How Netflix’s The OA Crafts Sci-Fi’s Spiritual Counterpart

TV Features The OA
How Netflix’s The OA Crafts Sci-Fi’s Spiritual Counterpart

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“Homecoming,” the first episode of Netflix’s nettlesome sci-fi experiment, The OA, holds the series’ stories at arm’s length. When Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) plunges from a bridge in the opening sequence—a dramatic act that remains unexplained—the mystery she sets in motion seems designed to frustrate, to withhold: Her initial refusal to describe what happened during the seven years she went missing, seven years in which she lost herself but regained her sight, does not so much create suspense as test one’s patience. With her adoptive parents, Nancy (Alice Krige) and Abel (Scott Wilson), as with investigators, Prairie is willfully cryptic, maddeningly opaque, though her most baffling pronouncement turns out, in the end, to be true: “We died more times than I can count.”

In this, The OA, which Marling created and wrote with her frequent collaborator, director Zal Batmanglij, reflects its central conceit, by which Prairie, calling herself “the OA,” relates her life story for four high school students and one teacher on the upper floor of an unfinished home in a suburban Michigan subdivision. The series asks its audience, as the OA does hers, for trust, to the point that the suspension of disbelief emerges as the subject of The OA, and not merely its mechanism. That each installment concludes with images of the listeners’ rapt faces might appear premature, given the series’ own meandering course, and yet, mirroring the OA’s inscrutable message, Marling and Batmanglij’s snarled stories ultimately straighten, as if diagramming an indecipherable sentence or lining a complex hymn. When its nesting narratives come taut, when its forked paths converge, The OA rewards the faith it requires, crafting an extraordinary analogue to sci-fi: spiritual fiction.

It is nonetheless difficult to “recommend” The OA, to urge you to watch it, for its ungainliness demands attention it earns only in retrospect; as with other streaming dramas, much of the first season is a form of throat-clearing, time spent finding itself under the guise of necessary exposition. Indeed, the series announces its intention to tax us near the conclusion of “Homecoming,” when, 57 minutes into the episode, the title card appears, as the OA launches into reminiscences of her Russian childhood and the score sends us soaring over snowy Moscow. Against each haunting moment, then—the sight of a young girl’s motionless body, framed in a ray of light; the decisive click of a locked door; a prisoner’s mournful dirge—the series levies long, shiftless stretches that strain to obscure the sharp turns in its narrative. It depends, instead, on our willingness to accept the OA’s promise of a horizon line we cannot see: “I need to cross a border that’s hard to define,” she says in a self-recorded video, inviting the curious to hear her out. “Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Or you don’t, but you feel it.”

Still, those intermittent interludes of aesthetic daring, as if tapping into the reservoir of intense emotion sloshing under the series’ surface, suggest that said feeling is not entirely misplaced, sinking in a handful of hooks as the OA’s tale takes shape. As her five allies—a bully (Patrick Johnson), a stoner (Brendan Meyer), a lacrosse star (Brandon Perea), a shy trans boy (Ian Alexander), and a mirthless instructor (Phyllis Smith)—forge an unexpected kinship, spending night after night under her spell, the OA slowly fills in the details of an unimaginable trauma. The intricacies of her autobiography resist synopsis, but the lion’s share of The OA’s first season focuses on her capture, along with four other survivors of near-death experiences, by a quietly menacing scientist (Jason Isaacs) in search of sonic proof of “the other side.” It’s here, from her Plexiglass cell, that the OA falls in love with Homer (Emory Cohen), a former football player, and conspires to escape—discovering, in the process, that she and the others are human subjects in a hideous study, repeatedly drowned and resurrected in order to map the boundary between life and death.

To commit this to paper—and to know that “this” offers only the faintest outline of The OA’s enigmatic construction—is to risk another bout of skepticism, another confrontation with the notion that the series entails dedication it doesn’t warrant, and yet the “empire of light” it creates from these raw materials is as unspeakably gorgeous as it is inexplicable. Though the fifth episode may derive its title, “Paradise,” from a sojourn to Cuba, then, it culminates in a montage that gestures at The OA’s animating impulse, which is the desire to conjure the divine. The series is by no means evangelical, or even religious, in nature, but in the interstices between this world and another one, Homer and the OA learn the first two of “the five movements,” a startling interpretive dance that renders the spiritual realm in kinesthetic terms—much as the worshippers at revivals and camp meetings once met a higher power through “fits” and “trances.” With their pleading, tearful expressions, their wrenching figures and guttural sounds, Homer and the OA converse, and thus begin to heal: “The force of the movements, done with perfect feeling, just opens something that’s already there, like an invisible river that carries you away,” the OA explains later, after she begins to teach the movements to her five charges. “But you have to jump in. You have to want to jump in.”

This is the closest The OA comes to a statement of purpose, and indeed the three episodes that follow Homer and the OA’s brief communion gather the strength of a mighty stream, sweeping the viewer forward as if suddenly weightless, buoyant with breathtaking sequences. (It’s no surprise that, having finally found itself, the series condenses the action to the barest essentials; “Forking Paths,” “Empire of Light,” and “Invisible Self” are the shortest entries of the season.)

Of these, the finest is the last, interrupting what otherwise reads as an epilogue: As the OA, or Original Angel, apprehends the meaning of her latest premonition, the bully, the stoner, the lacrosse star, the trans boy, and the teacher come together, in wordless understanding, to “avert a great evil.” Clad in matching purples—the color of wisdom, of mystery, of magic, and the series’ unifying motif—their performance of the five movements, set to the score’s moving refrain and filmed with such sublime conviction that it continues to reduce me to sobs even after multiple viewings, is as transfixing a climax as any sci-fi series on television. Then again, the power of The OA resides in its defiance of the genre’s traditional method, its call to imagine that the Original Angel is the representative of our better angels—not only logic, but also spirit; not only science, but also art. I hesitate to say more, lest I ruin the experience of seeing it, and in this I acknowledge committing much the same sin as the series itself.

You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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