Tell Us, O Great Psychic Octopus!
It’s never quite clear who’s making the world of The OA. In the first season of the Netflix show, the plot hinges on whether Prairie Johnson (played by show creator and producer Brit Marling) is visionary or delusional. She spins a tale of how dying again and again in captivity restored her sight after she was blind from childhood. In telling that story to few damaged high-schoolers and their sad-sack teacher, she convinces them that she holds the key to inter-dimensional travel. Apparently vulnerable people will believe anything, because the show never quite explains why they’d care. Inter-dimensional travel sounds cool, so maybe that’s enough, especially if you’re a high school kid and want to escape your sucky life. And who wouldn’t immediately go along with anything a self-proclaimed Original Angel has to say? She’s blond, and has dreamy eyes and magnificent powers of locution. So what the heck?
The series starts off with some far-fetchedness. But the first season holds together fairly well regardless, in large part because the high-school characters meet Prairie’s—excuse me, The OA’s—mystical earnestness with their respective needs to be taken as they are. The tormented jock, the closeted gay guy, the transgender kid, the burnout: it’s The Breakfast Club 2016, except none of them get to be the misunderstood Molly Ringwald character because everybody has to be in love with The OA. There they are, all wounded and desperate and pathetic. They hang out and elbow each other, literally and figuratively. You’d think that they’d end up growing more mature and sensitive and kind together. Instead they become members of the Cult of Brit Marling, and generally treat each other like the afterthoughts they are.
It’s all well and good until somebody gets shot. After eight episodes of suffering through the undeserved hero-worship offered to The OA, you might be glad to see her be made the only casualty of a high-school shooting. Sad, sure, but it’d be a pretty good way to close off a series. There’s a guy with a rifle in the school cafeteria. A pack of oddballs make chakra yoga gestures to fend off his evil. Their classmates, who hate them, all survive. Their pretty cult leader dies. Curtain. Uncertain applause. End.
Good At the Stuff, Bad at the World
Alas, Netflix granted Marling a second season in which to ply her world-building skills, such as they are. Weird things happen, and some more people end up dead, but what becomes clear in The OA: Part II is that Marling is good at the stuff, but bad at the world. Part II (or, as anybody else would call it, the second season) dispenses immediately with the crux of Part I, and confirms that The OA’s insistence on the reality of alternate dimensions was right-on. The problem here is not that that’s the case. The problem is that nothing in the story of Part I makes it essential we end up here.
And by here, I mean San Francisco, a city in California, where the consciousness of Prairie/The OA suddenly inhabits the body of Nina Azarova, the person she would have been if her childhood had been different. Nothing in the first season has demanded that we accept The OA’s yarns about alternate dimensions as true, but here we are. Here, in the mythical City by the Bay, she never drowned in a school bus. An ambiguous Baba Yaga spirit-guide never brought her back to life. No one imprisoned her in a wacky conservatory and murdered her on schedule. Prairie experiences about ten minutes of disorientation as she gets used to Nina’s world, but after that, it’s all about figuring out who she has to manipulate to get what she wants.
She wrangles private detective Karim Washington into freeing her from her captors, chief among them mad scientist Hap, who in Part I killed her and her friends again and again in order to discover the secrets of (again, sigh) inter-dimensional travel. Karim is searching for a pre-transition version of Prairie’s friend Buck from the first dimension, who’s disappeared into a magical house because of an app. Is the house magical, or a portal between dimensions? Is it a narrative prop? Maybe.
Meanwhile, back in the States, nobody acts like a person. The kid with drug problems straps on heavy-duty transdermal fentanyl patches and annoys the rest of the kids from Dimension One by insisting on being dead. Their teacher, the non-angelic BBA, confounds even a stupid person’s notion of common sense by not calling their parents when they decide to cross several state lines in search of, ahem, a magic mirror, even after they’ve all recently been doing cult-member stuff together at the scene of a school shooting. (So BBA does not stand for Best Teacher Ever.) Also the closeted kid’s Tinder hookup hooks him up with his aunt, who’s a medium, and who hates magic mirrors. A dead person transverses dimensions! And so on.
The OA has its moments. It’s heartbreaking when the jock stands on the beach doing the weirdo dimension-travel movements long after we know his friend the burnout is dead. But that’s the only time we have a sense that there is any order to this universe, and that it doesn’t help. Maybe he can change things, but probably not. Why not? Who knows? Is the San Francisco of Nina one where it’s ordinary for octopi to communicate via touch? Do trees talk to everybody, or just to Nina? Why does Uber exists in every dimension? It’s just stuff that happens. So what. Amen.