THE OA: REBIRTH OF WONDER

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When the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote that he was waiting for a rebirth of wonder, he expressed in a few words a longing common to the 1950’s beat movement and to a truckload of sociologists and psychologists of that era. They—and the occasional Hitchcock and Welles film–were all responding to their experience of a very narrow, exclusionary understanding of normality prevalent in America. It idealized security, and practiced an austere brand of practical economic planning that patronized art as a frill rather than a necessary form of human expression. It was racist and sexist and excluded the entire range of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transsexual identities. Beats, psychologists, sociologists—and Hitchcock and Welles–alike struggled with the reductivism of a decade ruled by a savagely conformist form of patriarchy. “Wonder” among these Americans, and the millions who observed and read them stood as an umbrella term for liberation from the grey cloud of smothering, buttoned-down respectability. Then, at the end of the 1960’s, the rebirth came like a megawatt time bomb. And if release surged; so did a new and equally bewildering set of problems. The two-season Netflix series, The OA, created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij is an extraordinary meditation on the glory and turmoil of an America, still dealing with patriarchal conformism and “wonder shock.”

How should we understand the repressively conformist forces in our society and the responses to them? Many have offered explanations. One, which seems to have affected the creation of The OA (2006-2009), emerges from the theories of psychologist R. D. Laing, who postulated that the only sane response to an insane society is insanity. Laing has ventured the opinion that those who are leading the way past cookie cutter living are commonly misperceived as misfits, demonized as crazy by those suffering from the brain damage understood as normality, when the seeming oddballs are actually resisting impossible societal demands on the human nervous system. And that, to a degree, is the point of view in The OA, but in modified form. Its blend of sci-fi and fantasy uses the metaphor of a universe in which many dimensions are in operation simultaneously to enable a figurative discussion of the open mind and heart. In the several time/space dimensions it portrays, the same characters exist simultaneously in subtly but meaningfully altered personalities and circumstances. Thus, in the America we are introduced to in the first season of the series, although the normal make life impossible for those sensitive to greater possibilities than bourgeois life offers, the problems that ensue are endemic to only one possible time/space dimension among an infinite number of others in which other potentialities are available. This constitutes a message of hope, but it is issued with many qualifications. First and foremost, you have to be able to move across dimensions. And that takes a village—of people who initially have no idea who their natural allies are.

The necessary awakenings fall to the main character in the series, a girl who calls herself the OA (Brit Marling), but who is called Prairie by her parents, Nancy (Alice Krige) and Abel Johnson (Scott Wilson). Much of the story explores how Prairie discovers who she is and what amazing, sometimes troubling vistas are open to her. In the first season, she is bedeviled by a recognizable American time/space dimension that is more or less the country in which we now live in the second millennium. The idea of normality has progressed since what it was in the 1950’s toward some respect for the free imagination, and toward inclusion of a range of sexualities, races, and ethnicities, but the fictional world into which we enter still tags and isolates an important part of its citizens for abuse. The abuse takes the form of psychotropic medication used to “cure” people who can conceive of and experience a multiplicity of time dimensions and realities. Prairie survives “the cure,” persists, and rallies many others suffering from conventional constrictions.

Arguably, the audience is among those intended to be liberated by Prairie. The series immediately shocks our conventional expectations when it begins with what looks like her attempt at suicide and shocks them again when we discover that it wasn’t that at all. But to get to the second shock we need some backstory. The early, essential exposition is a lot to swallow, as it provokes many more questions than it answers. The Johnsons, who learn about Prairie’s “suicide” leap on television, have not see her in seven years and are thrilled to find her alive. (What happened?) They are her adopted parents who took her into their family when she was about seven years old and made every attempt to integrate her into the normal life of the subdivision in Michigan where they live. (Who is she by birth?) Soon we learn that before she was Prairie, she was Nina Azarova, the daughter of Roman Azarov (Nikolai Nikolaeff) a Russian Oligarch, a child who had already, unbeknownst to the Johnsons, traversed two time dimensions. Prairie, the OA, Nina. Three identities. And at the end of the second season, it looks like there is a fourth identity emerging that we have yet to learn about. But more of that later. Are you beginning to wonder?

Voilà the Laingian angle, plus something new. À la Laing, the boundless vistas of OA/Nina/Prairie, whom for simplicity I will call Prairie, are consistently threatened by the uncomprehending, constricted normal order of things, but also by Dr. Aloysius Hunter “Hap” Percy (Jason Isaacs), a scientist and exploitative predator who in his own way is also boundless. Hap understands all too well the enormous scope of Prairie’s intuitions and sensitivities and is limitless in his cruel determination to use her to probe for new information about the universe. The radiant positive wonder that is Prairie draws to herself a negative (patriarchal?) form of boundlessness, Hap. The pain of conventional limits imposed by conformists on the exceptional is old hat. The new wrinkle is the way the series forces us to confront another associated issue. The boundaries prototypical of bourgeois life have served not only as repressive limits on the boundless possibilities open to human beings, but also as protection against the boundless potential cruelty that surges once the floodgates are opened. Hap stands as a terrifying example of the consequences of approaching the full light of truth freed of the shackles–and protections–of traditions and conventions. Some kind of limit to limitlessness seems necessary if we are to lead good and gratifying lives. The mind boggles.

Prairie is a spectacularly incandescent heroine, endowed with a warm heart, a quick mind, an intuitive sense of beauty, and a natural capacity for leadership. Her authority does not partake of the patriarchal style of imposing an isolating form of order from the top down through methods of fear and intimidation. Rather Prairie mobilizes others through her faith in the energy of human connection. Embracing what binds us to each other comes as naturally to her as breathing. I will leave it to you to label that kind of leadership, but I can tell you that it is born out of her encounter with what lies beyond the seemingly definitive border between life and death.

That beyond is very much in play in the first season of The OA, when Prairie’s “suicide attempt” turns out to be a heroic struggle to join a group of people very dear to her who have gone to another time/space dimension. We learn about these transported people only after we are guided through the backstory of her life as a privileged child in Russia who died when she drowned with her classmates when their school bus plunges off a bridge and then returned to life through the offices of a strange female being called Khatun (Hiam Abass) who inhabits an ambiguous dark space between time dimensions, a black limbo filled with brilliant flecks of light. The price of her return is the loss of her sight, but that isn’t the end of Prairie’s trials. She pays and pays—and pays—as the series unfolds. Sent to America to an elite boarding school for the blind to keep her safe from the death threats being made at her father, Roman, and his family, her life takes a Dickensian turn after Roman is assassinated and, bereft of her fortune, Prairie is shuttled into the care of her aunt who handles black market adoptions in a brothel. When she is adopted by Nancy and Abel, her life appears to improve, and in some ways it does, except for the psychiatric medication that comes along with her newfound security and the love of concerned parents.

So, Prairie escapes from the debilitating love of a normal family. Alas it is into the frying pan. Refusing to believe her beloved biological father is really dead, she runs away to New York, where she is sure she will meet him, but instead she is discovered by Hap, who initially appears to offer the understanding she craves, but who imprisons her in a laboratory somewhere in the middle of nowhere as a subject of his cruel experiments that explore her ability to achieve time/space travel. It is an ordeal, but it is also ironically a blessing for it is in that lab that she meets the people who she is looking for at the beginning of Season 1, four other prisoners, who like herself, have crossed the boundaries between life and death. These include Homer Roberts (Emory cohen) a former college football star, Scott Brown (Will Brill) a very angry counter culture guy, Rachel (Sharon Van Etten), a quiet woman with a beautiful singing voice, and Renata (Paz Vega), a sexy, virtuoso Cuban musician. It is in Hap’s lab that she learns to think of herself as The OA, that is to say the Ordinary Angel, who inspires her fellow detainees to use their powers together in resistance to Hap.

Why is she no longer with them? Where are they? These are details of Prairie’s backstory that are slowly disclosed after she is reunited with Nancy and Abel in Michigan but not because she tells any of it to her parents or the police. Rather, she speaks to five strangers–four high school students, and one high school teacher, her new community of resistance. Like Elizabeth Warren, Prairie has a plan. She expects to train the five to help her to find her dimension crossing soulmates. Are you still wondering?

The Michigan Five have not died and returned. Rather, they all emotionally inhabit the margins of normal society. Petite, bright, sensitive Michelle Vu (Ian Alexander), who prefers to be called Buck, is a trans person transitioning from female to male to the discombobulation of his traditional Asian family. Steve Winchell (Patrick Gibson) is a violent, macho guy, with the austere beauty of a Roman soldier, brought up by an insensitive, simplistic, authoritarian father who inclines toward sending his son to a military type boot camp to be “whipped into shape” when Steve misbehaves. Jesse (Brendan Meyer) is a sweet natured, disaffected drug addict. Alfonso ‘French’ Sosa (Brandon Perea) is a handsome, disciplined,very high achieving, in the closet, first generation latino boy, whose immigrant mother is an unstable alcoholic whose mistreatment of French has placed him in danger of losing the college scholarship that will change him from a marginal striver to a successful insider. Betty Broderick-Allen is a disappointed, overweight, drab middle-aged teacher struggling to hang onto her colorless life. This series is as full of central characters as a 19th century Russian novel. But as in those novels the numbers serve a purpose. Life in The OA is about people banding together. Never mind the outsider status of the Michigan Five. From the perspective of The OA, they are potential heroes. Prairie is the secret to developing themselves fully. Prairie has become an emissary from the beyond of ordinary life to anyone who can be free enough to follow her. We are all potentially ordinary angels, though it is those on the margins of normality who are most able to break old repressions.

Banding together in Michigan is subversive and dangerous, but banding together in Hap’s laboratory is excruciatingly painful. Hap kills them each repeatedly, “more times than I can count,” as Prairie says, and cold bloodedly watches them come back to life. You heard that right. Hap inflicts death on his five captives who he knows will survive because they have already crossed the boundaries between life and death. It is nevertheless terrifying torment, and Hap mercilessly insists that sacrifice is necessary for progress. Talk about the possible dark side of rebirth and wonder! Hap justifies the inhumane conditions in which he keeps his detainees by the importance he ascribes to his plans to change the course of human history through his use of them. So he doesn’t flinch at their anguish when he feeds them animal pellets for food and renders them unconscious by gas when he wants to take one of them to the “dying chair.” They never see the light of day, only the semi-darkness of artificial light, rhey never breathe fresh air, and they never know human touch.

Ironically, Hap initially discovers nothing because the Rebirth Five don’t tell him that during some of the intervals between life and death caused by Hap’s experiments, each of them is granted knowledge of one of a series of physical moves that is part of a five-part language of transformation that can accomplish miracles, even bringing the dead back to life. Synchronizing that visceral language among them might also free them from Hap—if and when they can acquire all of the five movements. But because Hap watches and listens to them through surveillance equipment 24/7, they are in a race to gain the necessary knowledge before he does. Unfortunately, once the Rebirth Five complete the series of five moves, in the course of fascinating and horrifying events that you will need to watch the show to find out about, Hap steals their knowledge, abandons Prairie because of her constant challenges to him and her ability to influence his other “lab rats,” and takes the others to another dimension.

Prairie reveals all this to the Michigan Five in Season 1, for both selfish and altruistic reasons. She is teaching them that visceral language to help her to make the boundary crossing. They in turn, although they get into all kinds of trouble with authorities and family, know friendship and belonging—and yes, wonder–for the first time in their troubled lives and want to be a part of Prairie’s quest. So after Prairie makes the transition to a new dimension at the end of season one, they seek to join her. That is their quest in season 2, while Prairie, who finds a slightly altered version of Hap in the second dimension, is forced to deal with new ways Hap uses the power of the miraculous and wondrous toward in his boundless quest for knowledge.

Oh, yes, there is one other thing. I believe I have not yet mentioned love. It’s not simply a desire to rejoin all of the other four of Hap’s captives that motivates Prairie as a teacher. Though she is attached to each of the Rebirth Five, her most overwhelming attachment is to one in particular. During her seven years in her glass cell, Prairie and Homer Roberts fall in love with each other. The doggedness with which Prairie pursues her plan is to use the Michigan five to replicate the movements grows out of her determination to find her lost love, Homer, again.

Did I say I didn’t mention love? But, of course, I have implied it. Love is what the entire series is about, the love that grows up among the groups that form around Prairie. Love across time dimensions, across the divide between life and death is the subject of The OA, and what is so fascinating is the complex unusual role of positive and negative energy in the creation of these bonds. We are not given a polarity of love vs. death, or love vs. hate, or even male domination vs. female aspiration. They are all marbled together. For example, Hap both hates and loves Prairie and is one of the most formidable obstacles in the way of her union with Homer, whom he can’t help seeing as a competitor for her love. Fortune and misfortune? We can often not tell one from the other. Were it not for Prairie’s death as a little child in Russia, the loss of her beloved father, and Hap’s cruel obsessions she would not have been blind, would never have been the Ordinary Angel, she would not have met Homer, and she could not have affected the lives of so many around her. Once the boundaries that enclosed ordinary ideas about reality fall, all boundaries fall, for better and for worse. There are no sharp distinctions to be made, and very little clarity about human feelings and actions, because the complexity of human beings and the universe precludes sharp distinctions and clarity. Amen, sister.

The second season adds new colors to the complex melange. And a new location. The action now takes place in an alternate dimension San Francisco. Though many of characters return in the new season, there is an important new character, a black detective named Karim Washington (Kingsley Ben-Adir) who adds an important new thread to the OA universe. He becomes embroiled in a mystery about a strange abandoned Knob Hill mansion owned by the Nina Azarova of the second dimension that was in its design, created by a 19th century married couple; he was an engineer, she a medium. This collaboration between the mechanics of technology and the expansiveness of the free spirit yielded and architectural puzzle that opens a window (literally) on the truth. Neither Prairie nor her double, Nina, knows anything about the puzzle, but Nina’s boyfriend does, billionaire Pierre Ruskin (Vincent Kartheiser), another new character. Ruskin is a cynical robber baron of the world of cyber technology, bitcoin fortunes, and a crowd sourced labor pool. And he, like Hap, is willing to commit all kinds of legal and moral crimes in pursuit of the solution. As a result, many spectacular sights are available to the audience. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Nina/Prairie form a mind meld with a giant octopus in season two, as she searches for a way back to her beloved Homer, who in this second dimension, under Hap’s sway, doesn’t remember her until it is too late. Prairie and Homer will need to enter a new dimension to find each other all over again.

With the trans-dimensional consistency of the Prairie/Hap/Homer triangle, The OA nibbles at the Jungian archetype as a feature of dimensional existence, a theme that is still only in its incipient form in Season 2. Alas, it looks like this is a door that is never to be opened in future seasons. Why? There will be none. Five seasons were planned to tell this astonishing story. However, Netflix, in a catastrophic moment, cancelled The OA. Some reports confirm that as always in America follow the money if you want to know why something happens. Apparently, despite the understanding at Netflix that The OA is a remarkable achievement, despite raves from the critics, and devotion from a sizable audience, Netflix has decided that the series is not cost effective. Shame on them. SHAME. Whatever the reason, the Netflix folks are fools as well as cowards to abandon creators who are capable, as are Marling and Batmanglij, of infusing entertainment with vision. They have created a world so imaginatively rich, filled with characters so much more complex and interesting than we get with the usual series fare that they have, even in the truncated two season version of their show, expanded the horizons of the American media, and could have gone further.

Where? Well, in closing let’s say that the Jungian possibilities are not the only ones shut down by the regrettable Netflix decision. Among a number of the only partially developed threads is the fascinating gender issue raised by Betty Broderick-Allen, the frumpy fifty-ish school teacher who is a part of the Michigan five. And there is also the question of a startling third time/space dimension into which we enter briefly in the explosive series finale that would have taken the projected third season into virtually uncharted territory in the American series.

First Betty. In a series resplendent with genuine race and gender diversity, the most profound departure from the mass media norm is not the portrait of a cool, gutsy black detective, or an Asian trans teenager, a gay, aspiring latino teen, or even Prairie an empath with a spine of steel and a spirit of angel dust—well done though all of them are. It is the portrait of Betty. In the mind of America, soft spoken, repressed, unmarried, plump almost asexual Betty is typically the negligible woman, with little to contribute. She is like the furniture in American television and films, perhaps given a moment from time to time as a figure of pathos.

By cancelling The OA, Netflix abandoned the development of the ground breaking woman who is Betty, a reservoir of untapped quiet power and visionary potential, a kind of unlikely Great Mother who ultimately binds all the dimensions because she can feel across them. In the final scenes of the second season she links the different realms of time and space as she tells the Michigan teens what is happening to Prairie/Nina/OA in the room in which they are standing as it exists in the dimension to which she transited at the end of the first season. This is a startlingly original feminist move that salvages the maternal in wholly unforeseen way. Betty becomes a kind of fulcrum of a complex universe, taking on the mythological function of the Great Mother, who provides a unity of sorts among the discontinuities of the various dimensions. And she does it without becoming a clone of Mrs. Brady of “that” domestic bunch, or by becoming a cosmetically generated domestic goddess when she takes off her glasses and gets a glamour makeover. Where might Marling and Batmanglij have taken Betty if they had carried out their five year plan? I wish I knew.

And similarly, Netflix abandoned the potential for a dazzling and original proliferation of dimensional travels into a radically original reflexive place. Transcending the innovative dimensions of Seasons 1 and 2, at the end of the second season, there is an intimation of a till more mind bending layering of realities. The main characters, now a melange of the Rebirth Five and the Michigan Five, suddenly materialize along with Prairie and Hap in a third time/space dimension in which they are on a television soundstage in the middle of production. Prairie is lying on the studio floor, unconscious and badly injured, having fallen from a great height as she moved among dimensions. She may still be the OA, but it is doubtful that she is either Prairie or Nina. The man known previously known as Hap hovers anxiously around her as she is put into an ambulance, claiming to be her husband! And the name he gives the EMT is Jason Isaacs, the actual name of the actor who is playing Prairie’s antagonists. Would this new incarnation of the OA have revealed herself to be Brit Marling? And where would we have gone with this platform for reflexivity?

What, O what, wondrous delights would Marling and Batmanglij have made available in their third season in which they clearly intended to include among the dimensions the one that reveals as another aspect of reality the actors who are making The OA? If there are five people who will join with me performing the gyrations of the five transformative movements, please get in touch with me, so we can move into another dimension in which the series was not cancelled!

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