On Friday, Netflix delivered their new surprise series, The OA, which was shrouded in mystery even after the announcement of its arrival. The natural immediate comparison was to their last sci-fi hit, Stranger Things, but it's a very different—and much better—show. (SPOILERS AHEAD.)
(Really, if you haven't watched this show yet, close this window, it will be much more enjoyable to take in without knowing any of this.)
(For real, remember when that jerk ruined The Sixth Sense for you? It would be like that.)
(No, she isn't dead the entire time.)
(Oh shit, maybe she is??)
The plot centers around Prairie, aka The OA, played brilliantly by Brit Marling. The first episode shows her returning home after a seven-year disappearance; once blind and now able to see, the immediate question—aside from, "Where was she all this time?"—is, "How can she see again?" Depending on what you believe, these questions are either answered, or never truly answered, by the end.
As the story unfolds, we get more stories, and it's unclear which parts are fact and which are fiction. Either way, what we're watching is a story of a small town cult; it's the story of near death experiences; it's the story of trauma; it's the story of obsession; it's the story of a mad man; it's the story of magic; it's the story of friendship; it's the story of multi-dimensional travel. There are so many stories in The OA, and this layered approach works beautifully... it also means there will be a lot theories, mystery, easter eggs, and mythologies to untangle.
Because of the blurred line between reality and fantasy that travels with you through this story, it's almost like watching two different shows simultaneously: the one where you take everything at face value, and then the one that unravels itself from that one, where you believe about 95% of this is not really happening. Since finishing the show, I have questioned my own theories on it, but at least means one thing is true: this is a goddamn good show.
The Small Town Cult Theory
In this one, Prairie really did go missing, was likely abused, and the impact of this trauma has severely affected her. This new group she meets up with in the unfinished house in town are all real, but they certainly aren't going to save anyone by performing five choreographed "movements." Instead, they have—likely out of necessity, given their own personal suffering and troubles—formed a self-help group that has quickly turned into a cult, where Prairie, The OA, is the leader.
The Trauma Theory
For me, it seemed pretty clear this is the story of Prairie's trauma, and while she may not have created the entire elaborate storyline with Dr. Hunter Hap, she created some parts of it (the five movements) as a form of protection while she was going through it all. And later, protection against her memories. We don't really know what Prairie went through during the seven years she was missing, but the girl who approaches her in the diner mentions rape and abuse, and it's very likely this was a part of it (even if the other elements of Dr. Hap's research were real). When a protective wall like that guarding yourself from trauma starts crumbling, things tend to spectacularly fall apart, and that's when we meet Prairie.
The Coma Theory
This theory came up immediately among those watching, and the most convincing take I've seen is this one from Reddit: When little Nina's school bus crashes she goes into a coma, and what we see is what's happening in her mind. There were two boys, two girls and Nina on the bus, making up a total of 5. The Redditor puts forth this theory, "What if Nina didn't die? I think she's in a coma after the accident. Her mind is creating an elaborate story, based on the tragic events of what happened in those few minutes, that she has to come to grips with and accept before waking up. Her NDE in the story are her fighting with her subconscious to wake up—'You have the choice, go with your Dad, or back to help the other 4.' Notice how in the experiments that the 'angel killer' is doing all involve drowning?" OR, what if she went into a coma when her father made her wade in the nearly frozen lake?
With this theory, there was a Russia, but no Dr. Hunter Hap, no Homer, no cult. But as a viewer, those things are all as real and believable as they are to Prairie.
The Main Character Was Dead The Whole Time Theory
I mean, we do see her jump off a bridge in the opening scene, but beyond that this theory doesn't work... unless you change it to the "Nearly Dead This Whole Time Theory," and what we're seeing is her NDE.
The Truth Theory
Okay, maybe it is all true? She does try to Google "Homer Roberts" right from the beginning, after all. And while at the end we see her books on Russia, NDEs, angels, and even Homer's Illiad, which could discredit her story... they are in an Amazon box. This means they were likely new, and maybe even planted. One redditor believes: "The OA is telling the truth. She was blind and she died several times. The movements are real. Throughout the whole season she gets closer to the FBI guy that's 'helping her' by listening to her story. When in fact he's working against her, with the FBI. Hence why he was at the family's house when they were at the hotel and why he planted those books for someone to find and discredit her." Presumably because there's some multi-dimensional travel cover up? Another redditor points out that Dr. Hap isn't the only researching NDEs, so there may be a greater (and perhaps government-funded) interest in this research. It's also possible "The FBI guy," Elias Rahim (played by Riz Ahmed), isn't FBI at all.
There will certainly be plenty more theories, and for that we recommend the OA subreddit.
By the end, no matter what you think, you've already watched a compelling and mystical drama unfold in front of you. Part of the reason the show succeeds is because of these layers of confusion and stacked worlds. And because the universe created is boundless, you are never in one place for too long, even when, geographically, you are. If you are feeling stagnant within an episode, the characters and their minds will successfully expand it... or a Jim Croce song will come on just at the right moment. (Music isn't overused throughout the eight episodes—whereas it was one of Stranger Things' crutches—but when it is used it is perfect and never overstays its welcome.)
One of the only real criticisms I've read is that the ending fell a little flat (Alan Sepinwall REALLY hated it), which I thought at first too, but the journey getting there was so fantastic and complex that maybe the ending was perfect? The more I sit with this show, the more I love it. The ending (if you follow the "everything was true" theory) also left it open for a second season, with Riz Ahmed's role perhaps becoming bigger as various parties try to dig deeper and discover what happens on the border of life and death. But maybe we should leave it as is.
The show was created by Marling and Zal Batmanglij, and Brad Pitt is listed as one of the Executive Producers. The cast is fairly large, featuring names like Riz Ahmed, Ian Alexander, Emory Cohen, Scott Wilson, Jason Isaacs, Phyllis Smith, and Sharon Van Etten (yes, the musician).