Russian Doll season 2 is the perfect antidote to Holocaust trauma porn

·6-min read
Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Russian Doll season 2 spoilers follow.

Russian Doll season 2 promised a return to form and something wholly original at the same time; a feat that seemed nigh on impossible. Yet, creators Natasha Lyonne (who also stars as Nadia), Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler delivered.

Season 1 of the critically acclaimed time-loop show was lauded for the way it handled its psychological themes, while simultaneously creating a sci-fi world that felt unique, whole and believable. In season 2, trauma is still at the forefront of our psyches: but not just any kind of trauma, intergenerational trauma.

For Nadia, this manifests in a few ways – the most obvious being the family fortune her mother lost, and the way in which it could have changed her life. But the history of the gold, while mentioned in season 1, is the focus of Nadia's journey in season 2.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

When Nadia begins to pull the thread of how the Krugerrands went missing, she goes backwards chronologically, tracing the lineage of the gold and, as she does so, the lineage of her life's ordeals. She winds up all the way back in 1944 Budapest, in the body of her grandmother as a young woman.

This is the most wrenching for Nadia, her blasé attitude is jarring and out of place as she winds her way through throngs of Nazis to find her family's looted fortune – and this discordance is one of the best things about the series.

Many contemporary and pop-cultural zeitgeisty shows have dealt with the atrocities of the holocaust. There is the My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend route – take that and use it for humour, and Rachel Bloom's tongue-in-cheek 'Remember that We Suffered' is a perfect example of this. A more divisive attempt is Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit.

Photo credit: Amazon Prime
Photo credit: Amazon Prime

And then there is the more trodden route: resting on the obvious maudlin morbidity of the holocaust in order to elicit an emotional response in the audience. It certainly isn't any easier, but it does act as a shorthand for explaining the pain the show's characters carry with them, even years later.

One prime example of this technique is the Hava Nagila scene in Hunters, the Amazon Prime show that sees a group of Nazi hunters in the 70s take down those people who escaped prosecution for their war crimes. Their 'contemporary' missions are contextualised through flashbacks to World War Two, and one such trip down memory lane involved a group of Auschwitz imprisoned Jewish musicians suddenly, in an act of wild rebellion, playing Hava Nagila (a song whose title loosely translates from Hebrew to 'Come Let Us Be Glad').

Each musician is summarily shot, one by one, until the last man is shot in the stomach and as he lays dying, sings the words 'Hava Nagila' before he, too, is murdered. The groups of prisoners being escorted in, take up the song, humming as they march to what they know will be their deaths.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Related: The best movies, shows and documentaries to watch about Jewishness

Even writing the scene now, it's hard not to feel it – to hear the voices of my ancestors singing joyously, to imagine the sounds of their cries as they fled their homes (my Jewish grandparents fled the early 20th century pogroms in Ukraine and Germany). It is a haunting and deeply resonant way of recreating that suffering, making it emotionally resonant for a modern – perhaps non-Jewish – audience.

For Jewish audiences, persecution is a trauma we know viscerally: it is the foundation of our holidays, it is baked into our foods, and becomes part of modern lives – whether we are secular or observant. It is explored again and again in a variety of ways, but rarely is it handled with the kind of bare-knuckle, almost defiant casualness of Nadia Vulvokov.

Nadia's modus operandi is indifference. Despite how deeply tied she is to the events of her past, she manoeuvres through the world as if nothing sticks to her, even as she is so deeply impacted by these very incidents – after all, she is the one who winds up in a time-travelling subway car (along with her friend Alan played by Charlie Barnett, who has his own family and personal issues to unpack).

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Don't mistake Nadia's armour of dispassion for indifference. It is simply another method of dealing with the long-lasting impacts of her family's history, and as Nadia gets closer and closer to the nexus point of past and present, she spins further out of control, losing her ability to maintain a willfully unbothered distance.

Forced into a hugely anachronistic environment, Nadia's laissez-faire attitude comes up against the era's gender roles, as well as racial and ethnic divides as well. As she propels her way through 1940s Budapest, she never loses one ounce of her swagger. She has a mission – find the Krugerrands, and, bada bing!, fix her life.

But what she finds is so much more, and that gives her so much more to lose.

"Passing" as a non-Jew, she is ushered into a warehouse by a Nazi guard where thousands of crates of Jewish belongings have been stored, and throngs of Gentiles are, effectively, shopping like it's Black Friday come several decades early. Nadia finds her family crate and discovers not the gold coins but instead belongings – candlestick holders and jewellery and scarves and more.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

She fills the now instantly recognisable leather bag with as much as she can fit into it and then she finds a painting – too big for the bag. She holds it and there breaks her shell as she caresses the canvas, heartbreak on her face, and reluctantly leaves it behind.

Writing about this now, the same nerve is touched as when, several paragraphs above, I had to recount that Hava Nagila scene in my mind. The same tears are shed and the same losses are mourned and the same amount of emotion is pulled out through generations of scar tissue.

It might not be set to the full swell of the chords of joyful Jewish music, nor against the dour steel gates and barren landscapes of the death camps, but it is just as moving as any of those. Through its calm and quiet, we see the deep personal pain and loss — as if Nadia suddenly realises that this was the way her peoples' world had ended: not with a bang but a whimper.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Neither is the right way to explore how antisemitism and the government-sponsored murder of Jews, Romani, LGBTQ people, and more continue to this day to affect us. But when so much pop culture seems to delight in the trauma-porn of reliving the worst moments of our history, it is a welcome change to see this approach.

Counterintuitively, Nadia's bull in a china shop ethos ironically offers the more subtle interrogation of what these thefts, these murders, these crimes have done to us as 'a people' and also as people for decades after the events. What Russian Doll offers as salve is that there is no way to fix it.

The only way forward is forward.

Russian Doll seasons one and two are available to stream now on Netflix.

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