Brit Marling as Prairie, Jason Isaacs as Hap.
In the weeks since the inscrutable sci-fi series The OA debuted on Netflix, fans have quickly delved into deciphering the show’s many mysteries. Ever a haven to obsessives, Reddit has turned into a de facto hub for fan theorists to convene and trade interpretations about the hidden meanings in symbolic OA mythos. Below, Vulture has collected a cross section of the conspiracy-mongering speculation, ranging from the significance of that weirdo title to the question of how much, if any, of what happened onscreen can be trusted as real. Some of the readings hold more water than others, but they all attest to the show’s rare power to befuddle and confound. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that The OA has kept its audience guessing.
Theory #1: There’s more to “the OA” than “original angel.”
One of the show’s make-or-break moments comes when Prairie finally divulges that her new name stands for “original angel” — the eye-rollers cried uncle, while the intrigued were only drawn in further. There could be something more to the title, however; Prairie herself first explains it as a mutation of “away,” as if it’s a shorthand for some alternate plane. Some have posited that it stands in for “DOA,” as in “dead on arrival,” an indicator that Prairie’s imagining the whole of the show from beyond the veil. Others suggest that it could refer to the omega and alpha, a Biblical allusion that perverts the usual duality by placing the end of creation before the beginning. One viewer floated the notion that Prairie could be some manner of cult leader, with OA as her title of authority in the group. A small but devoted faction, at present comprised entirely of this writer, believes the initials to be a coded reference to esteemed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas.
Likelihood: Mixed. The most sound of the bunch is probably the omega-alpha theory, very much in step with creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s penchant for layered symbolism and classical allusion. (A character isn’t named Homer for nothing.) The DOA notion could work, considering that the writers have already opened up homophone options with their “away” comment, though interpreting the DOA code to mean that Prairie was dead all along may be too great a leap. The whole cult-leader angle seems the shakiest, without much basis in the reality of the show, more a thought experiment than anything else.
Theory #2: It’s all happening in Prairie’s head.
Or as it’s known in the court of pop-culture law, “the St. Elsewhere defense.” The fan consensus among those subscribing to this reading dictates that it wasn’t all a dream, just the sequences in the containment unit hidden in Hap’s basement. “Dream” doesn’t quite cover it, though: Some theorists believe that Prairie retreated into delusion during her years in the wild, and that her fellow prisoners were manifestations of her subconscious mind. (Scott is her sense of pragmatism, Homer provides her with optimistic support.) Also, strange inconsistencies raise questions about the veracity of what we’re shown — why don’t the fellow prisoners shout for Prairie to flee when she first goes to Hap’s, but then scream at her every time she gets an opportunity to leave going forward?
Likelihood: Entirely possible. As an audience, the only understanding we have of the time spent at Hap’s comes from the story that Prairie tells, and it’s likely that PTSD has made her into a less than reliable narrator. We have no choice but to accept the account that she offers her listeners, and by proxy, us, but it’s still worth interrogating all the same. Everyone who listens to Prairie’s story has their skepticism, and because the more fantastical aspects of her captivity are such a big pill to swallow, they’re subject to the most doubt from viewers as well.
Theory #3: The five movements are based on mudras.
Among The OA’s most polarizing components are the synchronized motions that Prairie and her gang of disciples use to reverse the effects of death and alter the course of time. When performed in tandem, they supposedly open up a rift between this dimension and another. One viewer noticed similarities between the movements and a more unlikely spiritual tradition. It’s suggested that the ritual could be a type of mudra, the Hindu and Buddhist practice that involves striking different poses to redirect the flow of cosmic energy.
Likelihood: Pretty strong. The show freely transcends boundaries between Judeo-Christian and Eastern religions, so giving the interpretive dance this sort of foundation would be typical of Marling and Batmanglij. Whether this alters anyone’s understanding of the show or its significance is another matter, though. It’s more like a nifty speculative factoid than any meaningful insight.
Theory #4: Khatun isn’t just a spirit guide.
The OA is at its most wondrous and mystifying when Prairie enters the astral plane to communicate with the enigmatic Khatun, who appears to her as an old woman. The true nature of this character remains shrouded in mystery, and plenty have attempted to pin a more specific definition on her. One school of thought dictates that the moment in which Khatun exposes an angel wing identifies her as a Nephilim, a half-angel in Christian mythology. Another supposes that Khatun is a manifestation of dead OAs from alternate realities, here to assist its brethren. A third notes a key link between Khatun and the name Aba-Khatun, a water goddess in Siberian shamanist lore.
Likelihood: Mixed. The show deliberately leaves Khatun’s origins obscured for the sake of her aura of mystique, which makes her even more open to interpretation than most characters. Again, the best bet seems to come from the good book: The OA’s nebulously spiritual vibe aligns with the Biblical background of the Nephilim theory. The similarity between Khatun and Aba-Khatun is also too great to ignore; someone in the writers room must have been doing their research. The bit about the conglomeration of deceased OAs is compelling enough, but lacks much evidence to back it up.
Theory #5: Dr. Hap is the school shooter.
The OA ends with a shock, as an unidentified school shooter storms the cafeteria and opens fire. Marling and Batmanglij leave the face of the gunman (or gunwoman) a stubborn question mark, and fans have been ferreting out clues nonstop since the show premiered. One theory collects a handful of subtly placed parallels between the gunman and Hap to conclude that they’re one and the same, based on the sound of Hap coming down to select a victim and the sound of the gunman entering the cafeteria, the sound of the kids throwing themselves at the door and the sound of the cell locking, and the way the cafeteria worker sneaks up behind the gunman mimicking the way the policeman sneaks up behind Hap.
Likelihood: Slim. The sound of one opened door resembles the sound of any other opened door. This theory is more straw-grasping than others, attempting to impose a clean and precise answer on a question deliberately left ambiguous. The anonymity is almost certainly part of the point of the shooter; he’s a force of nature, as if he’s sent by the universe to test Prairie and her friends. Perhaps the flimsiest of all the fan theories, this is a hollow bid to make sense of the willfully senseless.
Theory #6: The FBI planted those books in Prairie’s room.
French begins to doubt Prairie’s reality-bending story when he discovers a cache of books that contain remarkably similar material under her bed, suggesting that she’s made it all up. The sleuths of Reddit posit that Riz Ahmed’s FBI agent stashed them there to frame Prairie for lying, all for the FBI’s own mysteriously nefarious purposes. The key lies with Prairie’s English literacy: They can’t actually be her books, because she wouldn’t have learned to read English before losing her sight, and likely wouldn’t be able to once she gained it back.
Likelihood: Strong. The basic logic checks out, so if this isn’t a peek into a concealed plot twist, at least it’s a sizable plot hole. The only counterargument would be that Prairie might have learned English as a child in Russia, but even so, her proficiency likely wouldn’t have been at the level of the books French finds. Whether an authorial oversight or palpable clue, this one holds up to scrutiny.
Theory #7: A secret message has been hidden in braille.
One lengthy thread delves into the show’s hidden braille messages, communicated through dots of light that appear on some characters’ faces. When Khatun appears to Prairie, illuminated beads appear on her face that one viewer translated as the words “wer wenn,” “denn,” and “engel,” German translations of “who if,” “because,” and, of course, “angel.” Another episode contains braille on an FBI bulletin board, which another viewer translated as “R1C85L,” a likely nod to Rachel, with A, H and E represented by their numerical value in the alphabet.
Likelihood: Strong. Considering Prairie’s reliance on braille throughout the show, it’d make sense for Marling and Batmanglij to use that as a medium for Easter eggs. But although these translations certainly make sense, they raise more questions than they answer. If the FBI does have an interest in Rachel, what is it? She couldn’t possibly be a mole, right?
Theory #8: Pooping is the true key to the show’s mysteries.
Far and away the most fascinating of all the fan theories, the question of where Prairie and her fellow captives take their number twos is the thread that can unravel the entire series. In a literal sense, they probably use that little stream in Hap’s basement. But more figurative fans have explained that the lack of pooping scenes reflects the process of visualizing the story told by Prairie to the boys; they’d have no reason to stitch bathroom breaks into the narrative, and so it doesn’t appear to us either. As with everything in life, it all. Comes down. To pooping.
Likelihood: Who knows? Who cares? I want to believe.