This review contains spoilers.
Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the third collaboration between the pair after 2013’s spy thriller The East and the 2011 psychological indie hit Sound of My Voice, The OA is an intriguing and brilliantly acted original Netflix show that’s let down by a frustrating lack of answers and an anti-climactic ending.
Plot-wise, there’s nothing else out there that’s quite like The OA. Batmanglij and Marling have managed to create an incredibly original and utterly compelling narrative that’s guaranteed to hook you in whether you like it or not.
Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) suddenly reappears after having been missing for the last seven years, miraculously now able to see where before she was completely blind and with her upper back covered in a pattern of strange scars.
Marling is fantastic in this lead role, giving a very intense and quietly charismatic performance which perfectly captures Prairie’s damaged yet mystical and strangely alluring nature. She’s a major reason as to why the show is able to work as well it does, managing to bring the extraordinary narrative to life in totally absorbing and captivating way.
Prairie won’t talk to the FBI or her concerned adopted parents (Scott Wilson and Alice Krige) about where she’s been or what happened to her, but instead chooses to relay her incredible story to a group of troubled local teenagers and their grieving teacher every night in an abandoned house on a nearby estate.
There’s damaged bully Steve (Patrick Gibson), orphaned Jesse (Brendan Meyer), stressed out over-achiever French (Brandon Perea), transgender Buck (Ian Alexander) and lonely teacher Mrs Allen (Phyllis Smith) who’s struggling to cope with the death of her twin brother.
Out of everybody, only really Gibson and Smith are given any real chance to shine and it’s a shame that nobody else is awarded this kind of deep character development. Gibson in particular is great in a role that could’ve easily veered into stereotype managing to make us feel real sympathy for such an angry character who’s dissatisfied with everything around him.
Through Prairie’s story, we discover she was imprisoned for all those years by a Doctor named Hunter Hap (Jason Isaacs) after he discovered that she survived through a near death experience (or NDE) as a child.
Hap is revealed to be completely obsessed with the phenomenon having also kidnapped former American football player Homer (Emory Cohen), drug addicted Scott (Will Brill), runaway Rachel (Sharon Van Etten) and Cuban singer Renata (Paz Vega) who’ve each also survived through an NDE.
Isaacs is truly chilling as Hap, exhibiting a cold detachment and a quiet menace as he’s shown to be a man so completely dedicated to his work that he’s willing to go to any length to achieve success.
There’s a huge divide in critical opinion over the ending of The OA (and the show in general) with some praising its thought-provoking and open-ended nature whilst others slam its absurdity and cheap attempt at injecting some real-life terror.
It’s certainly an ending that was unpredictable, just not in the genuinely exciting way of earlier episodes where you felt you a real sense of anticipation in waiting for Prairie’s story to unfold.
Instead, it just leaves you feeling flat and disappointed especially after having enjoyed such a well-made and intriguing build-up. Batmanglij was able to capture the perfect slow-burn pace for the show by slowly drip-feeding us information about Prairie’s past and create a tense yet oddly hopeful atmosphere as we (in a mirror of her group) become more enchanted with and engrossed in Prairie’s story after each new turn.
The more supernatural aspects of The OA are quite an interesting addition to the show and make for some seriously stunning cinematography, but are also a major reason as to why the ending was so anti-climactic.
The suggestion that Prairie may not be completely of this world and her visit to the godlike being Khatun (Hiam Abbass) during two of her many NDEs seem to hint at the existence of some other worldly higher power that’s chosen Prairie for a grand but unknown purpose.
But frustratingly, after being framed as being something quite significant these ideas are never really fully explored and it’s not explained as to why or how they fit into the larger narrative. Not every TV show should give us the answers straight away, for example smash hit robot thriller Westworld, but neither should it leave viewers feeling like everything’s been for nothing.
It’s easy to see why The OA has caused such a polarizing divide in opinion amongst both professional critics and Netflix viewers alike because when it’s good, it’s fantastic but when it’s bad it can feel like a real slog to get through.
Despite such a disappointing ending, there’s a lot to enjoy in The OA. It’s a smart, compelling and very original science fiction show with a brilliant lead performance from Brit Marling that Netflix should be applauded for taking such a risk on. Take the supernatural at face value and prepare to get lost in the hugely imaginative world that Marling and Batmanglij created.
The OA is available to stream on Netflix now.