“Have you ever held a baby?” my therapist asks me.
I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.
[Spoilers for season two of Russian Doll.]
You see, when the first season on Russian Doll dropped four years ago, the exercise seemed crystal clear to me: Here is a story about how you cannot help others, you cannot fix what is wrong, before you tend to yourself first. I wrote a whole essay about it, in fact, enamored of a story where someone finally communicated this forcefully because I know so many wonderful people who refuse to put their own health first and believe that to be the correct and selfless state a person should aim for.
No really, I once had a friend tell me that she always had a problem with the part on the airplane safety card where it instructs you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. People use that exact example as a metaphor for “self care” often, but my friend genuinely found it horrifying that the emergency instructions told her that she needed to make sure she could breathe before attempting anything else. And if that particular pill proved a choking hazard, how exactly would a person go about tackling their own traumas and hardships? I’m not saying this is a simple act of unpacking—there are countless untold reasons why people will do anything to avoid looking inward. It’s pretty much the human condition. But far from being a state of grace, it’s important to recognize that a refusal to do said unpacking is not responsible, nor is it kind. That’s what Russian Doll relayed to its audience. Sort out your shit, it said. Pushing it down isn’t cutting it anymore. You’re being an asshole.
A good process for anyone to internalize. But here’s the kicker… uh, what happens next?
Committing to working through things for yourself, acknowledging that you’ve got some trauma to parse out, that’s only the start of the story, but it’s often where people stamp THE END and step away. The part that comes next is inevitably messier, uglier, and often feels like spinning your tires on an empty dirt road at night with no sign posts for direction or scenery for distraction. And that’s where Nadia and Alan are headed for the entirety of Russian Doll’s second season.
Okay, my therapist asks me if I’ve ever held a baby because she’s trying to make a point. I have held a baby, and when you do that, you’re always worried for them. You want to protect them, to support them, to make sure their needs are met. “And what did the baby do to earn that treatment from you?” she asks me.
Of course nothing. Babies don’t need to earn things, they deserve them because they exist. And there’s the annoying catch-22 of the thought experiment, right? Because we all deserve the same level of care and consideration for existing. It doesn’t change because you’re no longer a newborn. “What would happen if you treated yourself more like you treated that infant?” my therapist says.
And there’s a part of my brain screaming that’s ridiculous because I’m not a baby, I’m an adult-ass human who needs to suck it up and keep moving. I don’t understand the point of this. I don’t understand why I’m supposed to say that I deserve the same care that a helpless baby deserves. I don’t see how that’s going to rectify any of the things that are wrong.
Bear with me here.
It’s been four years since Nadia and Alan were stuck in that never-ending loop of death and chose to get their shit together, help each other, and restore time and reality. Nadia is about to turn forty now, and the only parental figure in her life who was ever worth a damn—her mother’s friend Ruth—is in a sharp health decline. This is the background noise as Nadia boards a 6 train that pops her out in the year 1982: the very same year she was born. After spending a little time in the past, Nadia learns that she is not herself in this time period but her own (very pregnant) mother, Lenora. She meets her mother’s shitty boyfriend Chez, the man Lenora stole the infamous Krugerrands alongside, effectively destroying the meager family fortune that might have kept them afloat as Nadia was growing up.
Taking the train back to the present, Nadia goes to confront an elderly Chez, convinced that he still has the Krugerrands. It turns out that her mother retrieved them immediately after he tried to run off with them in 1982, but Chez is bemused by Nadia’s obsession with the gold coins, referring to them as “a Coney Island.” He explains:
In our house, a Coney Island is the thing that would’ve made everything better, if only it had happened, or didn’t happen. My father couldn’t work. He got sick with polio and wound up in an iron lung. Now, if only he hadn’t gone to Coney Island that summer, he wouldn’t have gotten the airborne polio. But he did. It’s a fantasy. It’s an “if only.” Your mom and me and the gold… it was all a Coney Island.
Nadia isn’t impressed. She heads back to the past to find that her mother did retrieve the Krugerrands from Chez, pawning them for money to buy a luxury car and fur coats. With a younger Ruth’s help, Nadia (still in her mother’s body) gets them back, returning everything her mother bought and assuring her own grandmother, Vera, that the family money will be saved. Nadia is determined to make this right, convinced that she can repair her life by ensuring that her mother has the support that gold could have bought. It never occurs to her that this trip through time might be to a different purpose than the one she’s contrived.
Despite all her caution, Nadia loses the Krugerrands on the train. Distraught over having blown her shot at mending the past, she shoves her arm deeper down the rabbit hole and tries to find out what happened to her family’s possessions during World War II. Some research and a hidden receipt reveals that her family’s wealth was stolen by Nazis, put aboard the infamous Gold Train, and lost forever. So, new plan: Nadia wants to see if she can’t find those stolen valuables in Budapest. Her trip in the present is mostly a dead end, but the next train ride puts Nadia in the body of her grandmother in Budapest 1944—after Vera has lost her family, but before the end of the war. Nadia finds out that before being loaded on the train, most of the valuables of Jewish families were housed in a warehouse where Nazis could purchase them. She finds her family’s crate of valuables and constructs an elaborate plan to get them to her grandmother by hiding them in a tunnel wall and enlisting the help of priest.
The plan seems to work, only to have Nadia discover that these were the events that actually led to her grandmother getting the Krugerrands in the first place. She can’t change the past: she can only see it through. Alan is learning much the same in his journey to East Berlin in 1962, living out his grandmother’s life. After being set up on countless blind dates with women by his mother in the present, Alan finds himself taken with Lenny, a man his grandmother is helping tunnel through to West Berlin so he can reunite with his family. Despite knowing that changing the past is likely the wrong move, Alan is so smitten that he tries to convince Lenny not to go through with his plans. In the end, Lenny goes and Alan never gets to say goodbye.
While the show seems to get overly fixated on these jaunts into the past, they exist for a reason—part of handling trauma is giving it context, and so frequently that vital piece is what we’re missing. Trauma is often generational, cyclical, even genetic at times. We inherit scars from the people who are supposed to take care of us, often unintentionally, but that lack of intention doesn’t make them less difficult to accommodate. We don’t know where unexpected reactions, silences, and outbursts originate. We only hear one or two stories out of an entire pattern. People don’t want to speak ill of family, or they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge what hurts, or you’re a child and they don’t believe you’re ready to know it. I was an adult before I ever heard my grandmother admit that she had been afraid of my grandfather. My father was forbidden to invite his own grandparents to see him in a school play because they spoke Yiddish and my grandpa didn’t want anyone to find out. I still can’t get a timeline on my grandmother’s death from breast cancer because my mother gets so angry whenever she talks about it that the details become nonsensical. Various abuses enacted by different family members have been relayed piecemeal or buried where I can never reach them. The stories conflict. The narrative has no arc.
I will never see the full weave of the fabric that makes me up, but Nadia gets a clear window on these things without once realizing that’s all it is: a window. A clear vantage point on the forces that coalesced to bring her into being. She sees how terribly mental institutions treated her mother, how a fraught relationship with Vera didn’t help Lenora’s deteriorating mental health, how Vera herself lost everything over and over again and kept going, but still never treated her daughter with the tenderness that she deserved. And she sees glimmers of good things, too—she sees how fiercely Ruth loved and advocated for her mother, gets to spend an afternoon in Vera’s shoes and watch Lenora dance in a tarantula costume. Nadia thinks she’s being given a second chance at life, when what she’s getting is arguably far more precious.
Unable to handle the revelation that none of her schemes have panned out, Nadia finds herself in her mother’s body on the 6 train, and goes into labor. She gives birth, is taken to the hospital, listens to her grandmother tell her friend Delia that they will raise Nadia because Lenora isn’t capable. Already knowing how this story ends, Nadia does the only thing that makes sense to her: She steals her infant self and smuggles her back to 2022.
Alan clocks this as the measurably unhinged response that it is, pointing out that Nadia’s actions have broken time and torn the world apart—they’re back in her 36th birthday party and the damn song is playing again and every room is a different moment in the past. Nadia insists that this was the right call: She can raise herself, give this kid the care and stability that she was denied. Alan begins to panic and asks to hold the baby, which Nadia is thrilled with; this was more the childhood she had in mind for herself. Being lovingly held by a dear friend who would never hurt her.
Nadia is far from the most maternal person in the world, but she never hands the infant version of herself to anyone she doesn’t trust implicitly. She treats this miniature with the utmost care, patience, even reckless kindness—
—I told you I was going somewhere with this.
Nadia is holding a baby that did nothing to earn her worry, her attention, her caution, and the baby is her. The metaphor is manifest and my therapist wins in a TKO because if I was genuinely holding myself as an infant, I can’t begin to imagine the lengths I would go to keep that kid safe. Fuck. That’s what she meant.
Alan tries to berate Nadia by pointing out that allowing space-time to disintegrate in an attempt to give herself a do-over is kinda next-level in terms of selfishness. But Nadia isn’t operating from a place of rationality at this point and lets things spiral for a while longer, stuck at the next fork on this particular road. Because getting context to your trauma matters, sure, but if you keep going you’ll eventually realize: it doesn’t. make. any. difference. It gives you a clearer map, but no destination, no peace. Eventually in working through trauma, you hit one irrefutable fact—it’s unchangeable. The Coney Islands are all meaningless. Maybe they would have made a difference, maybe not, but dwelling on them does nothing. You will never see that version of life. The you that’s here is all you get.
And sometimes that’s just… unbearably shitty. And you have to figure out how to deal with it.
That’s what both Nadia and Alan are ultimately working toward this season: learning how to live with the people they are, even if they don’t always like them. Even if they can see all the ways they’ve fucked up and been fucked up by others. Which is why Nadia finds her way back to that time train and sits across from Lenora with her baby self in her arms, only to be told that just because her mother came before her doesn’t mean she has all the answers. (And if that weren’t the most important lie of all, the belief that our elders know more or better just because they’ve been around a little longer; it may be true for some, but plenty of people have no wisdom packed into their bones, and they never will.)
And Lenora asks: “If you could choose your mother all over, would you choose me again?”
So many fictional narratives prioritize forgiveness and absolution as the end-all-be-all. The suggestion winds up becoming that there’s something fundamentally wrong with any person who can’t work their way up to total forgiveness of anyone who has abused or otherwise hurt them—particularly if the other party loves them. After all, love makes room. Love conquers all. Love is the most powerful human emotion. It would be so easy for Russian Doll to make this the penultimate thought of their second season: Nadia has come to a better understanding of her mother, so now, of course, she must choose her. Gladly, willingly, with new facets of understanding and empathy attached. And that’s not fucking realistic. More importantly, it’s not what the story’s about:
“Yeah, I didn’t choose you the first time,” says Nadia, tears trucking down her face, “but I guess that’s just how the story goes, huh, Mom?”
Nadia doesn’t hand herself back over to her mother because she chooses her, or because she forgives her, or because love is more powerful than the hurt Lenora caused her. She hands herself back because what’s past is passed. And what’s worse, there are consequences to this wild detour she took—screwing with the space-time continuum means that she wasn’t there when Ruth died.
And instead of giving Nadia the chance to go back and do it right, she has to let it go. She was having a bad time, she fucked up, and she can’t fix it. She has to live with the fact that she wasn’t there, but also forgive herself for being human and making a big mistake, and remember that Ruth loved her regardless. She has to go to the funeral and live in the aftermath. Because actually doing all this work on yourself often doesn’t feel good, and it means that sometimes you won’t be as functional as you’d like. And you’ll be angry with yourself for it, and you’ll worry about what everyone else thinks and sees in you, and you’ll wonder if heading down this road was a mistake. In the first season, Ruth told Nadia that in wanting to get away from her mother when she was a child, she was choosing to live and that it was beautiful. But living is still a sloppy, untempered state to be in. It stands to reason that choosing it won’t always feel like enough—that fighting to be a part of the world might actually be a fight in the most literal sense.
Giving yourself priority is a first chapter, not an epilogue. Everyone wants tidy solutions and clean endings, and we rarely get to glimpse how that path meanders for anyone, fictionally or otherwise. No one wants to admit that their journey to self-discovery is slow-going, or confusing, or grotesquely painful. By watching Nadia and Alan still failing, but still trying to make sense of things, we get a potent reminder that the road is still better walked.
Fuck Coney Islands—they’re not how the story goes. But in learning to move past them, we’re likely to find something far more meaningful on the other side: the person who’s actually looking us in the mirror, deserving of all the compassion we would give to a newborn baby. Silly as it sounds.