There’s a point midway through the Netflix series The OA, released last Friday, where it becomes clear that the show is all about the power of faith—the idea that there is something unknowable that should be surrendered to for the good of… well, even that is open to question. For the good of yourself? The world? Something even greater?
To solely recap the plot would only tell half the story, but let’s start there. The show opens with Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling, who co-created the show with director Zal Batmanglij and wrote a number of episodes) reappearing after a mysterious seven-year absence, seemingly so scarred by her experience that she can’t talk about it to the authorities. But two things are immediately, shockingly apparent. For one thing, Prairie now calls herself “the OA.” For another, when she went missing, she was blind; now she can see.
While Prairie/the OA can’t bring herself to tell the authorities what happened, she can tell others. In fact, she gathers a group of five outcasts (a teacher at the local high school and four students, one of whom is a bully called Steve, because there weren’t enough Stranger Things parallels yet) to whom she starts explaining her history at the end of the first episode, with the idea that they are “flexible"—for reasons that will become apparent by the end of the season—and will help her escape to somewhere she’ll explain fully later. As soon as she starts telling her story, the series splits in two: her history, as told to these five people, and what is happening "now” to the OA and the five members of her audience.
That’s the point where the show starts relying on the faith of its audience. The OA is many things—purposefully obtuse, occasionally beautiful, achingly slow—but one thing it’s certainly not is original. (Spoilers ahead.) As the OA explains that she was the child of a Russian mobster who lost her sight in an attempt on her life, later to be captured by a mad scientist obsessed with discovering the truth about the afterlife who imprisoned her with three others to repeatedly attempt to kill them and bring them back to life—and as her audience slowly bond and become “better people” through their shared empathy and experiences—there’s an inescapable sense of this all having been done before, and arguably better. (This really is an astonishingly slow show; anyone entering into it without a lot of patience is unlikely to make it past the end of the second episode.)
Those who can overlook the familiarity—which eventually is revealed to be potentially intentional—will find themselves rewarded… as long as they believe. The OA, as a show, is a puzzle box that asks all kinds of fascinating questions and refuses to give answers. Is there life after death? When does belief become obsession? Is the OA a reliable narrator in the first place, or are we the audience victims of the same strain of Stockholm Syndrome that the OA suffers at the hands her mad-scientist captor?
By the end of the season, that last question becomes increasingly important. The OA has taught her five-strong audience the Five Movements, a number of gestures that she explains are movements from the Great Beyond that will open reality itself, and they use them in the middle of a school shooting in an attempt to save the day—an out-of-nowhere event that feels crass and exploitative. Does it work? Well, kind of, but perhaps not for any reason other than simple distraction; by this point in the show, after all, we’ve been led to believe that the OA is, at best, delusional if not downright insane, with much of the story she’s told across the season strongly hinted to be a lie.
Ultimately, there’s enough ambiguity that the climax is left open—to those who believe, good things remain possible, and to those who don’t, the entire eight-episode season has been one long, slow tragedy. Similarly, the fate of the OA, hit during the school shooting, is ambiguous: we see her in a white space, but is it the afterlife, the alternate reality she has been trying to reach the entire series or some medical facility?
There’s a lot to appreciate in The OA—the fairy-tale logic of the story she tells, the performances from the central cast, the direction as a whole and the show’s sense of empathy to its characters, many of whom are downright unlikable throughout—but in order to fully appreciate it, you have to buy into it. This isn’t Stranger Things, which repeatedly tries to win over doubters. It’s an awkward, at times off-putting show that genuinely ends with one of its weakest episodes, almost daring you to keep watching.
To get the most out of The OA—which, as is revealed throughout the show, both sounds like “away” and stands for “Original Angel"—you have to surrender to the experience and believe that it’ll be a worthwhile journey.