Untangling the Truth in 'The OA'

the OA

Can you tell reality from delusion? Netflix’s hit show ‘The OA’ leaves us guessing.

Do you believe in angels?

Responses might range from chortling to reverent: the curt no, the exuberant yes and the protracted maybe. But chances are, most have asked themselves this question before.

Would you believe someone who told you they’re an angel?

This is the kind of question to ask at a party if you’re wondering which guest is the most uncomfortable with answerless questions.

The nos have it easy: “No, I don’t believe in angels; therefore, no, I wouldn’t believe you were one.”

The yeses are stumped: “Technically it would be possible, but I don’t expect angels to introduce themselves.”

The maybes snuck out while you weren’t looking. Expect them to decline any future invitations.

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Spoilers ahead!

When it was revealed that the title of Netflix’s new show The OA meant ‘the Original Angel,’ I didn’t know what to think. Did Prairie mean it literally? Did angel mean to her what it means to me?

Maybe she was just…crazy.

That seems to be the major question viewers are left with after watching season one of The OA. It’s unclear whether the story Prairie — the OA — tells is true. It’s a tall tale, after all, beginning with her childhood in Russia, the accident that stole not just her sight but also her life. Resurrection, adoption, running away, being a captive, dying over and over again just to come back and escape. Love, loss, grief and remarkable strength. Do we believe Prairie experienced all this — and with the aid of a mystical shaman, no less?

Here I’ve gathered some reasons to reject or to believe Prairie’s story.

Reasons to Reject Prairie’s Story

There are about a million reasons to instantly reject Prairie’s story, not the least of which is the fact that she insists she’s an angel. Furthermore, her story involves an assortment of mystical beings in an otherwise mundane world. It’s important to note there’s nothing magical about the present world the OA lives in. The mysticism exists only in her stories, which begs the question: does it exist at all?

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The show itself directly challenges the validity of Prairie’s story. We have the obvious argument: the books from her room seem to outline her story of early life and captivity — a copy of The Iliad even lends a name to her still-captive love interest, Homer. The implication is that she crafted her story from bits and pieces of these books, creating a world more glamorous than the reality of her captivity. If she truly was held somewhere against her will for years, that trauma would be enough to rattle even the most stable and sensible of people. By identifying as an angel, Prairie may have gained a sense of importance: in her mind, the trauma happened to her for a reason, not just because she was unlucky. The thought may be comfort at the cost of truth.

Prairie doesn’t exactly give off an air of mental stability. She records and posts videos of herself talking to her fellow captives. A grown woman, she hangs out with teens and a teacher late at night in an abandoned house. She impersonates a parent to help a random boy get out of trouble at school. She bites a dog. The list goes on. On the basis of these eccentricities alone, it’s easy to discredit her story.

Then, of course, there’s her fantastical childhood. Prairie claims the catalyst for her mystical story came when she died as a child and was restored to life, but no one can corroborate this account. While it’s possible her story is true, it’s also possible that imagining herself as a very important person helped her cope with the emotional trauma of her early life. And we can assume she did endure something traumatic, because it’s unlikely she would’ve ended up an orphan, living in a place that essentially sold children to desperate parents, without experiencing some sort of psychological suffering.

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Taking all this into account, it seems less likely that Prairie is an angel in need of help to rescue her friends, and more likely she needs a psychiatrist who can effectively help her recover from whatever ordeal she truly experienced.

This is, of course, without acknowledging my personal top reason to discredit her story: the entire concept of the movements makes no sense. It’s the sort of idea you want to laugh at until you realize that, no, this is a serious thing and an important part of the plot. It seems like something a person might make up as a potential escape if they had no technological skills. No one would believe Prairie could build a portal to another dimension, but they might believe she could dance herself one. It sounds less like an explanation and more like a childhood fantasy — or what a psychiatrist might call “magical thinking.” In other words: it’s a major ding to Prairie’s credibility.

Reasons to Believe Prairie’s Story

With all that evidence stacked against her, things are not looking good for The OA as far as believability, and yet it’s difficult to dismiss her story. While it is, at face value, impossible, so are most miracles.

Why should we believe in the miracles of Prairie’s account? Well: She can see, and absent any real medical explanation of how her sight would have returned, this is perhaps the one concrete piece of evidence to bridge her story with the “normal” world she has returned to. It provides just enough intrigue — spillover magic, if you will — to stop viewers from rejecting accounts we might naturally dismiss as impossible. It opens the door to believing that Prairie really is The OA, but do we walk through it?

Those looking for additional reasons to believe Prairie’s story will point out that her sight is not the only miraculous thing about her. She seems to see things before they happen: in particular, the attacker in the final episode. Prairie knew something was going to happen, and there was no way she should have foreseen it. Coincidence? Unlikely — perhaps even more unlikely than Prairie’s explanation that she is The OA.

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Next question: what about the scars on her back? This could go either way, really. Some would probably argue it’s just as likely she carved them into herself out of madness, or that someone else carved them into her. If you look at the placement of the scars, it seems unlikely she would’ve been able to carve them all herself. That said, I’m choosing to include this as a reason to believe Prairie’s account. While certainly erratic, Prairie does not exhibit any sort of blatant self-harming behavior. If she carved these symbols into herself as part of her coping mechanism for dealing with some sort of captivity — or even just life on her own — she likely would exhibit similar behaviors after returning home, where she’s still clearly under a tremendous amount of stress. Sure, she has no reason to continue carving symbols into herself, but that could be replaced by any number of behaviors associated with anxiety disorders (skin picking comes to mind) and it isn’t. She did not do this to herself without purpose.

That purpose: to remember the “movements,” those absurd dance moves with sound effects that are supposed to save everyone. From death. From captivity. You name it, The OA probably has a “movement” for it.

For all the cynics out there, guess what.

The “movements” work.

Sure, they don’t open a portal we can see, but Prairie said that wasn’t how they work exactly anyway. There wouldn’t be a door. It would be like slipping into a stream — and who’s to say that isn’t what happened in the cafeteria? Alternatively, who’s to say their only use is for travel? In a world where oracles from other dimensions can restore sight and resurrect people from the dead, who’s to say the movements can’t work in more ways than one?

The Question of Sanity

This isn’t a new question. My mind jumps quickly to Hamlet: did he see his father’s ghost, or was he insane? Part of me always wondered how much it mattered. If he saw the ghost, then his behavior was a cover and his actions justified because he knew Claudius had killed his father. If he didn’t see the ghost, well, some part of him knew Claudius killed his father anyway. Whether by the will of an otherworldly force, or by his own subconscious intuition, Hamlet stumbled on the truth.

Where am I going with this, you ask? What does it have to do with my opinion of The OA? Well, it means that I’m about to feed you a pretty clear cop-out, but I want to make it a good one.

At the end of The OA, I really couldn’t have cared less whether Prairie’s story was true. OK, that is not entirely accurate because the addition of the books as evidence really startled me. It makes so much more sense to say she’s crazy, she made up the story to cope or she genuinely believed it was real. After chuckling at the idea of the movements, I was drawn to that line of thinking.

But.

But we see the movements work. That is the crazy thing. It’s not just that Prairie knows the shooting will happen. It’s not that she happened to drag along a group of people who would all be there to stop a tragedy. Prairie somehow managed to give them exactly what they needed to survive: those movements that seemed absurd.

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Hats off to the cast, because somehow watching them stand and work through those motions had me gripping my seat. I don’t think I’ve felt any more tense, terrified and awestruck when watching a battle scene in an action movie. I was a skeptic, but they had me enthralled.

So my opinion, then, is that it really does not matter whether Prairie’s account is true or false. It’s not the point. What viewers need to see in this scene is that the unlikeliest of people can take action. I don’t just mean Steve, Buck, Jesse and Phyllis. I mean Prairie herself.

Who would’ve expected that this long-lost blind orphan would be able to help prevent a school shooting? We see her as the leader of this group of misfits, but we must acknowledge that she, too, is a misfit. She needs their help, but they need hers. Even if she is delusional, she teaches them something deeper than the movements, deeper than the message that we humans, though we are reluctant to admit it, have common experiences that tie us together.

So I would leave you with this: if I wanted to believe this show was about a woman trying to get back to people she loves, who brings together a group of unlikely allies to aid in her mission and along the way teaches them to work together and ultimately enables them to save their own lives, I would argue that her story is true. That is what these arguments are about in the end, right? We will never know which side is correct, so ultimately we can pick the one we want to be true.

I might choose to believe Prairie’s story isn’t true. Not because I don’t like the idea of empowering the underdogs of the world. I think if her story isn’t true, and she is actually following through on her delusion, we have even more to learn from the show.

This brings us back to Hamlet. If he was crazy, he was no less right. It’s almost more impressive if he deduced for himself that Claudius was a murderer, and the shock of that realization manifested itself as a ghost telling him what he already knew. Well, even if Prairie is delusional, her methods are no less effective. Sure, that means the movements she teaches her comrades are just silly dance moves. It also means some part of her knew how effective it would be just to stand up to a greater power and stand together.

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She told them the movements would save her friends, and they did — just not in the way they expected.

Little did they realize they’d be the friends The OA saved. end

 

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