by: Art Rosch
In celebration of Netflix’s latest binge-worthy science fiction sensation, The OA…
In so-called “real life” there was a Harvard Professor of Psychiatry named Dr. John Mack (1929-2004). Dr. Mack specialized in near-death-experiences, encounters with aliens and exotic states of consciousness. His work stretches humanity’s perceptual boundaries, and in this way, what Dr. Mack was attempting to unearth affected us all, as there are many inquisitive minds out there who want to know just where it is we go (if we go) after we die. It’s the most fundamental of curiosities.
The Netflix series The OA (“Original Angel”?) walks the viewer through the same sort of mysterious landscapes that Dr. Mack delved into throughout his illustrious career. The show’s story is told through the eyes of a young woman named Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) who had vanished from her small hometown seven years ago. When she disappeared, she was blind, and when she returns it was as if nothing has ever happened. Curiously, one major change marks her return: her vision has been restored.
The OA tells the majority of its tale through flashbacks narrated by Prairie in the upstairs room of an abandoned model home. She has gathered a group of five cohorts who sit on the house’s bare wooden floors as she recites a staggering tale of abduction, near-death-experiences and extra-dimensional travel. Prairie recounts her horror from behind a circle of lit candles and her gathered audience are a mixed lot, although mostly adolescents. There’s a school bully, an aging teacher, and a witless slacker – ordinary people who are transfixed by the power that Prairie exudes, and the power of her story. They become her new family, her disciples, and they will follow her anywhere.
Showrunner Brit Marling and her colleague Zal Batmanglij have conjured up a new slant on the classic ghost story. One which begs the question, What do you think of when I use the word “spiritual”? In The OA, Prairie schools the five about “The Movements,” a mystical power that can cure the sick, resurrect the dead, and open a transdimensional portal, and in this way Marling and Batmanglij take viewers on a voyage across a psychedelic sea. The shows creators are not preaching, teaching, or hijacking your religion, they’re merely making entertaining television, producing a wonderfully weird series that pushes our boundaries of thought, and makes the viewer ponder the metaphysical.
The OA’s villain bears a physical resemblance to Harvard’s Professor Mack, a resemblance so keen in appearance and propensity that one could hardly call this a coincidence. Dr. Hap (Jason Isaacs), as he’s called in the show, is a ruthless scientist who’s obsessed with his research into NDE’s, or Near Death Experiences. He sees his quest as over-riding all moral concerns. He likens himself as the self-appointed revealer of that which hides behind Death. He believes he will change human history and he’s a megalomaniac. History has taught us that people with grandiose egos are dangerous, and Dr. Hap’s treacherous nature lurks beneath the surface initially. We are misled when Prairie Johnson first meets Dr. Hap as the viewer is charmed by his charisma, as is Prairie. This charm is a hallmark of grandiose egomaniacs and is simply one more weapon of manipulation in the doctor’s arsenal. Doctor Hap can be tender, generous and paternal, but he can turn into a monster when anything threatens The Work. It becomes apparent rather quickly that Dr. Hap is a monster, playing chicken with Death using other people’s’ lives.
When Prairie passes the divide between life and death, hovering in a mysterious ‘tween” world, she meets a spirit. It is this female entity, who speaks only Arabic and dresses like a belly dancer, who teaches Prairie The Movements. We are given to understand that these Movements form a choreography of transformation. They are magical and powerful. There’s a swimming movement of the hands, pantomimes of vomiting, nose picking, head knocking and eye popping. We never quite see the whole sequence until the climax of The OA, but The Movements are at the heart of this story and they are coveted by the evil Dr. Hap. He’s got spy cameras everywhere and once he gets onto the concept that The Movements are a source of power there begins a race between the Doctor and Prairie Johnson for first crack at putting them into action. The winner of this race may be able to control the door to the Other Dimensions, and the Realm Beyond Death.
Although the creators of The OA yearn for a second season, Season One ends with a sense of emotional resolution. It feels complete. The story’s over, the characters have achieved transformation or arrived at greater self knowledge. That’s all I ever ask of a book or film. If I’m left with a cliff-hanger I expect to be led to the sequel or the next season. I accept the risk of not knowing what happens next. That’s part of the deal. The OA hangs on no cliffs. It might have one foot dangling over a ditch, but that’s okay. It’s an acceptable compromise with the viewer.