Welcome to my new series review, this time of The OA, a Netflix exclusive series that first aired in December 2016, without any sort of warning or promotion. It was purely by chance then that I came across it, read the synopsis and gave it a go. I was very glad I did.
Twin Peaks has always and will always be my first love. I have studied it harder than any other subject and in doing so it kind of made enjoying other television quite difficult, nothing quite grabs my heart and mind like Twin Peaks. Then came The OA. Now I am not going to say it’s had quite the same effect, but it is one of the only shows that I have found myself really thinking about in the hours after watching, the only show that has compelled me to join in with other fans on social media to discuss theories and investigate.
So that’s what I am going to do here. This is my Series 1 re-cap and analysis and as such it will be full of spoilers, so if you haven’t watched yet but intend to, then this is not the place for you.
Episode 1 – “Homecoming”
We begin the story watching cellphone footage from within a car, a boy records from the back seat and his mother drives across and unknown busy bridge. A few cars ahead a woman jumps out of a slow-moving vehicle and runs to the bridge edge. The mother says “don’t look” to her child as the woman turns to face her son, “she let go” he says. Straight away I knew we were in for something different here.
In hospital we meet this same woman, striking, blonde, ethereal. She’s alive and pretty much unscathed except for her badly bruised, purple and blue feet. Purple and blue will become very important throughout this series. It is in fact awash with powder and cornflower blues, lilac’s, lavender, magenta and violet. The colours may hold a big clue as to whether what we are seeing is real or at least of significance.
The striking blonde lady asks the nurse attending her if she flat lined. She clearly wanted to, so was she trying to kill herself? Already we can guess that dying is perhaps not unusual for her.
The cellphone footage of her leaping from the bridge makes its way onto YouTube – this is the first of many ‘digs’ at the world of Social Media. I say ‘digs’ but it’s more of an awareness. Yes it’s a shame that everyone records everything, that moments this horrifying make their way into the public eye for clickbait, for the ego of the poster, but there’s a good side to this too. For the video quickly spreads and makes its way to Nancy and Abel Johnson, a couple in their 60’s I’d say, who recognise the jumping woman and rush to the hospital. Upon their arrival they are told that the woman is in a fractured mental state and that it is recommended that she be taken to a psychiatric facility. Abel quickly interjects defensively which makes us wonder if she had been hospitalised before, did she escape? They are also told that her back is covered in scars.
As they enter the hospital room it appears the blonde does not recognise this couple who say they are her parents. Nancy sits next to her on the bed, takes her hands and makes her feel her face. “Mom?” This is Prairie, and 7 years ago when she went missing she was blind. Now she can see.
Prairie is played by Brit Marling, who is also the Creator of the show alongside Zal Batmanglij, and she is a really an excellent actress. I think perhaps it had to be her to play this role, one she must be very passionate about as she makes this character very believable, very charming, kooky and curious. Every thought is sprinkled across her face, I wanted to know badly what had happened to her from the very first scene.
Her parents drive her home. There are hoards of people lining the street to welcome her. They didn’t expect it but perhaps they should have. When someone blind goes missing for 7 years and turns up with sight that’s pretty big news right? Prairie hides under a sheet as she reaches her front door. There is something about the way one person moves through the crowd, it’s strange – everyone else is trying their best to gawk at her, journalists poke microphones at her covered face, but one figure – a dark-haired woman, there’s just a slight flash, moves through the crowd, away from the others. Is this someone we need to notice?
At home Prairie is questioned by two police officers who had investigated her initial disappearance. One is clearly distrusting of her. When they question her about her disappearance she tells them that she did not disappear, that she was present for the whole 7 years, 3 months and 11 days that she was gone. The officers ask her where she had been but she didn’t know. She had walked for a long time from where she had been held captive, maybe days, before being picked up by a woman in a car and taken to a shelter for other missing people. She left there, out of choice and no-one tried to stop her, but she wasn’t trying to get home, she was trying to get back to where she was held. To save ‘them’. The officer asked if she was trying to kill herself when she jumped off the bridge. “We all died more times than I can count.”
Prairie’s main objective at the start of this story is to get onto the internet, ‘to find Homer’. Her computer talks to her, an adaptive aid from when she couldn’t see. She cannot link to the internet though, as the police have recommended she does not for her own safety. She searches through the drawers in the study looking for the internet pass code but cannot find it. She comes across a small camcorder. She watches a film briefly, we don’t see it but hear the voice of a child speaking in what sounds like Russian. Abel’s voice says, “She’s sleeping, she’s been doing this for a few days.” She decides to keep the camcorder close by, for this will be her source of contact.
At night Nancy takes Prairie out for a walk in the neighbourhood, a treat for her as she has been kept inside for so long, escaped from one prison it seems, only to be held in another, even if it is the family home. They walk past debris in the road, aftermath of a crash maybe? Strangely placed and remarked upon, why it hasn’t been cleared up? It feels like it has been there for a long time. There are several moments like this when things just seem strategically placed, almost like in a computer game it would be glowing, hinting at you to take notice, this could be important.
They approach an unfinished and deserted house, where Prairie notices two young men messing around on the roof, one doing somersaults and living dangerously, the other filming him on his phone, then her as they clock her, the somersault boy and her lock eyes. And with that he has been chosen.
Steve Winchell is a sensitive soul. Our first real moment of getting to know him is mid sex with Angie in broad daylight, at his bedroom window for the world to see. I have to admit I thought he was going to be a bit of a bastard, probably using this poor girl, but actually it’s the other way round. Angie tells him he has a really nice body and he smells nice, but he she’s interested in someone else. Steve pretends to be too, but he’s hurt. After she leaves he punches a wall in anger, and his father, who walks in to witness the damage, threatens to send him to Ashville, a correctional facility to sort out his challenging behaviour. Steve clearly then has anger issues and does not know how to control his temper, proven further when he checks out the boy who Angie has set her sights on at singing practice. He follows him to his car, pretending to be interested in his talent, then viciously punches him in the throat. A contrived and unprovoked attack on an innocent young man. Steve is the archetypal bully. Misunderstood? Yes, but he makes it easy to dislike him. He has been set up in our minds now, we will learn to love him? Or is he a Richard Horne type of character? Are we hoping for the best in him where there is none?
Prairie lies in bed, videoing herself, talking to Homer. “I haven’t slept a single night apart from you. I’m scared Homer. There are moments when I think I made you up. So I need to see you to make sure you’re real. I didn’t leave you behind. I would never. I am coming for you.”
Later, she sneaks out of the house and makes her way to the house where she saw the boys playing on the roof. It’s abandoned but full of youths loitering, queuing to see someone. This is where we first meet Alfonso ‘French’ Sosa. He looks peaky and pale, hinting that he’s there to score. Prairie asks him for help getting internet, he sends her upstairs to Steve who is with Jesse, the boy behind the phone camera, and another kid. This is Buck, known as Michelle by family. It appears that Steve is dealing hormone replacement drugs to Buck, and using them as a threat.
Prairie interrupts the deal, much to the annoyance of Steve. She asks him for wi-fi, he’s rude to her and snatches her camcorder from her. He has a great big black dog, snarling at her but she will not give in. He won’t give it back, she snatches at it and he let’s the dog go at her. The dog bites her and rips the sleeves off her sweater. She’s hurt but takes on the dog, biting it back. The dog whines and licks at the blood on her arms. She takes the camcorder and the power with her. Steve was scared of Prairie, she was an enigma to him and someone who was not afraid of him, unlike pretty much everyone else, except his father, the one person he really wants to stand up to. Something happens between Steven and Prairie in those moments, a bond has been formed. He has a respect and perhaps more so fascination. The four kids watch her walk away from the window, beat up but unwavering.
For anyone that loves Stranger Things, there is definitely a similar sort of feeling with these kids. Yes they are older and their issues very much of present day and there’s no warm 80’s nostalgia here, but there is a bonding of misfits and from that moment the four of them are pulled into something they could not ever have imagined, and it is perhaps because of all their ‘flaws’ that they were chosen.
Nancy washes Prairie in the bath, she shies away from her mother when she tries to sponge down her scarred back. Nancy reveals that she is her adoptive mother which goes some way to explaining the obvious elephant in the room between them. Nancy pleads with her to tell her what happened but Prairie cannot, not yet. She doesn’t want to hurt her mother. And it would hurt her.
She videos her doll’s house, leaves the front door open wide and speaks to Homer. “I feel something forming, not a plan but a feeling. I met this boy and I think he has something to do with it” at that moment Steve climbs up into her window and brings her a router for internet access. He tells her it will be like ‘Strangers on a Train’, that they’ll carry out tasks for each other without having to know the reason’s why. Once he has the internet rigged up he shows her a YouTube video of ‘Ashville Correctional Facility’, of a kid being forcibly removed from his home. Prairie agrees to help him but she has conditions. She needs five people, they need to be strong, flexible and brave – like him. So it seems she did choose him for his rooftop antics.
He takes on the back of his bike to the mall to pick out some clothes. Clothes that will help her look like a parent as that is what he needs her for, to pretend she’s his stepmother at a school meeting with his teacher. He tells her about his girl problems, and she tells him that his invisible self needs to be formed before she could take him seriously. As she tries on clothes in the cubicle and chucks the no good over the door, Steve tells her, “be gentle with that shit OA.” The first time he has called her by her chosen name, up to this point he has just called her Crazy. She smiles, she knows he likes her now. He probably didn’t even realise he’d said it.
“Try closing your eyes” she tells him. “Being blind was powerful and it made people underestimate me.” He closes his eyes and as if she could read his mind she says, “I know its boring at first.” He looks panicked and turns to the cubicle, she has her back to him, he can just about glimpse the scars on her back and it scares him, intrigues him more.
She heads off to school to play ‘stepmother’. On her way down the corridor she bumps into the Principal of the school, he recognises her, and there is something about him, makes us wonder if there’s more to him than meets the eye. He hasn’t done a single thing untoward, it’s just a feeling. This show is very good at these subtleties. She meets teacher Betty Broderick Allen, played by Phyllis Smith, known mostly for her role as Phyllis in The Office. I was surprised to see her in this role for that reason, but she is absolutely fantastic! One of the best things about the whole show. She does bring a little light relief, but it is not a comedic role she is playing, it is one of warmth, but not at first.
Mrs Broderick-Allen tells her that she is asking the school Board to expel Steve immediately. Prairie has a way, she touches her arm, which at first makes her uncomfortable, but she carries on, questioning what her first reasons were for becoming a teacher, she guesses the death of a loved one, a sibling. She soon makes her realise that she shouldn’t be giving up on Steve, he is the exact pupil she should be spending more time with, he needs her more than any straight A student or kid with the voice of an angel. Despite learning that Steve had punched a boy in the throat, Prairie continues to fight Steve’s corner. She needs him this much, and has faith that he is the one to help her that even this news does not stall her. Betty warms to Prairie and as she leaves the classroom she asks her name, she replies: “I’m the OA.” She gave away her identity so she must have trusted this teacher from these brief moments together, or at least saw something deeper in her, something she needed maybe.
Now with internet access Prairie watches a video on YouTube, it’s a clip from a news story which was posted on November 2nd 2007. A teenage boy lies in a hospital bed, surrounded by family and medical staff. The story tells of Homer Roberts who was playing in a Championship football game when he was knocked into a coma. His family had been ready to say their goodbyes when a miracle happened, he woke up. The Anchor asks him, “You had what they call a Near Death Experience?” Homer replies, “Yeah, I flat lined after the accident, in the hospital.” “So you know what it’s like to die?” “Yes I guess I do, but I am back now and I am not leaving the Championship game on a stretcher this year.” He smiles and looks directly into the camera, “I’m leaving with that ring.” The footage of the game plays, the team, based in Jefferson City, play in a dark, vibrant purple. Curiously, alongside the video in then queue to ‘play next’ are films about lightning storms damaging a high school, and the bottom film clip appears to be a Doctor from Ashville talking. A strange coincidence?
After Prairie watches the video she receives a call from Steve, pretending to be the FBI so he can speak to her privately. She tells him she needs five people, tonight at midnight and that they must be flexible, and they must leave their front doors open.
Mrs Broderick-Allen bumps into Steve’s dad at the store, and his actual wife which of almost blows the whole thing. The Winchell’s turn up at The Johnson’s home and suggest that Prairie should be committed for her own sake, just like they are sending away Steve for his. Steve defends his relationship with Prairie the best he can, telling his parents that he asked her to impersonate his Step Mother because he needed someone on his side for once, and that it actually worked. Meanwhile Prairie who has overhead the commotion happening downstairs, starts quickly uploading a video of herself to YouTube.
“I need help. I need to cross a border that’s hard to define. Maybe you know what I’m talking about or you don’t, but you feel it.” I can’t help you change your faith but I can help you need it. We begin our journey to the border tonight, midnight at the unfinished house at the edge of Crestwood View. Don’t come unless you keep your front door open. you have to invite me in.” All of the ‘gang’ that need to see the video do. All of them that have been touched by The OA’s presence, albeit in a small way, watch and are intrigued by her mission.
Prairie lies on the floor of the house, it is twenty past midnight, she starts to blow out the candles as she assumes no-one is coming. Then Buck and French show up, shortly afterwards Jesse and Steve – who decided to make a run for it after having a run in with his ‘girlfriend’. It became clear to him that she couldn’t see his invisible self and he started to really believe Prairies insight. But she needs at least five of them to make this work. Just when all hope looked lost, Mrs Broderick-Allen stumbled up the stairs, much to the awkward horror of the high school kids, but they welcome her in nevertheless. The children are already morally astute than the adults we have met, despite their issues.
Prairie tells them all that she will tell them her story from the beginning and that there will come a point when they’ll see why they are there, what they might do together and how they could help people they may never meet. But they have to trust her and they have to close their eyes and imagine everything as she tells them, as if they were her.
It is not until 57.23 mins into Episode 1 that the credits start. NETFLIX PRESENTS…. THE OA. It sounds silly but this took my breath away. A bold statement indeed, a story worth waiting for and the accompanying music is haunting and triumphant.
Prairie begins her tale in Russia, where she was born. We sweep across the land covered in snow, arriving at a majestic and elegant yellow house. Her father was a wealthy man, owned a mine of precious metals. They were always being watched because they made so much money so quickly. We meet the most beautiful little blonde haired girl, a young Prairie, her first born name Nina, playing violin at her window. Her mother died in childbirth, a portrait of her is all we will see, beautiful very much like her daughter, painted in shades of lilac and baby blue and dressed in ice white.
“You asked me how I lost my sight, the better story is how I lost it in the first place. I was not born blind.”
The OA tells them of her childhood, how she suffered from dreams so vivid that her nose would bleed. In one she was trapped in an aquarium, with crayons floating around in the water. Aquariums are, along with bridges, soon to become a common theme in this show.
She runs to her father, who tells her that it is just a fantasy but she does not believe him. He takes her out in the freezing cold, just wearing her pale lilac nightdress. They pull up at a frozen lake. He smashes open a hole in the ice and tells her to get in. She is afraid. “What is the only way to fight the cold?” he asks her. “To become colder than it is,” she replies and she steps, trembling into the frozen water. This could easily have killed her, but was her father being cruel or kind? Preparing her for a journey ahead, giving her strength to survive? Did he know what was going to happen to her?
After that Nina did not have a dream or nosebleed again. That was until one day, whilst she was on the way to school on the bus her nose started to bleed. The bus plunges off a bridge and deep into the water below. It was a message from the Voi to their parents that said, “You are powerful business men to be sure but you are not all-powerful.” The youngest sons and daughters of every Russian Sire were on that bus. They all died. Every single one, including Nina.
We see now the most beautiful place, black like Space, a billion sparkling white lilac stars. Is this heaven? as Nina tries to swim up in the water, her body gives up. She is plucked from the depths by a wizened hand. A witch-like woman, with braille dots across her face. It is said that the braille reads in German, the first line of the first poem in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? (“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?”).
The lady, Khatun is her name, asks her if she wants to go back. “You will know great love but it will be very hard. You will suffer. Me, I want you to stay here.” Nina tells her she wants to go back. “Then I will take your eyes because I cannot bear for you to see what is ahead, it is too horrible.”
Nina wakes on the shore of the water by the bridge, her father holds her tight. She can feel and hear his breath against her cheek but although her eyes were wide open everything was black.
And so it begins, a tale as beautiful as the shows visuals, stunning and elegant.
I have so many questions already, where has Nina/Prairie/The OA been for all these years? Who is Homer? How is she able to survive death? Why does she want to flatline, where will she end up if she dies? What does she need the others (the Crestwood Five I’ll call them for ease) for? What does OA stand for? I have a feeling this will be one hell of a trip.