“Most important thing we do here is the work. Collect the data. We’re gonna change the world.”
—Hap, Angel Hunter
“Hard work, like long hours at the office, doesn’t matter as much to us. We care about great work.”
—Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO
The OA was a show that aired on Netflix for two seasons before being summarily axed. It was about death, love, transformation, redemption and alternate realities, and it attracted a dedicated following that believed passionately it was witnessing something great…
The OA revolves around a character called Prairie Johnson who reappears after having been missing for seven years. Blind when she disappeared she returns with her sight restored. She refuses to explain her disappearance and refers to herself as ‘The OA’ (“Original Angel”). She quickly enlists the help of five local people with whom she shares her story before asking their help in saving other missing people, by opening a door to another dimension.
And that’s the straightforward part.
The OA is never an easy ride… There are stories within stories, extensive wordplay and a feast of literary reference and visual metaphor to chew on, which makes it a rather rich experience. In all honesty, and rather cynically, I expected less from Netflix and maybe they did too…
So what’s it all about..?
TRUST THE UNKNOWN
“Trust The Unknown” reads the show poster but it becomes clear, quite early on, that this ‘unknown’ is multiple, but might refer, in the first instance, to the show’s genre.
Categorisation is useful, it gives the viewer an idea of what to expect, allows some mental preparation for the viewing experience to come, but it also allows Netflix to place the show alongside a clutch of others you might have an interest in watching.
We’ve emerged into an online subscription-driven economy and momentum is a key factor in subscription extension. The strength, and (fatal) flaw, of this show is that it moves across genres, categories and easy naming conventions. I might say it transcends genre altogether but that would be wrong because The OA doesn’t so much rise above, as stretch definitions from within. The point is, from the very start we have something that (deliberately, or otherwise) refuses the tidy pigeonholing Netflix requires of its shows.
There are elements of science fiction, supernatural fantasy, mystery drama, teen rite-of-passage, metaphysical thriller and old-fashioned romance. A wealth of diverse perspectives but not used for their own sake, like some exercise in box-ticking, of the kind that ‘progressive’ TV indulges in these days, but applied with focused deliberateness, the way a painter might use colour and form to illustrate depth.
Elements combine, detach and recombine to become ‘a living riddle inside the body’ of the show. My interest is piqued on several levels, not least because this kind of undecidability challenges the modern drive to make sense of chaos with straight lines, names and borders. This is not to deny that borders exist, it’s to suggest that differences are multiple and mutable, and mutuality is often to be found on unexpected points of the life curve (or its beyond).
THE ART OF TRUTH AND LIE
“I need help. I need to cross a border that’s hard to define. Maybe you know what I’m talking about, or you don’t, but, you feel it…”
When Prairie uses YouTube to make her request for help she’s diving head first into that increasingly murky place where screen life ends and real life begins. YouTube was always at the vanguard of cultural fakery, so there’s no better place to begin a journey into modern mythmaking.
The writers, Brit Marling (who plays Prairie) and Zal Batmanglij (who also directs), have collaborative form in this area, (Sound Of My Voice, 2011 and The East, 2013). And Marling’s Another Earth (2011), co-written with Mike Cahill, also focuses on the malleability of time and space, truth and identity.
‘Knowledge is a rumour until it lives in the body’ quotes Prairie early on so you know there’s real flesh at stake here, not just its idea, and this is some kind of a challenge. Death is the ultimate border crossing and it lives at the centre of the show, but like some never-ending Orphic descent, it’s a blind spot that we can only ‘see’ by our (and her captor’s) failure to see… which, initially, is her failure to cross. Hap ‘kills’ his captives over and over in order to examine their NDE (near death experience) in scenes rendered almost comic. This ‘cheapening’ of death mirrors what we can see online if we care to search, terror rendered mundane to the point of being unbelievable just before it’s used to fuel agendas we’d label psychotic in any other environment.
You see, Marling and Batmanglij are playful but they are not playing…
Their self-aware script constantly leaves the page and morphs into ‘real life’, echoed in the final scenes of season two when the actual names of the actors are used in parallel with fictional counterparts. Marling and Batmanglij surely know what will happen… The Netflix business model is never going to allow for the kind of cryptic self-questioning that unravels its own ‘target audience’, even theoretically, which all suggests that this is how we should read the show; a collection of carefully orchestrated plot devices that in a different epoch may have been labelled ‘postmodern’, except we’ve moved on from that hackneyed term and arrived in our very own ‘post-truth’ version of reality.
Deep fakes, algorithmic surveillance, targeted misinformation… these are strange times for anyone with feet in the before and after of cyberspace.
‘There is no line between good and evil only what a man can stand.’ Says Hap’s former mentor and fellow sociopath, Leon, in a hospital morgue just before Hap murders him in self-defence. Perhaps Leon should be read as Hap’s (even) darker side, the data-driven part, uncut algorithmic psychopathy…
But Hap in some ways is the foil, the (in)human face of a narrative that urges its players into the itinerant selves they become. He’s the devil in the detail, the obsessive alchemist, the necessary dark to their light, and this isn’t a simple tale of good versus evil. Hap is the ‘mad scientist’ but he’s also the facilitator.
Marling and Batmanglij are careful not to make this a reworking of simplistic comic book heroism, where good ultimately triumphs over evil — the only result of which would be more ‘merch’ and a host of bastard replica shows fitting neatly into the Netflix categorisation machine. This is not Marvel, thankfully, but more akin to something Lynchian in its exploration of the liminal spaces between universes.
The script mirrors an outer world that is slowly erasing its long-standing truths, driven by an ever-strange mix of technology and magical thinking. But unlike Kurt Anderson who, in ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire’, seeks a recommitment to some kind of cultural empiricism, they push deeper into the territory of magic and myth.
They signpost the dangers of cultism but refuse judgement. After all, what’s extreme magical thinking but a frenzied echo of modern marketing turned dark, a ‘brand story’ gone rogue..?
The writers know that embedded as we are in our times we all to varying degrees, allow ‘magic’ into our thinking. They’re seeking nothing less than an escape into reality, broken mirror and all, and like any art that threatens to be serious, theirs lives at the boundary of truth and lie.
Borders abound, boundaries melt and reform: friend/enemy, reality/fantasy, waking/dreaming, life/death… nothing is necessarily what it seems but crucially they don’t quite descend into that most common of modern mythologies, conspiracy. Conspiracy theory renders its adherents powerless, they become (almost willing) victims of a meta-narrative beyond their control. The OA on the other hand is seeking empowerment through creativity, and the writers use a host of tropes to explore this territory. One of those is the fairy tale, which allows them plenty of fantasy wriggle room.
I’m constantly put in mind of Angela Carter’s reworking of familiar stories to re-ignite mysteries rendered docile by centuries of sugar-coating. Death, and transformation become stories we can own rather than feel threatened by. In using a ‘device’ in plain sight, the script is also deconstructing that device, forcing us to see ourselves being worked on. Their truth is placed firmly ‘under erasure’, their ‘mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms’ (Nietzsche) operate in plain sight: their ‘lies’ are transparent…
This is opposite to almost all forms of mass communication, mainstream or otherwise. The modern internet is riddled with agendas masquerading as information but is this not simply echoing the long-standing traditions of a cultural and political ‘elite’ that’s practiced various forms of deceit for decades..? This is a key theme in any reading of the show: sight and an ability to grasp, and navigate, a landscape becoming ever more nebulous…
Prairie’s initial blindness echoes our inability to see ‘truth’ until she awakes inside the ‘fairy tale’ that becomes a TV show… inside a TV show (us watching Hap watch his prisoners). In plain sight Prairie and Homer fall in love, but there’s a (transparent) wall between them. Everything is visible, love blossoms in full view and yet its flowering remains hidden… from all parties.
The show reinstates the unknown, not as a commodity (something to be revealed and traded) but as an absence that feels personal, a mystery that reinforces itself in its invisibility.
Consciousness expands into unknown space, creates time and recalls itself.
AN END IS NIGH
“The clash between science and religion has not shown that religion is false and science is true. It has shown that all systems of definition are relative to various purposes, and that none of them actually ‘grasp’ reality”
—Alan Watts, The Wisdom Of Insecurity
Combining, as it does, the realms of emotion and practical necessity, consumerism has slipped quietly into the gap between science and religion. We live an increasingly marketed existence, named and boxed by category systems.
The modern fetish for identity is working hand in glove with the likes of Facebook, Netflix and Amazon to target our desires, fears and neuroses, displaying versions our selves to ourselves in handheld mirrors disguised as phones.
Ads, products, TV shows are crafted to meet our apparent needs while clothing a great unknown that lives in our hearts — targeted narcissism is reframed as ‘freedom of choice’… Such are the shenanigans of the Silicon Valley marketers who would steal our mystery and sell it back to us.
The OA paints a portrait of death by delineating an absence it refuses to show…. A place where there are no names, no data, no Netflix and no subscriptions.
Or this is all a story I’m recounting in a loft somewhere to anyone who’ll listen…
If the writers are pushing Netflix to see how far they can go, the psychic octopus is surely a shove too far, but it goes to show they are not averse to humour or perhaps, and in the best abstract expressionist tradition, they’re making it up as they go along… which I thoroughly applaud. In this reading the ‘holes’ in the story become more important than where the story is headed, and a premature end is not really an end.
If The OA is a ‘mystery’ that deepens from within then where there is no conclusion, there are no facts, and there is no data to be farmed. The multiverse may provide stops along the way but this is the kind of journey that asks for absolute trust in something unknown, possibly unknowable… and that would be called faith.
The materialist in Hap would never accept this, and neither would Netflix or their shareholders.
So of course they were going to kill the show but I’m pretty certain Marling and Batmanglij are not done.
Their critique of the image of death and its ownership, at times, renders them heirs to Andy Warhol, while their intelligent foray into the nature of consciousness and its productions in the internet age, feels so topical as to be burning a hole in my screen.
In one sense the premature death of The OA was necessary in order for it to pass into folklore, to become in some cultish way, ‘real’ — Marling and Batmanglij must accept some of the credit/blame for this. But as ‘accessories after the fact’ Netflix have shown their hand and decided that either they are so tied to their algorithm as to have become its slave, a whole other conspiracy, or ‘great work’, after all, is not their thing.