It is your right, dear reader, to know something about this noble fool and his attempt to recap The OA: I have a very hard time with dramatizations of school shootings. I find it repulsive, on a visceral level as well as a moral one, to ascribe any sort of intellectual meaning to this kind of modern national disgrace. It’s why I’ve avoided critically acclaimed films on the subject like Elephant, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and The Dirties. Before I saw this year’s remarkable documentary Tower, the exception to the rule, I even was convinced that there could be no way for a filmmaker to stage such a tragedy without an utter disregard for how it would look to their audience. There is, of course, value to exploring real-life horrors through a dramatic lens, but I don’t believe the sensibilities of popular art have evolved enough to come even close to finding it for this topic.
Which brings us to The OA — a show that we were led to believe was about angels and storytelling, metaphysical science and collective memory — and the choice to end it with a school shooting. The shooting itself sneaks up on us: Though the series had been hinting at some sort of looming violent act (OA’s bleeding-nose premonitions; news reports about a shooter on the loose), dropping wink-nudge background clues is not the same as dramatically foregrounding a major, traumatic plot point. I’m sure I’m not the only one who reacted to this event as though it truly came out of nowhere. The shooter, whose face we never see, is intended to shock us. Even if we go back later to find he was ready to strike all along, that is secondary to the scene’s initial purpose.
Because it is such a surprise, the show’s climax is no better than a “third-act car crash” brand of deus ex machina. What is this cheat doing here, especially at the end of a twisty narrative structure that invited us to ponder a gargantuan number of loose and fraying story lines? For as much passion as the OA’s disciples throw into their rendition of the Movements, why did it have to be in the service of such a tacky, grotesque metaphor? The show’s mantra was that the Movements had to be “executed with perfect feeling,” and I submit that exploiting the imagery of a school shooting demonstrates a less-than-perfect feeling on the part of the filmmakers. Other critics have argued that “Invisible Self” exists of a piece with the show’s larger framework, its message of embracing the most marginalized of young minds. Regrettably, I cannot do the same.
With great difficulty, let’s now look beyond that black hole of a climax to ponder what the rest of the episode is saying. Vulture’s own Jen Chaney has written twice about The OA’s ending, and she touches on several bits that go unresolved at the expense of the active shooter, including why Steve is back at his old school instead of the military academy, why Riz Ahmed’s sympathetic FBI agent was squatting in the Johnson household by himself, and what happened to Hap and the other captives now that he’s both committed murder and learned how to bring people back from the dead. The thing that strikes me is not the plausible explanations for each of these questions — this script is deliberately vague enough to justify any theory we throw at it — but that series creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij don’t have much interest in them. Given the opportunity to tell a story with emotional resonance, they choose to abandon their own setups with the same speed at which they were formed, and to settle on an easy ambiguity: “Well, she could be making it all up … or maybe not. Isn’t that clever?”
But that particular question, the one about whether OA’s story is true or not, ceased to be relevant many episodes ago. That’s what happens when a show declines to introduce doubt before its final hour. As a result, the so-called truth of the OA’s captivity is irrelevant to the story as a whole, no matter which books French discovers under her bed. You can accept her version or not, and since one of the essential ideas behind filmmaking is that every image (be it reality, memory, or fantasy) carries an equal amount of “truth,” you feel her flashbacks with the force of truth either way. Meanwhile, relevant and hard-to-swallow matters, like the fact that Nancy deliberately withheld a potentially crucial farewell note written by her missing daughter from both the authorities and her own husband for seven years, are left to dangle in the wind.
It was clear from the outset that The OA would be a polarizing show, if only because of its unusual pacing, tonal dissonance, and genre blending. What I didn’t anticipate was how much it could polarize even its true believers, how it could deliver an authentic, moving message about secondhand trauma only to undercut it minutes later with some garish fantasy about subduing a psychopath using only dance and faith. To go from the thrilling stylistic highs of those first episodes to an ending as infuriating as this one is like concluding a sweeping, melodic symphony with a movement of nothing but gunshot noises and screams.
- Speaking of polarizing true believers: Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if some rifts had developed among the OA’s circle of friends? Did they all have to remain so blindly devoted to her?
- Another question: Why was the Cuba interlude necessary at all? Did Renata add anything of value to the story?
- For that matter, the thing about people having to leave their front doors open whenever they talk to the OA didn’t really pay off, did it?
- What hurts the most about the active shooter sequence is that, if you isolate all the other details, there is something genuinely moving about seeing the five disciples spontaneously break into dance. The look and feel of that sequence, the cutting, the climactic bombast: It could have worked so much better in almost any other scenario.
- The final episode carries a good deal of similarities to John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. Does that add to my appreciation of this episode as a whole? Not particularly, but some might like to know.
- Whether you soured on the show or not, I recommend you check out Jen Chaney’s close read of the finale.
- Overall, I’m still be grateful The OA exists. Formally, it accomplished great things, pushing episodic TV further and further away from its comfort zone in the service of a story that contained many flashes of brilliance. It failed to stick the landing, but that only creates more of an imperative for Marling and Batmanglij to get it right with their next effort.