A blind woman regains her sight after a seven-year disappearance … and the first thing she wants to do is go online. Sounds about right. Welcome to The OA, the surprise new Netflix show that’s fallen into our laps from the place where dead people go, with only an arty Instagram account to help us point the way. A head-scratching sci-fi mystery mixed with some rudimentary teenager concerns, the eight-part series is a proudly strange narrative experiment.
The OA is the latest speculative fiction from the team of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who made the eerie cult tale Sound of My Voice with basically no budget, and then got handed a bit more money to make the eco-conspiracy thriller The East. (Marling also made the similarly inflected Another Earth with a different collaborator.) Marling and Batmanglij co-created the show, with Batmanglij directing all eight episodes in a familiar ethos and Marling starring in the lead role. Though their storytelling tactics have undoubtedly matured, their worldview in the first episode remains the same, for better and worse: the grandiose philosophical ideas, the mysterious central character who’s thought of as a fool before she demonstrates her abilities, the corny dialogue. Basically, you can choose to either resent these folks for their DIY spirit or applaud them for their ingenuity in spinning whole universes out of thin air. I choose the second. It’s more fun that way.
The show begins in a similar way to Sound of My Voice, with cell-phone footage of a disheveled-looking Prairie (Marling) flailing around a busy street before jumping off a bridge. She whips her head back to face the camera immediately before leaping, piercing us with her stare before the fall. That stare will take on new meaning several scenes later, once Prairie, who miraculously survives the fall, is sent to the hospital and her parents (Alice Krige and Scott Wilson) ID her as their adopted daughter who went missing seven years ago. It’s here we learn she used to be blind. How did she come to see again? That may be the wrong question.
Returning to the cul-de-sac of McMansions where she grew up, Prairie is reluctant to share any details of her journey. All we know is she calls herself “the OA,” she hates to be touched, she has some strange scars on her back, and she desperately wants internet access so she can send some sort of e-beacon to a dude named Homer, a former football star who “came back from the dead.”
Of course, every Prairie needs a home companion (sorry, I’m not sorry). Our hero quickly allies with Steve Winchell (Patrick Gibson), a troubled neighbor boy and drug dealer whose violent, undisciplined behavior — in one scene, he assaults a choir boy — is on the verge of getting him kicked out of school and sent to a military academy. In exchange for a mobile router and recruiting five people for a strange experiment she’s planning, Prairie poses as Steve’s “stepmother” to ward off expulsion from his teacher Betty. And hey, that’s Phyllis Smith as Betty, ready to bless us with her Sadness once more.
The plan to pull one over on the adults fails, leaving Steve presumably bound for the No-Smiles Academy. But the weird nighttime ritual still happens, with Steve and three of his friends joining Betty (yes, their teacher) for this séance-type event in an abandoned, half-finished house that wouldn’t look out of place in Gone Girl. As instructed, they all leave their front doors open in a sign of blind trust — in Prairie’s words, “so you can invite me in.” Is she a vampire? A being from another time? Her explanation may be a little silly, but the image of those doors swinging open to empty streets, the naked vulnerability on display, is oddly intriguing. Whatever The OA has in store, with all this talk of visible and invisible selves, there’s no better way to communicate a request to leave our sense of security behind.
If the first hour of “Homecoming” leaves you a bit conflicted, with the cryptic internet mythology sitting uncomfortably next to some schoolboy’s anger-management issues, the last ten minutes should fully convince you this is a story worth sticking with. First off, it’s an insanely baller move for Batmanglij to wait until the climax of the episode to launch into an expansive title sequence. (That’s, like, Love Exposure levels of delayed gratification.) Secondly, the tale Prairie weaves of her past life is so visually stunning, and so unbelievable, that it would take all your willpower not to watch the second episode immediately. Who would have guessed this woman was the child of an Russian oligarch? Or that she could see when she was a child? Or that a deadly bus accident sent her to commune with some spirit-mother who took her sight as payment in exchange for the journey back to Earth?
We are now in the realm of folklore, not merely techno-conspiracy stuff, and The OA has a lot to sell us. But the stylistic grandeur of the episode’s final act has me convinced there is a greater plan at work, and I can’t wait to discover what it is. Prairie’s eyes can summon followers just by staring into a camera, and the spell is working on me.
- Is it so hard to get internet these days that you have to make deals with troubled teens for some Wi-Fi?
- I wonder if the logistics of Prairie’s character and her blindness will fall by the wayside as we get deeper into her backstory. Either way, it’s a nice moment when she feels her adoptive mother’s face while seeing her for the first time.
- When I say Batmanglij and Marling write corny dialogue, it’s usually because they’re focusing a bit too much on world-building at the expense of authentic human interaction. In this episode, for example, Prairie (while posing as Steve’s stepmother) tells Betty, “I’m the OA” without offering anything else as explanation. Betty’s response? She just smiles and nods her head. That is not normal behavior, and it took me out of the episode.
- Though I suppose you could chalk up that specific interaction to Prairie’s supposed powers of persuasion. Whenever she touches someone, she seems able to bend them to her will.
- Brit Marling often writes herself as an otherworldly character, and she’s the perfect performer for the type: slightly airy presence, fiery eyes, and a sense that she’s constantly receiving stage directions from aliens. In this case, who knows? Maybe she is.