The OA asks questions we can’t hope to answer, but that’s what makes it great
Few scenes in television have had such a visceral effect on me as the one that drew Part I of The OA to a close. Part sci-fi parapsychological thriller, part portrait of suburban claustrophobia, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s first season told the story of Prairie Johnson who, having run away from home seven years earlier, returns changed. Finding friendship with a band of isolated teenagers and one of their timid teachers, BBA, she tells them her exceptional story – it’s one of abduction, forced Near Death Experiences, and the discovery of ‘the movements’, the knowledge of which allows multi-dimensional travel. She is not Prairie Johnson any longer, but the Original Angel. With her story, she brings the promise of something impossibly huge to people who feel choked by their smallness. Though their faith is tested, in the final moments of the last episode they perform the movements to save their classmates from a school shooter. Despite all the evidence against the OA’s story, BBA and the boys choose to believe.
They were right to. Part II introduces a new city, new characters, and a new dimension. In San Francisco, an elderly woman comes to private investigator Karim Washington to beg for his help; her granddaughter, Michelle, is missing. Here, Prairie Johnson is Nina Azarova, a glamorous Russian heiress. Waking up in hospital after a collapse, her Russian accent is gone, replaced by the soft American accent of the OA – the movements have allowed her to shift dimensions from Prairie’s body to Nina’s. Confused? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Where Part I invited us to lean out over the cliff edge to take a look, Part II grabs us by the hand and asks us to jump.
For some – if my Twitter timeline is anything to go by – it’s a leap of faith too far. Batmanglij and Marling have created worlds that look almost like our own, but with surrealist touches that often tread a razor-thin line between the sublime and the ridiculous. See: a dilapidated mansion on Knob Hill that turns out to be an enormous puzzle, a dream-harvesting factory, cosmoses held in tiny seeds, sentient trees and – perhaps most eyebrow raisingly – an enormous, telepathic octopus named Azrael aka the Biblical angel of Death. In both The OA’s world(s) and ours, engagement with the story requires iron-clad suspension of disbelief.
But doesn’t so much of engagement with our own world require the same? At the very top of the puzzle house on Knob Hill there’s a rose window. It looks innocuous enough from the outside, but to open the window from the inside is “to see the truth” of our existence. Not insignificantly, I watched Part II in the same week that the first ever photograph of a black hole was published online. Within the centre of a black hole is a gravitational singularity, a point at which density and gravity become infinite, where the laws of physics as we understand them cease to operate. We know there’s more, we just don’t know what. And if we could look into its abyss, would we be able – as many in The OA are not – to “stand to see what’s on the other side”?
It’s human nature to build mythologies, religions, systems of philosophy by which to try to get to grips with what we are, and not just why we’re here, but how. The fabric of The OA is woven from questions: Where is Michelle? Is this Homer the OA’s Homer, or is he decomposing in a field in a different dimension? Can BBA and the boys reach the OA? Will Dr Hap, vice-gripped by his need to understand the science of the multiverse, be able to construct a map of it? When each of them find what they’re looking for, the answer does not come to them in the way they had expected. In each case, the warp and the weft of their journeys are inextricably linked.
It’s this – the interconnectedness of the characters – that keeps me inhaling The OA’s hallucinogenic vapours when the questions become too big, and my brain begins to feel like its going to melt through my nose. The friendship and family are a soothing balm; a small but iron-strong constant amongst the whirling galaxies of the unknown. Despite the surrealism of so much of The OA, the bond between BBA, the boys, the OA, and the NDE survivors, and their unerring search to understand what it is that binds them, feels disarmingly real.