The OA Recap: Interlude in the Death Machine

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Ian Alexander as Buck.
Ian Alexander as Buck. Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix
The OA

The OA

Forking Paths Season 1 Episode 6
Editor's Rating 3 stars

I think it’s the earplugs that really get to me. By the time Dr. Hap straps the OA into his death machine in “Forking Paths,” it’s the third instance we’ve seen the contraption at work — the glass tube clicking into place and slowly filling with water as she prepares for her heart to stop — and the sequence hasn’t lost any of its terror. It’s that small detail of the ear probes plunging far into the heads of each victim — much deeper than anything, medically, should ever be shoved into one’s ear — that proves the most unnerving, and leaves the longest body-horror resonance. The fact that OA is so willing to go gentle into that good night only adds to the fear. How broken must your spirit be to embrace such an assembly-line murder?

At just over 30 minutes, “Forking Paths” seems like more of an interlude than a full-length episode, a lull before what I assume will be a full-on, Dance Dance Revolution climax. The most significant thing we learn plot-wise is that Hap has a scientist colleague (Michael Cumpsty) who is somehow even less morally scrupulous than he is, to the point where he attempts to murder the guy in order to find out what his subjects have discovered about the “forking paths” that might pass through alternate dimensions. So much for collaborative research, eh? The showdown happens in a supremely creepy abandoned morgue wing of a hospital that looks like The Knick would in the modern day, which is also, we gather, where Hap’s rival keeps his bodies.

Since Hap the Angel Hunter is having a bit of a turn here, I’m inclined to think he will end the series pivoting toward redemption even as he gets his comeuppance. The prospect of that is a little disconcerting, since this guy really is a horrible creature and I’d prefer not to “get to know him” beyond his necessary role as villain. Let’s focus for the moment instead on Buck (breakout performer Ian Alexander), the trans teen who’s been hovering quietly in the background of the OA’s story circle. Since the past few episodes have alternated attention among the other members of the group, it’s Buck’s turn on deck. Even though his story line isn’t given as much weight as the others, we feel the pains in Alexander’s tentative performance as Buck struggles to identify himself even to those closest to him. (We hear through the door that his parents are less than sold on his gender identity, but they’ve never had a direct confrontation.) One of the most quietly effective moments of the entire series thus far is when Buck reaches the meeting spot late, only to learn — and here his face lights up in such a disarming way — that they all waited for him.

One side effect of this bifurcated narrative, and of The OA’s desire to give us backstories on each of the characters in both the present and past, is it doesn’t leave us with a ton of time to see them bonding as people. We’re approaching the final two episodes of the season and we’ve only just gotten caught up on every player and what he or she is facing at home. Will the show be able to sell us on them working together as partners? Once our fallen angel finally gets around to orchestrating the communal war dance, we’ll have our chance to find out for certain.

Until then … the Rings of Saturn, eh? I am worried we’re blurring the line a bit too much between interplanetary and interdimensional travel (haven’t we been primarily focused on the latter to date?), but I’m cautiously optimistic it will all make sense in the end. Pure, blind faith in an afterlife is so tricky to pull off onscreen that you don’t often see it presented in such a genuinely unique concept as this. The OA treats it as something concrete, but not so literal that it turns us off. This show’s best trick may be convincing us that, after death, we all become galactic explorers in some spectral existence. It’s a bold declaration and a leap of faith I’m still willing to take.

Stray Observations:

  • Did not realize until now that indie music hero Sharon Van Etten plays Rachel, the least talkative of the angel captives. It’s her first major acting role, but she’s also slated to be one of several musicians joining the cast of the Twin Peaks reboot, so expect more from her shortly.
  • The little scenes between the OA and Homer have become a highlight of subtlety. Homer’s little monologue about the garden, while obvious, carries a certain weight to it.
  • If you’re curious about those dance moves and maybe want to bust them out at your New Year’s party, here’s an (spoiler-filled) interview with choreographer Ryan Heffington explaining their significance.

The OA Recap: Interlude in the Death Machine