It's difficult to categorize The OA as fantasy or science fiction or horror. A series that deals with angels, the science of immortality, and friendly-looking scientists who kidnap people to experiment on them in basements, The OA offers some fresh takes—as well as moments of muddled, cliché philosophical "insights."
The series' greatest strength is arguably the aspect that I've so far seen discussed least. Brit Marling plays a young woman who disappears for seven years and then returns, able to see where before she was blind, and recounts the story of her abduction to a group of misfits at her small town in the US. Adopted at a young age by a couple in their fifties, who named her Prairie, Marling's character was abducted after she ran away from her parents and tried to make a living playing her violin in the New York City subway. A well dressed, kind, and friendly academic by the name of Hap (Jason Isaacs) takes her out to dinner after apparently falling in love with the way she plays, then convinces her to accompany him to his house, takes her downstairs to what's supposed to be his guest bedroom, only for Prairie (blind, at this stage) to discover he's locked her in a glass box in his basement.
From there the series unveils a classic horror plot that, taken out of the larger context of the show, works well and delivers a relatively fresh and chilling take on some familiar science fiction tropes. Hap's interest is in achieving literal immortality, and his focus is people who've been revived after experiencing a clinical death. He thinks these individuals were gifted with special abilities, often related to artistic expression, and he aims to study them to unlock the secret of how they're able to come back from "the other side."
For this purpose he kidnaps up to five people at a time and keeps them in a see-through container in his basement in a remote house in the mountains, every once in a while picking one of them to murder and bring back to life. As the series goes on Prairie and the others slowly discover this truth, as well as Hap's methods.
Hap begins each experiment by pumping gas into a glass chamber, seemingly putting his victim to sleep. When Prairie and the others find a way to distribute the gas between the cells and allow the chosen victim to merely fake unconsciousness, however, they discover that the gas actually turns the chosen subject into a pliant drone. Rather than putting his prisoners into a sleep, Hap is putting them into a state of total physical cooperation, while also preventing them from remembering anything he does.
In time, through a lot of sacrifice and teamwork, they finally learn that during these bouts of enforced obedience and amnesia, Hap straps his chosen victim into a machine, puts their head inside a plastic container, and floods it until they drown. He does this over and over again, reviving them each time.
The OA does nothing as well as those horrifying scenes, where the true terror is revealed incrementally and the viewer watches the characters suffocate over and over again, with no assurance of their survival (in fact, several victims die "for real" at various points). The show continues to build on this concept, evolving these scenes and upping the ante. At first we watch people suffocate almost listlessly. Essentially zombies, they wilfully accept the plastic box and remain calm as the water starts to pour in and fill their mouth and nose. Then, as Prairie and the others become aware of what the experiments entail, Hap finds he no longer needs the gas and there are other ways to solicit his victims' cooperation. We then watch as Prairie and her friends beg for their lives, scream, plead, and cry while the box is placed over their heads, conscious until the very last second as they suffocate. Finally, after years of attempted resistance, negotiation, and failed escape attempts, Prairie, who was always Hap's "favorite," succumbs and no longer struggles. Even without the gas, she puts on the box herself, calmly, and allows Hap to press the button and drown her, emotionless until the last few moments when the panic becomes impossible to suppress.
The story of a mad scientist kidnapping people and experimenting on them is obviously not new, but this particular version of the trope feels fresh and immediate. The way the victims choose to collaborate, negotiate with their captor, eventually committing suicide over and over again, is powerfully presented. However, while these torture basement scenes are the most well made parts of The OA, they comprise less than half of the show's runtime. The rest of the time we explore Prairie's story after she returns to her family, freed from captivity, and attempts to resume her former life. Prairie's attempts at integrating back into her hometown reminded me of a previous project Brit Marling co-created and starred in—Another Earth (2011). As in that movie, these parts of The OA present a mundane, ordinary existence, through which people struggle with painful, deeply mundane, and human tragedies, and attempt to find solace in the fantastical.
Prairie—now able to see, following one of her deaths at Hap's hands—slowly gathers around her a group of people, most of them teenagers, who are struggling with a variety of issues: Betty, a school teacher mourning the death of her brother; Steve, a teenaged bully and drug dealer who's trying to turn his life around; Alfonso, an honor student trying to cope with his mother's substance abuse problems. Having gathered a large enough group to mimic the number of people Hap had imprisoned in his basement, Prairie begins to meet them nightly in an abandoned house to tell them her story.
Prairie tells them that people who are able to come back after a clinical death are actually angels. When they die, they each go to a different plane where they're able to travel through the galaxy, to alternative earths and timelines. Through her own repeated deaths she's discovered her own "true" angel name—The OA. She tells them angels have a secret, physical language, a kind of dance they can perform in order to travel between dimensions while still trapped in their human bodies, and through their multiple deaths Hap's victims were able to piece this dance together.
Now Prairie hopes to teach her new group these moves, so that they can help her travel to where Hap's victims await. She no longer feels able to live in this reality, and reveals that Hap threw her out just as they discovered the final movements of the dance, as punishment for rejecting him.
Like Another Earth, this part of The OA strives for something profound, contrasting mythology and fantasy with mundane reality, but doesn't quite get there. The ideas it presents feel too broad, too familiar. As Prairie's group of listeners grows closer they become each other's support, and bail each other out of trouble. However, while being part of the group has improved their lives, they struggle with whether to believe Prairie's story. Does the love they've developed for each other depend on believing that angels are real? If Prairie's story is a lie, does it make the sacrifices they've made for each other hollow?
The show never quite explores these questions in a satisfying way. The pacing is too fast and the writing a bit too shallow to make the individual stories of Prairie's listeners truly count, and without them the overall plot adds up to nothing much. Steve, Betty, Alfonso, and the rest of the group get a few dramatic scenes each—with Steve getting the bulk of the screen time—but, on a show where half the plot takes place in the torture basement of a mad scientist, it's difficult to pause over the minutiae of the small-town lives of mostly well-adjusted teenagers.
Finally, there are the parts of The OA that could have easily been excised from the narrative entirely, and range from superfluous to offensive.
In addition to the stories of Hap's basement, we also get flashbacks to Prairie's childhood in Russia. Instead of allowing her to be the biological daughter of her American parents, something that would not have greatly altered the plot in any way, The OA makes Prairie the child of Russian oligarchs, raised in a giant, gaudy house in the middle of a frozen wasteland (which we're told is "right outside Moscow"), brought up by her father after her mother dies in childbirth. Although Russian oligarchs can usually afford their own chauffeurs, Prairie (then Nina) is taken to school on a bus each day, along with the children of all the other oligarchs living in the area. When a business deal goes bad, the armored school bus is blown up, giving Nina her first clinical death experience, and leaving her blind. For reasons that are never explained, even through the logic of metaphor, upon dying Nina finds herself cradled by a woman named Khatun (played by the fantastic Hiam Abbas), who speaks Arabic and sends Nina back to Earth in exchange for taking her eyesight. Later, Nina's father sends her to live abroad with relatives, which of course lands her in a brothel that her aunt runs in the US, where she's neglected until her adoptive parents find her.
This plot alone is so awash in clichés, stereotypes, and unexamined borrowing of "exotic" elements that it's perhaps even more difficult to take seriously than Prairie's stories about moving between alternate worlds through dance. Similarly, the show's climax, in which a mundane scene at a high school is interrupted by a student who tries to shoot up the cafeteria, feels unearned. In a series dedicated to exploring the alienating, difficult, traumatic parts of adolescent (and adult) existence, it's difficult to justify an ending that has a person we've never seen on screen before but who lives in the same community turn out to be a mass murderer. Plot-wise, it allows for a neat tie-up of loose ends: Prairie's group of listeners come together to perform the angel dance for the first time, distracting the shooter for a moment and saving the school, while Prairie herself is shot and taken to the hospital, but at the same time is finally free to travel and join her angel friends. But thematically it undercuts the things that The OA seemed to be trying to say—about kindness, and understanding, and seeing the pain and vulnerability underneath the anger or detachment or frustration of people who appear to be villains.
(Speaking of villains, it's difficult not to note how differently The OA is received now, in a post-Jessica Jones world. The show's attempts at depicting Hap's ambivalence, his paradoxical kindness and fondness towards Prairie even as he plots to torture her to death, seem jarring, after the way similar fondness and ambivalence was deconstructed through the character of Kilgrave. Rather, The OA's willingness to show Hap's "softer" side feels a little creepy, as if the motivations of a girl kidnapped for her special abilities and those of the man who keeps her in a glass box for years deserve equal exploration within the narrative.)
Is The OA entertaining? Parts of it are. Certainly it has something to offer for fans of science fiction-tinged horror. But the farther away from those elements you get, the more muddled the show becomes, culminating in fringe elements that border on the ridiculous. Its imagery mostly remains too loose, not quite coalescing into something profound, and the individual plots of the supporting characters are engaging but ultimately shortchanged. The images of that torture chamber, though, will probably stick with you for a while.