“Stranger and More Complicated Than You Know”: Storytelling as Communion and Experimentation in ‘The OA’

A puzzle box of a series, The OA arrived on Netflix in 2016. Its sixteen episodes span two seasons, and it has recently emerged that the streaming service has lamentably chosen not to renew it for the anticipated further installments. Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, The OA primarily revolves around Prairie Johnson (also known as the titular OA, or Nina Azarova), who is portrayed by Marling. After disappearing for seven years from the home of her adoptive parents, Prairie mysteriously returns one day. Having spent most of her childhood blind, she is inexplicably able to see again and chooses to recount her story only to a select few social misfits who are pulled together by a tale that they then take up for themselves: “I want you to close your eyes. I want you to imagine everything I tell you as if you’re there yourself, as if you’re with me, as if you are me”.

The series is surprisingly easy to explore without fear of giving away details that could potentially hinder its pleasures. I can tell you that it involves a psychic octopus that may or may not be channeling the Angel of Death, amnesiac love stories shattered across dimensions, and a sequence of strange and miracle inducing dance movements gleaned in fragments from a collection of near-death experiences. None of this comes close to revealing what The OA is about, but it does point to the polarising responses that have arisen to it. Audacious and uncompromising, the series asks the viewer to meet it on its own terms, or not at all. Unsurprisingly, The OA is impossible to categorise generically. It combines elements of science fiction, fantasy and the supernatural, with the second season taking the form of something like a technological thriller. In terms of its small screen predecessors, it perhaps owes the most to Twin Peaks, but The OA has a safety net to prevent a freefall into existential dread.

At its core, though, The OA is about stories: about why we tell them and why we devour them. It’s about loss, grief, and finding a way to transmutate trauma. Prairie resurrects herself through the act of narrating her own tale, reclaiming her agency and power. After turning inwards to confront her pain, the sharing of her experiences becomes the catalyst for authentic communion and connection, not only with others but with her true self. And, while Prairie’s own story remains the still point at the centre of the series, other stories and other lives gradually latch onto hers to construct a multilayered tapestry of threads that glimmer different colours, depending on the perspective that’s being assumed.

The OA constantly underlines the subjective nature of Prairie’s retelling of her past. The tale she tells is utterly implausible, increasingly outrageous, and she is the consummate unreliable narrator. As the episodes progress, we may well wonder as to whether what we’re being allowed access to the “real” version of events at all, or a depiction filtered through the minds of the group who listen as she speaks. Building on this, The OA draws attention – with empathy and without irony – to the ways in which we project ourselves, our secrets and our truths, into and onto the stories and characters we encounter in fiction and art. 

When your entire world becomes intolerable, you can build a new one for yourself in the sanctuary of your mind. The OA knows this. Sometimes, with the very best of tales, the return to our physical body and environment is accompanied by something or someone from the imagined world. This phenomenon ripples through the first season in particular; at one point French (Brandon Perea) glances into a mirror only to see Homer (Emory Cohen) – arguably the most significant figure in the story that Prairie has been relaying – reflected back at him. Re-watching this episode recently, it seemed to encapsulate the way that fictional worlds come to overlap with our own.  

As Prairie puts it, her biggest mistake was “believing that if I cast a beautiful net, I’d catch only beautiful things”. Her story needs a monster with a darkness equal to the light that she kindles within herself. Upon being guided by a dream to journey to New York in search of her biological father, Prairie’s path fatefully crosses with that of Dr Percy, most frequently referred to as Hap (Jason Isaacs). A scientist who becomes akin to a father in his shadow form, like Saturn consuming his own children, Hap will first imprison Prairie in a subterranean glass cage and then proceed to relentlessly chase her across universes. He studies near-death experiences; recording them, dismantling them, endlessly analysing and dissecting them. Hap voyeuristically monitors his subjects, and by doing so traps himself in a cycle of death returned to and compulsively repeated. 

For a large portion of the first season, then, Prairie is trapped behind a screen of sorts but manages to transcend her situation. Unable to touch or see those around her, she nonetheless finds a way to forge a connection with others, to let herself be saved and to save her fellow prisoners in return. As a platform, Netflix is, for the most part, a solitary viewing experience. The OA circumnavigates this by highlighting the way that the medium, and telecommunications more widely, can summon the presence of someone who is physically absent. There’s a certain magical quality to this, a blending of technology and enchantment that enables us to see or listen to an event from a spatial and temporal distance, to find or attempt closeness despite separation.

The series develops this idea further in its second season. Karim (Kingsley Ben-Adir) joins as a major character, a private detective whose life gradually intertwines with that of Prairie and her friends by way of his investigation of the mysteries surrounding an augmented reality game played on phones: Symphony Q. Again, media becomes a root to salvation and self-knowledge. Scrolling through stories, having entire worlds spring up with just one tap, becomes a hall of mirrors confessional; an internet-age method of scrying for demons and angels, for imaginal fathers or sisters or lovers in finger-smudged screens.

From the offset, The OA plays with the temporal limitations of its chapters and installments, with runtimes ranging from thirty minutes to well over an hour in length. Its introductory sequence alone takes up the majority of the first episode, with the stage set and many of the players taking up their positions well before the opening credits have rolled. Perhaps most interestingly, there’s an overlap between form and content here in that Prairie’s storytelling is itself uneven and unpredictable, occasionally interrupted or altogether suspended. As such, The OA is a testament to the relatively still-untapped possibilities of long-format narrative storytelling on a streaming service. 

Rather than simply order memories into a cohesive whole centered around a continuous subject, with its second series The OA sees identities shift as the same soul, the same actor, adopts a variety of different masks, and it is only in rare cases that a character recalls their divergent selves. Many of those who became so familiar over the course of earlier episodes are thrown into a new narrative, failing to conform to whatever expectations we may have formed of them. The OA spirals its way to a finale that completely dismantles the fourth wall. Prairie and Homer at last recognise each other, but too late, and her words to him operate on multiple levels simultaneously as the actors are once again torn from their previous roles: Hap will take them “to a place where I don’t know myself, where we don’t know each other. You come find me”.

More than serving as a formal flourish, this self-aware turn becomes a way of expressing the characters’ subjective states as they discover themselves to be players in a larger story. Disorientated, the viewer is drawn in and made hyper-aware of their position as a spectator. The mechanics of creating a television series is itself brought into focus, and with it we get a compelling metatextual meditation on the creation of the self via the performance of identity and the stories we tell to try and give coherence to the complexities of existence. 

And that, unfortunately, is where we have to leave The OA. Having transgressed most of the rules holding it into a fixed and recognisable form, and given a platform to a series that is genuinely innovative in terms of its content and construction, it’s a shame that we won’t get to see where Marling and Batmanglij planned to take Prairie next. Interestingly, the recent cancellation by Netflix has spawned a meta-conspiracy theory suggesting that it is not the actual show that has been dropped but the show that lives within it (it’s impossible to elaborate on this without completely giving the game away). I fear that this is likely to be wishful thinking, but it highlights both the potency and sophistication of The OA’s blurring of the boundary between the real and the fictional, and also the degree to which this cosmic fairytale has wrapped itself around hearts and minds.

Addressing her gang of intrepid and devoted listeners, addressing us, Prairie states that in sharing her story she is asking that we “imagine that reality is stranger and more complicated than you or I could possibly know. And sometimes we get glimpses of it, in dreams or in déjà vu”. The OA spins a defiantly weird, frequently ridiculous, but always hopeful tale, one that emphasises how stories and technology fuse to offer a way out of isolation, out of despair. It demands something more of its medium and demands something more of its viewers. Over the course of two seasons, it tries to give us that promised glimpse of something that is at once beyond and within ourselves. Even though The OA is by far my most loved series of the last few years, maybe the blown-wide-open ending is actually the best possible point to leave Prairie. After all, it’s often only in the retrospective telling a story that a see you soon reveals itself as a goodbye. Until the next dimension, anyway.