'Russian Doll' and 'Undone' Prove Time Travel Can't Solve Everything

Both shows' second seasons take a similar approach to the multiverse.

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Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist / Photos by Amazon Prime and Netflix

There are two ways you can handle suddenly finding yourself traveling back in time: either freak out and try to escape back to your own present, whenever that may be, or relax and just roll with the experience. If you're being shunted back and forth between past, present, and future, there's gotta be a reason why. It's some coincidence, then, that both Russian Doll, Netflix's fantastic time travel mystery box that traps Natasha Lyonne inside the night of her birthday and forces her to repeat it every time she dies, and Undone, Amazon Prime's rotoscoped sci-fi that stars Rosa Salazar as an existentially bored twentysomething who tries to use her newfound time travel powers to bring her father back to life, are back within a week of each other for their second seasons, each expanding in similar ways on the supernatural pathways laid down by their first.

The second season of Russian Doll ditches the Groundhog Day premise altogether in favor of sending Lyonne's Nadia Vulvokov, via an ancient subway car, back in time to solve the mystery of her family's lost inheritance, thought to have been frittered away by her addled mother (played by Chloë Sevigny). As she delves deeper into the truth, she goes further back in time, to New York City in the '80s and Budapest in the '40s, meeting long-lost relatives from generations ago as she unravels the story. The twist: while back in time, Nadia's consciousness lives inside the bodies of these women, all blessed with Nadia's trademark red tresses, as she pretends to become them in order to prevent a family tragedy from ever occurring.

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Like the first season, it's clever and riveting, though, with the story thus expanded, you miss little bits that made the first season work as well as it did, like Nadia's job as a video game designer giving her the inherent ability to make sense of her constant "respawning." You get the sense that there's so much here, presented with such enthusiasm, that the true core of the narrative is lost in the joys of exploration. Nadia spends barely any time reconnecting with her mother and her surrogate parent Ruth (played by Elizabeth Ashley in the present and Annie Murphy in the past) before leaving them behind a few episodes later. A B-plot focused around Charlie Barnett's character Alan traveling back in time inside the body of his grandmother living in East Berlin confusingly falls apart at the seams. Still, Nadia's arc wherein she forms a deeper understanding of the inner workings of her family's past that she couldn't have gotten while living with her manic and schizophrenic mother is an intensely powerful story unto itself, and—credit to the writers—doesn't feel tacked-on.

In an eerily similar turn of events, Undone Season 2 is also occupied with digging deeper into the concepts of generational trauma and cultural memory. Where, in Season 1, Alma Winograd-Diaz (Salazar) confronts and explores her mestiza heritage by traveling back through time to communicate with her native Mexican ancestors, combining the science fiction of time travel with native spirituality, in Season 2 we learn about her father's side of the family, specifically his mother's escape from the Polish pogroms on the eve of World War II and how her experiences during her journey to America dictated the rest of her life. Picking up right where Season 1 left off, Alma is transported to an alternate dimension, along with the ghost of her father, as both possess the bodies of themselves in the new reality as they work together to solve a mystery surrounding an enormous secret Alma's mother has been keeping from them, and how her secret is linked to her mother-in-law's tragic past.

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Amazon Prime

As in the first season, Undone Season 2 seamlessly blends emotion with heightened sci-fi, and the rotoscoped animation allows for more far-off and fantastical settings. At one point, Alma's grandmother's memories are shown as endlessly folding Escher stairs floating in a sea of clouds, the flattened animation giving the whole thing a tonally distant, dreamlike quality. Like Russian Doll, the new pathways of the story tend to be more confusing than not, as Undone is similarly more interested in exploring all the possibilities a new season opens than in keeping a tight focus on just one of them. Alma's sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) is the one with powers now, able to transmit the two of them into the memories of their mother and father; a plotline following their grandmother's escape from eastern Europe is crammed into three episodes; and there seems to be less regard overall for sticking any sort of rules introduced in the first season. It also ends on a question mark that all but announces that there will be more to the story. 

It should be noted that both of these shows would have been complete as the miniseries they originally were, as both ended on near-perfect grace notes that leave just enough open space for the audience to interpret the way they want. Russian Doll and Undone had no business having second seasons in the first place, though I don't necessarily begrudge them for coming back at all. Television has, after all, become a proving ground where shows are called "limited series" until they gain enough traction to grow beyond their original boundaries.

But both shows introduced story possibilities and original characters that their respective audiences latched onto immediately. Both Lyonne and Salazar have similar, charmingly sanguine attitudes to their entire universes being turned inside-out by forces beyond their control, and both find ways to present the mundane and the everyday in ways that are visually and emotionally exciting. Both shows also use time travel in ways that feel eerily similar, especially given how close together the new seasons have debuted. 

There are three types of time travel stories: the stories in which you can't change the past at all, and, in fact, anything you do to prevent something only causes that thing to happen; the stories in which you can change the past, and, in doing so, you change the future as well; and the stories in which changing the past creates an alternate reality, allowing both outcomes to exist simultaneously. Russian Doll Season 2 masquerades as the second while, in the final episodes, proving that it was the first all along, and Undone Season 2 explores the possibilities of the third before also eventually acquiescing to the logical power of the first.

Not even the ability to bend the universe to your will can keep the past from catching up with the present, as Nadia learns in her second season's metaphysically terrifying climax. Not even finding another universe in which her father was alive and her family was happy could distract Alma from the sneaking suspicion that all was not as it's supposed to be. You could chalk it all up to the ineffability of fate, the hamster wheel we run inside until our time in this world is over, every detail of our lives laid out before us and impossible to escape. On the other hand, living with and learning from the sins of the past is also a choice, one that even those with superhuman abilities have to learn to make.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.