Netflix’s latest revelation, The OA, doesn’t take place in a not-so-distant future or present itself as a dystopia. It doesn’t involve aliens or time or space travel. There are no demogorgons or smoke monsters. There is, however, a woman who calls herself the Original Angel—and she means that literally. In her mind (which may or may not be fully intact after seven years in captivity), she and four other people with whom she was held are angels who’ve suffered from multiple near-death experiences. These angels have supposedly been gifted five movements that, if performed in sync, have the power to open another dimension.
If that sounds completely bonkers, that’s probably because, to a certain extent, it is. Over the course of its eight episodes, The OA’s story constantly changes direction to explore the real and the mundane (OA searching for the wi-fi password in Episode One is all of us), as well as opaque mystery, different takes on spirituality, and the scientific. It cannot be boiled down to just “a sci-fi show,” as no doubt many websites will tell you.
When the show begins, we meet Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling), a woman who insists on being called “The OA” and has been missing for nearly a decade, though she will not say where she’s been. The most striking aspect of her story, though, is that she disappeared as a blind woman, but when she’s found, she can see. She also has a series of strange scars on her back. Even so, Prairie/The OA returns home to her parents’ house in Michigan, though through the show’s dialogue, we learn that they are actually her adoptive parents. As the series plays out, The OA meets four high school students and a teacher (The Office’s Phyllis Smith), who sit with her every night in a half-finished neighboring house and listen to her increasingly complex story.
It turns out that Prairie’s name is not actually Prairie, but “Nina.” And Nina/Prairie/The OA was not only born with sight but was born in Russia to a wealthy father, who has since passed away. Prone to premonitions in the form of dreams, she claims to have lost her sight after a near-death experience as a young girl, after which she is sent to the United States and later adopted by the well-meaning Johnson family. Even though her new parents intend to raise her to be a Nice Blonde American Girl from Michigan, Nina’s dreams continue, prompting her to believe that her father is alive and coming back for her.
So, blind Nina/The OA/Prairie flees Michigan for New York City, where she, instead of being reunited with her father, is fooled into captivity by a seemingly kind doctor (a sociopathic Jason Isaacs) who traps her in a basement along with the aforementioned fellow NDE survivors, all for the purpose of performing Dr. Mengele-meets-Dr. Frankenstein experiments on them—all to prove the existence of life after death. In these experiments, Prairie and the others find the movements (choreographed by Sia favorite Ryan Heffington) to open a new dimension and… escape. Except their plan goes awry, and Prairie is forced to recruit a new team (four high schoolers and their teacher) to help her rescue one of her fellow prisoners and love interest, Homer (Emory Cohen).
It’s a lot to absorb. Piecing together themes of faith, belonging, grief, trauma, and family (both spiritual and biological), The OA technically qualifies as sci-fi by pulling the classic move of showing what happens when man wants to play God. In this case, that man is good ol’ Dr. Hap, a guy so dedicated to his research that he’ll go to any lengths necessary (including trapping actual humans, gassing them and popping them into a medieval full-body drowning device) to achieve his ends. That, and the idea of there being multiple dimensions, give The OA a solid sci-fi stamp. But to dismiss it as another Stranger Things, or even the multi-dimensional touchstone Sliders, would be far too limiting.
Just as audiences become completely absorbed and invested in helping Prairie find Homer and the other angel captives, the finale jerks us back to “reality.” In episode eight, we’re provided substantial evidence that Prairie may have made up her entire story when one of her students finds a box of books about Russia, angels and Homer’s The Iliad under her bed. But the show’s ending is frustratingly ambiguous, as one of her premonitions and her team’s choreography do end up saving a number of lives in the show’s final few scenes. Whether that sequence of events derives from a supernatural place, though, remains a mystery.
Instead of showing us what is, like science fiction tends to do with futuristic settings and societies, The OA lets its audience imagine what could be by not tying itself down to any one genre. Depending on your belief system, Prairie could in fact be the Original Angel, sent to help avert disaster and rescue her friends. Or she could just be a traumatized kidnapping victim who had to invent a series of events to help her cope. Either way, her imagination—and the show’s—knows no limits.