Note: This story contains major spoilers concerning the first season of Netflix’s The OA, as well as a few semi-unfair jokes about interpretive dance.
Though Netflix only premiered the sci-fi drama The OA a few weeks ago, the show quickly become one of the most divisive series of the year, earning reviews that ranged from Openly Admiring to Overwhelmingly Antagonistic. But even The OA‘s biggest fans were left a bit bewildered by its finale, one of the most contentious small-screen denouements in memory. WIRED’s own Brian Raftery and Peter Rubin–aka the Two Movements–dive in to this ambitious argument-starter of a show:
BRIAN RAFTERY: Well, Peter, it’s not hard to understand why some people were so miffed at this finale: I mean, who would believe Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) turning down an offer to do tour-merch for Death Cab for Cutie? Or Marissa (Mischa Barton) and Ryan (Ben McKenzie) running off to start a jewelry farm in Ojai? Did any of this make sense?
Oop, sorry! That’s the wrong O-show. We’re actually talking about The OA, which I (semi-cautiously) recommended when it debuted earlier this month. There’s a lot to admire about this series: Its brisk but malleable storytelling; its (usually) seamless merger between girl-gone-missing potboiler and new-age spiritual symposium; and its performances, particularly among the supporting cast. Creators Brit Marling and Zat Batmanglij may have gorged themselves a bit, story-wise, but during the show’s first seven episodes, I admired the way The OA was questioning the way we consume, and sometimes step into, other people’s stories; it made for a nifty, if not entirely subdued, metaphor for the way we consume television nowadays. And while the show could be humorless to the point of bloodless, it provided a lot of delicious, high-end B-movie thrills (the moments between Hap and his basement-dwelling prisoners reminded me of Jonathan Demme’s more-restrained-than-you-remember adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs).
But the ending of The OA left me feeling more than a little cheated. I know most of its detractors tend to focus on the episode’s final minutes, in which the OA (played by Marling) and her team of empowered followers use their dance movements to help thwart a school shooter. But the first “oof” moment for me was the discovery of several books in the OA’s room–including volumes on Russian oligarchs and near-death experiences–indicating that her entire story was strung together, Keyser Soze-style, from a series of highly creative lies. Not only was the scene clumsily handled from a storytelling perspective–Why would the OA be dumb enough to leave such easy-to-find clues under her bed? And who reads 500-page books and then puts them back in an Amazon box?–it changed, at least for me, the very tenor and mission of the show. What had been a somewhat open-ended, enjoyably out-of-body mystery–filled with compelling questions about death and rebirth, not to mention the effects of trauma–was suddenly yet another bit of ClueTube: A drama that throws out all sorts of deeply buried breadcrumbs and red herrings to stir up more speculation and second viewings, rather than being comfortable with being unsolvable. The OA started out as a show about conflicting realities, and ended up as a is-she-real-or-not? mystery, which I’m sure will fuel a gazillion blog posts, but which bummed me out, as I’d chosen to believe the OA’s story, and wasn’t looking for some big, clumsy “gotcha!” twist.
But what did you think? Did The OA‘s finale fizzle for you, or did it hit a Homer?
Peter Rubin: Damn, thanks for starting things off with a softball! In the scant day since I finally finished the show–and got over my disappointment that the show wasn’t actually a Bojack Horseman-style roman a clef about Tony Danza–I’ve cycled through the sine wave of appreciation more times than I can count. Every time I think I’ll never get out of the low point of French discovering the literary usual suspects under Prairie’s bed (count me among the many people who do not love Soze), I think about some of the show’s defter touches, and my memory turns fond again. The thing is, all of those moments are invariably rooted in emotion rather than the show’s is-she-or-isn’t-she standing OA-tion: mom Nancy (Alice Krige)’s Olive Garden breakdown the ensuing tension between her and Abel; Rachel’s haunting song in Hap’s prison; the way all five of the OA’s acolytes managed to blossom in their own rights. I absolutely agree that the Marling and Batmanglij’s desire for sleight of hand overwhelmed the story, especially in the last two episodes, but overall I think there’s plenty to recommend here.
But as long we’re talking about the finale, I want to call out two very specific moments from that infamous cafeteria sequence that at least seem to validate the OA’s story/the show’s cosmology (if not Hap’s insistence that she’s been hanging out in Saturn’s rings during her NDEs). One is just before the deus ex machinegun moment, when we’re busy watching our favorite disciples reverting to their pre-OA social circles. Jesse (Brendan Meyer) is admiring a girl at a nearby table, when the camera tightens on his friend; suddenly, the light and space around the kid seems to contort, as though the “invisible current” that The OA talked about is rushing by.
And the other is after we see the effect of the gunman’s bullet. Ignore Prairie’s too-saintly pose–man, between captive Scott’s super-Jesusy corpse and this I wanted Keenan Ivory Wayans to come through and scream “MESSAGE!”–and instead enjoy the five easy pieces created by the window crack.
FIVE, MAN. FIVE. OK, so maybe I’ve gone looking for Pepe Silvia, but I can’t believe that the OA’s tale is simply a shaggy-dog story, or a delusion that begins and ends with those Amazon books. (Then again, I also have an annoying tendency to trust narrators, which has led to heartbreak so many times you’d think I’d have learned from it by now.) Why else would she have searched for (and found!) that local-news footage of Homer in an early episode? So instead of asking you to defend the hamhanded cliffhangerness of the show’s brief final scene, Brian, I’ll kick it back with this: How did you feel about the OA’s premonition culminating in, of all things, a school shooting?
BR: The school-shooting scene did indeed disturb me–in good ways and bad. The OA is a show about youth in peril, whether it’s the young Russian kids plunging into the water, or the misunderstood teens who show up at the OA’s late-night Goosebumps sessions, or the slightly older specimens who are captured in Hap’s lab. According to the OA (and The OA), childhood, adolescence, and your early twenties are the periods in which we’re the most vulnerable, and during which we need the most protection. So it makes a certain amount of sense that the series would end with a gunman targeting a school, as such incidents have become extreme (and all-too-common) reminders of just how terrifyingly defenseless young people are nowadays. Hap may be a monster, the creators seemed to be saying, but just how monstrous does he look when compared to the everyday villains of our real world?
That’s a chilling point to make, and had the The OA‘s big climax been more carefully handled, it could have been a strong, if disquieting, notion with which to close the story. But if you’re going to drop a doozy like that as your final reveal, it needs to feel not only earnest, but earned–and to me, the shooting scene felt less like a logical conclusion to the previous installments, and more like a left-field shock tactic (and yep–I’m aware that some very smart writers have dug up a few early-episode clues that they claim help justify the big cafeteria showdown, but I think they’re being way too charitable: Crafting a cogent story is a burden that should fall to the creators, not to the audience). I think Marling and Batmanglij’s grasp extended their reach here–that’s the Movement in which you stretch your arms out and grasp for straws–and in the end, I wasn’t convinced that the shooting was a narrative necessity, as we already had a satisfying baddie in Hap. And the scene itself, with its swelling music and awkwardly out-of-frame gunman, had a self-defeating self-seriousness (it certainly didn’t help that the cook who captures the gunman reminded me of Gene from Wet Hot American Summer).
So what did you think of the finale? And was it enough to make you pause before recommending The OA to your better angels?
PR: Here’s the part where I really didn’t have a problem with the gunman–at least in a was-this-tasteful-or-not way. Narratively, on the other hand, it’s the worst kind of Hail Mary a writer can throw. Like you say, it simply wasn’t an earned scenario, and instead seemed like a slapdash solution to a) reunite the five kids and b) make us forget about the show’s lingering issues (Steve and French’s search to validate the OA’s story, Steve’s botched reform-school abduction), while still allowing for the doubt that would have been erased had Hap himself figured in the finale. Worse, though, the scene suffers from hitting Netflix less than two weeks after that “spot the troubled teen” PSA went viral–and makes the whole thing feel as derivative as the Amazon reveal, if unjustly so.
But while the shooting was by far the worst aspect of the finale, it was also immaterial to it in a lot of ways, and barely even registers when I think about the episode now. Similarly, I was a little surprised at the commentary pile-on that reduced the Movements to “lol interpretive dance.” Millennia of martial arts–including more than a few that mimic animals the way the captives do in The OA–are built on energy manipulation, metaphorical and otherwise. For me, it’s the show’s other failings that trouble me more. If the OA’s story was indeed bunk (or, hell, even if it wasn’t), why did the show follow Hap to Cuba or to NYC–especially that abandoned-hospital fiasco, which didn’t even share the Cuban adventure’s narrative function of bringing in a fifth captive? Why was Riz Ahmed’s FBI therapist counselor in the Johnsons’ house at night while they were at a hotel? Where was Eleven? OK, maybe not that last one. But still, while I have my gripes, they’re the kinds of gripes that are fun to grapple with (obviously, or else we wouldn’t be doing this right now). Those aren’t reasons to dissuade someone from watching, they’re reasons to encourage it–and then talk about it afterward.
But all of that makes me wonder about the self-consciously stealthy rollout that Netflix engaged in with this show. Why keep it such a mystery? And most importantly, Brian, is all of this–the surprise release, the perma-plausibly-deniable storytelling, the (mostly) no-name casting–the logical next step in the Stranger Things-ification of all-at-once streaming shows?
BR: I don’t know if The OA‘s roll-out would be easy to replicate, but I very much dug its semi-sneaky approach: Netflix kept mum about the show all year, only to release a none-too-illuminating trailer the week of its release–which came right after most TV critics had published their year-end lists, but before the holidays, therefore ensuring Maximum Bizbuzz (or MB, as we call it in the buzzbiz). It was more than a little show-offy, but at a time when even the most minute detail of every new show or movie is disseminated and analyzed before they make it to the screens, this series had the feel of a last-minute surprise, which was a rare treat in our increasingly pre-sold pop-culture. I don’t know if another network or show could get OA with it again. But I’d love to see them try.
PR: And let’s not forgot the King Kong move of dropping this the same day that Amazon released Season 2 of The Man in the High Castle! Classic Netflex. I agree that I loved the moxie, and I’d love to see TV take a page from the music industry’s non-surprise surprise model–as long as it’s not a second season of this particular surprise. Marling and Batmanglij have copped to wanting to continue the story, but as much as I enjoyed it, and as much slack as I’m willing to cut that finale, I think its last celestial door was exit-only.