tv review

The OA Part II Is a Glorious, Ridiculous Mind-bender

Kingsley Ben-Adir and Brit Marling in The OA Part II. Photo: Nicola Goode/Netflix

Remember The OA, that Netflix spiritual thriller that polarized audiences when it debuted back in December of 2016? It’s the series that Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij co-created about a once-blind woman (Marling) who returned, with her sight regained, to her Michigan hometown after being missing for seven years, then retold the story of her imprisonment and near-death experiences to a group of high schoolers and an algebra teacher. Calling herself the OA, or the Original Angel, she taught them “the Movements,” a series of choreographed physical poses that, eventually, the teens and their teacher did together to save themselves and others from a school shooter.

The vibe of the show was so odd and mystical, and it landed on Netflix so long ago — we were so much lighter, so much more naïve — that it may seem like a dream you had rather than a season of television you actually watched. But it was not a dream. More than two years later, the long-promised second season, The OA Part II, is arriving on Netflix this Friday. And based on the six episodes provided to critics in advance, out of the total eight, hey, guess what? The OA Part II is poised to be just as polarizing as the first part was.

Well, it might be slightly less polarizing since the people who were put off by the first installment probably won’t bother showing up for the second. But even among those who were totally onboard with the high woo-woo factor in season one — as my review makes clear, I went all-in and full woo-woo — the wild swings of Part II may be a little too much to take at times. The second season is still very much in keeping with the sensibility of previous Marling and Batmanglij collaborations. (The pair, who met in college, also worked together on the films Sound of My Voice and The East.) It’s earnest, self-serious, steeped in spiritual mythology and sci-fi-ish notions about time-jumping and dimension hopping, and heavily focused on the sort of puzzle-solving mystery that lights up Reddit message boards. While watching, I was entranced at times. At others, I thought I was watching the most ridiculous show on TV. Occasionally, I felt both of these feelings simultaneously. I mean that as an endorsement … I think?

If I sound confused, that’s because The OA Part II is more confusing than the first season was. Those initial eight episodes were essentially an origin story and, even though they involved flashbacks, complicated ideas, and multiple characters, they felt pretty contained. Part II is more ambitious, which is a good thing, and more sprawling, which makes for a less cohesive viewing experience. Every time you almost get your bearings in the narrative, the show corkscrews down another rabbit hole.

Part II begins not long after the events of last season’s finale, after the Movements were performed during that school shooting, thereby rendering the OA’s followers safe even though she took a bullet and, possibly, maybe, died? (Non-spoiler alert: She didn’t die.) But the first episode doesn’t zero back in on OA — also known as Prairie Johnson, also known, in another timeline, as Nina Azarova — right away. For the first 30 minutes, it fixates on a San Francisco detective named Karim (Kingsley Ben-Adir, giving off major Young Denzel vibes) who is asked by a distraught old woman to find her missing granddaughter. To the credit of Batmangli (who directed this episode and several of the season’s others) and Marling (who co-wrote all of Part II with Batmanglij), Karim’s attempt to investigate the teen’s disappearance is engrossing on its own terms, even if it’s not clear right away how it connects to the story of OA.

Eventually, OA does resurface and suffers what appears to be a heart attack. After a brief hospital stay that hints that something is amiss on the timeline front — it is still the year 2016, but Joe Biden is the president and a nurse acts like she’s never heard of Barack Obama — OA is sent to a mental health facility where Homer (Emory Cohen), the soul mate with whom she was once imprisoned in a lab experiment, is her therapist and Homer’s supervisor, Dr. Percy (Jason Isaacs), is Hap, the man who held them hostage. The other human guinea pigs from Hap’s underground prison experiment — Scott (Will Brill), Renata (Paz Vega), and Rachel (Sharon Van Etten) — are in the facility, too. They remember OA. Homer, on the other hand, has no recollection of her or that experience, perhaps because of another near-death incident of his own. Eventually, OA ends up connecting with Karim in an effort to piece together what’s happened to her and to the missing girl, and how both may connect to Hap, an old house in the Bay Area, a video game, and a wealthy businessman named Pierre Ruskin (Vincent Kartheiser, because sure, why not, let’s bring Pete Campbell into this).

But that is not all! Episodes three and six follow the teens in Michigan as they struggle to come to grips with the shooting, OA’s disappearance, and the fact that one of them, Buck (Ian Alexander), is seeing an image of Rachel in a mirror, singing a series of evocative and deliberately chosen musical notes. Steve (Patrick Gibson), convinced that perhaps they can rescue OA, convinces his peers — his girlfriend Angie (Chloë Levine), Buck, French (Brandon Perea), and Jesse (Brendan Meyer) — to track down their teacher, Betty (Phyllis Smith), a.k.a. BBA, and hit the road in order to find OA.

The episodes involving the teens, directed by Andrew Haigh (Lean on Pete), deliver the more poignant moments in the new season, in part because their narrative is more straightforward and not bogged down by the expository mumbo jumbo that turns other aspects of The OA Part II into a headache-inducing mind teaser. Even so, parts of their journey don’t seem entirely realistic. In one episode, French hooks up with a guy he met on an online dating app and tells him the entire cockamamie story about OA and Buck’s mirror sightings. The guy responds to all of it by saying: “If you people are serious about wanting to see a sign, you should talk to my Aunt Lily.” Only on The OA can you swipe right, get laid, and snag a referral to an inter-dimensional psychic medium.

That said, their story is more grounded in a recognizable reality and, to its credit, does not ignore the extent to which some of these teens are suffering from PTSD after the shooting. If you buy into the notion that The OA is truly taking place in some parallel version of our current timeline, these kids can be viewed as some alternate-world version of the Parkland survivors, all bound together by the same tragic moment and trying, in a far more esoteric fashion, to bring about something positive from it.

The story lines involving OA — and by extension, Homer, Hap, and Karim — are, on the other hand, a lot. And by a lot, I mean they are a stew of mystery-box-style theology, plot twists, numerology, Biblical references, and climactic moments that unfold to the sound of Live’s “Lightning Crashes.” Characters say things like, “The entire floor’s a puzzle,” and it turns out to be true. Because of course it is. The ground beneath everyone’s feet in The OA is a riddle begging to be solved. Oh, and spoiler alert: Sometimes The OA is an octopus to be battled. By which I mean, yes, there’s literally an octopus in Part II that slithers its tentacles all up on people in disturbing ways. (His name is Old Night.) I’d say you can’t make this stuff up, but clearly Marling and Batmanglij did, so, never mind.

There are moments in Part II that are so visually and conceptually bold, including imagery reminiscent of the works of Steven Spielberg and David Lynch and shots of everyday sights rendered to look iconographic, that you have to admire Batmanglij’s and Marling’s vision. There are other moments that skirt so close to the pretentious and ridiculous that they made me think I might actually transform into the eye-roll emoji. In fact, in another dimension, I believe this is actually me right now: 🙄.

Through it all, though, Marling is so grounded, authoritative, and thoughtful as OA that she’s able to persuade the audience to believe and invest in not only her character’s point of view, but the world she and Batmanglij have created, even when one’s common sense and bullshit radar are tested to their limits. There are still two episodes of The OA Part II that I haven’t seen because Netflix didn’t share them yet. Even with all my reservations about this season, I still very much want to watch them to see where this topsy-turvy, messed-up maze goes next. If good television is supposed to make us want to keep bingeing episodes — and I would argue that, among other things, it is supposed to do that — then on at least one level and in at least one dimension, The OA Part II is a success.

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The OA Part II is a Glorious, Ridiculous Mind-bender