The OA: The power of sincerity over cynicism
James R | On 17, Apr 2017
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen The OA? Read our spoiler-free review of the opening episode here.
“Why do we always try to understand?” That’s the question at the heart of The OA, a show that’s made up almost entirely of questions. It’s a study of faith and science, the rational and the supernatural, of truth and fairytale; it’s no coincidence that the majority of it takes the form of a story-telling session. The onus is on the teller to keep the story engaging, but, most of all, on the audience to suspend disbelief.
We’re asked to do that immediately, as the show presents us with an apparent miracle: the appearance of young Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling), who returns to her home town seven years after she disappeared. She’s confused. She’s lost. She has strange marks on her back. And, when she’s reunited with her parents, she’s never seen them before. Why? Because went she went missing, she was blind. Now? She can see.
Of course, all the people around her – including us – begin to form theories about what happened. Was she held captive somewhere? Was she mistreated? Did she join some kind of cult? All of those are true and not true. And that hasn’t really changed eight episodes later.
“Being blind made me listen,” Prairie observes at one point. “And it made people underestimate me.” That subversion of expectation is part of what makes The OA’s introduction so breathtaking, not by delivering some huge, conventional twist, but in the way that writers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij effortlessly segue from one narrative to another. While people start to set up the usual milestones for a girl-returns-home story, The OA is somewhere over to the left of the field making something brand new. It’s all about casting off those presumed projections; there’s more to Prairie’s story than her miraculous eyesight, and there’s more to her than her return home. She’s not a label, or a stock type, or even a crazy freak. She’s something more complex. “I didn’t disappear,” she reminds the police. “I was present for all of it.”
And so starts the marathon weaving of her story, one that takes us all the way back to 1980s Russia – and if you’re surprised by that, your jaw will be on the floor for almost all of The OA’s eight hours. This flight back in time leads to the prolonged, and most satisfying, opening titles in recent memory, as the drama warms to its grand themes and ambitious scale. Her father, we learn, was a wealthy mining magnate, but after falling foul of the mafia, his daughter’s school bus was knocked off a bridge into a river. It’s an event she seemed to foresee in recurring nightmares about being trapped in an aquarium, and, in keeping with that ominous premonition, everyone dies – including her.
That’s where things get weird.
A near death experience (NDE) follows, as we’re whisked into a fantastical world of dazzling darks and gorgeous colours, with a mysterious figure called Khatun giving Prairie (or Nina, to use her actual Russian name) the chance to return home if she wants. She does, but it comes at a cost: she loses her sight, to spare her from seeing the horrors that will be in front of her. Once home, her dad sends her to live in America, where she will be safe – and she winds up being adopted by Nancy (Alice Krige) and Abel (Scott Wilson). Things don’t go well, as she continues to behave strangely, sleepwalking, having more visions and speaking Russian. And so her parents sedate her, until the day she manages to escape (her 21st birthday).
Parents sedating their child? It sounds grim, but The OA is a show that trades in empathy as much as the otherworldly. Marling and Batmanglij ground everything in human interaction, whether that’s a dad desperate to look after his daughter, or Prairie talking with troubled school kid Steve (Patrick Gibson). It’s the same kind of down-to-earth approach that made Marling’s breakout role in indie sci-fi Another Earth so astonishing, and so astonishingly believable; this is less supernatural and more hyper-natural.
Wilson and Krige bring a tangible intimacy to the screen, the kind of intimacy that’s built up over many unseen years spent raising their once-blind daughter. Even without words, Prairie recognises her mother’s face just by feeling it. Gibson is similarly excellent as cruel teenager Steve, a guy initially more concerned with his outside appearance than what’s hidden inside. It’s no coincidence that we spend a large part of the opening episodes with him, just as Prairie delivers one speech on the importance of having sympathy for horrible people.
At the heart of that generous tone is Brit Marling, whose compassion has always made her work stand out. Her facial expressions are always changing, always teasing new emotions, but, most of all, they’re always open; her acting comes with a vulnerability that makes her magnetic to watch. When she pairs up with Batmanglij, that feeds perfectly into his genre-bending craft, resulting in the kind of raw, unpredictable thrillers that resist the urge to be classified as one genre or another; their eco-political drama The East, for example, was driven more by character than ideology.
Steve is joined by a diverse array of high school figures, from Buck, a transitioning teenager who’s taking testosterone, and French, an athlete with a scholarship on the cards, to Jesse, your typical stoner. And, even more diverse still, is Betty Broderick-Allen – “BBA”, for short – one of the teachers from the school. They all meet at night to hear Prairie outline her life story in an abandoned house in the local neighbourhood. During the day, meanwhile, Prairie heads to the FBO to meet a therapist called Elias (Riz Ahmed).
It’s a subtle parallel that isn’t made explicit by the show until near the end, but one that’s crucial to the way the show is rooted in the act of communication and the validation it brings; she needs someone to tell her story to, while the kids (and BBA) need Prairie’s story to give them a sense of belonging and importance. They’re chosen, becoming framed as her four new angels (“OA”, Prairie’s other name, stands for “Original Angel”) who Khatun told her must work together to avert a “great evil”. It’s a proposal and prediction that’s far more appealing than their own lives: Steve, after a violent outburst, is about to be sent off to military camp; French has had to become the unwilling mother of his own household; Buck’s father won’t acknowledge his transitioning; and BBA is struggling to cope with the death of her brother. As for Prairie? “You know what second-hand trauma is?” Elias asks French, near the show’s conclusion. “When you take somebody else’s pain so they can survive. That’s what you did.”
We don’t get that insight until the finale because we’re too busy being absorbed by Prairie’s story: she’s the one in control of the series’ narrative, and that dizzying immersion, which recalls Marling and Batmanglij’s similar Sound of My Voice, is ideal for a Netflix series. Not since Amazon’s Transparent has there been a show so gracefully composed for binge-watching, with chapters seamlessly slipping into each other and Netflix even reducing the autoplay gap between them to keep you immersed.
“You have to pretend to trust me until you actually do,” advises Prairie, but we’re not given a chance not to; you have to actively detach from her tale to stop its magic working.
That results in several hours of absolutely riveting drama, placing us in exactly the same shoes as Prairie’s listeners. We watch as Prairie flees to New York and comes across a nice doctor named Hap (Jason Isaac), who, it turns out, is obsessed with NDEs. He takes her to a bed in a safe place, but it turns out to be a basement lab in his remote rural home – and, just like that, we jump straight into Episode 3, 4 and 5. What began as a historical flashback and transformed into a sci-fi suddenly becomes a kidnapping thriller, and the show’s presentation adjusts to fit the shifting genre, with the lighting and sound all combining to ramp up the claustrophobia.
It’s in this prison that she meets the other angels, including Homer (Emory Cohen, who between this, Brooklyn and The Place Beyond the Pine, is destined to become a serious Hollywood star), Rachel and Scott. As the days go by, Hap brings them out, one by one, and drowns them in a horrible machine and brings them back to life, hoping to study what happens during their NDEs. Over time, Prairie wins his trust, becoming a pseudo-housekeeper, even making him food. Her slow, patient attempt to poison him with stew is nail-biting to witness – in a cruel twist of fate, she ends up having to save his life with an Epi-pen, after he reveals he’s allergic to tomatoes, which only bonds the two closer together. Isaacs and Marling are fantastic together, always muddying the emotional waters in a thorny symbiotic relationship; he needs her to help him do his work, while she needs him alive so that they can get the code to open the cells.
The heart-stopping tension is amplified by the programme’s superb use of runtimes: the more suspenseful middle episodes rush by in 30 to 40 minutes, subtly accelerating the story without binge-watchers realising. This is modern story-telling at its most masterful and elegant.
Homer, eventually, brings back something from an NDE: a “movement”. This action, another of which has already been taught to OA (during an NDE that gives back her sight), is one of five: performed together, the movements have a special power, one that transcends the normal plane of existence. We presume, like them, that it’ll open a portal to help them escape, but there’s much more to it than that: Scott, who dies, is brought back to life by the intense physical gyrations of OA and Homer, a sequence that is astonishingly creepy, complete with blood trickling through twigs and moss in reverse. At one point, a local cop enters the house and realises what’s going on, but Hap’s arrest is averted by the angels’ ability to heal his wife from ALS – another mini-miracle that ultimately provides them with the fifth movement, after the woman wakes up and passes them a message from beyond the pale. It’s the kind of blind-siding moment that The OA excels at, presenting us with a familiar story (cop finds man holding teenagers prisoner) and uses it to leap into another tale that, were it presented on its own, would otherwise be outrageous.
That balance of gritty and graceful, of everyday and unreal, is maintained throughout, from Hap encountering an old colleague, who tries to kill him to get his research, to Betty’s grief, which is beautifully teased out by Phyllis Smith (rather fittingly, also the voice of Sadness in Inside Out), quietly comparing the act of believing in OA’s tale to “forcing yourself to smile until you feel happy”. In the modern day, after Hap has dumped OA by the side of the road and left her to find her way home, Prairie reveals that the marks on her body are self-inflicted, to remind her what the movements are, so that she can teach them to a new group of angels – and, hopefully, reconnect with and rescue Homer. All the while, the more mundane challenge of restoring a normal family life continues: Prairie has become something of a celebrity, leading to one standout scene in a restaurant, where a girl comes up to them and talks about how she heard she was raped and bused, causing Alice Krige to unleash a defensive wave of rage and anger. (It’s telling that we spend as much time with her parents developing emotionally as we do with OA, right down Nancy’s tragically needy decision to adopt a blind girl because she thought she’d be more dependent upon her.)
All of this builds up to a climax that dares us to go along with what we’ve been told. When Steve’s dad tries to get him taken away, Betty turns up to pay his captors $50,000 to release him – an absurdly out-of-the-blue gesture that we nonetheless cheer on. But the truth is deliberately kept ambiguous: in the final episode, we see French break into OA’s empty house and find a box with a load of books under her bed, including one about Russian history and a copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Are they research for an elaborate fabrication? A coincidence? Or a young woman grasping at straws that she hoped would trigger her half-formed memories?
The result is a story about stories: a myth about a myth being created in front of us. We see, over and over again, how narratives tie people together, how a communal belief in something can be more powerful than we realise. But it’s not enough to simply tell us that, even when it’s someone as good as Marling doing the telling: The OA is about us making the choice to believe. (It’s no coincidence that while French is finding those books, Steve is simultaneously searching for evidence to prove she’s right, including a video on the web of her playing violin on the subway – the act that, in her story, led to her first meeting Hap.)
That choice is the driving force of the divisive final moments, which see a shooter turn up at the school, with all the pupils rushing to the cafeteria for safety. We’ve heard mention of a shooter in a nearby school on a radio previously, but it’s still a shocking lurch into unexpected territory – one that, were it made by any other show, would feel exploitative or cheap. But The OA is a series in which taking such sharp corners is the norm, where we don’t focus on who the shooter is or why he’s there: our attention is firmly on the group of five disparate people, who unite to perform OA’s choreography as a way to fend off the great evil in front of them. It’s an almost ridiculous sight, these people grunting, hissing and flapping their hands, the kind of thing that could be written off by the immature high-schoolers in the room as bad interpretative dance – but The OA gazes beyond that to the conviction displayed on-screen.
Ultimately, the shooter is stopped. Is that because he was distracted by the bizarre spectacle greeting him, just long enough for a staff member to tackle him from behind? Or is it because they opened a portal to bring Prairie to the school, where she ends up taking a fateful bullet through the cafeteria window?
As OA is whisked away in an ambulance, Steve chases after her, asking to be taken with her. His cry mingles with a faint “whoosh”, a noise Hap told OA he heard during the first NDE he witnessed – the sound of a soul leaving the body and coming back. Did OA really do that in the back of the ambulance? Is it just wishful thinking (and hearing) on Steve’s part?
The answer to both scenarios doesn’t matter: it’s the fact that we’re asking the question in the first place. “Why do we always try to understand?” wonders Betty, halfway through the season. “The future is dark. Not dark, like, bad. Just dark. You can’t see it.” In an age of cynicism and sarcasm, when it’s easy to dismiss or deny something, The OA is a stirring, dazzling, dizzying reminder of the power of sincerity and of faith – and humanity’s shared need for both. Faced with darkness we can’t explain, it’s a gorgeous ode to the importance of entertaining possibility – and the result is impossibly entertaining.
All episodes of The OA are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.