It’s difficult to know where to begin when discussing Netflix’s The OA. Not much can be said about plot for fear of spoiling anything. Part of The OA‘s appeal is discovering just what the hell kind of show you’re watching. It’s science fiction, for sure. Spiritual, maybe. Sometimes bordering on philosophical. It’s every flavor of odd, strange, bizarre, and weird. It’s beautiful, too.
That’s about all I can say before moving into spoilers. Perhaps a more talented critic could discuss the show without getting into details, but I am not that person. This is your warning. Please, please, please, if you haven’t watched this show, stop reading. Go watch it. And then return. Because while The OA has its fair amount of issues, it’s definitely something you need to discover on your own.
Created by indie filmmakers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, The OA tells the fantastical tale of Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling), a young blind woman who goes missing for seven years only to return with her eyesight in tact. Her return sparks a flurry of questions among her neighbors and her adoptive parents, but only five strangers will get to hear her story. Prairie’s story covers the entirety of the eight episode season, alternating between flashbacks and the mundane life of Prairie’s five strangers.
While the two different stories perfectly balance each other out (the present day scenes detail some pretty straight-forward, everyday obstacles for Jesse, French, BBA, Steve, and Buck, allowing Prairie’s flashbacks to take on a more fantastical nature without going too over the top), it’s the latter that carries the weight of the emotional turbulence. Even though Prairie’s story seems like a fairy tale, it’s rooted in a universal desire to understand that which we do not know — the mysteries of life after death, the multiple worlds theory, the existence of angels, etc. The characters that populate Prairie’s story — Homer, Scott, Rachel, and Renata — help with grounding these big ideas.
After various near-death experiences (NDEs) throughout their lifetime, Prairie, Homer, Scott, Rachel, and Renata are all at some point kidnapped by a man named Hap (Jason Issacs), who claims he’s a scientist studying people who have had an NDE. NDE doesn’t feel like quite the correct term, but it’s the one the show uses to explain these characters dying and essentially experiencing some sort of after-life before they are revived. Kept in clear cell-like rooms that connect to each other in Hap’s basement, the five hostages only know how they got there and the very basics of what Hap is studying, but they don’t know the specifics of Hap’s experiment. Occasionally, Hap floods a singular room with gas that knocks one of them out so that Hap can take them to an unknown room. When the person returns, they have no memory of what occurred with Hap. They appear unharmed, but the mystery of Hap’s experiment becomes the focal point of their escape plan — if they figure out what Hap’s doing to them, maybe they can turn it into a means of escape.
In a more cynical show, those five hostages would eventually turn on one another. But The OA keeps them working together, turning what could be a time when one betrays the other into moments of understanding, camaraderie, and a sense of unity that feels genuine in its earnestness. It might be shoving it in your face at times, but it never feels like it’s trying to trick you. A lot of that comes from the acting, especially Marling, Emory Cohen as Homer, and Isaacs as the charming and obsessive Hap.
Where these big ideas become a problem are the present-day scenes. “You have to pretend to trust me, until you actually do,” Prairie tells Jesse, Steve, Buck, BBA, and French at the start of her story. While the new five are skeptical at first, they quickly become enamored with Prairie’s story, as does the audience. We spend so much time with the hostages in the backstory that we can’t help but believe it’s all true. It’s not until episode seven “Empire of Light” where the new five begin questioning Prairie’s tale as truth when they do some light research and come up with nothing. By the time French finds evidence of Prairie’s lies in episode eight “Individual Self,” their disappointment and sense of betrayal doesn’t feel as tragic as maybe it should be. Which leads to the final scene. Visually, I love the moment when Jesse, Steve, Buck, BBA, and French are standing in the middle of the cafeteria, performing the five movements together to stop the school shooter, even when they still aren’t sure of the story they were told. The last two episodes happen too quickly, with too much back-and-forth of believing and not-believing between the characters that it feels like a disservice to the amount of time we spent with Homer, Rachel, Scott, and Renata. The school shooting out of left field, a distraction. And an ambiguous ending that’s frustrating more than anything simply because for me, Prairie’s story never became a question of truth, even when the show wanted it to be. To end it on such a question feels moot — I already know the answer.
Despite the issues, The OA is one of my favorite shows of 2016. Maybe it’s not the best thing out there, but you can’t fault it for being willing to do something different. Something we’ve never seen before. When the first episode starts, it’s all in muted colors. It feels dour, pretentious even. Then something weird happens. The opening credits and the title card start rolling at the 57 minute mark, over the snowy landscape of Russia. To go from a moody suburban American neighborhood to Russia is a bit jarring, but you can’t help but to go along with it. It’s part of the story, you see. A story you have to believe, because once you start questioning it, you can’t help but see the cracks. Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter.