by Billie Doux
The OA is an eight-episode series currently available on Netflix that was created by Brit Marling, who plays the lead, and Zal Batmanglij. It tells the story of a young blind woman named Prairie Johnson, missing for seven years, who returns home unexpectedly.
Prairie, no longer blind and inexplicably referring to herself as "The OA," won't tell the FBI or her parents (the wonderful former Borg queen Alice Krige and equally wonderful Walking Dead alum Scott Wilson) what happened to her during the seven years she was missing, although there are physical indications that she was imprisoned and abused. Instead, she begins telling her story to five random people in an abandoned house at midnight. The story, and it's a wild one, is told in chapters on successive nights throughout the succeeding episodes, and it has a dramatic effect on the lives of the five listeners, all of whom are from the local high school.
The ending of this series, or possibly first season since there are rumors that there may be a second, is controversial and is generating a lot of discussion. For me, The OA isn't so much about the ending, although I'm one of the viewers who found it quite powerful. It's my opinion that The OA is about the strength and transformative power of storytelling. We've all read books that have changed our lives and made us see the world in a new way. That's what this story did for the OA's five acolytes, four of whom are high school students: Steve, a violent outcast who deals drugs; druggie Jesse; brilliant and disadvantaged Alfonso; Buck the youngest who is trans and struggling to make his parents understand him; and Betty Broderick-Allen, a teacher.
I'm not sure if I can wholeheartedly recommend The OA. Some are finding it utterly fascinating and well worth watching (like me. I thought it was), while others are pissed about the ending and think it was a huge waste of their time. Caveat emptor?
And now, some spoilers. If you're planning to watch The OA, go no further until after you do!
What was real?
It appears that Prairie Johnson was kidnapped and imprisoned for seven years. She was blind when she was kidnapped, and regained her sight before she returned. Her five acolytes indeed used "the movements" she taught them to distract the school shooter long enough to keep him from killing the children in the cafeteria. Were the five actually sending the OA through an interdimensional portal so that she could rescue Homer and the others, or was that all in her head?
Honestly, I was about to give up on this series while watching the first episode, until I got to the end when the "I was born in Russia in 1987" thing started, oddly coinciding with the title sequence. Who puts the title sequence at the end? It was like saying, the story actually begins here. Of course, her childhood in Russia and the way she came back from the dead was very secret princess. It was so unbelievable that this was the point where I started wondering if OA was making the whole thing up. Or if maybe she believed it, but was stark raving mad.
There are so many hints and parallels throughout that make it seem possible that OA is either lying about her past and her seven years of imprisonment, or that she is mentally ill and honestly believes things that are not true. Her parents kept her medicated for nearly her entire childhood because of her unbelievable stories. There were multiple references to her head injuries. After her return home, the doctors in St. Louis said she should be committed. In the final episode, she is again being medicated and has an ankle monitor. There are also many indications that OA is psychic, which could be true even if she fabricated the whole thing.
After I finished the series, I rewatched the pilot, searching for clues. The first thing she asked when she woke after jumping off the bridge was, "Did I flatline?" She said that she was trying to get back to where she'd been held captive, even though she knew that they were gone. She also said, "We all died more times than I can count." The first thing she did when she arrived in her childhood home was attempt to find Homer Roberts on her computer, and later, she did. Although why couldn't Steve and Alfonso find evidence of her story online, too?
Did Hap exist, or was his search for proof of life after death a way that the OA used to humanize her captor? During the series, we often see things from Hap's viewpoint, even to his trips to find other NDE survivors and that strange murder of his friend at a morgue. (What the hell really happened in that morgue? What was that other guy doing?) The OA told her five acolytes that her father was a miner, and Hap's house was situated at an abandoned mine. When the OA was little and her name was Nina Azarova, her father forced her into freezing water in order to cure her fear of her nightmares of drowning in an aquarium, and note the similarity to Hap repeatedly drowning his captive subjects. Plus, the series began when the OA jumped off a bridge, and the kids on the school bus in Russia went over a bridge. Note also the use of glass or plastic during the OA's seven years of imprisonment and in the final shooting scene.
The neighborhood that the OA and her acolytes lived in was outright creepy. It looked like a typical suburb on the surface, but it consisted of jarring and oddly naked tract houses and there were often strange objects in the street. And I dare say most suburban neighborhoods don't have a half-built abandoned house sitting in the middle of an empty street? There was also the weirdness of the OA's instructions to her acolytes to leave their doors open while they were at her storytelling seances, something I found uncomfortable in present-day America; was that because the FBI instructed the Johnsons that "doors should remain open at all times"?
Steve, the OA's first follower and the character who changed the most, was introduced with a jarring, explicit sex scene right in front of a picture window showing that strange neighborhood. A drug-dealing bully with rage issues, Steve was the one who chose the other acolytes — except for teacher Betty Broderick-Allen, who basically chose herself. Grief-stricken by the recent death of her twin brother, Betty at first appeared to be a closed-minded teacher parroting the views of a rigid educational system uninterested in connecting with children who are different. Phyllis Smith is wonderful as Betty, and I thought her developing relationship with Steve, and in particular, the night she gave away her inheritance to save him from the goons from Asheville, was one of the high points of the series. I also really loved the scene where the OA impersonated Steve's stepmother and talked Betty out of expelling Steve, especially the bizarre little detail of one of the OA's fake press-on nails popping off while they were talking. Note that the OA guessed correctly that Betty had just lost a sibling, another bit that made me think she was psychic.
So let's talk about the ending.
The scene where Alfonso found the books under the OA's bed was very Usual Suspects, but it was also ambiguous. Yes, the OA could have used those books to create the details in her story, but she also could have been reading about subjects that had a relationship to her life, couldn't she? Why did Alfonso look in the mirror and see himself as Homer? And here's the big one for me. What was FBI agent Elias doing in the Johnson home alone at night, and why was he so weird and unconventional in the first place?
After I finished all eight episodes, I checked out a lot of articles and reviews on the internet. What seems to upset critics the most is the insertion of a school shooting into the narrative, supposedly out of nowhere. (That, and the admittedly silly interpretive dance "movements" that were intended to open the interdimensional portal.)
Honestly, I don't think the school shooting came out of nowhere. The focus of the entire series was saving the lives of children, and the five acolytes were all from the high school. The OA's story began with the Russian children dying on the bus, and then focused on five youths trapped under glass and killed and revived repeatedly in Hap's basement. Plus, it seemed to me that Steve fit the profile of a possible school shooter, and even though he momentarily reacted to the OA with anger in the pencil-stabbing scene, he was the one who changed the most, and for the better, over the course of the story.
We're now hearing that there may be a second season in the works. I cannot imagine what a second season could be about. Almost anything they do to answer questions about what happened in the first season might ruin the whole thing. Then again, what if the OA really did go through a portal in the end? What if Homer, Rachel, Scott and Renata do exist and are still imprisoned, waiting for her to rescue them?
A few bits:
-- OA may have meant "original angel." I thought that it could have been an interpretation of the word "away."
-- I didn't notice it the first time through, but there is a lot of purple, the color of royalty (secret princess), magic and spirituality.
-- There's Braille, too. There are actually strips on Braille on Khatun's face during the afterlife scenes. Also, the OA kept touching her white bedspread that had knobby protrusions like Braille.
-- How on earth did the OA and Homer write the symbols representing the movements on their skin? They couldn't touch each other; could anyone physically do that? Was that the reason the OA was told to make her arms longer during that scene with the bill and the trench?
-- Why were there potted plants in Hap's underground prison?
-- Why did the OA's mother Nancy freak out in the restaurant?
-- Loved the tiny blue quail eggs in milk for breakfast, and the bit in the afterlife about swallowing a bird.
So what is this show? Is it pretentious arty crap, or is it a powerful story about storytelling, mysticism and life after death? Lines are open. What did you guys think?
Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.