*Spoilers for the whole season below – if you are interested in this show and do not want to be spoiled, feel free to read other posts on this blog, whilst merrily skipping this one!*
I just binge-watched the new Netflix original, The OA. 7 years after her disappearance, Prairie Johnson inexplicably returns to her hometown, and calls herself the OA . Her blindness is cured, and she claims to possess the ability to travel through dimensions – through interpretative dance (in 5 movements -no I am not joking). Through the course of 8 episodes, she tells a group of 5 people exactly how she came to know these movements (and it’s too bizarre to detail here, but I will say it’s compelling insofar as stories go), and where she was for 7 years.
There were plenty of reasons to also not binge-watch it – or watch it at all. The show aims for an emotional gravitas that I find difficult to relate to -as this review notes, it “plays like a somehow more pretentious Sense8″ . The dance movements were funny (Sorry, not sorry – wasn’t really looking for interpretative dance as a way to unlock interdimensional travel).
Why did I binge-watch this show? The OA built a steady eerie atmosphere for the first couple episodes. The story-telling was also excellent insofar as building a fairy-like, fable-like feel. In fact, by episode 8, the viewer is almost pretty well convinced that Prairie Johnson, who calls herself The OA (which as, clever viewers will figure out well before the 7th episode, stands for “The Original Angel”), can travel through space/time, has had several near-death-experiences (NDEs) while being held captive in a basement by a scientist who experimented on her and 5 other people, and has in fact communicated with the powers-that-be of the universe to “come back” from death. By the final episode – episode 8, the idea that she is some sort of super-human blessed with some supernatural understanding of the universe seems part of the mythos of this show. We believe that yes, she has had a Russian childhood, raised by oligarchs, fell into poverty with an aunt who was in sex work, and was eventually adopted by the Johnsons. We believe that she was taken captive by some scientist, had some near-death or actual death intense experiences that are inexplicable – and, if not “real”, real at least to her, and which left her with a newfound understanding of the world. We believe that she had friends – other prisoners – while held captive: Scott Brown, Homer, Renata, August – briefly, Rachel. We believe too – or want to believe – that she… has something special about her. Unique.
That is, until, the middle of episode 8 – where things get to really. start. getting. weird. The following is only going to make sense if you’ve seen the whole show, but here is my grand unified theory of The OA – the explanations that makes sense, and the ones that should make sense for a phenomenally significant plot.
Theory 1: The Life of Pi Metaphor Theory
Prairie returns as a traumatized survivor of rape, sexual assault, kidnapping, and forced captivity. She fabricates a “Life-of-Pi”esque, fantastical explanation for everything traumatizing that happened to her.
The books that Alfonso finds in Prairie’s room in episode 8 are as follows: The Oligarchs, Encyclopedia of Near Death Experiences, The book of Angels, and The Iliad (by Homer).
1. Each of these books explains different aspects of the fantastical storytelling The OA used to explain what happened to her. The Oligarchs frames her childhood – the fantasy that she was the daughter of a Russian oligarch. The Encyclopedia is something that allowed her to speak about interdimensional travel in her tales, and incorporate the element of NDE into her storytelling. The book of Angels offered her hope – to draw on incredible resilience and compassion for herself to survive. And of course – the Iliad – a classic Greek epic by Homer.
2. The sex worker who she described as an aunt was likely her actual mother who sold her/gave her to the Johnsons due to her own unfortunate circumstances, and the recognition that the Johnsons would give her a better life. There was never a Russian father figure – only her imagination from The Oligarchs.
3. There were no near-death experiences but… there might have been heartbreaking moments of trauma, rape, abuse. When she is approached in the restaurant by a girl in episode 8, the girl insinuates that Prairie has survived unimaginable horrors of a different nature. Dissociation can feel like death – or like liberation – or both. Coming back from dissociation can feel powerful.
What is the evidence that the Steve and Alfonso really find at all about Prairie Johnson’s origins? Youtube clips. Nothing Definite.
1. The boys find a clip of the bus that fell off a bridge in Russia – something she could have also found.
2. The boys find a clip of a blonde girl, face never shown, playing a Russian song in the subway station….but is that really her? Prairie could have also found that clip and simply…woven a beautiful story around it.
3. The OA finds a clip of Homer – a boy in a coma who recovered, who she says is the same boy that was held captive in the basement… but what if… that was a projection. a fantasy.
4. There is no evidence of Hap *existing* whatsoever – which is absurd. An anesthesiologist? A pilot? he must exist online. Instead, we have obscure people that she found – random clips of random people with which she could build an alternate “Life of Pi”-like timeline.
5. Speaking of Hap – how do we come to know his name? In episode 3, she tells us how he meets her and introduces himself – watch the scene again, and it sounds almost like the start of the word “happen” – nothing more and nothing less. The initials she gave him: Hunter Aloysius Percy is again… evidence of her extraordinarily protective, creative mind.
6. The boys find a clip indicating a missing person – Scott Brown – a young rich kid who went missing. They state “the timelines don’t add up” but…. this doesn’t matter if…
There were no other captives in the basement with Prairie. They were all manifestations (or metaphors) of her fractured inner self, split personalities struggling to survive while held captive.
1. When asked how she survived that many years, the OA’s answer is clear: “because I was not alone.” Except… she was. She willed other personalities into existence as a protective measure.
2. Scott was dead and came back to life – is what we saw as a viewer. In a way… he did if we accept that he existed only in her mind.
3. August did die – in the initial days (maybe in August?), when she was held captive – a part of her that could not withstand the pain. That sought refuge.
4. She never heals herself after Steve punctures her thigh with a pencil – she has only describes how she healed others. If she was able to heal parts of her mind, represented by other personalities, this makes total sense as the movements are a metaphor for a healing process.
5. Scott grows plants underground through…sheer force of will? Plants like that can’t grow without sunlight. The plants represent hope to Prairie – whatever she kept alive inside her to survive. No light. No chance of escape.
Prairie is obsessed with the question of choice – and choices forking off into new dimensions
1. I read this as any survivor asking herself “what could I have done differently to avoid what happened to me?” – ie: The self-blame, the misplaced guilt, trauma.
K cool theory bro but! She was BLIND?! And now isn’t! How do you explain that outside of miraculous intervention?!
Theory 2: The Inadvertent Impostor Theory.
The girl that calls herself the OA is a traumatized survivor of rape, sexual assault, and kidnapping and forced captivity; she is an unfortunate incidental impostor in the Johnson household. She is not Prairie Johnson, who went missing 7 years ago. Neither she, nor Prairie Johnson, is the daughter of an oligarch, or went through the experiences described – she simply created an intense fantasy tale to explain how she got her sight back in order to fit into a new family. She is not endowed with miraculous powers that can transcend time and space, unless you count dissociation and imagination which, actually, yes, can be incredibly powerful to heal/be protected from real trauma. Unlike Prairie, she was never blind – perhaps blindfolded by her captor for years until she was finally set free.
–> go back and reread everything you read above in Theory 1, except now think of it as a random stranger who has been through trauma, trying to creatviely process her experience and come up with an explanation for how she got her sight back. The real Prairie? Still missing and/or dead.
The OA doesn’t remember her name at the start of the series, and, in order to fit into a new place, has learned that she must adapt to whatever name/role is given.
1. At the start of the first episode, the nurse makes it clear that Prairie does not respond to the name Prairie, and instead calls herself The OA. The Johnsons feel it is their daughter, returned from the dead.
3. When The OA first arrives in Prairie Johnson’s house, she falls carpet under her feet and falls to the ground – we think at first it’s because Prairie is happy to be home, but what if it’s another girl with a horrifying past who is simply grateful to be *in* a home?
4. She outright says “That is not my name” when referred to as Prairie.
Nancy and Abel, Prairie’s adoptive parents come to know of the possibility of their daughter’s return through a phone call from a family friend who directs them to a Youtube video.
1. a parent’s desire to see their child returned is very strong – strong enough that they were willing to accept this girl into the void that was left when she disappeared.
Alfonso points out that The OA has never told Steve, himself, Buck, or the others about her time with the Johnsons.
1. because she can’t. All she says is “they medicated me” because it’s all she knows to be true.
2. because she has to be careful here – anything she says about the Johnsons can be verifiable by the Johnsons, so she skipped it completely
The posters of the missing Prairie resemble The OA, but….are you sure it’s her?:
1. When he breaks into the Johnson house, Alfonso finds the following: old clippings of the missing person posters of Prairie Johnson – zoom in and are you convinced that that is really her? Do the pictures look like her, or is she a close replica?
1. the dancing was a distraction to the shooter, who ended up accidentally shooting The OA.
2. She doesn’t even know what her “usual” is at the restaurant, until her mom leads with “the 5 cheese…” and she finishes “ziti”, which is the name of the dish on the menu she has already scanned.
3. She says absolutely nothing about “Byron” that isn’t already mentioned at the dinner table.
4. Abel mentions she is taking a creative writing course, which lends itself to the idea that she has made up a lot about what happened to her.
5. She is, at the very end, shown to have survived her wounds in a place for the mentally ill. White walls. She hasn’t made a fifth movement. She… survived the gunshot wound. and needs help. She says Homer, because this is another form of trauma and of course… Homer… has returned to be her support during her most desolate, lonely time.
Ok but what about the note she said she left behind – and that turned out to be true?!
The OA, whoever she is, really is compassionate. She probably wanted to ease the mind of her new “parents” (the Johnsons), to let them know that their daughter would not have disappeared without any notice – and the OA could have believed that a note might have gone missing in all that time; it’s completely plausible the girl calling herself the OA saw the note while going through Nancy’s things.
Loose ends: what does Theory 2 not explain fully?
1. The premonition and nosebleed she has at the start of episode 7 about the cafeteria shooting was eerily accurate – perhaps the FBI Agent Rahim was correct; maybe being psychic just means that she picks up on people’s cues – even the mostly imperceptible ones, and remembered something throughout the series of another troubled person who could have committed a crime.
2. The fact that she said the word “Boring” at the exact same time Steve mouthed the word, while they were facing opposite directions.
3. The fact that she felt her mom’s face in episode 1 and said “Mom?” to “recognise her” – though again, this could be… the traumatised response of a girl seeking a family, who has already been told she was blind before.
So…theory 3: The Partway Theory/Most Plausible Theory: The OA is actually Prairie Johnson and she really did regain her sight, maybe due to getting hit on the head by her captor. No she cannot travel through dimensions, but she does have a vivid imagination, a great ability to read people, to spin a tale that is worth believing even if it is not true in the strictest sense of the word – and a tale that helped her heal from very very real trauma. She is someone who, like in the explanation for Theory 2, is sensitive to subtle clues in her environment. As in Life of Pi, Which story do you, the viewer/reader, prefer?
Loose ends: What doesn’t Theory 3 explain?
Ugh, this bothers me so much – but basically: Rahim is at the house at the end and there is no reason for him to be there if Theory 3 is true. What the hell is he doing there talking to Alfonso? So…
Theory 4: The Full-Tilt Theory she really can travel through dimensions (she is maybe Prairie from *another* dimension already), the FBI agent Rahim planted the books at the end and that’s why he’s in the house to meet Alfonso because there is some government conspiracy (See Theory 4.5), there are “movements”, Prairie made it to another dimension to meet Homer, and the whole shebang is true in the mythos presented by The OA. *Shrug emoji*
Theory 4.5: The Conspiracy Add-On
This is in conjunction with the full tilt theory – Rahim has a less-than-innocuous role to play in this version: there is something about shifting through dimensions that the FBI is looking into, Prairie was stolen as a government experiment, perhaps she has already traveled and has regained her sight through this, or perhaps the Prairie that is here now is from a different dimension who… does not like 5 cheese baked ziti or has no memory of it. Maybe in her original dimension, Abel and Nancy were far more cruel. Maybe also the OA represents some amalgamation of all the Prairies across all or many of the dimensions, causing her to conflate many different storylines into the same fantastical retelling. Maybe, as this page explains, Homer IS Alfonso in this universe, and maybe Hap IS Rahim in this timeline. Interestingly, behind Rahim the word “Rachel” appears in Braille. Rachel was one of the captives held with her.
My favourite theory is…
Theory 2: The Inadvertent Impostor Theory Honestly, I feel theory 2 is such an absolutely awful yet amazing twist for the audience, if executed correctly by the writers. I wish they had changed the premonition sequence at the end *slightly* with just enough ambiguity – maybe with no nosebleed. I wish they had written her introduction to the Johnsons in the hospital slightly differently, so as not to insinuate so clearly that she had been blind and recognised her. There were so many ways to incorporate an inadvertent-imposter theme intersecting with a trauma/kidnapping/captivity/rape storyline, considering how little Prairie speaks about her previous life with the Johnsons, how much she speaks about things only she and she alone (and not young Prairie) can describe (ie: her time in captivity).
My least favourite theory is…
Theory 4: the Full Tilt Theory (with or without the conspiracy add on) The show actually takes itself too goddamn seriously to pull this off effectively. Like yes, all the pieces are there to make this be “real” in the universe of the show, but it’s the least satisfying, most lazy writing ever, and I just would be so disappointed if that’s all it was. I would need to see more about the conspiracy add on in less pretentious ways for it to ring true.
Overall, found the show’s stated theme to be intensely pretentious, but the writing, visuals, and underlying theme of surviving intense and unspeakable trauma really got to me in an intense way. Part of why Theory 2 appeals to me so much is that it is a beautiful subtle reworking of the underlying theme of the show around forgiveness, compassion, going the extra mile for someone who may not have done anything for you: ie -even if she is an impostor, she deserves love, support, care, encouragement. Even if she is an impostor, she can still love Abel and Nancy like a daughter – and they may need her presence in ways they can’t know yet. But even if she isn’t an impostor, I can’t chalk up her descriptions of her experiences to a lie. No, it’s more powerful than that. More magical and metaphorical. Like a spell to heal wounds. I believe powerful stories can heal powerfully, and that itself is a profound message to try to carry in a show. Ultimately, the show is about connection – whether it’s just about listening and holding space for a traumatised girl, or about believing in something as fantastic as alternate timelines.