I just finished binge watching Netflix’s new series “The OA.” I had no idea what it was. There wasn’t a whole lot of fanfare when it was released Friday. A few folks I know and respect watched and recommended it, so I decided to give it a try.
I’m still trying to process what I saw – part spiritual, part science fiction, part mystery, part very human drama. It was psychologically difficult to watch and process, but it dragged me in, breathless, as I watched the story unfold.
I’m not revealing any mysteries here, so you can breathe a sigh of relief. But I will tell you that the writing is thoughtful, provocative, and complex.
A previously blind young woman comes home after having gone missing for seven years with her sight restored. Turns out she was kidnapped and held prisoner. Her parents should be overjoyed to have her back, but you get the sense that something’s not kosher. Prairie Johnson’s return should be a delightful, exultant event, but something is heavy. Something is off.
She calls herself “the OA” pronounced like “Oh Ay,” and she immediately draws five misfits into her story, engaging them to help her achieve her mission. The mission is part of her mystery, as is her new identity, but the five she brings together are unlikely and incongruous.
There’s the teacher, who has lost her love for teaching, her joy for life, and her twin brother.
There’s the drug-dealing, violent bully, who punched a talented choir kid in the throat in a pique of jealousy, and is on the verge of being sent to reform school.
We have an honor student, who takes care of his drunken mother.
There’s a shy, transgender boy.
And finally, there’s a stoner kid, whose story isn’t quite developed.
Prairie gathers these five to help her. In the process, she helps them find their inner selves and their happiness, and allows them to get in touch with their inner joys.
As Prairie tells her story, we follow along. That part is difficult to watch. Held prisoner by a sociopath with a medical degree, brilliantly played by the inimitable Jason Isaacs, Prairie and four other prisoners discover their true nature. They discover who they are and why they are being held. They discover hidden talents and untapped potential.
If the experience sounds positive, it isn’t. It’s difficult to watch these young people trapped in glass cages underground, drugged, hurt, threatened, and demoralized. The sociopath is engaged in medical experience no living human being should be forced to experience. The psychological trauma of a seven-year imprisonment can cause even the strongest mind to break, which brings up some interesting questions.
Is Prairie’s story the result of the psychological trauma she’s suffered, or was it real?
Did the five help her by taking on her pain – by allowing her to tell her story in her own way – or did they help her by allowing her release?
Did the group really stop a school shooting via supernatural means, or did the weird movements simply distract the gunman long enough for a courageous cafeteria worker to tackle him?
Was the entire experience supernatural, or logical and able to be explained scientifically?
You’ll have to watch for yourself to determine the answers, but you will enjoy every minute you spend binge watching this intelligent, captivating series.
Brit Marling’s OA is whispy, gentle, and light, despite the psychological damage she’s endured.
Steve, the drug-dealing school bully, is violent, out of control, hungry for affection, and yet somehow vulnerable, loyal, and aching so much for some real human contact!
Teacher Betty Broderick-Allen outwardly hurts and is eaten alive by the guilt she feels after her brother’s death.
But in a way, the entire series is a study in isolation.
OA is isolated from the world, she’s isolated from her counterparts in Dr. Happ’s insane set of cages. She’s isolated from her parents and from the rest of society when she returns home. She’s isolated from family love before she’s adopted by her parents after her father dies.
Happ is isolated from his test subjects, as they get emotionally ever closer to one another, and begin to push him further outside their group and spiritual resistance.
The five are isolated from family, from schoolmates, and from co-workers. Buck Wu, the transgender is isolated in his own way, as are the stoner kid and the honor student, whose drunken mom is doing her very best to sabotage his future. Steve is isolated by his own acts of uncontrolled violence.
And somehow this isolation brings them all together and helps each heal in a complex climax in which an isolated school shooter begins murdering his classmates.
Some are comparing this show to “Stranger Things” – another Netflix hit from not too long ago that paid homage to awesome 80s hits from ET to Alien – but this show is much more nuanced and complicated.
“Stranger Things” was a tribute to pure entertainment and the horror stories we all loved best. Yes, there were elements of mystery and the supernatural. It was very Stephen King-ish in nature. Even the logo screamed “Needful Things” cover!
But it was inherently different and less complicated than this series. It didn’t leave us with burning questions about life, death, other dimensions, and the types of things the mind is capable of due to intense psychological trauma.
As I said… complex.
But well worth your time to binge watch on a chilly winter day.