The OA Review (Season 1 | Spoilers)
As a young writer, you will often receive the following advice: “arrive late, leave early.” If you want to make your reader repeatedly exclaim “hold the phone,” this is a surefire way to do it. Subconsciously, we don’t actually want to follow the story all that well. We want enough space between us and the narration to ensure the writer can still surprise us. This OA review will focus on how this particular technique is executed perfectly in the new Netflix show. The viewer never knows the show’s true nature, not even when it is already too late. Yet, never forget that not all surprises are good surprises.
I did scream “hold the phone” quite a few times while watching the first season of The OA. In fact, I screamed a whole lot of other things as well. It is safe to say that most of the show’s viewership entered the space of Crestwood, Michigan blindfolded as Netflix did very little advertising prior to the release. A few days before, the network tweeted, “Have you seen death?” followed by a sequence of cryptic subtweets and a teaser trailer. Yes, we knew The OA was sci-fi. Yes, we knew something eerie was going on. But none of us knew what the show was truly about, never mind what it was trying to get at.
Once you peek inside, there’s no turning back.
If there’s one thing this show is it’s captivating. As off-putting as a shaky iPhone recording of a girl jumping off a bridge is, it still grabs you. The first forty minutes of “Homecoming” are jarring and dysfunctional. You feel like you can’t put your feet down. The viewer can’t rest. We don’t know who to trust or who the camera will focus on.
Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij accomplish this by presenting odd first scenes of each character.
Prairie Johnson is looking for somebody before jumping off a bridge. Abel and Nancy Johnson have gotten used to their daughter’s absence before receiving the fateful phone call. Steve Winchell is making degrading facial expressions while getting busy, but his partner doesn’t seem submissive.
In short, who are the people of Crestwood? The OA welcomes you into a town of gray areas where every character refuses to be labeled, even when they try so hard to up fronts. The first piece of factual information we receive is that Prairie Johnson was once blind and missing and now has returned a mentally unstable 28-year-old with 20/20 vision. In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that a town darker than Twin Peaks served as setting for a nearly-fatal shooting—more on this later.
Was Prairie abducted? Did she run away? Mystery #1 is addressed after Prairie gathers a group of mismatched outcasts, including a sad teacher, a transgender boy best defined as a precious cinnamon roll, and an actual angel in the shape of Alfonso “French” Sosa.
Back at the abandoned house, Prairie reveals her real name is Nina, or rather her original name. Because her real name is OA, as in Original Angel. Sound confusing? It’s because it is.
But none of that matters. It doesn’t matter how many twists and turns OA’s story takes, or how distant and unreal her narrative feels to her spectators. Along with the gang, we still sit around the lit candles and eat it all up.
Watching The OA was like suffering from a self-induced psychosis.
We’ve all seen the unreliable narrator trope before, even at the mental illness level. For that reason, you as a viewer feel like there aren’t that many tricks a show can pull that will truly surprise you. I’m not here to say nothing in The OA is predictable, but the show runners definitely took the time to throw enough red herrings and convoluted accounts to keep us on our toes. Because the show keeps mutating and changing the rules of its own universe, we are never sure of what goes.
Certain rules apply to the OA’s childhood in Russia, which alter once they cross over the pond to the US. Hap’s laboratory is a separate universe in comparison to the external lives of Nina and Prairie. Even with OA’s disciples mirroring her lab partners (comic relief), the relationships and power structures aren’t built the same way.
This obtuse narrative could have easily flopped had the writers not given us one common thread to hold it all together. In this case, it is the never-changing Nina, who even after evolving into the final form of the Original Angel remains resilient and, above all, special.
We want to believe that everything that happens to her defies any rule that is ever set up at any point in the show. Our hope for Nina is for her to transcend any hardship that comes her way. And that’s why we believe her. That’s why we forget the implausibility of her story, forget that nothing supernatural has happened outside of her memories. When French discovers the books under her bed, we’re not shocked that she might have been lying to us. We’re shocked that we forgot to double check her sources so early on.
A clear takeaway from this show is to never trust a Slytherin (I’m looking at you, Jason Isaacs).
Wishful thinking aside, there are three things that keep the OA’s story afloat: Homer’s YouTube video (although the kids have yet to find this), the return of her eyesight, and the fullness of Hap’s character. Was Hap, in reality, a benevolent and groundbreaking optometrist who spent seven years working on her vision? Doubtful. Yet, the story of a research doctor obsessed with near-death experiences (NDEs) isn’t far-fetched.
I will go as far as to say that, as horrible as Hap is, we’re all rooting for him to be real. For one, Jason Isaacs plays the perfect villain and foil to Brit Marling’s troubled hero. Hap is undeniably special on his own right. He’s ingenious, quick-witted, and weirdly compassionate. He’s blind in more profound ways than the OA. However, his sight seems to return at intervals.
His glimpses of clarity keep him from starving or mistreating his subjects too much. It keeps him grounded in his belief of sparing lives when possible. We see it whenever he falls prey to Prairie’s charms or when he hands over the keys to save the other doctor’s subjects at the hospital.
Yes, there are many parts of Hap’s story that Prairie shouldn’t be privy to. But perhaps she lied about her relationship with him, and not so much about Hap’s experiment itself. In short, Hunter Aloysius Percy is the villain you wish you could convert, and a far too well developed character to be but a figment of Prairie’s imagination.
The show is definitely worth the headache, and it gives hawk-eyed viewers a chance to play detective.
The writers made the most of the small town life, allocating tension where it fit and using Crestwood’s own limitations to tighten up the narrative. Examples of this are the use of queen BBA as one of OA’s disciples. The writers made sure to earn the use of a trans character like Buck and an ethnically complex character like Alfonso. Even if they feed off of these aspects of their personality, they are still fully formed characters.
Aside from the prolific acting, the careful writing is the real backbone of this show. Not only did it not use its characters as pawns, but it also gave them dignity even within their own shortcomings. For instance, had BBA turned into a erudite college professor after joining OA’s Angels Anonymous group, I would’ve been pissed. The characters don’t change significantly, as we see Steve stab OA close to the end of the first season, but they do gain a dose of confidence and openness.
Additionally, the show rewards curious Reddit-aided viewers. There are enough red herrings and hidden meanings to keep us guessing until the next season arrives. I also doubt the Internet will be able to figure out much of the plot, as it has in the past with other shows. There simply aren’t any set rules yet. We don’t know how the veracity of OA’s story could affect the narrative just as much as we don’t know how her story being disproved could disrupt the cycle of events.
Now, regarding the infamous season finale.
I don’t want to end this without discussing the controversial finale. As I said before, a school shooting isn’t improbable in a distressed suburban town. Every household is rotting from the inside, yet the appearance of the shooter was jarring even to the biggest fans of the ending. The truth is that one move almost single-handedly ruined the show. And it’s not because of the scene itself, but because of the lack of preceding scenes that could have given us that a-ha moment.
The recognition that comes a second too late is exactly what makes a surprise moment a good one. Had the shooter been a minor character, Jesse’s friend, a kid who said something weird in class, anything, it would’ve made that moment click. It would have humanized it. As atrocious as school shootings are, the perpetrators are mentally disturbed kids who get a hold of a gun when they shouldn’t even be allowed near pencils. For a show that spends so much time developing troubled characters, the shooter arrives as a mere plot device.
That being said, the pros certainly outweigh the cons, and in the grand scheme of things this will be the weakest link in a sea of solid moments.
The unassuming tenderness went the extra mile in my view.
I relished in the book-like quality of Hap’s universe. The ingenious way in which the cells were set up, with the spring running across it and the plants gave those scenes a literary ambiance. It felt like seeing an adaptation of a dystopian novel. Maybe it was just me in my writer brain who noticed this, but even the way the staircase was set up gave the whole setting an imaginative flair only found in books where you construct a landscape that fits your emotional needs as opposed to your spatial demands.
I loved the relationship between OA and Homer, even after feeling completely destroyed by Homer’s encounter with Renata. Especially with OA listening (WTF, Hap?). It was smart that Hap’s love for OA was hinted at but not pressed upon, and that the gang didn’t become the best of friends because they were captives together. Their reluctant attitude towards losing the battle felt more believable. Same goes for BBA and the boys. These small decisions kept the whole orchestration real for me. So kudos to all the writers.
And of course, Riz Ahmed is always appreciated, even if he’s a snake.
In short, everyone who likes thrillers, sci-fis, or simply good TV should most certainly give The OA a go.
For a definitive ranking of The OA characters click here. You can find questions for Season 2 here. (We’re not saying this has any answers regarding The OA’s ending). Lastly, if you enjoyed our OA review, consider joining our mailing list.