Spoiler alert! This post goes into detail about the entire plot of the Netflix series The OA, including the ending!
Netflix recently debuted a very strange new TV series, The OA, and reaction to the show has been somewhat mixed, especially about the ending, which a lot of people find confusing or unsatisfying. I’ve heard people say it’s “ambiguous” and “there’s no there there.” People are comparing the show to TV disappointments like Twin Peaks and Lost. And, in fact, there have a whole bunch of shows recently about people getting in touch with some mystical secret, and I’ve mostly been disappointed in them all: The Whispers, Touch, Believe, and on and on.
But as for The OA, I loved it. And I completely disagree that the ending doesn’t hold together. Here’s my take:
A woman, Prairie, who has been missing for seven years suddenly returns to her family. But it’s like the world stopped moving when she left: her parents are shells of their former selves, and even the half-constructed houses in her old neighborhood are unfinished (due to the financial meltdown of 2007).
But Prairie, who was blind before, can see now.
Prairie won’t tell her parents (or the police) the details of her disappearance, or how she came to see — much to their frustration. At this point, everyone in the show is completely disconnected from each other — including the motley collection of neighbors and a teacher that Prairie comes in contact with.
But these four locals are strangely drawn to Prairie’s strange charisma, and they gather together in an abandoned house. Prairie starts to tell them her life story.
She explains how she once lived in Russia, with a father with whom she was very close. But she had a near-death experience, and a deity in the afterlife gave her the choice to return to life, taking her vision in the process (to “protect” her). Later, Prairie’s Russian father is killed, furthering her sense of isolation and disconnection with the world. Even Prairie ultimately being adopted by an American family didn’t change things, because they mostly medicated her, in order to make the strange, otherworldly aspects of her personality go away.
Then Prairie recounts exactly how she was kidnapped seven years earlier: she and four other people were kept captive in the basement of a crazy scientist who was researching life after death. They were all held in Plexiglas chambers where they could see each other, and talk, but never touch.
Eventually, out of frustration and desperation, the five prisoners begin to develop a strange dance-like ritual where it seems like, working together, they can even cure death.
Meanwhile, in the present, the four people fascinated by Prairie’s story begin to develop a strong sense of connection. They start to stand up for themselves in their own lives, and take responsibility for their actions.
In an effort to rescue her four friends still back trapped by the scientist, Prairie teaches her four friends the same dance ritual she and the others perfected in the Plexiglas cell.
And then comes the ending of the season. The four people listening to Prairie learn that she is, in fact, crazy. The story she tells? None of it happened. (Or did it? Is someone trying to stop her true story from getting out? That’s clearly the question for season two.)
Convinced she lied, the four listeners are devastated. Demoralized, their lives all fall apart again. They are angry with Prairie, and as disconnected from the rest of the world as ever — and even with each other. They might as well be behind Plexiglas themselves, completely cut off.
Meanwhile, Prairie still insists her story was real. But her connection with the others has been broken. Convinced she can no longer save her imprisoned friends, she starts to go genuinely crazy. All seems truly lost.
But then the four friends are at the high school when a random shooter (no doubt inspired by the soullessness of the surrounding town) starts to attack the school cafeteria.
They do. At the same time, Prairie, who is back home, senses something. Desperate for human connection, and sensing something happening, she runs for the school. She stops at the glass window, looking in at the cafeteria. But she’s still behind glass! She still can’t touch them — she can see the others, but she is still unable to touch them, or join them.
Meanwhile, the four friends continue their strange dance. They momentarily distract the shooter, enabling someone else to grab the gun. It works! The four friends, blind before, can see again.
But the gun goes off one time anyway — and the stray bullet penetrates the glass, finally breaking it, but ironically hitting Prairie in the process.
Did Prairie’s story really happen? Is she really someone who had an otherworldly experience, and is now in touch with some higher power — and can inspire that same power in others?
Ultimately, it is up to the viewer to decide (or perhaps all will be answered in season two).
My personal opinion is that, no, her story isn’t “real.” Homer and the other prisoners don’t exist — or at least there’s more to the story. The magical dance is just a dance. Prairie is an unreliable narrator.
(But if none of the story is real, how does Prairie regain her sight? Since it’s not entirely clear why she lost her sight in the first place, perhaps it was all psychosomatic.)
So in a sense, yes, I’ll concede there’s a certain ambiguity to this story. And those folks who regularly read my blog know that I absolutely prefer a story with some sense of resolution. If it’s ambiguous, there needs to be a reason for it. If there isn’t, it often seems to me like lazy storytelling — like the writer didn’t quite know how to end the story, or simply isn’t that interested in matters of plot.
I don’t think that’s what was going on here at all. I think the show was very very clear about the story they were telling.
They were just telling a story where the resolution doesn’t depend on what literally happened. In fact, that’s the whole point of the story: it doesn’t matter if Prairie’s story is “real” or not.
All the characters in this story are alone and disconnected: by Plexiglas windows, by vacant lots, by classrooms, by country borders, by conventional gender, by the lies husbands and wives tell each other, and even by the line between life and death.
One woman, Prairie, has an answer for this disconnectedness: this crazy story about her past she tells her friends. In the moment when the shooter is about to shoot the school, when they all take a leap of faith and believe in Prairie even though it is crazy, they are all connected in a way they’ve never been connected with anyone before.
And it works! The shooter is distracted and captured. Lives are saved.
Did Prairie’s story literally happen? Did their dance literally perform some kind of magic? Was it just a coincidence that the shooter was distracted at the last second?
Who cares?! The four friends were connected in a real way, and they were alive in a way they’d never been before. That’s all that matters. They were blind, but they made a leap of faith, and now they can finally see this truth.
Prairie really has learned the fundamental truth of the universe, of being alive: that connection is the most important thing. It is all that matters. And it’s always possible, no matter how disconnected things seem, if there’s another human being with you, and if you truly believe connection is possible.
This truth has nothing to do with religion, or magic, or a higher power of any kind. It is true whether it’s literally “true” or not. And this is what I most like about this show: its ending doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks or the existence of some fantastical “magic” (like, well, Stranger Things, and every other fantasy show ever). Its truth is true even in a world that might not have alternate dimensions, or mysticism, or psychic powers — in our world.
But having discovered the universe’s great secret, Prairie has still become “divine” — even if that’s only metaphorical. And a divine being can’t live long in this imperfect world. So, like Jesus and a zillion other Christ figures, she is sacrificed for her truth. (Or does she die? Remember, such figures sometimes resurrect as well.)
Obviously, a lot of people found this ending unsatisfying, but I found all this to be breathtakingly bold and audacious storytelling that successfully communicated an incredibly complex idea.
I can’t begrudge anyone their reaction: if they were frustrated, they were frustrated. Unreliable narrators are inherently frustrating. And I do get how it might be irritating for some people to be told a “true” a story, and then be told, “It isn’t true, but it doesn’t matter if it’s true!”
That said, I do reject the idea that the creators didn’t know exactly what they were doing. I truly don’t believe this was another Lost or Twin Peaks, with their ultimately muddled storytelling — where it was all so vague and confused that people could project any “answer” they wanted.
No, I’m in awe of the writing in The OA, and I look forward to seeing what the creators do next, whether it’s a second season, or something else entirely.