The pair — who co-write their projects, in which Marling stars and which Batmanglij directs — excel at creating eerie scenarios that ask characters and viewers to confront what they believe and why. And for a while in “The OA,” they do the same thing.
The series follows Prairie Johnson (Marling), a blind violinist who has been missing for seven years and reappears when she’s caught on cellphone video jumping off a bridge. When she returns home to her parents, Nancy and Abel (Alice Krige and Scott Wilson), she’s somehow regained her sight. And she begins to gather a small group of high school students (Patrick Gibson, Brendan Meyer, Brandon Perea and Ian Alexander) and an algebra teacher (Phyllis Smith) to tell them a story. It begins with a near-death experience that took her sight in childhood and the loss of the Russian oligarch father she adored, and continues through her adoption by Nancy and Abel, the lies that Dr. Hunter Hap (a typically excellent Jason Isaacs) told her to lure her into the basement where he trapped her and a number of other young people, and the macabre experiments he did on them — killing and resurrecting them over and over again — in an attempt to document what comes after death.
In the midst of all the elements of modern dance, reinterpretations of 1990s pop and enigmatic images that are a hallmark of Marling and Batmanglij’s collaborations, “The OA” seems, for a time, like it’s joining a number of recent works that have challenged the narratives of swift and convenient recovery from trauma that are more wishful thinking for the people who deal with survivors of trauma than the realities of the survivors themselves.
Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room,” and the Academy Award-winning movie adaptation of it starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, found a new perspective by telling the story of Jack (Tremblay), a child born as the result of his kidnapped mother’s rape by her captor and who had never lived anywhere except their prison. “Room” celebrated Ma’s (Larson) resilience and never flinched in its depiction of what Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) had done to her. But it also suggested that the room that was a grim cell for Ma could also be Jack’s beloved home, and that after they were rescued, the process of acclimating to the life they should have lived would be long and hard — so hard that at times it seemed impossible. The swift recovery that would have been convenient for Ma’s parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), who want to be able to celebrate her return, is another burden for her to carry.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix sitcom about a woman (Ellie Kemper) who tries to start her life over in New York City after being rescued from an underground bunker, might have been candy-colored, just like Kimmy’s preferred clothing hues (to a certain extent, her taste froze at the age she was kidnapped). As she tried to navigate a huge city, Kimmy was scammed, confused and misunderstood, as well as embraced and, to a certain extent, exploited for glamorous proximity to her trauma. She could muster the cheer and enthusiasm that eluded Ma in “Room,” but the outward normalcy served as a shield that protected Kimmy both from the possibility that other people would discover her past and from the prospect of confronting her own most disturbing feelings.
Before veering off into its ludicrous conclusion, “The OA” sometimes seemed as if it was taking sharp aim at the sorts of stories people want survivors to tell.
In one scene, Prairie’s mother, Nancy (Krige), becomes hysterical about her silence about her experiences. She wants to know whether Prairie was raped, beaten, kept in a cage; she craves the pornographic details of her daughter’s suffering, though she believes she already knows what happens. The ugly fantasy of sexual violence that Nancy imagines is far more mundane than the tale Prairie’s been spinning. And when the students and teacher to whom Prairie’s been telling her story discover a series of books that lead them to wonder whether her fantastical narrative of captivity is a fabrication, they’re torn between doubt and a desire to hang on to the faith that gave them a strange little community.
By refusing to tell us what’s true, “The OA” turns our focus to what Nancy and Prairie’s followers want to believe happened to her, and why they might want it. For Nancy, imagining that Prairie was raped and confined gives form to the void that’s consuming her mind: Knowing is better than not knowing, and if something awful happened to Prairie, Nancy grasps for familiar kinds of awfulness. Prairie’s followers, by contrast, want to believe that something transcendent and meaningful came from her suffering, and that the knowledge she obtained can give their lives meaning in turn.
Taking these ideas through to some end, or even simply ending on a more ambiguous note, as Marling and Batmanglij’s 2011 movie “Sound of My Voice” did, would have left viewers of “The OA” in an uncomfortable and powerful place, questioning what we demand from people who have experienced trauma.
Instead, “The OA” did one of the most tasteless things I’ve seen a television show attempt in some time, and it’s not even revitalizing; it’s just shocking tastelessness. A school shooter, that distinctly American menace, arrives at the high school, automatic weapon in hand. And though they first cower under cafeteria tables, Prairie’s followers cast off their doubts about her story and her teachings and begin to perform a sequence of gestures she’s told them will open a portal to another dimension. Their actions don’t exactly perform miracles, but they do distract the shooter long enough for a cafeteria worker to tackle him, though Prairie is shot in the process.
The failure of her “technology,” contrasted with the instinct that led her to run to the school, seems designed to use a particularly traumatic kind of violence to sow cliff-hanging doubt about whether Prairie’s story and claims to great power are true. But in casting off one kind of violence for another, and doing so for cheap effect, “The OA” effectively quits not only on the characters who were trapped with Prairie, who may or may not be real, but also on its best, most disturbing idea about violence and its aftermath.