(Note: This is a review of The OA’s finale, so consider yourself warned of spoilers.)
Recently, the organization Sandy Hook Promise released a startling ad about gun violence. The short film traces a sweet love story between two high school students. Just when it seems a happy conclusion is on the horizon, a gunman enters their school. The catch is the warning signs have been hidden all along in the background of the cute courtship. Look closer and you see a kid planning an attack.
I thought of this when watching the finale of Netflix’s latest, The OA. In the series’ final moments it turns out the protagonist, played by co-creator Brit Marling, must help stop a school shooting. Whereas the two and a half minute PSA uses our ignorance to prove a point, The OA’s invocation of very real, very scary violence borders on crass. The disturbed young person that has apparently been lurking in the shadows of this entire series was just a plot point to prove that angels maybe really do exist. It thoroughly tarnishes what otherwise is an engaging, if flawed, series.
Netflix dropped The OA without much notice Friday, a sly marketing move that no doubt elevated the level of buzz surrounding the project from collaborators Marling and Zal Batmanglij. In early responses I encountered I noticed rumblings of a big, perhaps unsavory turn on the way so I girded myself. And while the big reveal is indeed truly surprising—a rarity in a Westworld universe—and rendered me slack-jawed in disbelief, it also trades on real-life tragedy in a way that feels opportunistic.
Which isn’t to say there is nothing to like about The OA. In the pilot we’re introduced to Prairie, who has been returned to her adoptive parents after a seven-year disappearance. When she went missing she was blind; now she can see. She calls herself The OA, has strange markings on her back, and is intent on finding her love Homer (Emory Cohen). She gathers together a group of teenage boys and one sympathetic teacher, Betty Broderick-Allen (Phyllis Smith, evoking her character Sadness from Inside Out). Each night, in an abandoned house, she describes her history and promises they will eventually help her.
Immediately, The OA sets up a fascinating question as to whether Prairie/OA is a reliable narrator. Her tale, for lack of a better word, is unbelievable. It begins with hints of the Anastasia saga: OA was apparently a Russian oligarch’s daughter separated from her father after dying and coming back to life sans eyesight thanks to a celestial guardian name Khatun. She goes to New York in search of her lost parent, only to come across a creepy doctor, Hap (Jason Isaacs), who imprisons her in his study of near-death experiences. There she forms a bond with her fellow captives, and discovers that they are ”angels” upon whom are being bestowed five movements that will supposedly help them escape. Both OA and The OA are good storytellers so it’s easy to become enthralled, and to start to buy that there are multiple dimensions in this world and that these five physical actions will open them up. But structurally there are some hitches. Most of the time we’re hearing about Hap from OA, but sometimes we’ll see his perspective of events she couldn’t possibly have experienced. Is that lazy writing? Or an indication that OA is just bullshitting? Or is it both?
Hindsight is 20/20, and in the finale, Marling and Batmanglij throw a load of evidence that OA has made everything up. After a coterie of adults break up her meeting group, one of its members, Alfonso, goes searching for evidence. He breaks into her home and finds a collection of books that would imply she has read up on every element of her tale and woven a complex story from preexisting material. He looks at himself in the mirror and sees Homer staring back at him. Was it all just in her and, by transitive property, his head? In the darkness, Alfonso runs into the FBI agent, Elias (Riz Ahmed), who has been working with OA. Elias consoles him, explaining that he and the others served a purpose by listening, absorbing her pain so she could go on. The implication here is that OA did indeed suffer, but is inventing a yarn to console herself.
So everyone involved continues on with their lives, and Prairie ends up back home, on medication, with a monitor strapped around her ankle. But then she has a premonition and it becomes clear what she is meant to do. She runs to the high school cafeteria, where someone has burst in brandishing an automatic weapon. All of her young acolytes are inside on the ground, and Betty runs toward the danger. They make eye contact and instinctively know what they must do. They stand up and begin performing the movements. It’s unclear whether something spiritual actually occurs or whether the gunman is just confused long enough for an employee to tackle him. When he goes down, a single bullet fires straight into OA’s heart. As she’s removed on a stretcher she says, smiling: “You did it, don’t you see? I have the will. Can’t you feel it?” The last shot of the season has OA surrounded by a white light, looking mystified. Cut to black and she asks: “Homer?”
On a conceptual level, I don’t entirely hate this ending. It allows for endless speculation about OA, and her ultimate destination. I enjoy the fact that we’re left wondering whether she is a charlatan or a prophet, with just enough evidence on either side to believe one way or another. And it does make sense: OA gave them her trauma, but then accepted theirs. But I am revolted by the way these final moments are executed. The shock value of a school shooting is unearned and distracts from the fantasy of the series by evoking true terror. It feels like a cheap “very special episode” plot line, and the implication that a form of prayer can stop someone wielding a powerful weapon is dangerous, to say the least.
Perhaps my opinion will change when I spend some more time mulling it over, but I don’t believe The OA can stand up to much scrutiny. It’s a ton of fun to watch when you’re going, ”whoa, what?” Still, I get the sense that Marling and Batmanglij think their show is way deeper than it actually is, and that’s what ultimately damns it.
- There’s a lot more to nitpick here, but I wanted to look at the broad strokes of the series, and how it wrapped up.
- I’m torn on Marling’s performance. She has a tricky line to walk given that Prairie/The OA is both alien and shaman. Still, she frequently risks becoming too pedantic at times.
- The entire character of Hap frustrated me. I’m done with evil male characters who play god.
- All the actors who played the teens were wonderful. Many props should go to their understated and keen performances.
- Riz Ahmed continues his year of being in basically everything by popping up here as Elias, the FBI guy.
- Speaking of Elias, what is his deal? Why is he in OA’s home in the middle of the night?
- OA’s fellow prisoner Rachel is played by none other than Sharon Van Etten. So that’s why she can sing so well.
- Episode four had an aggravating bit of cross promotion. During one scene, Stranger Things plays in the background of a conversation. Netflix was very much trying to draw a link between the two shows—likely because they have similar elements—but that shout-out was just too obvious.
- I do wonder if a second season is in the cards. The ending is enraging, but I’m invested enough that I would definitely watch it.