Netflix's 'The OA' review: How an ill-fitting finale spoiled a nearly perfect series
There's something immediately captivating about being thrust into the middle of a story. Not knowing the beginning but having glimpses of something clearly out of place — something mystical and unknown — is tantalizing, and it's a style the Netflix original series The OA employs spectacularly.
After watching the entire series in a single night, I was amazed by the show, and then left utterly disappointed. The following is an in-depth review of the good, the bad and the catastrophe of the first season of The OA.
(Editor's note: The following contains virtually every spoiler for The OA.)
The first few episodes of The OA are transcendent, a true work of art that provides superb acting, dialogue and cinematography. The series opens with scenes of the hospitalization of a young woman, who we later discover to be the show's main protagonist, Prairie. Her injuries are a result of frantically running across several lanes of traffic and jumping off a bridge to the icy waters far below.
Prairie awakens after being unconscious for several days. We see patterned scarring across her back, and Prairie recoils sharply when the nurse tries to examine it. It's evident something is amiss, but it's only when her adoptive parents enter the frame do we discover Prairie was once was blind, but now can see.
Prairie was missing for seven years. When she first disappeared, she was blind and a loving albeit immature young woman. But when Prairie resurfaces, she not only has her sight but also a newfound wisdom that borders on the supernatural.
The OA tells two stories simultaneously — one that begins when Prairie returns home, and another that stretches all the way back to her childhood. We learn of Prairie's upbringing through her own eyes — she is literally telling the story to a group of five new friends who responded to her impromptu YouTube call for help. As the young daughter to a wealthy Russian businessman, Prairie enjoyed a life of luxury in her homeland of Russia. But she was plagued by lucid, recurring dreams of drowning so real she could almost touch them. We soon learn, however, they were not dreams at all, but a premonition of her inevitable near-death experience, or NDE.
An attack on Prairie's school bus sends her and her classmates careening off a bridge. The bus sinks deep into the water. Prairie pounds on the glass, crayons floating up beside her, and we realize this was her premonition. Prairie escapes the wreckage and swims toward the light, but her tiny lungs don't have enough air to sustain her life. She slips into the void of unconsciousness, a darkness that transforms into a cube of black space. Inside are swirling orbs of light — tiny galaxies that drift about like shifting stars in the night sky — and a woman who pulls Prairie from the water.
Prairie is offered two choices: Stay in this realm with the woman, or return home. She chooses the latter, and the woman sends Prairie back, but not before taking her eyesight in an effort to spare her from seeing the pain to come.
All the children in that bus died that day, including Prairie, but she still managed to find her way to back to life. In an effort to keep her safe, Prairie's father sends her to the United States, where she waits patiently until the day they will be reunited.
Time passes, and so does her father. Prairie is forced to live with her aunt, a harsh woman who has little patience for a blind girl. Ultimately, Prairie is sold to her adoptive parents, who cherish her just the way she is.
Prairie adapts to life in America, but the vivid dreams still come. She sees images of her Russian father — clues of where he might be — and on her 21st birthday, sets out to find him. She doesn't find her father, but falls directly into the clutches of Dr. Hunter Hap, a doctor who specializes in the study of NDEs.
Prairie is taken to a secluded, underground prison, where she lives out the next seven years of her life with five other captives — each of whom have also had a near-death experience. She forms a special bond with Homer, another captive who has remained kind and good despite his circumstance.
Throughout their captivity, the group learns their NDEs give them access to untold powers. Through revelations, they receive special movements that, when used together with perfect feeling, can heal and bring people back from the dead, and even open up portals to other dimensions.
The only one to free herself from imprisonment is Prairie, but she's not planning on staying home for long. She's recruited her five friends, and plans to teach them the angelic movements to open a dimensional portal and find her way back to her fellow captives to free them.
Everything we know of Prairie's story comes from her, a first-person narrative that lends itself to an emotionally connectable if not doubt-filled tale. About halfway through the series most of the mystery surrounding Prairie and her powers has unfurled, leaving the story to focus on both filling in the gaps of her past, while also developing the characters of the present.
Prairie's new group of followers each have their own plights — Steve is a troublemaker on the verge of being expelled from school, Buck, a transgender teen, struggles with identity, Elizabeth "Betty" is a teacher still reeling from the death of her twin brother, French just can't seem to live up to his mother's expectations and Jesse doesn't fit in. While it's not perfectly clear whether we're to accept Prairie's story of captivity and alleged newfound powers as reality or a byproduct of her potentially fractured mind, her quest has provided her new friends a sense of unity, purpose and desire to do good — none of which would have happened without her.
Though hesitant to believe Prairie at first, Buck, Betty, French, Jesse and even Steve's incredulousness eventually melts away. The group works diligently to learn the angelic movements, practicing each and every night in the solitude of the candlelit upper story of a local abandoned house. But they still can't conduct the movements with perfect feeling, and the dimensional portal remains closed.
Because The OA is told from Prairie's perspective, it's not clear whether her tale is one of fact or fiction. It can be known with a high degree of certainty she was indeed blind when she went missing seven years ago, and that she could see when she returned — this is corroborated by multiple characters, most notably Prairie's adoptive parents. But the details of her imprisonment, NDEs, the other captives and her angelic powers must be taken on faith.
Not once in The OA do we see any proof of Prairie's account, which would have been fine if the majority of the mystery had not been revealed less than halfway through the series. But since we learn most of the important supernatural details relatively quickly, it would have made more sense to focus either on the untold power Prairie possesses, or that she has suffered from a traumatic experience and is creating a fiction as a coping mechanism.
The show fails to address either of these points adequately, though there are a handful of scenes, both from her childhood and present day, where psychiatrists claim she has a mental health diagnoses.
Had The OA taken a clearer path in deciding Prairie was mentally ill, the show could have more deeply explored the consequences of traumatic experiences and the impact they have on the psyche. It could have delved into the complexity of the human mind and tackled some of the serious issues that befell Prairie, like how her adoptive parents medicated her from childhood, or how they failed to heed the doctor's warnings after she returned, potentially worsening her condition.
On the other hand, if The OA had definitively decided it was a supernatural thriller, it could have provided scenes which showcased the deep wells of power residing within Prairie. The OA did neither, taking a safe path down the middle of the road and leaving the unanswered questions entirely up to the viewer — which perhaps was exactly what the showrunners were going for.
The big reveal
As the series draws to a close, French discovers a trove of books hidden in an Amazon box beneath Prairie's bed: The Book of Angels, Homer's The Iliad, The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia and Encyclopedia of Near Death Experiences — all of which serve as perfect ammunition to create her compelling tale.
French shows the books to the rest of the group, who are devastated upon seeing the titles. They walk away, downtrodden and defeated, to resume their lives. But the story isn't over yet.
In the closing scene, French, Steve, Jesse and Buck sit in their school cafeteria, with Betty in a nearby hallway. A gunman approaches the cafeteria, unloading several rounds outside. The students scatter, scrambling to find shelter underneath the tables.
Prairie is at home and suddenly bolts upright. She senses the impending danger and races to the school.
As the gunman enters the cafeteria, French, Steve, Jesse, Buck and Betty exchange furtive glances before darting out from beneath their tables. They perform the angelic movements in unison and the gunman stands frozen in place, giving one of the school staff the perfect opportunity to sneak up on and disarm him.
The gunman fires as he's tackled to the ground, but only Prairie is shot, who was standing behind the glass just outside the cafeteria. She's whisked away in an ambulance with a gunshot wound to the chest. Her friends are distraught, but Prairie is at peace.
"You did it. Don't you see?" she says as the paramedics take her away. "I have the will. Can't you feel it?"
In essence, it was the school shooting which allowed Prairie and her friends to perform the angelic movements with perfect feeling, the key to opening the dimensional portal. But it's a disconnected plot point that feels lazy and gratuitous, meant only to shock the audience.
The story would have been much better served had the show come out as a clear supernatural thriller, making clear Prairie's account was real and true. Her friends could have faced Prairie's captor Dr. Hap, the plot could have easily led them back to his hideout where another harrowing situation could have served as the catalyst to performing the angelic movements with perfect feeling. Instead, we were left with a school shooting, which simply had no place in this narrative.
In the end, The OA was seriously tarnished with an ill-fitting finale, but it was still an overall fantastic first season well worth watching. The acting and character development were impeccable, and witnessing the friends come together was beautiful. Learning of Prairie's story, real or not, was utterly captivating and the first episode does an excellent job of capturing the audience's undivided attention.
The series is thought provoking, even if it doesn't answer some of the poignant questions it raises, and will leave you wanting more. If you're in the mood for a good Netflix binge, The OA will do the job.