Most dreams, especially the bizarre synaptic fizzles right before waking, are banal nonsense. Certainly one’s own dreams have some meaningful resonance, and perhaps a Freudian analyst could untangle them. But for anyone who has to sit through the tale of someone else’s scrambled somnolence, it’s like hearing a joke that ends with “I guess you had to be there.” Perhaps this is why I’ve been having trouble describing The OA to people. I love this wild, feral mess of a show, but recounting its plot sounds exactly like trying to explain a delirious dream, one that doesn’t make a lot of sense when strung together.
I mean, where do I begin? A woman thinks she’s an angel, or maybe she is truly an angel, who can leap through dimensions into other versions of herself. This same woman was once a Russian heiress who went blind and then regained her sight while living in a glass cage in a kidnapper’s basement. She can communicate telepathically with a giant octopus. A group of high schoolers (and one teacher) stop an active shooter in their cafeteria with a very specific series of modern dance movements. One of those students, a transgender boy named Buck, exists in another dimension as a young girl trapped in a San Francisco mansion that may or may not be connected to an underground root system of trees that form a kind of inter-dimensional internet.
You see, very quickly trying to talk about The OA starts to sound like the pre-coffee ramblings of a person who is only half awake, trying desperately to hold onto the gossamer threads of their unconscious mind before they evaporate. This is why I admire the show, and why I think it may very well be one of the best things on (streaming) television right now; but it does resist easy containment or summary.
And maybe that’s where to begin: Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij have created a show that actively bobs and weaves, ducking a succinct or even lucid reading. Much like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, The OA is television of strangeness, a visual vortex that raises more questions than it answers. This can be alienating, to be sure. The OA has had critics from the beginning who felt it was born of pretension (Marling, who stars in the show, and Batmanglij, who writes and directs several episodes, met at Georgetown University and they are not shy about the cerebral bond they share, speaking to about Adam Curtis, Hilma af Klint, and Leonora Carrington), or that it practiced willful misdirection in lieu of actually saying anything concrete. Television can be many things, but one thing it should be is propulsive, one episode leading the viewer directly into the next; it’s not a place where you will find a lot of ponderous art that likes to stretch out its themes over several hours, simply burying its big message—or never stating it at all.
For me, this is what makes The OA so exciting to watch. There is nothing like it on television. It’s so original it makes everything else look ruddy and dull, and it has so much fun that it can make people feel vaguely resentful. Why does this one show get to be so expansive, so free?
The first season of The OA debuted on Netflix in December of 2016. Marling and Bamanglij had previously made three moody, mystical films together (Another Earth, The Sound of My Voice, and The East) and Netflix was in a brief, intense period of signing major deals with emerging filmmakers in search of a hit to follow House of Cards. The studio signed up The OA and Stranger Things at roughly the same time, perhaps making a play for the genre fans who were flocking to Game of Thrones. But while Stranger Things, which debuted first, hit in a massive way, scratching a nostalgic itch for a generation raised on Spielberg flicks, The OA became a far more peculiar cult object. The scope of the show was more ambitious—it moved between Russian mansions and suburban America, the past and the present, and with two separate casts acting on two separate planes. It was also more obscure and inaccessible. And then came the season one finale—one of the more controversial episodes of television to air in recent years.
Before we get into that finale, we need a brief overview of the first season. Brit Marling plays Prairie Johnson, a blind woman who was adopted as a child when she was still known as Nina Azarova, the daughter of a rich Russian businessman (he died suddenly, leaving her an orphan). When the show begins, Prairie has been missing for seven years, but has recently returned home with a remarkable story and a remarkable development: She can see again. She meets a group of teenage boys (including a sensitive transgender boy, a straight A student, a violent troublemaker, and a troubled stoner) and their teacher, Betty Broderick-Allen (later known as BBA), to whom she starts to tell her life story in the attic of an abandoned model home. It would be impossible to sum up all the twists and turns, but here’s the short version. Prairie was kidnapped, in New York City, by a man named Hap (Jason Isaacs) who became interested in her after learning that she went blind due to a terrible bus accident in which she almost died.
Hap collects (read: abducts) people who have had near death experiences, or NDEs, as he believes that they have acquired some essential knowledge about the boundaries between this universe and other dimensions that may exist. He keeps his prisoners in his basement, in a glass tank that looks like a giant terrarium. Also in Hap’s dungeon when Prairie arrives are Scott (Will Brill), Rachel (Sharon Van Etten) and Homer (Emory Cohen). Another prisoner, a Brazilian woman named Renata (Paz Vega) arrives a few years later. Hap tortures his victims by nearly killing them while monitoring their brains, his attempt to replicate NDEs in real time. He puts his subjects in a helmet that slowly drowns them before draining at the last second, and it is through these experiments that the five prisoners come to learn “the movements,” or a series of modern dance sequences that they receive from a celestial apparition right as they are about to die. These movements are never treated as absurd or invented, but instead of truths revealed right on the brink of death, the physical manifestation of the white light. The movements are rhythmic and transfixing, involving a lot of gut punching and spirit fingers and deep sighing and tossing of the limbs. They have powers, when done in tandem. They can bring a person back to life, heal disease, even transport a person between astral planes. Still with me?
At some point, Hap decides he wants to use the movements to “jump” to another dimension (jumping requires five people doing them at once), so he threatens his captives with death if they don’t help him travel through space and time. Meanwhile, Prairie has escaped, and convinced the local boys and BBA back home that she is an OA, or “Original Angel,” who is destined to return to the site of her capture and save Homer (with whom she is in love) and the others from Hap’s dastardly plans. She teaches her new audience the movements, in case they need to use them for transport. What they end up using them for, in the season’s final moments, is diverting the attention of a school shooter who walks into the cafeteria with an automatic weapon, distracting him long enough so that a janitor can tackle him to the floor. As the shooter goes down, his rifle ejects a single bullet, which goes through a glass window in the side of the building and right into The OA’s heart. End scene.
This scene immediately split the fanbase in two. There were those who were truly moved by the sight of teenagers moving in unison at great risk in order to save their classmates, and those who found it manipulative and tonedeaf, in light of so many very real, and very fatal school shootings in America, to suggest that senseless deaths might have been avoided if more people practiced lyrical dance. I find both readings to be valid; the scene is twisting a dire situation for artistic purpose, but it is still visually arresting and quite effective. Of all of the scenes of television that stick in my mind from 2016, the swelling orchestrations as the group breathes together in the cafeteria is the most adhesive; Marling and Batmanglij certainly made something sticky, if ethically muddy.
How the two would resolve or address this ending, which enraged so many and confused many more, certainly added to the pressure for season two, which has taken three years to emerge. Still, what is most surprising is that, from the first moments of the second season, it is clear that Marling and Batmanglij feel no need to provide solace or answers; they are barreling ahead with their own story, the one they want to tell.
There is a ballsiness to this swerve that cannot be overstated; The OA is nothing if not stridently indifferent to the outside world. Season two doesn’t really begin where the other left off. It starts in high-tech, stylized San Francisco. We meet a private investigator named Karim (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who is hired to look for a teenage girl who went missing after playing a mysterious immersive mobile game. Prairie also exists in this universe, but she’s leapt into another body, one that looks like hers. She is also named Nina Azarova, but she never lost her father and never lived in the Midwest. We are in a new dimension, a Sliding Doors slipstream that exists parallel to the previous season’s world but doesn’t directly communicate with it.
Season Two is all about discovering the connections between the two planes: Where do they cross over, how does a person jump in between them, how do you escape one reality and hop into another? It is also more of a traditional mystery—San Francisco becomes a noir setting as Karim searches the underworld connected to a shadowy tech billionaire, which leads him to an anarchist coding club, a dilapidated mansion that may have magical powers from the hallucinogenic spring running under its foundations, and a secret nightclub where Nina/Prairie communicates on stage with a giant Octopus named Old Night, by allowing the creature to suction its tentacles to her forearms and speak through her. See? I cannot possibly describe this without sounding like I am telling a therapist my nightmares.
The ending of the second season will yet again separate the casual viewers from the true believers. If you are already poised to dislike this show and its grandiose sentimental pronouncements about the afterlife and the potential of humanity, you will not enjoy the ending, which goes so meta as to smash down the fourth wall entirely. I for one laughed with glee when it happened. Marling and Batmanglij are leading us somewhere new again, around a curve we cannot see, with no headlights on. I wish more television was this unafraid to leave its audience fumbling for understanding. Dreams, after all, often cut to black midway through, just as you are about to hit the ground.