Published on January 31st, 2017 | by Geraldine Malone0
Spoilers abound! We look at one of the most divisive shows this year, The OA. Some love it, some hate it. Some are just confused.
Note: The following piece contains spoilers for The OA.
The week following the release of The OA I received a fluster of emails and messages that I had to watch it and it was right up my alley.
In a surprising turn for someone who works online, I was able to avoid most of the spoilers and finally found some time to binge watch the show with only one piece of lingering advice: the end will be what makes it or breaks it for you.
For me though, it wasn’t just that final scene or the dragging plot, but the interpretive dancing that I just could not get past.
It started off well enough with a shaky cellphone video cutting in and out as a mother and child drive across a bridge. A whimsical looking woman cuts through traffic and runs over to the side of the bridge. She takes one longing look back right into the vehicle as a woman’s voice yells, “Don’t!” But when the plea goes unheard, the anonymous woman says, “Don’t look,” to the child inside as the woman drops off of the side of the bridge.
That’s how we meet protagonist Prairie Johnson, played by series co-creator Brit Marling.
Marling, an indie darling after co-writing and starring in Sound of My Voice and Another Earth, co-wrote the show with long-time collaborator Zal Batmanglij. The OA’s ambition certainly reflects their previous endeavors.
The viewer gets to know a little bit more about Johnson bit by bit as the character’s history is slowly peeled over the eight-episode arc.
At the start of the series you learn that Johnson, who is now 28, disappeared seven years before. What draws attention from neighbours, the community and the news, is that the soft spoken, ethereal Johnson was blind when she vanished and has returned with sight.
Why she isn’t X-files-style getting pulled into a study about how she regained her sight (I’m sure Matt Murdoch would be at least somewhat interested) is beyond the viewer’s grasp. But she’s hesitant to share the story of how the miraculous changed happened with anyone and everyone just seems to respect that.
She also won’t share how she acquired unusual scarring on her back. While it’s recommended that Johnson go into in-patient care, her well-meaning parents bring her home.
The strangest part, which doesn’t make sense for a very long time, is that Johnson insists on being called “The OA.”
Once home, Johnson’s parents, played by Borg queen Alice Krige and Walking Dead’s former farm grandpa Scott Wilson, do follow some of the suggestions given to them at the hospital and restrict the internet access in the house.
That’s the catalyst for our introduction into an unlikely friendship.
Johnson, desperate to record video messages to Homer (who we learn about later), calls in for help from local high school bad boy, Steve. For some reason Steve, who is a sometimes drug dealer out of a house that’s still being built and a sometimes parkour-er, has a dog that he can sick on people on command. Johnson earns his respect by getting attacked by the dog, then subduing it by biting it back.
After hooking up Johnson with secret access to the internet, Steve agrees to find four other people and meet our mystery lady in an abandoned house at night. She says the people need to be strong and for some reason need to leave their doors open at their homes when they come (if someone left my door open, I’d just close it without thinking).
This all sounds strange and mysterious right? I was intrigued. I was hooked. But, unfortunately, it wouldn’t last.
The people Steve assembles include high school buddies, each with their own teased but unexplored stories, and disenfranchised teacher Elizabeth “Betty” Broderick-Allen, who everyone will know as Phyllis from The Office or Sadness from Inside Out.
Throughout the series Johnson tells this group of ragtag friends how she lost her sight in a near death experience as a child in Russia. At some point, shrouded in more mystery, her birth father died and eventually she was adopted by a Borg queen and her farmer husband — the Johnsons.
When she got older, Johnson went searching for her father and instead ran into a super creepy guy who heard her playing music in the subway, named Dr. Hunter Aloysius Percy or, as everyone calls him, Hap.
Playing on the mad scientist trope (which means Lucius Malfoy actor Jason Isaacs is perfectly cast), Hap is obsessed with near death experiences (NDE) and kidnaps Johnson to perform experiments on her using a water-helmet-chair thingy.
It seems that the viewer, Johnson, Hap and maybe even the show creators are going into this whole confusing scenario blind (clearly a theme). Hap is determined to do the experiments having no real idea what he’s looking for but a nifty device that hears heart beats. The motivation is something about finding a multiverse of parallel realities, but it doesn’t express that successfully at all.
It’s not just Johnson he has kidnapped either. Somehow Hap has decided he needs to kidnap five people who have had NDEs and put them in a futuristic glass enclosure with a fancy river system and gas vents in the basement of his secret mine lair. That’s a lot to just believe and take in as a viewer, but I’m always down to try.
Finally during a Hap-induced NDE, Johnson meets her spirit guardian, Khatun, has a snack (which is important), and is told that Hap’s captives are angels and she is the “original angel,” thus OA. She also learns a dance move that’s going to help them escape, once they learn a sequence of moves.
The show then goes through all the captives having NDEs and eventually each gaining a dance move. Since an NDE side effect is amnesia, they also carve the movement on their bodies (explaining Johnson’s scars).
An immensely important plot point during what is a strange metaphor — for dance? Teamwork? Spirituality? I don’t really know — is that Johnson and fellow captive Homer begin to fall in love.
With Homer and Johnson’s dance moves combined they actually bring another captive back to life after Hap murders him. With all of the dance moves, Johnson says the group will escape, maybe by transcending space and time or heading to space (Hap heard the sounds of Jupiter’s rings during an NDE) or maybe teleporting. We don’t really know.
Unfortunately, the conniving weirdo with a tomato allergy, Hap, has been watching the group practice their interpretive dance for the seven years of captivity. So, when they do finally get the last dance move he grabs Johnson, leaves her on the side of the road and we are back to the beginning — the bridge jump.
While this story is unraveling, the viewer is learning as the group of high school students (and teacher) do. That group of characters’ stories also leave a lot to be wanted, for example, Steve’s parents send him off to a boot camp-style of school because he punched a glee kid in the throat. But teacher Betty intervenes by using the money she received after her addict brother died to literally buy Steve from the people taking him to the new school. He just shows up at school the next day and his parents don’t seem to care that the boot camp employees literally sold their son, that is a lawsuit guys! Call a lawyer.
The group meeting with Johnson in the abandoned house finally hear the whole story and agree to memorize the movements so Johnson can somehow save her friends who might still be captured by Hap. Or maybe meet her friends in space? Anyway, they agree to learn the interpretive dance routine without anyone really questioning anything about this scenario. That’s what’s really hard for the intense cynic watching the show. While a lot of science fictions asks the viewer to take leaps of faith they do it in a way that’s believable. These leaps have not been earned by the show and so they come off insincere.
Just like any dance recital, something has to go wrong. Some parents finally start to realize that their kids are hanging out with Johnson and they walk in just as she is ripping her shirt off. That’s when Johnson’s parents, mostly because they are embarrassed, step in. Finally, Johnson’s dance troupe also start questioning her story (which probably should have been a plot point throughout the season).
It looks like the dance will be delayed as everyone is disillusioned and Johnson chills with her dad on some grass. The students hang out in the school cafeteria, teacher Betty packs up her classroom (buying a student is frowned upon) and Johnson hops in for a quick shower.
This is where the show almost becomes offensive. This is the ending I was warned about before I even began.
While in the school’s cafeteria, a student with a gun enters. At the same time, Johnson has a vision and runs from her house as fast as she can. When teacher Betty hears the gun from her classroom she thinks of her dancing boys and runs to the cafeteria.
As the anonymous shooter wanders the cafeteria, Betty and her boys look at each other and know what can save the day — interpretive dance. As a Sigur Rós song plays they stand up and in unison start doing the weird dance Johnson taught them. I’ll give it to the actors, they are dedicated.
While the shooter is distracted by the absurd display, a school cafeteria worker tackles him down and a few shots are fired.
The dancers finish, the leaves blow and low and behold there is Johnson outside the window of the cafeteria. She’d been dancing with them, too, in the strangest flash mob in history.
Unfortunately, the stray bullets seemed to have found her (maybe the real theme here is closer to Final Destination).
With a gunshot to the chest, Johnson is loaded into an ambulance as she tells her dancers, “You did it. Don’t you see. I have the will. Can’t you feel it?”
Steve chases the ambulance as it drives away yelling, “OA! Take me with you.”
It’s literally ludicrous. As far as The OA is concerned interpretive dance can cure ALS, raise the dead, stop a school shooting, and travel dimensions.
To use a horrific real-life tragedy like a school shooting as a prop device with no real payoff is offensive and in poor taste as the children huddled terrified under tables are utterly ignored by the show. I stood up and actually said, “You have to be kidding me” during the scene.
What I will say though is that I’d rather spend hours watching original, beautifully filmed and expertly composed television that has an essential flaw instead of a heartless remake. Batmanglij and Marling certainly took a risk and although I personally feel it fell flat doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the effort. Maybe just leave out the school shootings and interpretive dance next time.