photo/Netflix)
Mira Fox
Mira Fox

Mira Fox is a reporter at the Forward. Get in touch at [email protected] or on Twitter @miraefox.

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