The Second Season Of ‘Russian Doll’ Is A Surreal Yet Tender Look At Integenerational Trauma
"Trauma is a topographical map written on the child, and it takes a lifetime to read."
There’s a scene in Russian Doll‘s latest season where Ruth, played by Elizabeth Ashley, says: “trauma is a topographical map written on the child, and it takes a lifetime to read.”
It’s a line that both painfully describes inheriting intergenerational trauma, and also cleverly alludes to the reality Russian Doll is circumventing.
Written and co-directed by Natasha Lyonne, the second season of Russian Doll sees Nadia swap the Groundhog Day narrative of Season 1 for a more traditional flavour of time travel. Instead of reliving the day that she was supposed to die over and over as she did in season 1, Nadia boards the 6 train to Manhattan, only to arrive in 1982, in the body of her mother.
Nadia resolves that the purpose of her second round of time tom-foolery is to locate her family’s lost fortune. Nadia has been told her family’s wealth, over 100 gold Krugerrands, was smuggled out of Hungary by her grandmother during the Holocaust. But they were stolen from Nadia’s mother before Nadia was born. Now, inhabiting her mum’s body, the year she was born, Nadia begins her investigation into the missing gold in the hopes she can change her family history for the better.
The Past Is A Train Track We Have To Ride
“The universe finally found something worse than death,” Nadia quips, “being my mother.” But while being her mother, Nadia learns just how bad her mother’s psychosis was, how she was ostracised by her own family as a result and institutionalised. In episode three, Nadia experiences her mother’s audio and visual hallucinations, portrayed with lingering shots of bugs at the edges of her vision and rotting flesh creeping up her arms. Later, when Nadia admits her newfound empathy for her mother’s condition to Ruth, her mother figure in the show, she is shocked.
Eventually, Nadia decides to “mitigate the epigenetic k-hole before it begins.” As though the universe was listening, she falls asleep on the six train and wakes up in Budapest in 1944, where the Nazis stole her family’s belongings. Here, Nadia walks in the footsteps of her grandmother, Vera. After passing as non-Jewish and sneaking into a Nazi warehouse, she steals back her family’s valuables, buries them inside the wall of an underground tunnel and enlists the help of a sympathetic priest. Shortly after the war, the priest mails the real Vera the location of the hidden valuables.
Catching the train back to 1962, Nadia — in Vera’s body — exchanges the valuables for money, thinking she has reversed her family’s fate. But everything crumbles when she realises Vera ordered the valuables to be converted to Krugerrands. At this moment, Nadia realises her family’s fate is a closed-loop; a ghostly merry-go-round that Nadia can ride, but never thwart. That is, while we can learn of our family histories, we can’t change them.
This is followed by a truly profound sequence in which Nadia attempts to escape the loop of her family’s history. Moving from train carriage to carriage, she passes her grandmother, mother and younger self, but every supposed exit leads her back to the first carriage. Her younger self smiles and waves from the end carriage and present-day Nadia tearily smiles back. Time is a train on which our seat is determined by those who came before us. No matter how surreal the world may seem and feel, neither Nadia nor we can escape our own histories.
Russian Doll Is About How Intergenerational Trauma Feels
Inherited trauma, also known as epigenetic trauma, is especially prevalent for those with marginalised family histories. Nadia is a Jewish, second-generation Hungarian-American who has spent most of her life as an orphan, seemingly generations removed from her family’s trauma.
But Russian Doll‘s surrealism shows how this removal doesn’t exclude her from carrying the fallout. Absence and disconnection is their own injury and leaves their own kind of scar. As she possesses the body of her estranged mother and grandmother, Nadia is forming the first genuine connection she’s ever had with them. A connection that allows her to fill the void she inherited from their absence with compassion for the ableism, antisemitism and fascism they endured.
No matter how surreal the world may seem and feel, neither Nadia nor we can escape our own histories.
Russian Doll is also deeply entrenched in Jewish history, particularly the impacts of the Holocaust. Nadia as her mother Nora loses the gold on the train trying to take it back to the present. But her grandmother, Vera tells her that the Krugerrands mysteriously disappeared from the Nazi’s gold train too, which is how her family got them back in the first place. Nadia can’t help but remark on the irony. She says, incredulous, “this family lost its gold twice on a train under suspicious metaphysical circumstances?”
For obvious reasons, the spectre of the train is significantly associated with the Jewish trauma of the Holocaust, as well as being the source of the “epigenetic K-hole” the Vulvokovs find themselves in. The train is therefore an apt and poetic mode of transport into Nadia’s past.
In Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne is not making the case that compassion cures epigenetic trauma. Rather, she uses surrealism to show how it feels to live with the weight of pain passed down through generations. In 1944, Nadia looks at her reflection and sees her grandmother, young, slim and red-haired, staring back. “Hello, genetics,” she quips. But unlike Nadia, none of us can board a train as ourselves and disembark it as the relative we hardly knew in a time we never experienced. But how many of us have looked in the mirror and wondered if, or even known that our faces came from our parents and ancestors?
In Questions for Ada, Ijeoma Umebinyuo writes: “Mother, I have pasts inside me I did not bury properly.” It is amid this feeling that Russian Doll makes its surreal reality. Via the 6 train, Nadia travels to the pasts that her mother and grandmother buried within her. The series makes the culture, genetics and mysteries we inherit from our forebears a destination — a station that’s only a train ride away.
It’s A Perfect Second Season
Despite the weird, wonderful and heartbreaking sequences that abound, Natasha Lyonne certainly ensures there’s enough of her signature deadpan wit to go around with lines like, “Would you believe me if I said I picked up this guy at the Public Enemy and ended up almost fucking my dead mother’s boyfriend?”
But her witticisms aren’t indifferent to her pain. Rather, they’re her well-established way of dealing with the seen and unseen impacts of her family’s history that are now laid before the audience.
Of course, all this is soundtracked superbly. Russian Doll is renowned for its sultry off-piste montages. But it graduates from the repetitive time looping insanity of ‘Gotta Get Up’ by Harry Nilssen, to unforgettable uses of tracks like ‘Your Own Personal Jesus’ by Depeche Mode, ‘Sunday Morning’ by Velvet Underground, and ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Pts. 1-5)’ by Pink Floyd.
Russian Doll has a tone and atmosphere like no other, combining sincerity, irony and surrealism to create an almost effortless imagining of how it feels to carry your family’s ghosts. “Trauma is a topographical map written on the child, and it takes a lifetime to read.” But in its second season, Russian Doll asks, and ultimately shows how it feels to be that map.
If you came to Russian Doll for Natasha Lyonne’s take on Groundhog Day, you’ll stay for her more tender time-travelling epic — one that ultimately reminds the viewer that the past belongs to us, and as heavy as it is, it is also precious.
Russian Doll is currently streaming on Netflix.
Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out their podcast, GayV Club where they yarn about LGBTIQ media. Either way, they hope you ate something nice today.