I was five episodes into this Netflix show before I even really registered I was watching it. In fairness, Christmas is fast approaching, and following the cliffhanger-y end of the very enjoyable Travellers, this one started up automatically, which is when I decided to get down on the carpet and make a start on my piles and piles of gift wrapping. (I am insane about Christmas—which might seem a little weird for an atheist, but whatever. I like to call it “Culturally-Imperative Gift Exchange.” And it is my favorite.)
So, I was cutting and sticking and labelling and beribbonning all the while mostly watching the screen and occasionally furrowing my brow in confusion over a particular plot-point or bizarre monologue from our heroine — rewinding to see if I’d missed anything while otherwise distracted, but no, I hadn’t, that’s just how The OA is — when Netflix’s “Are you still watching The OA?” message came up, and I thought to myself… “Uh, I guess?” I mean, it’s only an eight-episode series, and I still had cards to write. I figured I might as well see this insanity through to the end, since I had inadvertently made it this far.
I’m still not sure if I should have cut my losses or not.
The OA is the tale of Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling), long-missing but returned home after seven years. The twist? When Prairie left, she was blind. But now she can see! The public goes crazy for her, every news outlet wanting to know the sordid details of her apparent captivity — she had been classed as a runaway, but no, kidnapped! — and how she could possibly have regained her sight. Her parents, meanwhile, are watchful and stressed, and the young people of the town are kind of terrible to her, because, hey, those teens and their solipsism. Millennials, huh?
Four of those teens — burgeoning thug Steve (Patrick Gibson), the investigative-minded French (Brandon Perea), the sunny and transgender Buck (Ian Alexander), and the no-particular-characteristic-to-call-his-own Jesse (Brendan Meyer) — soon find themselves drawn into Prairie’s life, and life story. Somehow convincing them, along with their dispirited teacher Betty Broderick-Allen (Phyllis Smith), to meet her each night at a secret clubhouse/drug den, Prairie (who now calls herself The OA) launches into an unbelievable tale involving a privileged, Anastasia-like upbringing in Russia, a near-death experience that gave her a transcendent musical ability, a stint as an ill-used Jane Eyre-type upon her father’s death, and then capture at the hands of a mad scientist named Hap (Jason Isaacs) whose life’s work was the study the afterlife.
While held captive (into which she foolishly launched herself — kids, do not go home with strangers, especially if you can’t even see them, what the fuck, Prairie?) she bonds with Hap’s other victims and learns that she and they are angels, to whom five “movements” will give given that will… open a gateway to another dimension? Or something?
The show is at pains to K-Pax the situation, making sure we never quite know how real this all is, and just how unreliable is our narrator might be.
It’s all very confusing, and the show is at pains to K-Pax the situation, making sure we never quite know how real this all is, and just how unreliable is our narrator might be. What the hell are all the markings on her back? Is it torture from her captor, or is it the angelic symbols she and her fellow lab rats learned from their frequent deaths at Hap’s hands? How real is Homer (Emory Cohen) — who, if her tale is to be believed, tricked another music prodigy into Hap’s clutches with his winsome handsomeness, and yet she loves him still? And what of these “movements” that can apparently open a door in time and space?
Initially skeptical, The OA’s acolytes slowly come to believe her implicitly, though her FBI-assigned counselor (Riz Ahmed) is inclined to suggest she is fabricating this fantasy to help her deal with the trauma of whatever she did, in fact, experience during her seven years a slave. Then, the show’s denoument gives us our fivesome (who The OA had prophesied would be able to help her someday) busting out into an interpretive dance that was apparently the “five movements” that The OA may or may not have foreseen as a way back to the other side…
Still leaving us unsure whether we just got Keyser Söze’d or not.
Should you watch The OA? Oh, why not? It’s short, its nuts, it has a certain lyrical beauty to it, and for all its ambiguity, the goods and the evils are pleasingly well-drawn—though also nuanced enough not to be too rote. Brit Marling is inscrutable as The OA, affecting and sympathetic but never letting us get too comfortable with her so-called truth for too long. Marling co-created the series, alongside Zal Batmanglij, and at times it does have the hallmarks of a vanity project, but then it pulls you back in with its particular brand of crazy and it is too hard to nitpick too much because hey, this could all be in this one woman’s head.
I may have been distracted throughout the first five episodes, but once the show hit its homestretch, I was glued to the screen, fascinated to see what fresh madness would come our way next. And then, that ending.
If nothing else, The OA is a show you will think about long after it finished, if only because you’re still wondering if maybe, when Netflix asked if you were still watching, you should have clicked on “Back.”