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Amy Poehler, Charlie Barnett, and Greta Lee also weigh-in on facing our family histories
[Warning: The following contains light spoilers for Russian Doll Season 2. Read at your own risk!]
In the first season of Russian Doll, Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) is stuck in a hellish time loop. The brazen New Yorker repeatedly dies and must relive the evening of her 36th birthday. She eventually finds a way out, but it doesn't take long before Nadia faces another conundrum that blurs everything about her past, present, and future. Russian Doll Season 2, which premieres April 20, is a kooky time travel story. It's comical and cerebral, and, like the dark comedy's first season, rife with layers to peel back about what it means to be human.
"Season 1 was about, how do I stop dying and being self-destructive, and that's through finding connections," Lyonne, Russian Doll's co-creator and star, told TV Guide on the red carpet of the show's New York premiere. "Season 2 is really about, how do I start living?" Following the time-traveling journeys of Nadia and Alan Zavieri (Charlie Barnett) — who was trapped in the same time loop as Nadia in Season 1, part of the answer appears to be exploring the effects of generational trauma and learning to heal from them. "For these two characters, it feels appropriate that they have to go investigate that if they want to be able to show up in the present," Lyonne said.
Lyonne, who is also a director and writer on the show, described the importance of looking back in order to look forward. "Certainly we should be speaking truthfully, and without shame, about the reality of our own histories — how problematic they are," she said. "Maybe you're just buying a coffee, but it can be a loaded interaction. I just felt like it was a worthy endeavor to say, why?"
It's a theme that resonated with Greta Lee, who plays Nadia's best friend Maxine. "As a Korean American, that's something that's very, very familiar to me — generational trauma," Lee said. "I was surprised, pleasantly surprised that we can approach that question in such a different way, and that different people can ask that same question." The question, Lee explained, is essentially this: Who are you and how did you get that way? "What was it like for the people in your past, especially the women in your past?" she said. "The women before us, our mothers and our grandmothers and their mothers? There's so much that we don't know."
Much of Russian Doll Season 2 is spent exploring the lives of women from Nadia and Alan's pasts. For Nadia, that means her mother Lenora (Chloë Sevigny) and grandmother Vera (Irén Bordan). For Alan, it's his grandmother Agnes (Carolyn Michelle Smith).
"It's obviously a connected line through the whole season," Barnett said of the theme of generational trauma. "In a weird way, I think for everybody, it's one of those things that you feel like locks you into a person that you think you have to become, or that you're destined to be," he explained. But, at the same time, Barnett said it could be "one of the most freeing and magical things" when looked at from a different side.
He shared his experience of being adopted. "God knows it's hard to use the word trauma because it's so mixed, it's such a blessing in the same regard," he said. "It has been the thing that allowed me to become the great artist that I am." For Barnett, part of the blessing has come from understanding that compassion can be built through anything. "Blood is not thicker than water, time and effort is thicker than that," the actor said.
Barnett also discussed the role that friendships play in unpacking generational trauma. "That's therapy, that's everything," he said. "You need those relationships in order to find your base again." He described how this plays out in the show. "I often say [to] Natasha, our characters, I am the person to pull her off the ledge, she's the person to push me off," he said. Barnett doesn't think of Alan and Nadia as best friends. Instead, "they need each other," he explained. "They're two people connected by some strange line and they utilize each other for life."
In Season 2, their friendship is one of several that anchors Nadia as she launches herself into her past. "There's a lot of discussion about chosen family and who is the person that you choose to be part of your tribe," show co-creator Amy Poehler said of the new season. "What friends allow you to do is to see where you're at presently." Poehler shared that she and Lyonne often talk about replaying time in their minds. "But staying in the present is actually probably the hardest job to do. So I think your friends do that," she said.
Compared to the time loop in Russian Doll's first season, the warped circumstances of Season 2 are arguably better in part because Nadia has the option of returning to the present day. It's where she is surrounded by friends who, though they share no blood relations, are family.
Season 2 of Russian Doll is available to stream.