After finishing the first season of The OA (once I was done wringing my hands and screaming “WTF did I just watch??”), I initially thought there shouldn’t be a second season. Flawed as the ending was (and oh, was it flawed), it was emotionally cathartic, and seemed to tie up all of the loose ends that the creators intended to tie up. I might be skeptical of the effectiveness of the finale’s ambiguity (more on that later), but it was clearly intended to be ambiguous.
Upon further reflection, I realized that it not only should have a second season, but that it needs one. The OA started off as a compelling, if slightly frustrating, show with an enormous amount of potential, which was then squandered with an ending that was at best incredibly messy and at worst embarrassingly silly. Given another installment, The OA could have a similar arc to The Leftovers, which had a frustratingly cryptic and misery-soaked first season, only to justify everything that came before in its transcendent second season. But with only one season, The OA will be remembered more like Lost, a show notable for its fascinating mode of storytelling that was ruined by terrible follow-through on its mythology. And worst of all, as it is, we’re left with an ending that–according to one interpretation–condones brainwashing and glorifies a cultish, groupthink mentality.
SPOILERS! ALL OF THE SPOILERS!
When I first started watching The OA, I was frustrated with a few aspects of the show. Chief among them, OA herself was supposed to be preternaturally insightful, and yet couldn’t figure out how to speak to people without sounding irritatingly cryptic and pretentious. As a result, it was difficult to believe that all of these disparate personalities would immediately feel an intense sense of loyalty towards her. As long as the Crestwood Five were meant to be relatively normal people, their obedience and willingness to buy her crazy stories felt unearned.
On the other hand, I reasoned, people are sheep, especially when they feel lost. All of the members of the Crestwood Five were searching for answers and a sense of belonging, so it makes sense that they would be drawn to a charismatic leader like OA. Psychology is on a spectrum, and people have done much worse things than trespass on an unfinished house for the promise of love, belonging, and miracles. The fact that OA “miraculously” got her sight back might well have been enough of a reason for a misfit child or a slightly unstable grieving woman to buy what OA was selling.
But in the end, The OA never achieved emotional realism, because it never acknowledged that she was akin to a cult leader. In real life, if a grown woman convinced four children and a psychologically damaged woman that she was an angel who needed them to perform specific, crazy-looking dance movements in order to travel to another dimension, she would be the villain of the piece. Objectively, OA should have been painted as a less evil version of Hap, a master manipulator who gets off on lording psychological power over others. But instead, she’s positioned as the savior of the Crestwood Five for almost the entirety of the show’s run. Even when serious doubts are raised that she was telling the truth, the show doesn’t focus on how she manipulated them, but how she helped them become spiritually fulfilled, functional members of society.
Some may argue that The OA is clearly a sci-fi/fantasy show, so it shouldn’t be held to this standard of realism. But I would argue that sci-fi transcends its genre trappings only when the character arcs are emotionally realistic. That’s why the most compelling scenes of the series took place in Hap’s bunker; even when his afterlife experiments veered into fantastic territory, the dynamics between the captives and Hap were always written in a very humanistic, emotionally affecting way. And the most poignant, heartbreaking moment of the show was not when the Crestwood Five used interpretive dance to thwart a school shooter, but when Prairie traveled all the way to New York based on the fantasy that her father was alive, only to be taken in by a sadistic, power-hungry con artist like Hap. Because in real life, that kind of desperation to be part of something larger than yourself won’t save you so much as make you an easy mark.
As a result, the show could have redeemed itself by making it absolutely clear that Prairie was lying in the end. If she had been lying–to her followers and/or herself–the entire show could have served as an exploration of the cycle of abuse, victims becoming victimizers, the oppressed becoming the oppressors. The most interesting (and true-to-life) interpretation of the show, as it stands now, is that Prairie embellished a true story about rape and abuse in order to give her experiences meaning and gain power that she never had while she was held hostage. As her FBI therapist says to Alfonso, she was “giving them her pain so she could survive.”
Unfortunately, since the ending was pretty much a mess, there are several interpretations supported by the show, none of which completely make sense. It doesn’t make sense that OA made up the whole story from some books she had read, because she found Homer on YouTube the moment she came home. It also doesn’t make sense that her entire story was true, because she never explained how she could have known that Hap killed his mentor. The theory that makes the most sense, sadly enough, is that she was mostly telling the truth and that the therapist planted those books while he was sketchily prowling in her house at night. That would successfully set up a second season, to be sure, but it would also be extremely far-fetched, and would pretty much make this show a straight-up X-Files rip-off.
I’m all about ambiguity in works of art, and particularly in endings, but The OA‘s ending just didn’t work. A narrative can afford to have either thematic ambiguity or plot ambiguity, but not both. If it were unclear whether she was lying this entire time, but the themes were carefully elucidated, then it could have been a fascinating exploration of unreliable narration. If the open questions in the narrative were resolved in a concrete fashion, but in a morally ambiguous way, then we could analyze the details for thematic significance to our hearts’ content. But as it is, we just don’t know what the fuck to think about anything.
Many critics have denounced The OA‘s ending as wildly insensitive for the obvious reason: the out-of-left-field invocation of a school shooting for shock value. (Alan Sepinwall at Uproxx said it best when he called the device “enormously distracting at best, in spectacularly poor taste at worst.”) But the ambiguity of the ending also leaves room for an interpretation that trivializes the dangers of blind obedience. In real life, if a psychologically damaged young woman claimed to be some kind of Messiah figure who needed you for a secret mission that will send you to another dimension, she’s probably planning to poison you. But instead of touting the immense benefits of healthy skepticism and individual thinking, The OA, as it stands now, promotes the idea that a charismatic figure promising to take you away from your terrible life might actually be a bona fide angel whom you should follow into hell.