A Close Read of The OA’s Controversial Ending

Ian Alexander as Buck, Brit Marling as Prairie.
Ian Alexander as Buck, Brit Marling as Prairie. Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

This story includes major spoilers about The OA and Sound of My Voice, the 2011 film co-written by series creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. We might even ruin A Prayer for Owen Meany for you. Don’t say we didn’t give you a warning.

In the final moments of The OA — the enigmatic Netflix series about a woman who disappears for seven years, regains her sight, then tells her highly dramatic backstory to a flock of suburban followers — the threads of an absorbing narrative tie together and completely unravel, all at the same time. They do so in a sequence that depicts a disturbing and, sadly, extremely recognizable act of violence: an attempted mass shooting at a suburban American high school.

In that sequence, a young man with an assault rifle, his face deliberately obscured, suddenly appears on a school campus, fires off a few rounds, then enters the cafeteria. Elsewhere, Prairie (Brit Marling), the possibly psychic protagonist who calls herself the OA, realizes she’s been envisioning the attack in a series of ominous dreams and races to the school. Meanwhile, the five followers she recruited — four students and a teacher — stand up in front of the shooter and perform the “Movements,” a choreographed exercise that supposedly opens an interdimensional portal of some sort. Their behavior makes the shooter pause long enough to be subdued by a cafeteria worker, but a stray bullet or two is fired in the confusion — one of which hits Prairie, who is standing just outside the glass-enclosed cafeteria, square in the chest.

Depending on your perspective, this sequence either plays as the show’s unexpected, moving climax or a comical assertion that evil can be defeated with interpretive aerobics. It also further muddies our understanding of what’s happened in the series. Was Prairie’s detailed account of her near-death experiences and time spent in captivity actually true, or, as the moments leading up to the school sequence imply, was it a complete fabrication? There’s also the fact that all of this comes to a head during a shooting, a moment that crossed a bridge too far for some critics, including The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, who called it “one of the most tasteless things I’ve seen a television show attempt in some time” and criticized the show for effectively erasing the trauma of Prairie’s captivity and replacing it, at the eleventh hour, with another menace entirely.

Any time a TV show or movie depicts a mass shooting, it can very easily skate into gratuitous and extremely dicey territory. The fact that this sequence arrives so suddenly in The OA, a series that debuted two days after the Sandy Hook anniversary, and offers some form of resolution is an awful lot to process. Anyone who had a hard time taking the Movements seriously may find the decision to insert them into such a fraught situation just plain silly, or even offensive. I understand that perspective.

I was not offended, mostly because I believe the creators of the show — Zal Batmanglij, who directed the episode, and Brit Marling, who co-scripted it with him — take the story in this direction for a meaningful reason. In an essay for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert makes a thorough and persuasive case that the shooting does not emerge from quite as far out of nowhere as it initially seems. As Gilbert notes, there are bits of foreshadowing throughout the season that stand out on second viewing, including allusions to dropped trays, clanging silverware, and the sound of gunfire in one of Prairie’s nightmares. Even more relevantly, Prairie tries to nurture Steve Winchell (Patrick Gibson), a student who repeatedly demonstrates violent tendencies toward others. The show subtly built to this awful moment in the cafeteria. It wasn’t just trying to blindside us with shock and horror.

The OA is a show about a lot of things. You can rightly say it’s about how people cope with trauma. As I did in my initial review, you can also describe it as a show about narrative. It asks why people tell stories and (perhaps) exaggerate the details, and why we’re so eager to believe what we hear. It’s also about something else that dovetails with both of these themes: children in need of saving.

Prairie may be the “Original Angel,” but within the context of The OA’s overall story, she’s also the original saved child. During her early life in Russia, when she was still known as Nina, she has her first near-death experience during a bus crash that drowned multiple children, including her. But she is revived by an otherworldly entity; she chooses to sacrifice her sight so she can be brought back to life. She is the only child who is saved. To borrow a phrase from J.K. Rowling, she becomes The Girl Who Lived. Later, she’s saved again when her father smuggles her to the United States, then saved a third time when Abel and Nancy adopt her out of the less-than-ideal environment in which her Russian-American aunt raised her. Once in her new home, Prairie’s unusual behavior and persistent nightmares — one of which prompts her to brandish a knife — convince a psychologist that she’s exhibiting signs of mental illness. Because neither he nor her parents know her full story, they don’t realize she’s grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder and, most likely, survivor’s guilt.

Given all this, isn’t it natural that Prairie feels a lifelong responsibility to save young people to compensate for the ones on that bus who didn’t make it? Doesn’t it make sense that what motivates her through seven years in captivity — whether it’s an accurate retelling or not — is the idea that she could save a bunch of people who are trapped? Doesn’t it also make sense that she’d want to help several teenagers save themselves? In that cafeteria sequence, when Prairie’s premonition leads her to the school and into the path of that bullet, she finally does what Elias (Riz Ahmed) told Alfonso (Brandon Perea) that he and his peers did for Prairie: She takes somebody else’s pain so they can survive. She’s repaying Alfonso, Steve, Jesse, Buck, and Betty for absorbing her trauma, and also repaying the debt she feel she still owes to the Russian boys and girls who drowned when that bus plunged underwater.

Given the story Batmanglij and Marling are telling, it makes sense that The OA would culminate with a moment in which multiple kids are put in harm’s way, just as the children on the bus were. Perhaps they could have chosen another situation in which that harm presents itself. But as an adult, if there’s one thing you could shield today’s young people from, wouldn’t school violence be pretty high on the list? Whether that shooting sequence is presented effectively or in good taste is a subjective matter. But there’s a reason why the narrative goes in this direction. There’s a reason why, for some viewers, it could be cathartic to watch Prairie’s followers stand up to violence and ward it off without actually doing anything violent themselves.

On second viewing of this sequence, it also becomes clear that Prairie’s actions do more than just save her followers, as well as all the kids in that cafeteria. She also saves her recruits from becoming another kid with a gun.

With the exception of Betty (Phyllis Smith), the mentor figure, Prairie brings only boys into her orbit. All of those boys are grappling with different issues, be it a lack of parental supervision (Jesse and Alfonso), gender transition (Buck, the trans teen played by Ian Alexander), or, in Steve’s case, major anger issues that constantly threaten to boil over into something horrifying. Most school shootings — 96 percent, according to statistics cited earlier this year by ABC News — are committed by young men. The fact that The OA’s key teens are male and marginalized is deliberate. Steve, the first of the kids introduced in the series, seems like he’s not terribly far from committing such a heinous crime himself — at one point, he brutally punches a classmate in the throat and is threatened with a lawsuit. Still, Prairie acts as his advocate by initially posing as his stepmother in a parent-teacher conference with Betty, then continues to accept him when he does bad things and lashes out. When he attacks her with a pencil, she responds by embracing him in a tight hug. These kids are her lost boys, Steve especially. Simply by telling stories and instructing them in the Movements, she’s saving them, even before she races to join them when a gunman enters what is supposed to be a safe space.

Because The OA is a show about storytelling, that core idea about saving children also evokes other stories that tackle similar material. Sound of My Voice, the first film on which Marling and Batmanglij collaborated, is so thematically similar to The OA that it’s practically a prequel: It’s about a young woman named Maggie, played by Marling, who is the leader of a small cult. Her “power” is that she’s from the future, or so she says. Her story, like Prairie’s, is intoxicating and even healing. But is it true?

As in The OA, the movie ends on an ambiguous note. The film also touches on childhood trauma; one of its most dramatic scenes occurs when Maggie connects with Peter (Christopher Denham), an undercover documentary filmmaker attempting to infiltrate the cult, by forcing him to discuss the loss of his mother when he was a boy. Maggie also puts herself at risk when she forces Peter, a school teacher, to connect her with one of his students, a young, special girl whom Maggie insists is her mother. It’s unclear whether Maggie is a savior or a predator, but the underlying theme — trauma in our earliest years can inflict lifelong damage and regret — pulses through Sound of My Voice just as it does through The OA.

Numerous people have also pointed out the parallels between The OA and another Netflix series, Stranger Things, including the preponderance of nosebleeds (both Prairie and Eleven get them), the visually similar scientific experiments, and even the fact that Stranger Things pops up on a TV in the background during a scene in the The OA. Those are fun Easter eggs, but they also underline the fact that these shows are connected by larger issues: parents whose children disappear; lost, marginalized boys; young women deemed “special” and co-opted by men for vague scientific purposes; and the possibility of a government conspiracy at work.

There’s also a third story that, intentionally or not, The OA evokes quite well. As an astute commenter on Rosenberg’s essay noted, the movements in The OA are reminiscent of The Shot, a basketball play in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany that is repeatedly practiced by the narrator, John, and his best friend, Owen. Like Prairie, Owen has cryptic visions of some future important role he must play. Toward the end of the novel, it finally becomes clear what that role is: John and Owen use their basketball maneuver to save a group of Vietnamese children from a live grenade flung at them by the disturbed brother of a soldier killed in the Vietnam War. Here, you have a disturbed man committing a violent act. You have a rehearsed physical movement that prevents it. And you have an unusual child who grows into an unusual man, all the while convinced he is an instrument of God. Instrument of God — that’s another way of saying you’re an angel, isn’t it?

“What did we ever know about Owen?” John asks on the last page of the novel. “What did we ever truly know?” It’s the same question we find ourselves asking about Prairie after the final, post-school-shooting frames of The OA. It’s also the same question we ask after every real-life school shooting, when a community and a country are shocked that one of our own would want to inflict so much harm against other young people.

The OA is not a show about the kid who grabs the gun, which is why we never see who the shooter is. It’s about the kids who stop him and the woman who trained them to do it. But it’s also about the thin line that separates those who are capable of committing such an act and those who prevent it, and how easily that line can be erased when people don’t make an effort to understand one another.

What do we ever truly know about our classmates, friends, and family members? That’s a question worth raising in our actual lives, in our novels, and, yes, in our TV shows. The OA does it in such a polarizing and unsettling way that even those who don’t care for its sensibility may find themselves reconsidering its message, long after their binge ends.