Creators: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling
Starring: Brit Marling, Jason Isaacs, Scott Wilson, Emory Cohen, Alice Krige, Phyllis Smith
The OA is an 8-episode Netflix original series, created by and starring BRIT MARLING as Prairie Johnson, a blind young woman who disappears, reappearing 7 years later with the ability to see. The series focuses on the Johnson’s adjusting to family life under the eye of the media, and Prairie’s parents trying to give their adopted daughter space, while in the dark as to what happened to her for all those years. While her parents show concern, Prairie recounts her story to a group of students and a teacher, all with their own issues, who bond over their need to help Prairie on a mission to find her paramour.
This show was recommended to me based on other similar series on Netflix I’d enjoyed, and was immediately drawn to the idea of a sci-fi, crime-mystery, and with Brad Pitt as a producer I had high hopes. Overall, the first 7 episodes are interesting; the pacing is a little slow but okay with the ability to binge watch, and the characters do draw you in, even if they are a little stereotypical – the troubled kid throwing his life away, the teacher who suddenly understands and cares for him, the stoner, the scholarship guy with an alcoholic mother…
The overall series was pitched at a similar time to Stranger Things, and there are certainly connections that can be drawn between the shows. For instance, both series centre on a group trying to help a young woman, seemingly with mysterious powers. However I would argue that Stranger Things holds up as a much stronger show, based on the overall conclusiveness of the story. I definitely wouldn’t say that if you enjoyed the former show that you would necessarily be partial to the latter.
There are certainly positives to The OA that set it apart from other shows; the premise of the show is very different to anything else. We see Prairie’s unusual upbringing, that brings into question certain elements of her personality. She has brushes with death, and this is the reason that she is later targeted by Dr Hunter Hap (JASON ISAACS), who is interested in studying the young woman. The relationship between the two is very intriguing, with the calm and friendly seduction of Dr Hap luring this vulnerable woman away with him, and both the audience and Prairie realise too late just what a precarious situation she has gotten herself into. Furthermore throughout the flashbacks to her time in imprisonment, we are waiting as her student listeners are, to hear what she needs their help with. We gradually learn that through the near-death experiences she and her fellow prisoners have, they receive movements from a higher being that can open a portal to another plain. It sounds ridiculous, and to be blunt, it is. Whilst the group are in captivity it’s watchable though, excusing it as perhaps the group’s desperate wish for some way out of their dreadful situation. However when this dance repeats itself in the final moments of the series, it’s more laughable than a dramatic and emotive moment…
As a character, Prairie is certainly interesting; seemingly kind and calm, with an air of mystery and sadness about her, but with moments of real strength and control. Her upsetting separation from her father, and the unfortunate circumstances she then finds herself in definitely draws the audiences’ sympathies, along with her unwavering belief that her father will come back for her. While it could be seen as a innocent naivety when she believes he will meet her at the Statue of Liberty, it could be the first signs to us of an unstable mind, since she was told of his death years before.
As we finally learn her version of what happened, how she escaped and what she needs to do, it becomes more and more far-fetched and does seem like she could be a deluded and possibly dangerous person. It would have been a more interesting twist if this was the case, and for example, she had caused the bus crash that resulted in her first near death experience, or had intentionally not helped the other children to escape.
The only other character that is well written is that of Dr Hunter Hap, who isn’t the stereotypical villain. He is clearly the ‘bad guy’ in this situation, but he’s not inherently evil. He is obsessive about his work, and very clinical, lacking a normal level of human empathy. He sees the group of people with near-death experiences as lab rats, to use in his research and treat like animals. Prairie seems to break down that vision a little though, with him trusting her more while he believes she is blind. He develops feelings for her, which inevitably leads to Dr Hap tormenting her through his use of Homer (EMORY COHEN), and finally separating them for good.
The creators quite cleverly do bring in Dr Hap’s mentor to draw a comparison to him, and actually show that there is someone else as bad if not worse than him. Dr Leon Citro (MICHAEL CUMPSTRY) has his own lab with participants locked away within a hospital. He shows an absolute lack of feeling or remorse, saying “Uncover what you can, destroy the evidence, and turn a profit before you can no longer forget how you’ve done it”, before attempting to kill Dr Hap and steal his research.
Part of the intrigue about the OA is that there are so many unanswered questions – how did Prairie really get her sight back if she made up the story? Where has she been for 7 years? How did she get back? For a while we don’t even know what the OA stands for… And in that sense, the show having an inconclusive end is vaguely logical. However, personally the final episode felt a bit lackluster and downright bizarre after quite a slow and steady build-up, and as a viewer, it just did not feel like a rewarding end. Sure, it’s thought-provoking, but a conclusion should be, well… conclusive.
It would be hard to argue the point without having spoilers, so this is the situation: Prairie fell in love with a fellow captive, Homer, much to the envy of Dr Hap who himself had fallen for his lab-rat Prairie. When Prairie and Homer learn the 5th and final movement they believe will transport them to this safe place, Dr Hap abandons her on the side of a road, vowing to do the 5 moves with the group and leave her behind. Prairie thinks at least 5 people need to do the movements in sync in order to open this vortex to another dimension, and so teaches her group of misfits. In the final episode, Alfonso (BRANDON PEREA) finds a box of books in Prairie’s room that all feed into her story, and make the group think that she made everything up.
The group falls apart, but are all connected by being in the same school. Prairie realises that visions she’s been having are of the cafeteria at the school, and has a foreboding that something awful is going to happen so races there. We realise that a shooter is entering the cafeteria, and all the kids we’ve been following are in there. In the same moment, they all get up and perform the movements, surprising the shooter and allowing someone to jump in and knock him down. He fires a shot though, which hits Prairie who is at the glass window and had joined the movements. As she’s taken away in an ambulance, the group chase after her and Steve (PATRICK GIBSON) begs her to take him with her, believing in her after all. In the last moments of the show Prairie opens her eyes and calls Homer’s name.
From my perspective there are a few ways this ending could be taken. In the first instance, she could have been telling the truth all along and it could be a proper sci-fi show with other dimensions, that she managed to get to and see Homer there finally. The second is that she was actually mentally unwell and did concoct the story as a form of escapism from whatever real situation she faced for those years. She may have died in the ambulance, and just was seeing what she wanted most in her last moments or an afterlife situation. The third is that she could have made it up, might not have died, but still believes the story herself and thinks she was seeing Homer or he may really be in the hospital with her.
The more I think about it since watching the show, the more I believe that it will be the first option the creators intended and will play off in series two. After all, she could have bought the books because of her story and learning more about her experiences rather than to help create it. Personally however, I feel the show would have been much stronger and more interesting if it had led down the mental illness path. Throughout the series there are hints at Prairie being unwell, with songs playing that literally say ‘I’m crazy’, parts of her story just having too much coincidence with elements from her life such as being kept in a mine, when her biological father owned a mine. Her stories get wilder and wilder, and of course the interpretive dances that spirits provide when they have near death experiences is pretty far-fetched. When Homer has a near death experience, the place he goes to resembles a mental hospital and there’s an aquarium that’s the same shape as the glass case the 5 of them are kept in. All little things, but together build a picture of someone who is taking elements of her past and current surroundings to build a fantasy that is better than what she is experiencing.
In some ways the end does work, as of course the dance had to make an important appearance, but there’s not much action, redemption or justice. We don’t know what’s happened to Dr Hap, Homer or the people that Dr Citro was keeping in an experiment under the hospital morgue. Realistically, would the shooter have stopped for as long as he did when the dance started? Then again, I suppose in some ways it doesn’t matter if the dance worked, or even if her story was real, as in the end it helped save the kids in the school cafeteria.
A second series has recently been confirmed, though the release date is another unanswered question for the time being, and much of my opinion may be based on how the creators approach this; officially saying whether Prairie was lying or not, whether she found Homer or not. I think they need to make a decision as to whether the show is psychological and looking into Prairie’s mental state, her influence over others and finding out what really happened to her, or whether it is all true and goes full-on sci-fi. If you make the effort to watch series 1, then like me you will want to see series 2 just to find out exactly what did happen, however I won’t exactly be counting down the days until its release… If you’re after something similar but less infuriatingly bizarre, make a note for Stranger Things 2 coming this Hallowe’en instead.