Lyndsay Dyk loves the sci-fi/mystical/trauma recovery thriller The OA: and her reflections here contains spoilers for the entire first season of The OA. Watch before reading! Note: the following piece discusses elements of the show that some readers may find disturbing.
The OA is the gutsiest thing I have seen on television in a long time. Well, as for actual on-screen entrails, Fargo takes the cake, though The OA does not lack in cold, calculated violence. However, what makes The OA a truly audacious series is its absolute lack of irony, and its serious search for life in the deadest, darkest places. Co-created by its star Brit Marling and her regular writing partner Zal Batmanglij (who also directs), it hovers somewhere between Sci-Fi thriller (Evil Scientist? Check. Strange machines à la Alien? Check) and metaphysical drama (there are plenty of other dimensions here, rendered in vivid colors). The OA, on print, sounds like several of the suspenseful genre-shifters circulating on streaming services over the last year. A young woman, who disappeared from her Detroit suburb seven years previous, is found jumping from a city bridge—wild eyed and covered in strange scars across her back. The first catch arrives when we learn that she, Prairie (Marling), was completely blind at the time of her disappearance. When her adoptive parents find her recovering in her hospital room, she can see.
Over time, she gathers a crew of outsiders to hear her story, and to learn the path she believes will save us. Joining here are a lacrosse player more interested in the life of the mind than the field, a troubled teen with aggressive tendencies, a plump teacher nearing retirement and immersed in low self-esteem, a trans kid navigating parental misunderstanding and teenage social havoc, an orphaned boy with a substance habit - a community of misfits, who discover their own beauty mirrored in the face of a partly healed, partly broken servant leader.
Cinematographer Lol Crawley devotes a clear-eyed but kind lens to the accoutrements of suburban life, and helps us see the familiar differently: an Applebees parking lot by night, or the winding paved roads of a half-built development, the inside of an SUV. The series moves back and forth between Prairie’s grey scale post-trauma life and her story of captivity, which is colored in lush, warm tones. It’s troubling to admit that the subterranean cages she and the other captives are kept in are beautiful, appearing like a minimalist’s lavish back-to-nature getaway. There’s a tree growing at the center, with a little creek beside it, for goodness sake! However, as it sinks in that the five captives are to be kept here indefinitely, with no natural light and no physical contact, you catch a hint, a shudder, of the psychological horror Prairie and the other captives face in order to keep living. They are so close to the real thing, but totally powerless to have it.
And here is the shift that so many viewers and critics allowed to disconnect them from the The OA’s drama. Cornered, without hope or the ability to physically change their circumstance, Prairie leads the other four captives on the most inward journey possible: death. This absolutely serious series gets more serious, and adds a depiction of the afterlife that runs on Eastern Mystic vibes, spectacular star-scapes, and a magical wisdom figure - really - who tells Prairie, among other things, that eating a glowing dove will grant her the ability to fly. But there’s something about The OA that earns a plot so preposterous: it’s not afraid of being laughed at. It’s as if Marling and Batmanglij have decided (and their earlier work would suggest this too) that the questions they’re posing (what can human beings survive, how do stories run our lives, who are we really?) are more important than whether or not people like the show.
Back to what got them into the basement in the first place: their captor and charismatic mad scientist, Hap, had chosen each individual because they had experienced a Near Death Experience, and emerged with exquisite ethereal artistic abilities. Each captive was uniquely “special.” As the truth behind Hap’s experiments emerge, that he is attempting to accumulate proof of an afterlife, the captives knowingly go into repeated deaths and resurrections in order to return with keys to unlock another dimension. These keys turn out to be physical movements which look and feel a lot like modern interpretive dance. They seem to bring the characters joy, purpose and hope; the cast (especially Marling and Emory Cohen, playing the other main character, Homer) perform them in absolute seriousness. There are now even YouTube videos of members of the public doing the same, either as an affectionate joke about the seriousness of the show, or, deeper, a manifestation of the yearning some of us feel for the “something more” that there has to be. As Prairie tells her band of misfits later as she teaches them these hard-won moves, “These steps must be done with perfect feeling”. And for many viewers, this leap from murky kidnap drama to supernatural trickery is too great a gap to bridge.
For some it’s the self-seriousness of The OA. For others it’s the plot’s inclusion of jarring, potentially offensive elements like suicide and school shootings. Or maybe it’s the silliness of performance art within a television show. But if the co-creators, Marling and Batmanglij, are losing fans, it’s because they are playing for big stakes. With The OA, they made something radical, and it’s not just because of the shifting episode lengths or Netflix’s surprise-drop of the series at the end of last December.
The OA tries to put its thumb onto something that is infamously slippery. As Prairie says to her band of outcasts in the unfinished house: “The future is dark. Not dark, like bad. Just dark. You can’t see it. And maybe living is just bringing light to what you need in a day. Just—seeing the day. Or at least that’s what I’m learning in therapy.”
As Marling and Batmanglij edge us closer to the center of the labyrinth, we have to suspend our disbelief. If you are more comfortable within the cleanly plotted world of Stranger Things, maybe this much trust in a show’s creators isn’t your bag. Trust is uncomfortable; The OA is an uncomfortable show. Stranger Things is an exceptionally entertaining series, but we quickly learn exactly what we are receiving. The kids are plucky, the parents are well-meaning, the bad guy is very bad, and the monster is evil. It’s smart storytelling, and it’s a perfectly executed deployment of camp. Since Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, Notes on “Camp”, the camp sensibility has become widespread and beloved. The ascension of camp to its throne in popular culture has heralded many ages, most notable the amorphous hipster scene of the last decade. Sontag writes, “Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.” And so when camp is the cultural diet, especially within the genre lines of sci-fi and fantasy where The OA dwells, it can feel like a naked story, and hilarious in its sincerity. Yet I wonder if, when Eve and Adam first saw each other naked in the garden, they laughed.
Changing one’s diet is a daunting task. Different tastes strange, and when irony is everywhere, to whom can we turn? Who are the people who have kept their palates open to what The OA offers? In a 2012 New York Times opinion piece called How to Live Without Irony, Christy Wampole writes, “Where can we find other examples of non-ironic living? What does it look like? Non-ironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind.” The OA touches down in two places here—the deeply religious and those who have suffered. This is what makes the Five Movements so compelling and necessary to the core of the show. They express something ineffable: the embodied trauma of a survivor and her passionate belief in a guiding system which seems to transcend rational understanding. Often, TV and cinema explore this compulsion within religious people through violence—see Big Love, for example, or more recently, The Path. Though The OA is free from explicit dogma, it explores the same compulsion to act from a place of faith. Instead of perpetuating violence, however, the believers actualize their faith through performance.
At the center of this faith stands the one who suffered. Throughout the series, Marling and Batmanglij craft a careful mythology around Prairie (especially once she realizes herself to be something called the Original Angel). She survives her origin story, begins her hero’s journey, reveals her identity, and recruits followers. This arc predates modernity, predates camp (in writing the show, the co-creators immersed themselves in Persian and Russian folklore). In episode eight it all becomes crushingly clear where the labyrinth has been leading. The boys have their faith shaken in the OA, their group begins to disband. Books found under her bed by French (Brandon Perea) stack up evidence against her:
“It was all lies.” He says to FBI agent Elias Rahim.
Rahim: “Do you know what second-hand trauma is? It’s when you take someone else’s pain so that they can survive. That’s what you did.”
French: “But it’s not true.”
It cuts to hear French abandon the OA, though you know in your gut that it hurts him most to say it. In the final moments of this first season, French’s actions belie his proclaimed disbelief. As the school shooter enters the cafeteria, the four lost boys and their teacher perform the five movements with perfect feeling, and the OA receives the singular bullet. The rest is ambiguous: does the OA find her portal to another dimension, or was it just the random end to a mysterious story, albeit one that drew together six unlikely individuals, began to heal their marginalization, and granted them the gift of truly seeing the world? For some, the discrepancy between the OA’s claims and the proof of her actual powers feels like the “it was all a dream” ending of novice writing. Furthermore, the very realistic inclusion of a school shooter on a television show widely streamed in the US, where the fear of random massacre is part of the real life culture of the audience, seems not only offensive but potentially dangerous. I understand this argument. However, I believe that Marling and Batmanglij chose their final scene based on a deeply committed ethic of empathy. Before production, they spent months interviewing high school students across the Midwest. To prepare for their projects, they often employ a style of research similar to method acting. They eat with their subjects, go to school with them, walk through their neighborhoods. For earlier films they’ve spent months as freegans: hopping trains and dumpster diving. The intensity with which they prepare for their creative process is a kind of embodied writing—they attempt to make a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling. Marling and Batmanglij do their homework with perfect feeling.
With that in mind, the final scene of The OA is one of the closest attempts I’ve seen television get at expressing the ineffable quality of belief. Through action, through the irrational act of dance in the face of fear, the small band of misfits counters death with life. Together, they act on hope, disrupting one of our darkest collective myths. The OA, and The OA, invite us to live like we actually believe that a better story makes a better world.
Lyndsay Dyk lives outside of Portland, Oregon. She writes about music and enjoys cats, television, and karaoke. The OA is available on Netflix, and a second season has been commissioned. We’ll probably talk about it here…