Three episodes in, if anything might derail the carefully structured chaos of The OA, it’s the show’s gradual slide into a familiar Netflix-y brand of picaresque aimlessness. With each episode being so wildly different from the preceding one, a lack of proper connective tissue runs the risk of Prairie stumbling from one situation into another.
We’re not there yet with “Champion.” Like the season’s first two installments, it still moves things along at a brisk pace and offers just enough hints to something larger. But we’re also introduced to an entirely new set of characters, which comes with the nagging sense that Prairie is still meeting people, discovering things, and being acted upon when she should be starting to make sense of her predicament. That’s why, toward the episode’s end, it’s such a relief when she finally takes action against her captor. We can start to see the choices and circumstances that have shaped her as a character instead of just a victim.
We rejoin Prairie’s flashback as she’s tossed inside Dr. Hunter Hap’s all-glass basement prison, like some lowly Westworld robot. Sequestered in her own corner and force-fed little food pellets, she must block her only air vent whenever a nasty gas gets pumped into the chambers. Stuck in this demented science project, Prairie comes to meet her three fellow prisoners — all of whom, she realizes, have “died and come back to life.” Among their ranks are, at long last, Homer (Emory Cohen), who comes into true focus for the first time. We gather from how The OA reacts to his name in the present that she seems to believe she’s failed him in the past, and Hap’s house is where it all may come to a head.
Initially, it’s hard to like a guy who would insist on prioritizing his own pride over, y’know, freedom. When Hap takes pity on Prairie and permits her to climb the stairs for personal-assistant duties so she can let sunlight bathe on her face, it’s a golden opportunity to plot an escape. But Homer, the former high-school-football star, desperately needs his family to know he didn’t walk out on them, and sneaking this specific message to them — the one that absolves him — seems to take priority in his mind over sending a distress beacon into the world. That the latter would open up the door to the former seems an afterthought.
The episode gets a kick once Prairie is allowed into Hap’s living quarters, and we realize a blind woman in an unfamiliar environment must now figure out an escape plan while constantly under watch. It’s thrilling stuff. I will let someone with more knowledge in these matters determine how well Brit Marling sells her portrayal of a blind person, but director Zal Batmanglij does a smart thing in this sequence by focusing on Prairie’s wandering hands. We watch those hands as they feel their way through her surroundings, closing around the familiar handle of a kitchen knife … and then using it to slice bread for a sandwich. Soon enough, she’s regularly doing chores for Hap and stashing away his sleeping pills for a grand escape. I find cooking under duress to be a pretty satisfying dramatic setup, even the old hat trick of secretly drugging the food and trying to avoid eating it in front of your intended target, which Prairie attempts after dissolving Hap’s pills into a homemade beet stew. (The close-up on Marling’s ears as she hears the telltale slurp is another effective filmmaking choice.)
On the flip side, I’ve never been a big fan of prisoner story lines in either television or movies. If there’s not some grand escape being planned at every given moment, then a series of punishment scenes can grow pretty exhausting pretty quickly. That goes double for the inevitable “false hope” distraction, wherein the prisoner cobbles together a long-shot plan for release that fails owing to circumstances beyond their control — it happened countless times with Theon Greyjoy and Ramsay Bolton on Game of Thrones, and it was always unpleasant. Here, the long shot is the letter of rescue that Prairie, Homer, and the others attempt to smuggle out of their monkey cage, but owing to a contrivance, the letter floats worthlessly away through the man-made stream that links their cells. Prairie can’t see the letter when Homer passes it to her, and the current quickly carries it away from her grasp.
On a show like The OA, which has been governed so far by a cool dream logic that answers to no one, such a logistical hindrance to freedom feels as artificial as that stream — just something to get us to the end of the episode and onto another hour. Is this the new M.O. of The OA? Prairie’s mad dash through the forest, arms outstretched to ward off threats she can’t see, is a nicely punchy conclusion that’s undercut by a last-minute attack on her person. Which would be worse: that her assailant is Dr. Hap, here to drag her back underground for another round of hopelessness, or that it’s someone entirely new, about to stall us with a second jail cell?
- Prairie’s stew recipe comes from her Russian childhood. Looks pretty good, if you remove the crushed-up sleeping pills.
- Aside from Homer, the other two prisoners seem deliberately written as disposable side characters, so I’ve chosen not to focus on them. Maybe that’ll change.
- Jason Isaacs makes for a nicely mercurial villain. What would happen if you put him next to Patrick Wilson for a creep-off?