Not Just Time Traveling—Teshuvah

Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne’s trippy Talmudic thriller, returned this spring to Netflix with an ambitious second season that gets mystical, feminist and dark. The lifeblood of the show is Jewish inheritances—whether the be ritual objects, residual Holocaust trauma, or a fascination with questions that don’t have answers. 

Where the first installment of the show saw Lyonne’s character Nadia stuck in a time loop—that is, forced to relive her thirty-sixth birthday party over and over again, “resetting” each time she dies in increasingly absurd accidents—the second season broadens its scope and ups the stakes. On the eve of her fortieth birthday, the southbound 6 train abruptly takes Nadia back to 1982, the year she was born. Surrounded by Tab advertisements and copious references to Crazy Eddie’s (if you know, you know), Nadia’s suddenly on a mission to right the wrongs (both perceived, and objectively real) of the women in her family. 

Natasha Lyonne

Over the course of seven episodes, Nadia rides the 6 train back and forth to inhabit the body of her pregnant mother during the spring of 1982, and, after a little more cosmic chaos, her grandmother in 1941 Nazi-occupied Budapest. At first, she’s convinced that if she can prevent her mentally-unstable mother from stealing her grandmother’s Kruggerands (South African gold bullion coins purchased after the Holocaust to ensure money would be accessible in the event of another Hitler) that she can bend the arc of her family’s history toward justice. She soon comes to believe the Kruggerands themselves are the issue, going even further back in time to attempt to prevent her grandmother from exchanging their surviving family valuables for the coins in the first place. The lifeblood of the show is Jewish inheritances—whether they be ritual objects, residual Holocaust trauma, or a fascination with questions without answers.

Natasha Lyonne grew up Orthodox, and was educated in a high school that taught her to read the Talmud in Aramaic. A recent New Yorker profile of Lyonne by Rachel Syme noted that as showrunner for season 2, she ran the writer’s room “a bit like a yeshiva study circle….A lengthy syllabus that she distributed to the writers of Season 2 included texts on Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ the Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann, quantum mechanics, and the history of the lobotomy.” 

In the second-to-last episode of the season, Nadia has kidnapped the newborn version of herself from 1982 and taken them both to the present day (sorry, no time to stop and explain) in an incredibly misguided attempt to see if she can parent herself, given her unstable and difficult childhood with her mother. 

Collapsing timelines has cosmic consequences, of course, and as Nadia wanders through her friend Maxine’s apartment, crooning to her infant self, things deteriorate rapidly. Maxine’s home (which also featured prominently in season one), is the site of a long-ago yeshiva, and as Nadia wanders, she encounters a full classroom of students, rapt with attention in front of a rabbi. 

As Nadia pushes through the desks, wisecracking at the rows of fidgeting boys, the viewer can see that the rabbi is lecturing on the Biblical concept of the Sheol. Though Sheol is referenced in the Tanakh, there is no consensus on exactly what the space is, beyond a place for souls to go after death. Some scholars point to it as a kind of purgatory, while others describe it as closer to Hell. Later, as Nadia descends into the depths of the New York Subway system, it’s clear she’s entered this in-between.

Many critics of this season have gotten stuck on the messy mechanics of time travel, and whether or not the frantic back-and-forth-time-and-space gives Lyonne room to navigate. Personally, I liked the idea I saw expressed on screen: perhaps the act of undertaking the journey was more important than a specific resolution. 

Last December the New Yorker published a piece by Parul Sehgal against the so-called “trauma plot”—that is, treating trauma as inherently synonymous with depth, authority, and character development. “Trauma has become synonymous with backstory,” she writes. “The present must give way to the past, where all mysteries can be solved.” There is a way to read this season of Russian Doll as falling directly into the trap of the Trauma Plot—but in actuality, I think Russian Doll sidesteps the Trauma Plot while underscoring its limitations. Nadia is quite literally returning—attempting a kind of teshuvah that ultimately ends with the realization that ‘solving’ some mysteries doesn’t mean the consequences don’t linger.  

“The true penitent,” Maimonides says, “is the one who finds himself with the opportunity to commit the same sin again yet declines to do so.” Nadia fails at this—she loses the Kruggerands, just as her mother did. But it is clear the audience is meant to understand the past cannot be undone—her mother was always going to steal the gold, and the coins would disappear into that liminal space where forgotten things go. Nadia could not make different choices than her relatives did, even while inhabiting their bodies. Survival—and life more broadly—is predicated on a million tiny interconnected actions. Disrupting the past would result in unfathomable consequences, and as a viewer, I was heartened that Lyonne didn’t let her character take the easy way out. Instead, she learns. She forgives. 

With a show tackling such ambitious themes, there are of course missteps: Alan, a character who experienced time loops alongside Nadia in season 1, embarks on a journey into his own family’s past via subway car in this installment. But where season 1 masterfully wove Alan and Nadia’s lives together, season 2 treats Alan like an afterthought, and this is a major letdown. Some self-inserted jokes about the Holocaust fail to land within the context of the show (though Lyonne of course has every right to make them). And there are red herrings that are fun upon introduction, but tedious to chase in pursuit of no payoff. 

Still, you won’t find a more unabashedly Jewish—and mystical—show on television. Early on in the season, 1982 Nadia is peering into her mother’s mirror, where she spies two pieces of paper. One says “the world was created for me,” and the other says “I am dust and ashes.” This blink-and-you-miss-it Easter egg (forgive the term) is the advice of a 19th century sage, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. “Every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: ‘I am only dust and ashes,’”  he wrote. “When one is feeling too proud, reach into this pocket and take out this paper and read it. In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ When one is feeling disheartened and lowly, reach into this pocket and take this paper out and read it. We are each the joining of two worlds.”