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Netflix’s The OA Thrives on Mystery

Content warning for discussions of death and suicide.

Netflix decided to get super cagey when it dropped The OA on December 16. There was virtually no press. No lead-in. Just one online trailer that upset a LOT of people, because it was a cellphone video that appeared to show a woman committing suicide by jumping off a bridge. There was no indication that the video wasn’t real, and it was only later revealed to be a teaser for Netflix’s newest series.

It was a shitty thing to do and it upset a lot of people, so here’s a picture of a rolly polly baby panda.

Questionable marketing decisions aside, the series (created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij) offers an intriguing, yet vague, premise: a young woman named Prairie Johnson (Marling) has been missing for 7 years, and when she finally returns to her family she’s…different.

That’s pretty much all the premise-ing I’m gonna do, because anything else would be MAJOR spoilers. Of course this is a recap and review, so there be spoilers ahead. Just not here in the intro.

Episode 1: Homecoming

The episode opens with the aforementioned cellphone video. The woman wakes up in the hospital and won’t tell anyone her name or where she’s been. She asks if she flat-lined, but the nurse doesn’t know. It’s really important to her. Just Odd Thing #1 about bridge lady.

Back at Prairie’s house, her mother Nancy pulls up the video on YouTube and immediately recognizes her missing daughter. Nancy is played by Alice Krige, aka the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact, while Prairie’s dad, Abel, is Hershel from The Walking Dead. Just to warn y’all if I slip up and call them Borg and Hershel.

Nancy-Borg, Prairie, Abel-Hershel.

At first Prairie doesn’t know who they are, because BOMBSHELL: when she disappeared 7 years ago, she was blind. Now she’s not. She touches Nancy’s face and recognizes her, and they bring her home.

Once at home she’s questioned rather poorly by the FBI. She insists on being called The OA, or just OA, rather than Prairie. What does that mean? What does it stand for? We don’t know!! She’s also desperate to get online, but her parents won’t let her without adult supervision. She’s searching for someone named Homer, who we learn was brutally injured in a football game his junior (I think) year of high school. He was in a coma, given up for dead, when miraculously he woke up. Prairie/OA watches a YouTube video about him and cries, because she really really wants to find Homer.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Okay, so, Prairie and her mom go for a walk, and they see these two guys on the roof of a house. Their neighborhood is only like half-built, and there’s a half-built house where kids go to buy drugs and do kid things. The next day Prairie goes there trying to find someone who will help her get online.

She meets Steve.

Ugh. Steve.

Steve is introduced to us in an incongruous sex scene. Like bam, porn! Right in the middle of our little sci-fi mystery drama. Random. Anyway, he’s a high school student caught up in his own importance, and he has serious anger issues. He’s sleeping with this girl because, as she puts it, he has a nice body and he smells good. He’s apparently interested in her, but she’s just using him for the d. Oh and he’s also a drug dealer.

When Prairie comes to the abandoned house, Steve sics his dog on her. They tussle. It bites her. But then she bites the dog and suddenly the dog loves her. I feel like Caesar Milan would be proud.

Later Steve suddenly climbs in her window (I thought they knew each other from before, but no) with a router and a plan. He asks her to impersonate his mom and talk to his teacher so he won’t get expelled. He punched a kid in the throat and now his parents are planning to send him to military school.

The deception requires a makeover.

Prairie, who by now is called “OA” by almost everyone except her parents, so I’ll switch to that, goes to the school and meets Betty, Steve’s teacher. She has a few choice words to say about ol’ Stevie Boy, but OA starts questioning her. Why did she want to become a teacher? “What was your reason?” she asks, meaning, it would seem, her raison d’être.

Betty is understandably taken aback, especially when OA starts asking about what Betty’s lost. She guesses it’s someone close to her, like a sibling. Her brother, maybe. The conversation upsets Betty, but at the same time OA does inspire her. She agrees to help Steve, and speak up on his behalf rather than getting him expelled.

OA has done her part, and in exchange she asks Steve to bring her 5 people (“strong, like you”) to the abandoned house at midnight that night. Uh. Is she planning an orgy or a human sacrifice? Let’s find out.

Betty is at CostCo (everyone on this show shops at CostCo) when she runs into Steve’s dad. Uh oh. She tells him she really enjoyed meeting his wife, and based on what she said, she’s going to give Steve another chance. He’s confused, naturally, and even more so when Steve’s actual mom walks up. Double uh oh.

Steve’s parents drag Steve to the Johnsons and tell them everything: OA traded internet access for impersonating Steve’s mom to the teacher. His mother gets all weird about it, like OA has sexual designs on Steve, but he insists that’s not the case. He’s furious: he says they’re friends, and that his parents are the ones making things gross and weird. Good for you, Steve.

I mean, it’s true.

OA’s parents take the door off her bedroom, something the therapist told them to do before but they’d been reluctant about. She records a desperate video and uploads it to YouTube: she’s basically begging anyone who watches it to come to the house that night. I honestly don’t know how this worked, but it did, because…

She sneaks out and she’s waiting at the house for people to show. At first no one does, but finally a couple of kids creep in: Jesse, Steve’s sidekick. Buck Vu, a transboy who gets his T from Steve and saw OA the first day she came to the house. Alfonso Sosa, Mr. Perfect High School Jock who gets his uppers from Steve. And Betty, Steve’s TEACHER. Eventually Steve shows up too, and they have their little group of misfits.

A happy family.

She starts to tell them her story. Apparently she was born in Russia, and her mother died when she was very young. Her father was a miner, rich and powerful, and the Russian mob wasn’t a fan. As a little girl she suffered terrible nightmares, one in particular: she’s trapped in an aquarium and can’t escape. She always wakes up with a nosebleed.

Her father makes, um. A questionable. Parenting decision. He takes her out to a frozen lake, digs a hole in the ice, and gets her to crawl into it. He says if it’s cold, you should get colder…and then the cold can’t touch you.

Is this a Russian thing? Because to me it just seemed like poor parenting.

Anyway. After that she stops having the dream. One day she’s on the school bus with all of her friends when there’s an explosion! The bus goes crashing over the bridge and into the water. It’s her dream come to life.

She dies, and while she’s dead she goes to this…star…place thing.

Star place thing.

There’s an old woman who holds her. She gives Nina (OA/Prairie) a choice: she can die, and stay there, or go back and live. She warns Nina that living will be incredibly painful. She’ll know love, but it will hurt. Nina chooses to live, so the old woman takes her sight so she won’t have to see all the horrible things life holds in store for her. Nice.

Cut to the opening credits.

They were amazing.

Episode 2: New Colossus

Episode 2 picks up pretty much where 1 left off. OA is still telling her story.

After the accident, her father has to go into hiding from the mob. He sends Nina to the US to a boarding school for the blind. He’s sending her maternal aunt money for Nina’s tuition and upkeep, and the aunt visits her every now and then. Every Sunday Nina and her father talk on the phone, and Nina plays her violin for him.

Later she’s called to the headmistress’ office. Her aunt is there, and she tells her that her father has been killed in an accident. Nina doesn’t believe it: she insists he’s in hiding, not dead, but since the money’s gone, the aunt has no choice but to take her home. And what a home. Her aunt runs a baby smuggling ring out of her house, and Nina is basically left to her own devices. No one is equipped to care for a blind child, and her only company is the babies.

One day Nancy and Abel show up, looking to buy a baby. The aunt has an adorable little nipper all lined up for them, but when Nancy goes up to use the bathroom she sees Nina.

Poor thing.

She tells the aunt this is the child they want. Abel is unsure, but after a few moments he agrees. They say they’ll change her name and erase her old identity. Nancy tells her she has eyes “as blue as the prairie sky,” and decides that they’ll call her Prairie.

The next few scenes are adorable: Nancy and Abel take her home and clearly love her to pieces. Abel teaches her to climb a tree. Nancy reads with her. Then one night Nancy wakes up and Abel is filming Prairie as she runs around her room, muttering in Russian. She’s sound asleep. Nancy wakes her when she pulls out a knife, and they take her to a doctor.

Literally THE WORST fucking child psychologist on the goddamn planet. He tells them that Prairie is borderline psychotic because she believes she’s the daughter of a Russian miner who’s wanted by the Russian mafia. She has dreams about it and believes the dreams are real, so of course the only solution is to drug this child into gorked-out oblivion.

Look, I know her stories sounded incredible, but like couldn’t Nancy and Abel have checked with the aunt to find out some of her history? Then they would’ve learned that at least part of it was true, and that their daughter wasn’t on the verge of a psychotic break. But no. They just trust Mr. Pharmaceuticals and pump her full of drugs for the next 10 or so years.

She keeps dreaming, though. She dreams of meeting her father at the Statue of Liberty, so on her 21st birthday she runs away to wait for him there. But he doesn’t show.

It’s about dawn irl, so the story wraps up for the night. OA goes home, where her parents are upset with her for sneaking out. Her mother forbids her from going again, but her father compromises: he says if she goes to see the therapist the FBI recommended, she can go out for an hour every night. She agrees.

We see Alfonso (whom everyone calls French) getting his younger siblings ready for school. He stops to snort something before he leaves the house, and after that he’s upbeat Mr. Chipper.

At school his coach calls him into a meeting and he finds out he won a scholarship that will give him a free ride to any state school in Michigan. Wow. Seriously.

The scholarship has a morality clause, so he knows he can’t go back to the house. Steve deals drugs out of there, and if he’s caught, he loses his scholarship and his chance at college. French’s mom sends him to get milk (at CostCo) and while there he runs into Buck.

They’re so cute. (suppai-desu)

Buck congratulates him on the scholarship and mentions the morality clause. At first French is like, “Yeah no I’m not going back it’s all crazy anyway,” but then at the last minute he changes his mind. He gives Buck a ride, and when they get to the house, Buck tells Steve no more drugs. French can’t get in trouble like that.

Steve agrees, but he says it means Buck will lose access to his T, too. Which is shitty. He could still sell to him on the DL or something. He’s trying, but Steve is still an asshole.

OA launches back into her story. She still believes her father is out there looking for her, so she goes to the subway and starts to play her violin. He always told her he could find her in a crowd of a thousand violins if he could hear just one note. It doesn’t occur to her, in her innocence, that someone else might hear her too.

Maybe not a great plan.

Jason Isaacs is getting off a train when he hears her playing. He runs through all this subway stuff to find her, but he freaks her out by being over-eager. Finally he asks her if she’s had a NDE. She doesn’t know what that is. “A near-death experience,” he says.

Holy Moses of course she has! She drowned when she was a kid, and she’s been blind ever since.

He takes her to dinner and he’s very solicitous. He’s a doctor, but he no longer practices. He tells her he’s trying to discover what happens during an NDE. He wants to know where the person goes, because he fully believes they do go somewhere.

They talk for a while, and he eventually shows her a machine he’s invented that can detect individual heartbeats. She’s completely charmed by it. It allows her to give people an individuality that she normally can’t, without being able to see them.

Look, okay, despite the rocky start, you really aren’t getting creep vibes at this point.

He tells her he has to leave, and as he goes she calls him back. She asks him to study her and her NDE, so they head off in his prop plane.

At his place things start to get a lil creepy. The shots stay very tight on OA’s face, and not being able to see the rest of the house gave me the heebs. She asks to call her parents (who at this point have registered her as a missing person and are losing their minds), but when she does she gets no answer. Hard to believe, considering.

He tells her he has a room for her down in the basement, and she follows him down there. He leads her to a room, and she’s sitting on a cot when he locks her in. Oops. It’s a plexiglass cage, and now she’s his prisoner.

Agh.

Uh I’m PRETTY sure that was the end of the episode, but either way I think I’ve gone on long enough.

Review

I really really like this show. I’ve stopped watching at episode 4 so I wouldn’t lose track of what was happening, and I can’t wait to dive back in. The cinematography is fantastic, and I love the cast. Apparently some of the later episodes have more info about the group, and I’m excited.

One thing: why are there no Black people on this show? Like, the group is diverse, with an Asian transboy and an older fat woman, and French who is non-white (the scholarship guy kept making reference to him being Latino, but judging by his/his mother’s reaction, he’s definitely not). So that’s great, and I love that Buck is played by an actual trans actor, but why are there no Black people in this version of Michigan? Are they just like “this white girl is crazy no WAY are we going to her weird little slumber party”? Honestly I can’t blame them for that.

This is a show that enjoys its mystery. Maybe a little TOO much. Everything is dream-like and floaty, and it’s not certain you can trust anything OA says. At this point I feel like you can, but there’s no way to know for sure. Jesse and Steve did some Googling and found info about the bus crash in Russia, so at least maybe that part’s true. Of course, the ease of their search makes you wonder why NANCY AND ABEL DIDN’T DO THAT rather than drug her to pieces.

There are plot holes, though so far the biggest one has been in episode 3 (wait for it). But still. I’m excited, despite its imperfections, and overall I found the first few episodes mesmerizing. It moves sloooowwwwlllyy, savoring each semi-reveal, plot point, and character moment. Put your phone on silent, put your laptop away (unless uh that’s how you watch Netflix), turn up the volume, and enjoy.


Images curtesy of Netflix

Author

  • Meg

    Meg has a lot of ~issues. They keep her very busy. Yes, she has read the book(s).

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