Why Netflix's THE OA Is a Triumph of Creative Open-Mindedness and Productive Ambiguity

Contributing Writer; Belgium (@BelgianFilmBuff)
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Why Netflix's THE OA Is a Triumph of Creative Open-Mindedness and Productive Ambiguity

Note: this opinion piece discusses The OA’s approach to storytelling, weighs in on the show’s enigmatic finale and as such contains spoilers. If you haven’t yet seen The OA, you might want to stop reading and check back in at a later time.

An end-of-the-year sleeper hit or a Christmas turkey intentionally released below the radar? The lack of fanfare surrounding the mid-December announcement of The OA, a new Netflix Original series co-conceived by writers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij and directed by the latter, raised both anticipation and some suspicion. About 2 weeks since its out-of-the-blue availability the reviews are in and, while mostly favorable, there is a discernible split between reactions of amazed wonder and disappointment.

What The OA has going for it is a sensation not to be dismissed offhand. The 7-hour mystery opus excels at summoning a sense of grandeur rich with character moments that ring true and feel almost impossibly intimate. Striking that balance over an 8-episode arc The OA sticks to its idiosyncratic pacing and slowly gains momentum as it builds towards a climax that, in some way or other, promises resolution if not necessarily revelation. Intentionally or not, the ambiguity of its ending may well trigger in audiences something of a Donnie Darko-reflex: eliciting a strong emotional response that partially defies rationalization, or leaves you utterly stupefied in terms of how, what and why.

But its level of enviable ambition has resulted in negative remarks on a convoluted narrative – the notion that The OA is confusing because it is confused about what it is trying to say. Marling’s and Batmanglij’s latest is, after all, a serialized story that touches on near-death experiences and premonitions before transitioning into a vision of the afterlife linked to the multiverse theory. Did I mention it arguably culminates as an allegory on the power of belief? And then, of course, there are ‘the movements’: a series of extreme yoga maneuvers that, when performed in a rhythmic sequence with at least 5 practitioners, can open up a portal to another dimension, or so we are told. It’s a fanciful concept that admittedly looks strange when enacted on screen (though one that is far from preposterous upon interpretation).

There is a traditional label for this type of show: polarizing. That which strikes some as pseudo-intellectual claptrap is valued by others as a work painted in the boldest of strokes from an imaginative albeit very full thematic palette. Rationalists may dismiss it for the same reasons dreamers will love it. Whichever your case, as a tale that swings for the fences (at least ostensibly massive in scope), but aims to hit home in the quieter moments, The OA is instantly recognizable as the brainchild of the author who co-wrote Another Earth (with Mike Cahill) and Sound of My Voice (with Zal Batmanglij). It intermingles the former’s focus on a character who tries to negotiate past trauma into a livable present with the latter’s conundrum of the potential risks and rewards of faith at face value. The OA also firmly captures the emotional resonance and honesty of both in a fundamentally human story set against a sci-fi backdrop.

Marling and her cohorts spin rousing yarns from What If?-scenarios that likely connect with anyone who has ever wondered what lies beyond the traditionally accepted or the confines of visible reality. A unifying theme in works that very much feel as if they are coming from a shared artistic universe appears to be the quest for freedom from various restraints and repressions. Early on in The OA Marling’s character tells a downhearted teacher that “this dimension is crumbling to violence and pettiness and greed” and, when sticking up for a troubled youth, that it is “not really a measure of mental health to be well-adjusted in a society that’s very sick”.

To the teacher in question (a delightful Phyllis Smith) and 4 more receptive souls whose day-to-day realities are bogged down by personal issues, other people, or monotone drabness her words strike a chord. To the OA’s soon-to-be listening audience (including viewers who can use a little bit of hope) she comes to embody not just the possibility of attainable freedom but also of perseverance in the face of hardship, of empathy for others and a willingness to engage in self-sacrifice. They (and, in part, we the audience) keep going back because the idea that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel – a pleasant release from whatever distress – is infinitely appealing to the majority.

This brings us to one of The OA’s most prominent thematic concerns and arguably the reason why most people will feel stirred at various moments; the hard-to-place something The OA taps into so effortlessly and poignantly is nothing more and nothing less than the transformative power of storytelling itself. And make no mistake, Marling’s character spins quite the tale. Following a 50-minute prologue that sets mood and forges character relationships The OA’s chronological story development is traded in for narrative zigs and zags that interweave the protagonist’s past ‘recollections’, mostly, with moments of present-day narration.

After a while it becomes tempting to forget that the majority of what we see as ‘having happened’ is in effect a visualization of a story told in an attic to 5 seemingly random people. This is because Marling, as always, is an entrancing on-screen presence. She possesses a knack for turning viewers into listeners with little more than the sound of her voice and transporting them to whatever world she imagines. In a role like this she is the gift of the gab personified. But from the get-go, hers is an account that seems meant to raise some suspicion.

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Never mind that her parents corroborate a childhood doctor’s diagnosis of incipient psychosis which she openly divulges to her listeners. In The OA what we are told is difficult to gauge in terms of ‘really having occurred’ since this work deals with the fickle nature of words and how meaning can be constructed; how a frame can be imposed to help put things into place and make sense of it all. More troubling, however, we are presented with a protagonist who, at various stages in her life, goes by different names. Within the first 40 minutes she is addressed as Prairie, insists on being called The OA, impersonates a parent and confides in her listeners she came into the world as Nina, daughter to a Russian family of means.

Significant also is the sweeping manner in which her tale takes off, with lush cinematography transporting viewers from a dusty attic to the pristine whites of a glacial Russia; a pretty picture with all the makings of a fable, albeit it one told with a lot of compassion and attention to detail, which is where the sense of verisimilitude stems from. It is also what imbues her account with an emotional realness and truth which ensures audiences can feel for the character’s harrowing journey, regardless of how much of it is true in any ‘factual’ sense. Even when French (Brandon Perea) uncovers an Amazon book cache with works on angels, the Russian oligarchy and near-death experience – ostensibly the sources that spawned or fueled the very tale we just watched – it is difficult to only feel ‘suckered’ given our affection for The OA.

Still, for those viewers who identified strongly with The OA’s eclectic group of attic listeners the point at which her storytelling breaks off can be experienced as an emotional blow of sorts. If what she shared with them (/us) represents mostly an attempt of tapping into the cathartic power of storytelling to work through personal trauma (and guilt?), can it still be a survivor’s tale starring a woman heroically intent on saving those who were left behind? And if not, if closer to the opposite (a woman still trapped, unable to cope with suffering she experienced) does this not diminish the strength or the degree of healing others can derive from listening to her tale? Yes, by lending an ear, they likely helped her unburden, but by unwittingly putting stock in the tale of an unreliable narrator they (and quite possibly a large portion of the viewing audience) come out feeling hurt, betrayed or lied to. No matter how noble the service provided, there is that sinking realization this may not have been the hopeful story of salvation her listeners yearned for.

Here The OA pulls the rug out from under viewers by refusing the reductiveness of either/or dichotomies. Instead its creators seem to favor a narrative world in which the rational and the irrational or inexplicable need not be mutually exclusive. For one thing, Marling’s character has premonitions, at least one of which almost ‘comes true’. And, while in the season finale the fanciful movements do not actually open up a Stargate-like portal into another world/dimension (was anyone expecting them to?) by presenting a would-be gunman with a synchronized dance distraction a high school tragedy is averted. In a figurative sense, the multiverse theory shimmers through by hinting at a different, and very possible outcome to a violent situation; an alternate reality which is here peacefully defused by a strange act of collective faith. A possible takeaway from this is that well-told stories – fictional or otherwise – are powerful enough to effect real change.

In its closing moments, notwithstanding rationalizations found in the final episode, The OA becomes less about the extent to which you can suspend disbelief and more about one’s capacity and willingness to believe. Remarkably, if up to this moment the final episode has suggested that the visualization of The OA’s narrated past is akin to the epic externalization of a principally introspective account, all of sudden, in the ‘now’ inhabited by Steve, Buck, and her other listeners (acolytes?) we reach a conclusion not far removed from the conventional epic. After all, has she, in the most bewildering of manners – with a dance choreography of sorts and sense of collectivism – not prepared a ragtag bunch for an unlikely act of heroism? Regardless of where she is off to, she seems to be at peace with how events transpired, and has she, through selfless sacrifice (assuming she has indeed been fatally wounded), not become a heroine herself?

What The OA’s climax bizarrely reminded me of were words spoken by Marling at a 2013 senior convocation speech she gave at her alma mater of Georgetown University and which, through total happenstance, I came across years ago when looking up interviews for Another Earth. The speech, thankfully, is still available in its entirety on YouTube. It provides amusing anecdotes on how her tribe – an artistic commune or home-away-from-home consisting of herself, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij – was formed. It also conveys something she seems to have internalized as a personal worldview. Speaking to recent graduates, the end of her moving speech imparts the following:

At Georgetown you have been thought to think grand elliptical thoughts that have no answers alongside narrow linear thoughts that result in right answers. You have been forced to contemplate infinity. You have gotten outside of yourself. If you can, stay there. Stay there and bring other people with you. Hold on to your tribe. Dream impossible things and then go forward and do them, because you absolutely can together.

The uncanny degree to which these words resonate with what transpires in The OA’s climax is, probably, entirely coincidental and/or personal. Probably, because after having watched The OA, and recalling also how I felt after first experiencing Sound of My Voice, Another Earth, and quite frankly every other work the collective of Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij and Mike Cahill have made, I am not so sure anymore where exactly to draw the line between coincidental and faithful, rational and inexplicable. This is rather exhilarating; a lack of certainty that is a productive ambiguity. More than mystery, they offer a sense of fertile openness, of untapped possibilities and, time and again, renew my faith in a world where the answer to an either/or-type question could be ‘both’. It’s a remarkable well for a storyteller to be able to tap from, and one that fiercely lashes out against ideological essentialism.

True, you can argue that what I call creative open-mindedness is actually indecisiveness – the narrative equivalent of having your cake and trying to eat it too. All this is subjective, but I strongly doubt I stand alone in feeling The OA is like a beautiful and bruising dream from which you will not want to wake; an experience that offers an intangible journey that leaves receptive souls shaken to their core.

So, here’s to the art of crafting dreams, and to Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij and Mike Cahill as some of its most beautiful practitioners.

All of the above is no more and no less than my take on an 8-episode narrative arc that is meant to spark debate. Have a different view? Chime in in the comment section below, and let us know!

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Another EarthBrandon PereaBrit MarlingDonnie DarkoMike CahillPhyllis SmithSound of My VoiceThe OAZal Batmanglij
  • Pamela Webster Ward

    Amazing, amazing show. I never take the theology of these things very seriously (or the teleology on the ontology or whatever you want to call it). I just coast along and see if at least seems internally consistent. I have my own set of beliefs but am always curious to see what other people put together. And this was interesting. But The OA wasn't about a coherent set of beliefs. It was about a story and how people reacted to that story, how it changed their lives. Yes, it got a little slow in places. But it was worth watching, and I didn't worry too much about what it meant. In the end I wanted to go with OA myself.

  • whatever

    yeah, i thought it was deep. so glad i watched it. 8 hours really? flew right past. specially liked the part where harry lost lucius his elf

  • Andrea Turner

    I loved watching The OA, but episode 8 was the weakest episode. While I recognize the imperfections, the ending felt inevitable. I reacted more emotionally the moment I saw the shooter's gun (chills) and when the tribe performed the 5 movements (weeping) than I've reacted to any other art in the last year. Even though I can see the flaws, it feels complete and perfect. I heard season 2 may be coming and I would love that.

  • B.

    Great article Tom. One thing that very few of the very few people I know who have seen it tend to mention, in regards to the "is her story true?" question, is that we know that she disappeared blind and returned with sight. We see this in the long introduction before she begins to tell her strange tale to the others. Assuming it's not a writing oversight, it does seem to suggest that there is more going on than a psychosis. Even if she had some kind of psychological blindness, that implies that at the very least there was a traumatic incident like the attack on the bus in Russia that triggered a period of blindness. So, we know for certain that she is adopted as a blind little girl with serious trauma related issues, we know she goes missing while off to find her father (the parents have her note), and we know she returns with sight.

    The fact that I just wrote all that is a testament to the power of The OA. It makes people want to talk about it.

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