US tv series (2016-current). Plan B Entertainment and Anonymous Content for Netflix. Created by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling. Directed by Zal Batmanglij. Written by Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling, Melanie Marnich, Dominic Orlando and Ruby Rae Spiegel. Cast includes Hiam Abbass, Riz Ahmed, Ian Alexander, Will Brill, Emory Cohen, Patrick Gibson, Jason Isaacs, Alice Krige, Brit Marling, Brendan Meyer, Nikolai Nikolaeff, Brandon Perea, Phyllis Smith, Zoey Todorovsky, Paz Vega and Scott Wilson. Eight episodes of between 31 and 71 minutes in its first season. Colour.
Previously-blind Prairie Johnson returns home seven years after her disappearance able to see and begins to recount a tale that calls everyone's Perception of reality into question.
Much of the reaction to this consciously-innovative attempt to disrupt the conventions of Television centred around the misattribution of the codes of Genre SF (in which the world can be explained) and Fantasy (in which it can be described) to what is in fact a work of Fabulation: the deeper one is drawn into the story of The OA – "The Original Angel" as she styles herself – the more difficult it is to decide which is the more unreliable, the narrator or the world she depicts. A story that continually undermines the plausibility of its own narrative runs a high risk of deflating an audience's expectations – and all the more so if it employs rules of genre that ordinarily solve themselves by explanation rather than by allegory. While some commentators applauded The OA's examination of storytelling as the means to define one's own Identity, others questioned its propensity to confuse fiction with obfuscation.
Blind teenager Prairie Johnson (Marling) disappears and then reappears seven years later, seemingly about to throw herself from a bridge. Adopted parents Abel Johnson (Wilson) and Nancy Johnson (Krige) are astonished to find that Prairie, blind since they adopted her as a young girl from Russia, can see and that she no longer answers to the name "Prairie"; Prairie, now calling herself "The OA", promises school bully Steve Winchell (Gibson) that she will save him from being sent to a boot camp for unruly teenagers if he brings "four strong people" to an abandoned house in their neighbourhood. (The Freudian formulation of a dilapidated home to connote an un-individuated self is one of many allusions to Psychology in The OA.) Steve co-opts three local boys: scholarship-hopeful Alfonso "French" Sosa (Perea), budding artist Jesse (Meyer) and Buck Vu (Alexander), who, like every other youngster in the story, is struggling for acceptance as he is; grieving teacher Betty Broderick-Allen (Smith) accompanies the three high-school students to their meeting with the Mysterious Stranger. The OA tells the four that she grew up as Nina Azarov (Todorovsky), the young daughter of a Russian oligarch (Nikolaeff). Azarov/Johnson/The OA experienced her first near-death experience (NDE) when her school bus was blown from a bridge by Russian mafia seeking to harm her father; she describes entering a starry antechamber between Dimensions where an interdimensional entity called Khatun (Abbass) blinds The OA to protect her from "the terrible things that are about to happen".
Already, during the first episode of The OA, one of the integral tethering points of Fantastika to a logic of sense – that events inside the fictive space should be read as literally happening – is disrupted. Transgression and Equipoise are put to fantastika's traditional purpose of subjecting the fixity of the world to "fruitful instability" but there is little ontological framework by which to direct The OA's system of Metaphysics: everything is diegesis and doubt. The fact the viewer does not know The OA's true origin story means that we cannot properly invest in The OA's narrative arc; unless perhaps it is to question the very basis of consensual narrative. A film like Guillermo Del Toro's El laberinto del fauno ["Pan's Labyrinth"] (2006) by contrast begins and ends its tale of a fallen princess oppressed by all-too-real forces in a Secondary World [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], making itself all the more concrete by turning its narrative full-circle. The OA's refusal to let its audience know where it stands complicates any attempt at interpretation, a decision accentuated by placing credit sequences at unusual junctures in episodes of unequal lengths, disjunctive pacing and switching between points-of-view and, most tellingly, by alternately supporting The OA's version of events and throwing them into doubt. We are not showing you the literal truth, the makers of The OA are saying, because a human being literally does not know where she comes from or why she is here.
A science fiction story – even one written by a fabulist – would not play the game in quite the same way. Russell Hoban's Fremder (1996) uses a fictionalized version of quantum Physics to assert a subjective understanding of reality:
"Centricity of event as perceived by a participant in the event is reciprocal with the observed universe: the universe configures the event and the event configures the universe. Each life is a sequence of event-universes, each sequence having equal reality subjectively and no reality objectively. Objective reality is not possible within the sequence, therefore subjective reality, regardless of consensus, is the only reality."
"What a lot of bollocks," responds a character in the story – but Hoban supports the implication of his thesis by knitting the apparently-subjective events of his narrative to the corporeal. Thematic links between angels, death and rebirth are illustrated with these lines from the first of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies (Duineser Elegien; coll 1923, English translation from Fremder):
Wer, wenn ich schriee, horte mich den aus de Engel
Who, were I to cry, would hear me out of the angelic
Ordnungen? und gesetzt sebst, es nahme
orders? and suppose even that one were to take
einer mich plotzich ans Herz: ich verging von seinem
me suddenly to his heart: I should perish through his
starkeren Dasein. Denn das Schone ist nichts als des
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but the
Schecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertagen,
beginning of terror, which we only barely endure,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmaht
and we admire it so, because it calmly disclaims
uns zu zerstoren. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
The OA does not so much renege on its promise to answer the questions it has raised – unlike, say, the series Lost (2004-2010) – as do so symbolically, but symbols require codes in order to convey meaning, as cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) says in Simulacres et Simulation (1981; trans Simulacra and Simulation 1984). It then becomes a question of whether or not The OA's system of allegory and theme – organized much along the lines of a Graphic Novel sequence such as The Sandman (1988-1996) by Neil Gaiman and asserted in place of a common reality that can be seen and told – does more or less than a narrative organized along the ordinarily-diegetic question so often asked by the SF Megatext: can a human being comprehend what is truly real? Gaiman sets much of his narrative at the border of dreams and reality, beneath the City or beyond the stars, but always as part of a collective unconscious. The OA (as its title suggests) relies on a single character's point of view and when the faith of the other characters in her version of events wavers so, perhaps, does that of the audience in the entire narrative endeavour.
When The OA tries and fails to reunite with her missing father on her twenty-first birthday, Scientist Dr Hunter Aloysius "Hap" Percy appears: he is the terror foretold by Khatun, one of many attempts by those around The OA to seize her narrative (whether seen or merely told) for their own ends. Hap lures Prairie/The OA to his home and locks her in a cave-like laboratory-basement with other people on whom he is conducting experiments: Homer (Cohen), Scott (Brill), Rachel (Van Etten) and, later on when Homer is enlisted to entrap her with Sex, flamenco guitarist Renata (Vega). Hap has identified his test-subjects by their facility with Music as able to return from near-death to provide him with data: abstract visual representations and soundscapes of other dimensions combined with recorded descriptions of what they see and feel. He drowns them over-and-over before bringing them back from the brink of death for further rounds of experimentation. (The sickness-torture-death-rebirth narrative cycle common to so much of science fiction Cinema – it appears in every film in the Star Wars sequence, for instance – plays a large part in The OA.) This goes on for years; or at least, it does according to The OA. She, like the imprisoned muse Cassiopeia in Gaiman's Sandman sequence, or indeed that in John Fowles's Mantissa (1982), is caged by her usefulness to someone else's narrative. And yet, there are as many incongruities and inconsistencies to the two strands of The OA's own narrative – we are seeing all of this retrospectively through her eyes – as there are similarities. How is she both here and there? Is she, as Baudrillard suggested of all human discourse since the advent of photography, a copy without an original? Are the four new devotees at the abandoned house non-computerized Avatars of those trapped in Hap's Prison or analogues of The OA's own repetitive solipsism? The OA assures her fellow captives that they can make good their escape by a system of "five movements" that open the barriers between the Parallel Worlds of the Multiverse. These movements – their register somewhere between the flow of yoga and the intensity of expressive dance – seem to heal Scott when he dies under Hap's increasingly-intense methods of research and subsequently rescue a dying woman from coma, but Steve, Alfonso, Buck and Betty (and therefore the audience) only really have The OA's word for this. The five friends use the five movements to interrupt the shooting at their school that ends the first series but by this time there is so little sense of what roots the imaginary to the real that The OA registers more as Absurdist SF rather than as fantastika.
Larger truths are symbolized rather than shown, bound together by emotional acuity rather than by fact. Characters are making recognizably-human mistakes born of the confusion of need and desire and the resulting inability to tell what is really going on. Some of the negativity about the apparently-random outcome of the first series – a second has been commissioned – was due to emotional investment in events whose veracity are not only persistently undermined but addressed in terms other than those first depicted. Alfonso sneaks into The OA's house in episode eight and finds a stash of books under her bed whose subjects include near-death experiences, Russian oligarchy and the Iliad by Homer. This appears to suggest that Prairie Johnson has been deluded (or perhaps duplicitous) all along and yet when Alfonso looks into a mirror he sees his reflection morph into that of Homer, complete with a similar scar on his forehead. Are they different versions of the same person from different dimensions? When he goes downstairs, he bumps into Prairie's counsellor Elias Rahim (Ahmed), who reassures Alfonso that he and the others from his school were there for Prairie when it mattered. But what is Rahim doing in Prairie's house so late at night? Did he plant the books? Is he part of the medical conspiracy (see Medicine) that surrounds The OA? Always more questions; or rather, the same two questions back and forth: What is real? What is human? An sf narrative might situate these questions in a clearly explicable world; fantasy might demonstrate them visually. Here they appear as symbol and allegory and can only be answered in terms of what Jean Baudrillard (see Postmodern Theory under Postmodernism and SF for more) called the "impossible exchange": now that there is no one true God in the West there is no longer one true world of meaning from which The OA to announce her truth: this may be the very reason she calls herself "The Original Angel". Read at the level of allegory, the codes of The OA are fairly simple: an absent father, an obsessive scientist, a murderous boy with a gun who will stop at nothing to be the centre of the narrative, all of whom reflect what Icelandic musician and sometime-actor Björk said about film: "Usually when you see females in movies, they feel like they have these metallic structures around them, they are caged by male energy." Bonds of narrative must be broken in order for Women in SF to be themselves. [MD]
see also: Jessica Jones; Sense8; Under the Skin.