The OA Recap: Yearning to Breathe Free

The OA

New Colossus
Season 1 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating *****
Brit Marling as Prairie.
Brit Marling as Prairie. Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

“This dimension is crumbling to violence and pettiness and greed,” our prophet said in the first episode of The OA. “New Colossus” brings that point home, and, in an hour that absolutely flies by, gives us a dimension we can believe in. Almost the entire episode is told through flashback, providing more evidence (along with Transparent, Baskets, Louie, and others) that flashback episodes of Golden Age TV are the shiniest of all golden nuggets. Since Prairie/Nina/the OA’s story is still nowhere near complete, hopefully we can expect many more of these extended, eye-catching sequences to punctuate the story from here on out.

It may be easiest to think of this show’s timeline as breaking into three segments based on the identity of Brit Marling’s eternally traumatized protagonist at any given moment: Nina, Prairie, or the OA. As little Nina (played as a child by the excellent Elle Campagna), she waits patiently at a Russian orphanage for a new family to arrive, playing an old-world melody on her violin. But Nina refuses to accept the news of her father’s death, because he spoke to her before passing and told her they would meet in a mysterious otherworld — a premonition that seems to be confirmed by her own vivid, lifelike dreams, in which she crosses hellscapes to reach her father.

If you’re ready to believe the child psychologist’s diagnosis that Nina suffers from severe mental illness, you might as well get off this train now, because there’s a lot more weirdness to come. Jumping forward to the adult Prairie years, we learn that she ran away from home and hopped a bus to New York because a subconscious message from her father asked her to meet at the Statue of Liberty — well, at “the face of a giantess surrounded by water.” Hundreds of miles and one ferry ride later, Dead Daddy’s a no-show. It’s okay, though, because as a consolation prize we get one of the most beautiful television scenes of the year, with a dejected Prairie, lost in a world she cannot see or make sense of, returning to the mainland at dusk as a National Parks ranger reads Emily Lazarus’s famous “The New Colossus” sonnet. (“‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she / with silent lips … “)

Why do I love this scene? Because it fulfills the promise of Netflix-era liberated television that so many other new shows fail to see. It treats time as a true luxury, giving us an extended and lyrical (but not self-indulgent) snapshot of a mood, instead of just layering on more and more plot in a desperate plea for our attention. Maybe the plot will come later, but for now, Marling and director Zal Batmanglij are communicating something profound about their character’s head space, how she seems to teeter on a threshold between living and dead, a “huddled mass yearning to breathe free.”

An encounter with the suspiciously friendly Dr. Hunter Hap (played by Jason Isaacs, who is always a bit sinister) leads Prairie to place her blind trust in a man she’s only just met. As we soon find out, such kindness is repaid with Hap locking her up to kick off a twisted captivity narrative. That shocking development and the sudden appearance of the mysterious Homer will surely be the focus of the next episodes. In the present day, the OA’s partners-in-storytelling are starting to offer some real intrigue; one is transitioning, another wonders if he really earned a full-tuition scholarship based on merit instead of race. It’s all reason to believe in their narratives, instead of just biding our time until we jump back into The OA’s stories.

We only get little snippets of these folks, just enough so we’re able to flesh them out as characters. Of course, it’s a tricky balance to pull off. If Marling and Batmanglij are plotting a largely flashback-based narrative, these present-day character details could wind up feeling superfluous, but it’s hard to complain when the story is this gripping. The best sign that The OA has found an ideal formula for playing with TV form is the simple fact that, when the episode ended, it felt like it took place in half the time.

Stray Observations:

  • No, you’re not imagining that executive-producer credit for Brad Pitt. I saw it, too.
  • Nina/Prairie is prone to nosebleeds as a kind of premonition, which reminds me oddly of The Lobster. Not to mention any number of other shows and movies.
  • Bad things seem to keep happening at the local Costco.
  • More possible callbacks to Marling’s earlier creations: The family photographer literally says, “Follow the sound of my voice,” and Nina’s backstory could be playing off Another Earth’s “Russian cosmonaut” scene. Will Prairie reconnect with her past and speak Russian at some point?

The OA Recap: Yearning to Breathe Free