“…no one can be told what The Matrix is. You’ll have to see it for yourself..“ – Morpheus, The Matrix
To attempt to describe The OA is to struggle with words themselves. If words were to be the only physical, tangible attempts at communication, then I could write a lot of words and never really get to the core of The OA for many people. It transcends words, which isn’t hyperbole and drama for the sake of an introduction. It’s the truth. The series isn’t what you expect. It isn’t easily boxed and packaged. It begins, transforms, expands, reveals and withholds. As intelligent and well presented as it is, The OA is as much about feeling, intuition and spirituality as it is about plot, character and dialogue. Those are the tools it has to present us with something different.
It all begins with a voice asking, “Did I flatline?”
We see a young woman, via mobile phone footage, sitting on the edge of a bridge’s safety barrier. In the mist-shrouded footage, she looks back briefly, right into our eyes, before she allows herself to fall. Her decision appears to be one of certainty, perhaps need. She survives the fall…
From there the story develops from one of this young woman (Prairie, escaped prisoner who was once blind but can now somehow see, adjusting to life outside of captivity) to a tale of the past, being told by her to five other people she meets in the town where she lives/returns to.
Those five characters are important. Steve is a troubled, angry and violent young man who can’t see past the surface of things; Buck is a quiet young transgender, a singer, who is good friends with Alfonso ‘French’ Sosa, a young man fighting hard to keep his good grades and future bright despite the challenges at home; there’s Jesse, a stoner who lives with his sister following his mother’s suicide; and then there is BBA (Betty Broderick-Allen). a teacher at their school who displays both a nervousness and a strength that endears her to the kids (and the viewers). Their lives appear both dramatic and banal, a typification of a sullen kind of suburban life. The area they live in is shot in a cold grey and blue that seems to amplify the sense of emptiness and almost a lack of hope in their worlds. It is through the almost tribalistic storytelling that takes place each night in a partially-constructed house (which could be symbolic of the incompleteness of their lives —there’s so many possible meanings throughout this series), that we uncover Prairie’s past behind her past, and apparently a destiny beyond the confines of the reality we see every day. Their camaraderie builds through these meetings and a warmth seems to enter their lives as a result.
“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.
Because you’ve felt other borders like youth and adulthood, maybe.
I can’t change your fate. But I can help you meet it.
We begin our journey to the border tonight. Midnight.
The unfinished house at the edge of Crestwood View.
Don’t come unless you leave your front door open.
You have to invite me in.”
This plea, uploaded to YouTube secretly by Prairie, is an open invitation to those five people to join her in discovering more about her story, and their world, than has first been visible to us. Suggesting vampirism when asking to be invited into their lives (via an open door, and their open minds), we are immediately taken in by this enigmatic young woman, who appears to know things about them (she makes astute observations or insinuations and intuitions that bewilder and intrigue them) and who asks them “to pretend to trust me until you actually do.”
They, and we, discover that Prairie has died many times. We flashback to her origin story in Russia, as Nina, the daughter of a successful father who owned a mining company. She wasn’t blind when she was born—in fact it is her very first near-death experience (NDE) where she loses her sight, or voluntarily gives it up to a mysterious spirit/woman named Khatun, whom she meets on the ‘other side’. When Prairie wants to return to her life, Khatun takes her eyes because she can’t bear her to see what is ahead—and then tells her that she will know great love but will also suffer. There is much foreshadowing in the dialogue here, and elsewhere in the series. This happens often, almost psychically-derived dreams and observations, suggesting a world behind this one, a world that Prairie, now also known as ‘The OA’ (the original angel) has access to. It’s intriguing for a viewer to be on the inside in terms of the story Prairie shares, but also on the edge of other knowledge, of something hidden but accessible to a chosen few. We are pulled into that spiritual realm both in the visualisation of Prairie’s tale but also through the spaces in-between—a glance in a mirror, a silent pause to watch the vibrant movement of trees, the playback of a voicemail from someone who has died, the glances between people with words unspoken…There’s more to the story than just the story.
There is a balance to these nebulous, ephemeral elements, through the experiences of Prairie’s adoptive parents as they struggle to come to terms with their daughter’s reappearance and the lack of communication from Prairie on what happened to her whilst she was gone; the FBI counsellor Elias and his therapy meetings with the OA, somewhat sympathetic and outwardly genuine, but always on the cusp of being fact-finding, exploitative reconnaissance via Prairie’s eventual trust in him. There are multiple readings into this relationship and its outcomes in the final episode, as there are with many of the connections between the characters throughout the show.
Elias appears outwardly helpful. Prairie asks all of the right questions and maintains a distance but he is disarming—which a trained psychologist/psychiatrist working for the FBI could be. It’s interesting that Prairie tells her whole story to complete strangers; part of her story to Elias (someone she should trust as he’s a member of the FBI); and almost nothing of her story to her foster parents (whom she is more likely to trust beyond all others). I wonder what that means in terms of the effects of her captivity, or more so, in terms of how we communicate in the modern world—often telling strangers on social media more than we tell people in our ‘real’ lives. There are other elements in this story that reflect upon current social and personal relationships, and the nature of bonding via commonalities of ideas and thought versus forced, situational circumstance.
I digress. Elias and his subsequent appearance in Prairie’s home at the same time as Alfonso (in the final episode) is suspect in the extreme. The books discovered there, as many believe, could be planted to discredit the OA. Is it all too convenient? Are they planted for Prairie to discover them? To what end? How would he know that any of the Crestwood 5 (as they are known to fans of the show) would ever be in Prairie’s room to find them? For a show this clever, it seems unlikely that the creators have not thought it through. There’s more to this than we can gain a clear perspective on with what we have seen so far. The same can be said for many plot points, and that makes it damned intriguing.
There are also as many themes and connections within the series as there are plot twists. Touching upon the subject of NDEs (near-death experiences) has been done before, but here it’s somewhat different. It’s the main drive of a great deal of the narrative, but not solely. The results of those experiences, the connections made whilst ‘on the other side’ and the connections between Prairie’s fellow captives—Homer, Scott, Rachel and Renata—take precedence. There’s mystery—the initial mystery of why they have been abducted, what the experiments Hap (their abductor) is performing on them are really for, and the challenges of finding that information out. Years pass by in a single episode as the OA tells her tale to her five new friends, or followers. And their personal interactions are just as important as their relationship with the OA. Not only because they are a part of Prairie’s mission, but because they are all trapped in some way too, just as she was. In her initial invitation to them (the broadcast via YouTube), she talked about borders to cross, and fates to meet. On the journey we take with them we see that they all have difficulties in addressing particular areas of their lives, or accepting things that have happened, or facing parts of themselves that are at once ugly but could be beautiful.
The OA has a reason for taking them on the journey with her, in telling them her story. She needs them for ‘her mission’—to get back to Homer and the others. She needs five people to help her to cross boundaries, and “to open a tunnel to rescue them.” That tunnel is to be opened via five ‘movements’ to be practised and performed with “perfect will.” These movements (a mixture of yoga and dance, to a degree) have been given to her and the other captives via their NDEs. Hap calls them a technology, which is an interesting use of the word. It is mainly defined in terms of a scientific understanding, but the captives gain this knowledge through more esoteric means, through experiences that cannot be easily defined, and are made physical through feeling/internal ‘knowing’. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of what we understand and what we intuit/what can be proved and what has yet to be discovered and made fact.
And what are we to intuit from the repetition of numbers? There are five children who die in the bus accident that claims Prairie’s sight; five children in a group in the school for the blind; there are five participants in Hap’s experiments, there are five in the group listening to The OA’s story; there are five segments in the fish tank in Homer’s NDE; five splinters of glass where the stray bullet passes through at the school shoot out, striking the OA, “five movements [that] open a tunnel to another dimension”…There are many more incidences of the number five… Also the number seven: on Homer’s sweatshirt; the number of minutes that Prairie ‘dies’ for when she gets her first ‘movement’; the number of years that Prairie is missing for whilst being held captive. There’s also the appearance of braille, on the faces of Khatun and Prairie’s father in her NDE, in the FBI waiting room (spelling Rachel). There’s the talk of multiverses on a background radio…I could go on. There are many, many occurrences and recurrences of seemingly random or disconnected things throughout, but which have a commonality or purpose—clues? Are we meant to feel that there are patterns everywhere in life, that things are interconnected even though we may yet not see or understand them in a logical manner, but sense the connection instead?
I may be alone in this, but I do sometimes think that The OA is not an easy watch. It’s occasionally difficult in terms of its subject matter, or the emotional/physical brutality of some of the events—but that’s really only because I care about the characters. For every ‘real world’ part of the story (where we are when the series begins, following Prairie adjusting to her new life outside of enforced captivity), there is a flashback to her time before she was blind, or whilst she was blind, or when her sight returns after her second near-death event. Her experiences are rich in the telling, frightening and revelatory. The relationships she makes whilst in captivity, especially with Homer, are heartwarming; the repeated attempts at outsmarting or escaping Hap, heartbreaking. It’s the mark of a great show when characters are as intriguing and confusing (as real) as these—I think of Hap as a user, almost akin to a Nazi scientist, experimenting on people to find something he barely has proof of; my wife has a different view, one that can see past that and into something missing inside him, perhaps something broken. Hers seems like an intellectual and considered reading; mine is emotional, perhaps knee-jerk, bringing my own feelings of what horror in real life can be into the mix. Great shows, great art, does this, and I think that The OA is just that. Yes, it’s a drama, with enough straightforward narrative elements to be accessible to the majority, but it is also more than that, with twisted moral dilemmas, empathic and psychic connections and fragile, spiritual questions.
I know I have researched/thought about many of these things in the past: how many of us have wondered what happens when we die? Or how religion plays a part in our lives, and perhaps where our notions of an afterlife really come from? What of alternate, parallel or holographic universes; of unhealthy (and healthy) coping strategies; feelings of loneliness despite family and friends; the idea of belief and hope despite everything? Are we individuations of God, as some theories suggest, all experiencing the breadth of life outside of being ‘all there is’ by simply existing as a tiny part of it, but still united in some unknown way? Science discovers new facets of our existence all of the time—how long before we find the kind of answers we seek to the fundamental questions still unanswered, and what are/should be the limits in pursuing that knowledge? All this awaits a potential viewer.
So, in essence, no one can tell you what The OA is.
You have to see, hear and feel it for yourself…
The OA Part 2 is due on Netflix March 22, 2019. Keep your eyes on 25YL both in the run-up and the aftermath of its release for further coverage.
We’re excited to think and talk about this show more, so let us know what you think. And stay tuned!