Either Prairie Johnson on THE OA is one of the greatest storytellers in the world, and her life is full of magic, mystery, and suspense, or she’s completely delusional. How does a blind woman disappear for seven years and return with the power of her sight restored? And why won’t she tell anyone but a select group of misfits what happened to her?
The OA arrived on Netflix this weekend with little fanfare or marketing until right before the series dropped. I’m not sure if this was just a stealth move to release a bingeable series on the sly right before the holidays, or if Netflix just wasn’t sure what to make of The OA. It’s definitely going to get comparisons to Stranger Things, but it’s really a completely different beast. It shares having supernatural elements, and a female character who’s disappeared and returned with some sort of powers, but that’s as far as the two shows overlap. Stranger Things took from Amblin Entertainment films, John Carpenter, and Stephen King, while The OA feels like it’s based in fable and folk stories, with a mad scientist, science fiction twist. The OA was produced by Plan B Entertainment and Anonymous Content, and was created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. Marling and Batmanglij wrote the majority of the eight-episode season, and Batmanglij directed the entire series.
I’ve often been impressed with Marling in the films I’ve seen her in, and it’s no different here. She embodies the awkwardness and loneliness of Prairie Johnson perfectly, and she’s at her most vulnerable as she integrates back into the life she’s been missing from for the last seven years. The series starts out with an awkward iphone video taken up and down instead of full screen (you know who you are you infuriating people who do this) of a woman running across a bridge and jumping off while the camera operator implores her children to look away. When Prairie comes to in the hospital she won’t say who she is or where she’s been. It’s only after her adopted parents Nancy and Abel are sent a link to the video by some friends and go visit her in the hospital that the connection to her past life becomes evident. She doesn’t recognize her parents because she’s never seen them before. When she disappeared seven years previous she was blind. How did she regain her sight?
The series is shot in an interesting blend of the magical and realistic as we bounce between dreams, reality, and stories. It isn’t until the final moments of the pilot that the dreams, story, and the past mix into the narrative, but once they do the series really takes off. It’s clear something traumatic has happened to Prairie and she wants to get back to someone named Homer, but her parents are worried she’s having mental problems after what looks like a suicide attempt after a prolonged disappearance or abduction. Her home is on the edge of an unfinished development, abandoned half completed houses litter the landscape, and it’s in one of these shells of a house where she first meets Steve, a local bully and drug dealer. His dog attacks her, and she struggles while other kids watch, but she bites the dog and whispers to it until it calms and grows docile. It scares and impresses Steve, and the two become friends after this initial encounter.
Steve needs help. He has anger and behavioral issues, and is just about to be expelled from school and sent to a military academy. The casting of Steve is perfect, because he looks like the best example of every mean bully you could possibly imagine. If Prairie can do whatever trick she did with the dog on the teacher that’s trying to get him expelled, Steve will help her gather five people together for something she has planned to help her get back to the people she’s left behind. It works, and she’s able to help the teacher (played by Phyllis Smith of The Office fame) see Steve as the reason she started teaching in the first place, to nurture and shape people like Steve who need it the most.
When their parents find out about Prairie and Steve’s ruse, her access to the Internet, the door on her room, and the freedom to be without supervision is taken away. She has time to quickly send out a video asking for help, to meet at the abandoned house behind hers, and to leave their front doors open to invite her in so she can connect with the five people she needs to make what she’s about to do work. The five people who show up all have problems in their lives and things that make them different. They’re all outsiders missing something, and this small gathering seems to give them what they need most, each other. Steve is there, as is the teacher Betty, but also Buck a transgendered student taking testosterone to become a boy, Alfonso who has a horrendous home life and a drug habit, and Jesse who’s mother committed suicide and father left him alone. As the series moves along these five will become a surrogate family for each other.
The reason for the meeting of the five characters and Prairie is an interesting one, especially given she’s so reluctant to talk to the FBI counselor about what’s happened to her. Meeting at midnight every night in the abandoned house, she’s created a safe space to tell the story of her life and what happened to her. It’s her own version of talk therapy that’s supposed to help her somehow reach Homer and the others she’s left behind. The act itself, the telling of her tale, is an interesting reflection of what we the audience are doing at the same time as these five listeners. Just like them, she’s telling us a tale, and each episode, like each evening when they gather, we circle up to be told the same story. In fact at times the characters ask the same doubtful questions we ourselves are wondering. The circle of five becomes a surrogate for us, the audience, and just like us the characters find moments of Prairie’s story to be beyond belief, and it’s their doubt, like ours, which grounds the story.
Her story is told through flashbacks, and dreams, which seem at first to be right out of a fairy tale. She was born in Russia to a wealthy father. She had intense dreams and nose bleeds, and in a Russian Mafia hit targeting the first born children of Russian elites, her school bus drove off of a bridge and she died in the river below. She was awoken by a woman between worlds who asked her if she’d like to go back. Prairie does want to get back to her father, but in exchange there’s a price to pay. The woman takes her eyes, and when Prairie wakes up on the shore of the river in her father’s arms, she’s blind. For her safety she’s sent to America under an assumed name, put in a school for the blind, and is watched over by her aunt. Once a week her father calls, and she plays the violin for him. These calls are what keep her going. She has vivid dreams of her father, and when her aunt comes to take her away because her father is dead, she doesn’t believe it. Her aunt runs a brothel and a black market adoption agency, which is where Nancy and Abel found Prairie and took her home.
The visions in her intense dreams and the belief her father is still alive lead her to run away to the Statue of Liberty where she thinks she’ll be reunited with her father. When he doesn’t show, she plays violin in the subway thinking he’ll hear it and come for her, but instead she attracts a monster in a friendly disguise. Dr. Hunter Hap recognizes the beautiful sounds of the violin and the blind woman playing it as someone who’s had a near death experience (or NDE) and invites her to participate in his NDE study program. He flies her to his remote home, and takes her to the basement deep under the house where he conducts his research. She walks right into a trap, and is locked in a cage in the basement with three other NDE survivors including Homer, Rachel, and Scott. As more of her tale is revealed, Steve and the other kids find clues online that corroborate some of what she’s been telling them. Is it all true though, or is some of this the fantastic stories of a delusional mind?
Prairie gains the trust of Hap because of her blindness, learns her way around his house, and develops plans with the other three prisoners to send a letter out for help in one of his phone bills (which fails), to push him down the stairs and escape out of the house and search for help (he catches her), and to circumvent the gas that makes them forget the experiments in order to learn what he’s doing to them so they can take over his study and get the upper hand. It’s during Prairie’s momentary escape when Hap bashes her in the head that she has another NDE and regains her sight, as well as a secret ability the same woman between worlds grants her. It’s during this conversation, when the woman refers to her as “The Original” that Prairie comes to believe herself to be an angel.
I keep going back and forth as to whether I believe the story she’s telling, or if I think she’s schizophrenic and has merely constructed an interesting fairy tale which she believes, but is all in her head. I have no idea after four episodes what’s true and what’s fiction. The one thing I can tell you about The OA is that it’s one of the most interesting and intriguing shows I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s part A Thousand and One Nights, and also weirdly has some roots in The Breakfast Club. There are so many interesting aspects to the story, but the part that really has my attention right now is the device Hap straps Homer into over and over. It drowns him, forcing NDE’s on him in order to map what’s beyond conscious life. How does Prairie finally escape from Hap, and will she be able to go back and rescue the others? Or is this all the construct of a brilliantly unbalanced mind? Time will tell.
Season 1, Episodes 1-4 (S01E01 – 04)
The OA streams on Netflix
For six months out of the year Jeff is holed up in his home with nothing to do but shovel snow, watch television, write, and dream of warmer climates.
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Jeff Iblings | Contributor