Whatever your stances towards the streaming service and its hyper-capitalist nature, it’s hard to deny that Netflix has given a platform to a specific group of high-quality serials. They share a firm grasp on the modern zeitgeist, push boundaries in terms of representation and bring original dramatic concepts to the table. It’s obviously a completely different story how the company treats their output —there is an easily comprehensible tactic of catering and extreme calculation. Netflix has understood that taking risks can pay off, but as soon as they don’t, any “misinvestments” are avoided —case in point are the recent cancellations of excellent, culturally significant shows such as Everything Sucks! and One Day at a Time due to insufficient viewers. That being said, it’s great to see some strong, original television being brought to the mainstream. One example particularly stands out in this context; co-created and written by regular collaborators and North-American indie darlings Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, The OA is a tightly plotted and character-focused genre mishmash that handles its concerns of trauma, belief, death and human relationships with a stunning amount of suspense, vigor and pathos.
The show’s premise is one that is hard to encapsulate. A hurricane of mysteries sets the ground for the events surrounding Prairie Johnson (played by Brit Marling), her mysterious disappearance—and return. Prairie used to be blind, but has her sight has been restored after reappearing on the radar. The incident draws a lot of attention to her and her adoptive parents, who particularly struggle to understand what happened. Instead of opening up to them or the authorities about the events and why she calls herself The Oa, Prairie contacts five people that couldn’t be more different, orders them to leave their front door open in the middle of the night and meets up with them in an abandoned house to tell her long, incredible story and the role they each play in it. The group, first plagued by skepticism and mistrust, slowly grows to be some sort of family and the fact that their only prior connection was being members of the same school, fades away.
The first season of the show is as much focused on their character progression, as on OA’s mesmerizing story. Their lives are immensely different, but all marked by some sort of trauma, which reveals itself to be the reason why they continue to listen to OA’s tale. Marling and Batmanglij tell a story of world views being transformed by the immense power of belief. This conceptual thread culminates into a powerful season close, which probably features one of the most stunning moments of choreography in television history. The finale offered endless potential for a continuation. It was hard to anticipate what would happen next.
Season One of The OA has informed us about the worlds that exist outside of the one we recognize as our own, and asked us to believe in them. The second season dives head-on into the potential of this concept. There are barely any known faces in the first 30 minutes of the season premiere. Instead we follow Karim Washington, a handsome private investigator, who sets out to investigate the disappearance of a young person, which seems to center around a mobile quiz game and a strange, abandoned house in San Francisco. We recognize that person as Buck, who was one of the people listening to OA’s story, but his identity seems to differ from the one we know. As we start learning about Karim’s world, we finally encounter more known faces, some of them having successfully travelled to this world. But while they lead severely different lives here, the circumstances strangely mirror the ones they wanted to escape. During the title card dropping over a brilliant image of OA being held down by doctors, the second season of The OA announces itself as a very different beast as its predecessor. The themes and set-ups of the first season are expanded on and used as a basis for something entirely distinct.
While the first season was completely directed by Batmanglij, the department of the second season is expanded by Andrew Haigh (Weekend, Lean on Pete) and Anna Rose Holmer (The Fits), who each give their own voice to the project. While Rose Holmer directs a suspense-filled, dialogue-heavy counterpart of Batmanglij’s episodes, Haigh brings his very specific voice as a director to the show. His episodes are set in the world of the first season and he explores the journey of the people left behind with aching sensibility. Their beliefs are shaken, unlike their connection. This is when this season is at its best. Lean on Pete cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck captures wild beaches, dark churches, roads after sunrise and every expression on these people;s faces. Haigh spins something extraordinary out of the show’s character constellation. This doesn’t discredit the contrasting, turbulent main arcs of OA and Karim. In these episodes, The OA becomes a riveting sci-fi thriller. The imagery on display is dazzling, cinematographer Steven Meizler dwells in the vibes of supernatural basements, psychiatric institutions and upper-class flats and stages the narrative as a flashy, visually daring trip down the rabbit hole.
As the arcs conclude in the final episode, the show reaches an impressive degree of momentum and uses it to pull a trick that seems to come out of nowhere—it doesn’t really, but it’s so ballsy that the thought of it is very unlikely to come up. It fuels a fascinating train of thought that will make the wait for season 3 a chore. In retrospect, it seems like Marling and Batmanglij’s previous work has build up to this sublime, kaleidoscopic mystery. Films such as The Sound of My Voice and Another Earth show traits of the themes that The OA explores. With the show, they finally have an outlet to bring their countless ideas to life and build a tower of intrigue, traversing several genres and concerns. It’s one of the best shows running.