The Things We Cannot Change: Grief, Trauma, and Acceptance in Russian Doll Season 2
From the moment we see Nadia waiting for the subway at the very beginning of the trailer for Russian Doll season two, we instantly know she’ll travel much farther than she intends to. However, and after a first season of loop-based attempts at correcting what seemed to be an exasperating glitch, Nadia appeared to have reached some sort of existential serenity and made peace with herself. So what triggered her new time-shifting adventure?
The answer lies perhaps in the comparative relationship between the two seasons. When juxtaposed, their main narratives reveal similar points of departure but very different developments, especially in terms of required strategy: while the first season of Russian Doll focused on the things we can’t change, the second examines instead what we cannot — and the importance of knowing the difference.
The new episodes revolve around three main themes: grief, trauma, and acceptance. As Nadia’s troubled bond with her mother (and more importantly, the memory of her) steps to the forefront, she embarks on a journey to try and make physical and psychological amends, eventually understanding that the only possible way to eliminate the impact that generational trauma has on her life is by accepting both the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the love and the hate. Her legacy, both material and immaterial; her family, in a broader sense.
A thorough disruption of the time/place continuum is still present, and still connected to Nadia’s birthday. This is precisely what triggers her experience — knowing something will come up and being tempted to modify its course by impeding a certain event of the past from taking place. Yet what she ultimately learns is that if we remove the unpleasant parts of ourselves, or the ones we deem the indisputable culprits of our malaise, we will only end up eliminating our whole self in the process.
It’s also very appropriate that the second season came out after two years of lockdowns and restrictions, because the way loss is dealt with hits closer to home now. For everyone who didn’t get to be there for a friend or family member’s last goodbye, there is a sense of impotence that can become overwhelming. Forgiving ourselves and forgiving others for situations which escape our control is easier said than done, and Nadia’s frantic endeavours unveil this blind spot standing between what we know and what we can actually do about it. In season one, she was on a mission to stop something from happening; now, her mission is to transform from within.
Hovering over the equation is the ghost of guilt. While we are busy doing something else, bad things will happen to the ones we love, and we will inevitably feel guilty about not being there. Learning how to let go while never losing our responsibility towards our actions is a valuable lesson, since the world we inhabit is invariably filled with choices — and choosing always means dying in a way. Russian Doll flirts heavily with the theme of death (and rebirth) in both seasons, demonstrating how our preoccupation with its circumstances and exactly how much of the process we can control often turns into an unhealthy obsession.
Alan has a less visible role this season, which arguably makes him function more as a control group than anything else. His actions and thoughts serve instead as a model of comparison to Nadia’s, offering a grounding realism she frequently lacks, be it through the narrative itself or by providing advice. Perhaps Alan’s most valuable contribution to the ongoing time/place paradox is the way he deals with his grandmother’s story: as he heartbreakingly finds out he wasn’t able to interfere with the continuum, he becomes desperate with the idea that he has failed; but when he finally reencounters her at the end in the NYC subway “void”, she reassures him that some things aren’t meant to be changed at all.
Nonetheless, the true centrepiece of season two is Ruth, Nadia’s surrogate mother who provided her with unconditional love and support, and whose role in Nadia’s attempts at changing narratives is to show her the dangers of losing sight of what really matters. Nadia’s stubbornness reveals that while we try to resolve things in the past (and which can never be resolved after all), we forget to enjoy the present in its wonderful fleetingness.
Nadia is both a hero and an anti-hero. She is wise and naive. This is what makes her relatable, because she is neither extremely vulnerable nor completely fearless. What moves her? What moves any of us? Resolution. Love. Closure. But the most interesting part of it all is that even though she dives deep into her time-hopping adventures, she is not the one instigating them, at least on a conscious level — the first trigger always seems to arrive out of nowhere, prompting her to break a cycle. Her lack of saying in the matter reminds us that we are products of our surroundings, vessels of external experiences that we must integrate and utilise the best we know and can.
The narrative of season two plays more into the complexity of Nadia’s mission than season one did, mostly because she is thrown into the time-warp seemingly without a precise course of action being required from her. As she travels through her family’s past, she gradually comes to terms with the fact that she’s not supposed to change anything, but instead witness the events unfold before her with empathy and acceptance. Nadia’s revolt regarding her mom’s past actions gradually dilutes as she understands the importance of unconditional forgiveness. And the gold — well, it symbolises a legacy and security which is always too fragile and fleeting to completely grasp. Letting go of mistakes and of our involvement in them can provide us with the type of liberation we weren’t expecting to experience in the first place, but it also helps put everything in perspective. Was it ever about the gold? Or instead about keeping a memory alive through the passing of a metaphorical baton, while boastingly attempting to correct a fundamental chapter of a story bigger than ourselves?
Ultimately, the main character of Russian Doll seems to be time and the paradoxical catch that comes with acknowledging that it doesn’t actually exist. So the series’ central motif derives from something that despite extremely influential in any and every action is not an actual and indisputable fact that can be relied upon. This is why Nadia’s race in the hope she’ll manage to dominate it is by default a fruitless one; the relativity of the time and space continuum is both what allows for her adventures to occur and what impedes any effective change to take place, since whatever happens to her (and, by extension, to those around her) depends on her perspective alone. The transversal lesson connecting season one and two is discernment; we are neither powerless nor omnipotent, even when it comes to our own fate. But knowing how to navigate the grey area between the two whilst accepting the existence of limits unveils an array of possibilities that transforms us into masters of our own destiny.
Time — what a concept, right?