When Netflix announced new series The OA will be dropping in just two days, we had no idea of what to expect. It was disclosed however that Brit Marling will be starring but also co-writing the series. Judging from Marling’s past roles, one could guess that The OA will be subtle drama of sorts, with dashes of understated sci-fi with a leftfield, indie feel. This is exactly what you get; an impeccably executed eight-part series that is simply superb TV. If not for its delicate directing style, it’s intriguing if often ambiguous plot or the ever-so-cool pale coloured washed aesthetics, it is most definitely for the impressive acting of all its cast.
There are similarities with other Netflix shows such as Stranger Things and Sense 8; similar in the sense of its portrayal of the supernatural, the spiritual, its vivid character depiction but also in the exploration of the invisible connections between people. Throughout the eight episodes there is a certain anticipation of something otherworldly is going to occur, some fascinating spiritual Karmic crescendo but nothing really happens; nothing enough to satisfy the great anticipation it creates.
There show boasts of high level of acting, featuring great performances by the likes of Riz Ahmed, Alice Krige and Sharon Van Etten to name a few. Whether its bad boy Steve Winchell played by Patrick Gibson, who causes havoc and mayhem to his parents and fellow students, or the placid teacher Betty who's downtrodden demeanour has made her give up on life, the gender fluid Michelle or prison mate possibly love interest Homer played by rising star Emory Cohen. All brilliant efforts, but the star of the show is Brit Marling; perfect as the elusive and ethereal Prairie, powerful yet vulnerable; an all encompassing role.
Marling, plays Prairie Johnson, the adopted daughter of Abel and Nancy, residing in the suburban town of Crestwood. Originally born in Russia to an affluent family; she is close to her father as her mother passed away. Prairie gets shipped to US, when her dad goes to jail, for reasons not explained, and ends up staying with her aunt in a brothel where she comes to the attention of and then adopted by Abel and Nancy Johnson
Prairie has a ‘near death experience’ (NDE) before she moves to the US, when her school bus drives off a bridge and all the children drown, including Prairie temporarily. She is transported to a vast black space, lit up by millions of stars and it is there she meets gypsy lady, Khatun. Khatun decides to send her back to the living but not before she removes her eye sight. Prairie wakes up, washed on a river shore, to discover she can't see. Khatun further appears to Prairie later in the series when she gets knocked out by her kidnapper and Khatun gives her back her eyesight.
The whole series is comprised of two parallel story strands which are intrinsically linked, with continuous interchange throughout. The show begins when Prairie, now a young adult, has been missing for seven years and is now found in hospital, injured after jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. To the amazement of her parents that she is found and with regained eyesight, she is unable to disclose to her parents what has happened to her. Instead Prairie finds it easier to confide in five neighbours she starts to form relationships with. The troubled, angry teenager Steve, school teacher Betty, valedictorian Alfonzo, gender ambiguous Michelle and another young teenager Jesse. It is through secret meetings every night, in an abandoned under-constructed neighbouring house, it is then Prairie slowly reveals the story of her past to the group.
Prairie reveals she went to New York City with the intention of meeting her dad; but instead meets Dr Hunter Hap who kidnaps her, taking her away on a four-hour plane ride to a remote house in the woods. He then proceeds to lock her up in a small one-man glass cell in the basement of this house, which we soon come to realize is also inhabited by four other captives in their glass cells: Homer, Scott, Rachel and Renata. All five of them share a common factor, they all have had an NDE experience. Dr Hap has them on 24/7 surveillance and carries out various experiments on them. We never get a clear indication what Dr Hap is testing for; it is hinted that perhaps these individuals who have had an NDE are more susceptible to more similar and metaphysical experiences and Dr Hap through them is able to gain information on the afterlife.
As Prairie’s story unfolds, we also get insight into each of the Crestwood character’s life and tribulations and we see how the effect of the presence of Prairie and her story has on them. However, all these events are all told through the eyes of Prairie and its not until the last few episodes that we actually question the validity. Is this all Prairie’s fabrication to disguise a much more horrible ordeal?
In captivity the five individuals including Prairie learn a repeated sequence which is believed to posses some supernatural power; these five sequence movements given to them in various way may have the ability to stop something terrible from happening, they can possibly heal or even catapult them into another dimension, escaping the prison they are in. A rather momentous scene where Prairie and Homer, instinctively start enacting two of the movements in continuous motion when fellow prison mate dies from a brain haemorrhage. Through their movements, they successfully bring Scott back to life; we literally see all the blood rushing back into the dead bodies head and see him breath life into his body. A similar scene is repeated later on in the series when through these same sequence of movements, Homer and Prairie heal an older woman suffering from Alzheimers, making her completely lucid
The ending feels somewhat deflating, it is implied at that Prairie’s life story may be untrue and its not until the last scenes in a school cafeteria where our five local characters find themselves overcome by a sensation to execute the five movement sequence that Prairie taught them. In doing so the five manage to stop a young boy with a machine gun from creating mass murder; even though we don’t really see anything metaphysical happening they still manage to stop the boy from killing.
What is great about The OA, is its soft intimate directing style; beautiful, simple shots with pale colours; all eight episodes are simply aesthetically pleasing. The series is also features great storytelling and even though there is a possibility that it is all a fabrication of Prairie’s imagination, it is still an interesting story to tell; a tale that is ambiguous, fluid and thoroughly intriguing.
It is difficult to guess where Season Two will go, if there is one, as in a way the mini series is complete as is. Maybe it will be geared into completely different direction or if it was all fabricated it may reveal the horror of what truly happened to Prairie. However any news of a second season is yet to be revealed.