It Still Stings: The OA’s Power Still Resonates, Despite Its Premature EndingPhoto Courtesy of Netflix TV Features The OA
Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
On August 5, 2019, Netflix, a streamer recently known for its ability to unceremoniously dump popular shows, canceled The OA. A Change.org petition was created, and fans of creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s series came out in droves, racking up over 112,000 signatures. Things continued forward from there. More ardent fans raised enough money for a billboard in Times Square. Some thought the cancellation might be an elaborate stunt. The OA, and its premature ending, had a major, defining impact—so much so that one woman even went on a hunger strike outside of Netflix’s Los Angeles offices, visited by Marling and Batmanglij, who brought her necessary food and water.
Planned as a five-season series, the streamer touted for supporting and defending new voices slashed The OA after two parts, ending on a critically acclaimed cliffhanger. In the last few years, Netflix’s reputation as a cost-cutter has only widened, unwilling to finish many of its original series while baiting subscribers with a measure of empty promises and unfulfilled creative visions. The higher-ups have no issue canceling shows with pedigree and prestige, from Mindhunter to the The OA, both of which were named on the BBC’s 100 Greatest Television Series of the 21st Century. It has also axed popular shows like GLOW, leaving them without a trace of a conclusion.
For The OA, the answers never were revealed. A gorgeous show built on the mystery box premise of “What if a missing blind woman reappears seven years later, but now she can see?” and all of the complicated questions surrounding that proposal, the supernatural story rarely followed the obvious path. It starts with Prairie (Marling), who soon wants to be called The OA, upon her return. She appears back in her small town with odd scars on her back and a reluctance to tell her story to anyone, but five strangers: four high school students and one of their teachers. The first season cuts back and forth between the present and Prairie’s story, which is filled with an amalgamation of kidnapping, near-death experiences (NDEs), angels, celestial plains, and multiversal dimensions.
The key to the first season, and the success of the series, is something called “the movements” that are given to Prairie and her other fellow captives during their NDEs. They’re dance-like, interpretive in nature, fluid, mesmerizing to watch, and all created by choreographer Ryan Heffington. These movements have the power to bring people back to life, to cure illness, and to ultimately transport dimensions. They’re used to distract a school shooter in the first season’s finale, a tense scene that’s become more reminiscent of real stakes and real experiences for students in this country. Fans around the world did the movements online and in New York after the show was canceled, hoping that they would have the same power in our world as they did in the one constructed by Marling and Batmanglij.
I’ve joked about learning them dozens of times, unsure of how they’d feel or what they’d do. There’s an aura of mystique around these movements and subsequently around The OA, a level of understanding that viewers can’t reach, a measure of confusion that you want to lead to some form of worldly insight. The series does not work without a buy-in from its audience, a suspension of belief, a readiness to trust in things not seen. But, if one does give themselves over to this mystery, it has emotional highs and narrative surprises worthy of the time and energy needed to watch Marling and her companions traverse all of these planes of existence. The series buries itself in the soul. One aspect is certain: The OA has made me feel differently than nearly any other show in the 21st century, outside of another Netflix original that did get a conclusion: Dark. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but certainly different.
As the series progresses, it becomes harder to pin down what The OA is about, what type of message the creators are hoping to give, and how this twisty, elaborate, breathtaking story can end. The second season transitions to San Francisco, with Prairie in a new city, new dimension, and with a new name, Nina Azarova (her childhood name). The teenagers continue to search for where her consciousness has gone after the school shooting, while Prairie situates herself in this alternate reality, though it’s filled with the same faces.
Kingsley Ben-Adir joins the main cast in the second season, as a private investigator looking for a missing teen. He’s tremendous as a wry, always-smoking detective, both overly caring and completely mystified by the circumstances that close in on him. The rest of the supporting actors surround a remarkable Marling with their own dramatic turns, with Jason Isaacs (Dr. Hunter “Hap” Percy, the overall adversary), Patrick Gibson as troubled teen Steve Winchell, and Phyllis Smith as Betty “BBA” Broderick-Allen standing out. The creators also throw in guest stars like Riz Ahmed, Zendaya, and Zoë Chao for good measure.
Still, the central question remains for so many of The OA’s dedicated fanbase. Where was this show going? Even in this article, my hesitancy in talking about the ins and outs of the series’ plotlines should be clear. It’s a series concerned more with ideas than about sensibility. Marling and Batmanglij are telling a fantastical story, one highlighting the grandness of the world, yet the brutality of its dark corners. It becomes more procedural throughout its two-season run, albeit not less unbelievable. The show taps into the power of dreams, the connection humans have to ancient, holy spaces, our link to animals, and the possibility of multiverses (The OA beat the Marvel movies to the punch in this regard).
The Netflix original also contained queer storylines within its core group, and LGBTQ representation baked into the series with transgender actor Ian Alexander giving a quiet, supporting performance. And his character is joined by Brandon Perea’s (of recent Nope fame) portrayal of French, a high-performing jock and gay student coming to terms with his sexuality. All of these stories swirl around Marling’s The OA, a messianic, angelic figure that commands attention even if her stories are seen as impossible.
The OA cannot as easily be categorized. It’s not just one genre, one adjective, one story. But it is incomplete. The series forcibly concludes with a meta finale, as several characters enter a third dimension, one in which Marling and Isaacs are playing versions of themselves, filming a television show on a soundstage. It doesn’t feel cheap, though. The choice is intentional, somehow disorienting even if the audience is technically watching a version of this world, the one we’re inhabiting.
The creators had more worlds to visit, more movements to perform, more layers to an already complex vision. The singularity of The OA hasn’t been replicated again on any streaming service. Marling and Batmanglij took massive swings, tackled weighty topics, and created a show so powerful that one fan gave up food and water to revive it. The OA could have been one of the TV greats, remembered in the same way as Twin Peaks and Lost. Instead, it remains a cult favorite, rallying fans with reverent verve. For some, it’s spoken about as a religion. For others, it’s a well-told story about life, love, perseverance, and existence. For me, it’s one of the smartest, wildest, most thrilling shows of my lifetime. And with no plans of ever returning, it’ll have to settle for that.
Brooklyn-based film and TV journalist Michael Frank contributes to several outlets including The Film Stage, RogerEbert, AwardsWatch, and now Paste. He believes Juliette Binoche deserved an Oscar for Dan in Real Life. You can find him on Twitter.
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