Russian Doll Recap: Tripping Over The Past


Russian Doll Recap: Tripping Over The Past

As season two of Russian Doll reaches its halfway point, it turns its attention back to Alan, who has been mostly absent since his appearance in the premiere. Nadia saw him on another 6 train in episode two, “Coney Island Baby,” but “Station to Station” catches us up with his time-traveling exploits, which are initially much less mission-oriented than Nadia’s. We first see Alan soaking in a tub, grinning. He looks positively giddy — no, besotted is more like it. He answers the door, where a dark-haired German man named Lenny teases him for being so distracted that he missed thermodynamics class. “What’s gotten into you, Agnes?” Lenny wonders before kissing Alan. Agnes? Who’s Agnes? Is she the lovely woman in glasses Alan sees in the mirror, smiling shyly as they eat some German pastry? (She is.)

It turns out Alan has been spending some quality time as his grandmother Agnes, a graduate student from Ghana who studied for a while at the Berlin Institute of Technology (or some stand-in for it). He tells Nadia he didn’t know much about Agnes before he became her (or took over her body, All of Me–style) but he is loving it. Alan isn’t worried about learning a lesson or righting any past wrongs: “Maybe it’s not about fixing anything. You know, like you said, we leveled up. Maybe we’re just supposed to like, I don’t know, enjoy the ride.”

And for once, Alan is determined to enjoy himself — blowing off thermodynamics class (I guess?), eating delicious cakes, and hanging out with the adorable Lenny. He revels in the attention he gets as Agnes, who regularly gets catcalled by German guards at the train station. Instead of going on the dates his mother sets up in 2022, he hides out in the past, where he’s effortlessly charming and things just seem … effortless.

There’s something really lovely about Alan’s not questioning any of this, including the attraction to Lenny (although maybe this is just how we find out Alan’s queer?). He was such a ball of nerves in season one, but when he finds himself in a recently divided Germany (the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961), he fairly skips around town. That could be a sign that Agnes’s consciousness, like Nora’s, is still somewhat present even when Alan’s mind is walking around in her body (also All of Me–style); Agnes may be more naturally poised than her grandson.

Or perhaps Alan is just relieved not to be himself. “It’s nice not to have to worry what people think when they see me,” he tells Nadia over their game of chess, which makes me wonder what the past four years have been like for him. He’s living up to the “be there for others” pledge that unofficially came out of season one, but he doesn’t seem to have established any new relationships, romantic or otherwise. His mother still worries about him, though she isn’t alarmed by his sudden questions, let alone insider knowledge, about his grandmother.

Forget the past four years — we don’t know much about Alan, period. We don’t know what he does for a living, though in season one, we did see his mother (who’s a doctor) express concern about him “missing work again.” We know he has a good friend in Ferran, but is that it? And as I said in my recap of the premiere, they’re friendly but, despite what they’ve been through, don’t seem especially close. Neither does the Zaveri family: Alan’s mother tells him Agnes liked to remind her how difficult it was to raise a child on her own.

Season two has one episode fewer than season one, so the storytelling has to be even more economical. But by glossing over Alan’s past (and his present, when he’s not visiting the past), Russian Doll leaves the audience without the same “silver thread that tethers” us to Alan’s reality,” as “Hungarian god” Kristof might put it, that Nadia’s story has. Why is he so worried about what people think of him that he prefers to hide out in the past? For that matter, why does Alan skip his mother and go straight to his grandmother, someone he knows little about? He observes that her experience as a Ghanaian immigrant in Berlin “must have been so lonely,” a feeling he can certainly relate to, but if that’s the connection, it still seems tenuous at the end of the episode.

But Russian Doll has three generations of Vulvokov (née Peschauer) women to contend with this season (not to mention two Ruths), and Nadia is much more prepared than Alan to mess with the past and rules of time travel (whatever they may be). Though she’s not on the six train to the past, Nadia still plans some space-time hijinks. After talking to Ruth, who grows more melancholy with every scene, she switches tack and jets to Budapest with Maxine, who leads a round of Fuck, Marry, Kill that Nadia finds equally deranged and straightforward.

Hopped up on a German energy drink called Hell (which is actually a thing), Nadia tracks down Kristof, the grandson of Marton Halász, the Nazi guard who issued the receipt for the Peschauer family’s belongings in 1944. When she and Max find themselves at one of Kristof’s get-togethers (in what looks like some factory or plant), Nadia goes through his things, hoping to find something that will help her undo the past. But Kristof has only his own history of trauma and regret — “I grew up with a father who hated the foundation of his very existence and was never able to make sense of it” — and also some LSD.

In the requisite hallucination scene, which is stylish and trippy as hell, Alan and Nora show up, as does Lenny, somehow. Maybe this speaks to Alan and Nadia’s connection, that she could see Lenny so clearly? Or perhaps their stories are starting to bleed together again. This season has a lot of imagery of rebirth and/or resurrection, starting with Nadia going about her day to the sounds of “Personal Jesus.” When we get our first extended look at Alan on his own in these new episodes, he dips his head underwater and then emerges revitalized (dare I say reborn?). Nadia’s acid trip shows her falling into and out of water and ends with her waking up next to Maxine in a cemetery, where they find the grave of a Hungarian priest (Kiss László) whose epitaph includes that very famous quote from John 3:16 about “eternal life.”

Could Nadia actually be on track to creating a new life for herself and her mother and grandmother? She still believes that going back far enough into the past will fix things, which is probably how she finds herself in Budapest once more at the end of “Station to Station.” But she may just be chasing another dead end. As Ruth tells her upon learning the Budapest trip was a bust, “We always think that closure is something we can find out there in the world, as if we can find it in another person or confession or an apology.” In the end, though, “nothing can absolve us but ourselves.”

It seems like Ruth is laying out an alternate path for Nadia to reconcile with the past and get on with the present, but it’s at once too simple and too complicated for Nadia. Though Nadia acknowledges for the first time that Nora “should have been in a hospital” after experiencing what her mother went through — not just seeing it but going through it herself — she’s committed to doing something to prevent that from ever happening.

In season one, Nadia had to confront things head-on, a lesson she seems to really have taken to heart. But she’s becoming obsessed, which is creating a kind of tunnel vision. And her newfound single-mindedness is affecting Ruth, even if Nadia can’t see it. Ruth is now mired in regrets and smoking menthols: “Lately, I’ve been wishing I could tell your mother I’m sorry,” she tells Nadia before inviting her over for backgammon and Bogart movies the following night. Nadia accepts, then immediately gets on a train bound for 1982, only to wake up in 1944. We don’t have a sense of how much time has passed since Nadia started on this quest or if the amount of time she spends in the past corresponds directly to the amount of time that lapses in the present. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Nadia misses more than a movie night.

A Krugerrand for Your Thoughts

• Russian Doll doesn’t squarely fit into the body-swap-movie genre that was popular enough in the ’80s to warrant half a dozen entries, but it does share the “two minds, one body” premise of the 1984 fantasy comedy All of Me, starring Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin.

• This episode had multiple nods to season one, including an introductory bathroom scene, another chain-mail-and-blue-eye-makeup look for Max, and Nadia saying “What a concept” and “fuck pile” again. But the latter feels more obligatory than purposeful.

• Greta Lee really makes the most of her screen time; Maxine’s disgusted “They’re not meant to be!” in response to Nadia’s saying her nudes are “tasteful” is one of the best line readings in this entire show.

• Nadia says “Yum, yum” while reading over Peter Falk’s Wikipedia page. Like Nadia, Falk’s father was of Russian descent, while his mother was part Hungarian.

• An incredulous Nadia: “Alan, the only reason to go into the past is to change shit. I mean, haven’t you ever seen a movie?” A slightly exasperated Alan: “Every movie about time travel says don’t change things.” This is why I need more of these two together!