What You Should Know Before Watching Netflix’s The OA

The OA was unceremoniously dropped on Netflix last year and while many members of the press have written about it, I’m not sure how many viewers have had the chance to see it through (if they were even aware of it). The OA (pronounced oh-aye) is the brain child of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. It centers on Prairie Johnson (Marling), a young blind woman who had been missing for seven years who miraculously turns back up in the most dramatic way possible. And with her eyesight. What seems like a simple story dealing with the trauma of being kidnapped is actually a much larger tale dealing with near-death experiences (NDE), science, spirituality, mental health, and identity.

From what I’ve seen so far, The OA will be a “love it or hate it” type of series. Even if you make it through Season 1, there’s a controversial ending to consider. There’s no way to tell who it will appeal to but if you’re already familiar with Marling and Batmanglij’s past work, you may be more inclined (like I was). I was first introduced to Marling through her 2011 collaboration with Mike Cahill on the extraordinary Another Earth, another sci-fi project with its core devoted to our existence as humans. The two also worked together on I Origins (starring Marling, Michael Pitt, and Steven Yeun) where scientific discovery plays a hand in us learning more about ourselves. Both dealt with very big ideas but not in the same way big budget sci-fi normally does, and that’s the kind of approach The OA takes.

Marling’s work with Batmanglij includes The East, which starred Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page and featured an anarchist group who live off the grid and try to take down large, evil corporations. In the film Marling is tasked with infiltrating the group and soon the lines blur of who is good and who is bad. Before that, she and Batmanglij created Sound of My Voice in which two documentarians try to sort out the truth about a cult that worships a woman who says she’s from the future. Marling is that woman and once again, larger sci-fi ideas are boiled down to human nature and belief. All of these projects gave me a good intro into The OA, yet another Marling project that would make me think, question, but not give many definitive answers. But for those of you not familiar with her work, here’s a few things you might like to know before giving The OA a watch. Whether they convince you to watch or steer clear is another story.

Hey, I know that guy!

The OA’s cast features so many talented actors (which is the biggest strength of the show) but has a few faces in particular you might recognize if you’re a geek. Prairie’s adoptive mother is played by Alice Krige, or as Star Trek fans know her, the Borg Queen. Her adoptive father is played by Scott Wilson, Hershel from The Walking Dead. Jason Isaacs, who plays scientist Dr. Hunter Hap, was Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series (not to mention The Inquisitor on Star Wars Rebels). And Rogue One’s Riz Ahmed (a breakout star this year) plays FBI therapist Elias Rahim.

They all do fantastic work here but Prairie’s tale includes her interactions with many others. The series plays out over the course of many years with Prairie acting as our guide through several points in her life. Her time in captivity found her bonding with a young, earnest man named Homer (Emory Cohen who played the wonderful Tony in Brooklyn alongside Saoirse Ronan) and others. In present time she’s collected a group of people in need of something profound. Four high school students and one teacher are convinced to hear bizarre her story out, whether it’s true or not. One of them, Buck, is transgender and played by newcomer Ian Alexander. After getting a bit of viral fame earlier this year Alexander answered an open casting call Netflix put out specifically for Asian transgender teenagers. He’s wonderful in the role and pointed out on tumblr that he appreciates the “character is not reduced to his trans-ness.” The group also includes the boys’ teacher, played by Phyllis Smith (The Office, Inside Out). It’s certainly strange, and presented as strange to the audience, that this adult would be meeting with the students but reminds us that feeling lost is not relegated to youth.

Sci-fi, mystery, and meaning

The OA might be the pure definition of “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” At no point is it straight forward and I liked that. I don’t want to give too much away as one of the bigger selling points of the series is peeling back the layers to the story as each episode goes on, but the mix of sci-fi and mystery was very appealing to me. I especially like sci-fi stories that really attempt to dig into the science part (sometimes way too close for comfort for where we are in real-world exploration) and the thought-processes of those who are pushing boundaries for what they believe to be the betterment of the human species.

Prairie’s narrative plays out like someone telling a good story around a camp fire (in this case it’s space heaters in an abandoned house). The power to be taken from the story relies a lot on Marling’s ability to weave this tale and pull us in. It’s hard not to be captivated by her whether she’s telling her story or living through it. At times The OA seems like several different shows morphed into one. Plenty have already made the comparisons to other Netflix series like Sense8 (there is a connective tissue around those who’ve had NDEs) and Stranger Things (at times it felt like a grown-up, modern version) but there’s also similarities to Lost and other shows. But at its core, The OA wants to provoke something inside you. whether it be consideration of faith, scientific discovery, or human existence. Some will find it empty and lacking, others profound and moving.

Yes, there is dancing

While a lot of The OA is grounded in human interaction and reaction, it does veer significantly into the metaphysical. That on its own may be a bit too weird for some viewers but when you add in what the show calls “Movements,” things get a bit more odd. These “Movements” have a very particular purpose within the story but they amount to contemporary or lyrical dance routines. And unless your project is a musical, random dance routines in the middle of a dramatic story are never going to not stick out.

That said, I actually really enjoyed them because I love dance. I especially love dance that’s filled with emotion and you can see the actors put a lot of hard work into the routines. Choreographer Ryan Heffington (who worked on Sia’s “Chandelier,” “Elastic Heart,” and “The Greatest” videos, among others) worked with the creators to come up with the moves. Speaking to Vulture Heffington said,”Usually, if I don’t feel it, it doesn’t get released to the public. There’s always a moment where I feel it from the inside of my being. It’s not about aesthetic. It’s about telling a story and having an emotional arc to it. I do feel that when I choreograph. If I don’t, I keep working until I do.” It certainly has feeling and you probably have to be sold into the strangeness of the overall story in order for it to work for you but the fact that the characters are doing it isn’t remotely as important as why they’re doing it. “People can understand it enough to believe it, but then they want to ask more questions,” said Heffington.

Is The OA for me?

As I said, a lot of this series is a tough sell. The first episode is a long one that changes pace most of the way through. It’s certainly a good binge watch but give it at least two or three episodes if you’re going to try at all. If you have concerns over images of suicide (in the first episode) or drowning (in several episodes), you may want to avoid the show. Similarly if you have issues with claustrophobia or cleithrophobia.

While there could have been more, I really enjoyed the representation we got in the series (not that there aren’t a few problematic elements involved there as well). I mentioned earlier the character Prairie is blind for some of the show, Marling of course is not as the role demanded she gain vision but they do a decent job of depicting adaptive decides the visually impaired make use of.

If you like weird or different sci-fi, you’ll probably really enjoy The OA but just remember there’s a lot more substance to it than that. If you need exact answers, The OA may not be the show for you. This was billed as Season 1 and presuming Netflix picks it up for another go, we’ll likely get some of our answers but again, they aren’t the point. The human condition is. How we deal with each other, how we deal with our feelings and loss, how we overcome struggles, and how we survive.

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16 Responses to “What You Should Know Before Watching Netflix’s The OA

  1. My friend watched this & enjoyed it until the final episode which she felt was awful. She wants me to watch it so she’ll have someone to discuss it with. Is it worth it?

    • Well I guess I’d say ask your friend if they think it was worth it despite the feeling they had with the ending. I’ve heard others say the same thing and while it did strike me as a bit odd, it worked for me. I think it’s an enjoyable ride.

    • Cat C says:

      Yes!

  2. WellYesYouMay says:

    I keep seeing the words “spirituality” and “faith” used in relation to this show but no commentary on exactly what that entails. Is it general New Age style beliefs, or more religious in nature? I tend to get annoyed at shows where the scifi/fantasy elements are based on a Judeo-Christian viewpoint (or even a purely deistic one). I’d be really interested to know what “spirituality” means in this case; I’ve been wanting to watch it but that often turns out to be a red-flag that a show will eventually annoy me. Does anyone have insight on that (spoilers welcome)?

    • For some reason, Brit Marling doesn’t annoy me, but this sort of thing typically would.

      Spoilers, not Spoilers.

      Disregarding the plot and characters and seeing it from an outsider’s perspective, Prairie is basically forming a cult. She sits a bunch of young, impressionable people down in an empty house under cover of darkness and tells them a story that *could* be cobbled together from the Iliad, a few guides to spirituality, books about angels, and so on. They don’t wear uniforms and they don’t drink Kool-aid, but what she’s asking them to believe isn’t very different from, “Jesus is coming in his flying saucer to pick us up.”

      So, it’s about faith and spirituality in the sense that…they have to decide to trust her with nothing to go on. And, in the end, even after they have every reason NOT to trust her, there’s nothing else for them to put their trust in except for her teachings.

      The audience is subjected to the same treatment. You watch her story play out and have reason to believe what you’re seeing is true (as true as any other part of the show), and then you’re given every reason to believe it’s bullshit. And then you watch what transpires…and then the credits roll. Almost every Brit Marling movie is like this. She gives you a high concept, leads you through the mundanity of it so that it becomes solid and durable and then the last five minutes leave you with some astounding new information that throws all of your assertions in the trash and leaves you wondering and thinking and discussing. She’s brilliant (and super pretentious).

  3. Vel Venturi says:

    I liked the Movements–I saw someone say they seemed like a combination of haka and Twyla Tharp, which summed up my own feelings nicely.

  4. It’s not about the Green Lantern homeworld?

  5. AgentFoo says:

    I enjoyed this show because it was unusual and original in a way I wasn’t expecting, but the dance movements unfortunately were not for me and became distracting. I thought the end was satisfying and intriguing and would recommend the show based on the first and last episodes alone, though I expect many people (like me) will find the movements distance themselves from experiencing the emotional aspects of the show.

    • Yeah I totally get that. When I was thinking about this piece I was like “I honestly don’t know who will find the dance stuff totally great or totally terrible.” It’s really a toss-up.

      • I thought it looked pretty silly and it’s especially hard to take when the actor is coming right at your face. And then they added the vocalizations and I might have laughed aloud once or twice.

        But then the ending…did exactly what it was supposed to do. I felt a surge of adrenaline and hope and was totally on board, whether I wanted to be or not. I really hope they keep going. I really hope the answers aren’t quite as simple as they probably should be.

      • AgentFoo says:

        It’s really impossible to gauge, unless you know someone’s already a fan of interpretive dance, maybe. There’s nothing I’ve seen like this show.