Hello. Welcome to this abandoned, unfinished shack in the woods, I’m glad you came. Make yourself comfortable. I have a story to tell you; a dangerous story, a long story, but by the end I promise you’ll understand. Or, something very close to understanding. Please, sit. I want to tell you about the finale of a Netflix show, called The OA.
I’ve already written about The OA‘s first episode, which was, honest to Khatun, the funniest hour of television I have ever watched in all my years. But we’re not here to discuss “Homecoming,” nor anything that happens in the following six episodes. No, I want to talk about The OA‘s eighth and, if there is any decency left in this world, final installment, “Invisible Self,” which is a mystifying piece of performance-art-disguised-as-TV-show that quite literally transported me to another dimension, one where narrative logic does not exist, episode-to-episode cohesiveness is an urban legend to frighten schoolchildren, and the only true communication is interpretive dance as taught by Brit Marling, who occasionally appears as a glowing white dove.
If you have not yet watched “Invisible Self”, do five movements out of this post, and take your canned tomato paste with you.
So, okay. Up until episode eight, The OA operated on two levels. On the first, formerly-blind Prairie Johnson is relaying a story to five misfits — bully Steve, transgender Buck, kindhearted cocaine addict French, ten-time saddest human winner Betty and that one kid with long hair — about how she regained her sight. The second level is that story — the seven years of her life when Jason Isaacs kept her locked in a mine shaft, using her and four others as guinea pigs in his quest to cure tomato allergies / death. It was there that Prairie learned the “five movements” that allow humans to travel through time, space and different dimensions. The two stories collide when Prairie offers to teach the current-day group-of-five the “movements.”
And then, we hit what could reasonably be described as a twist. French discovers a number of books in Prairie’s possession — The Oligarch, Homer’s Iliad, How to Lie to Children and Not Get Caught — that suggest that her story (this entire series, really) has been a Kaiser Soze-esque lie. Riz Ahmed, who stumbled into this show while looking for the bathroom on the Night Of set, seems to confirm this theory, hinting that Prairie’s story has been a form of therapy.
And then, we hit what could reasonably be described as the most jarring, inconsistent, bat-shit bananas sandwich with extra tomatoes left turn I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. Our five are wallowing in their post-Prairie life in the school cafeteria, when an unnamed, unidentified and heretofore un-introduced student walks in with an assault rifle and starts firing. Yes, The OA, in its final ten minutes, uses a school shooting (horrifically, realistically portrayed by director Sal Batmanglij) as a plot device in the shallowest, least-earned way possible. This show treats a public shooting like a page turn, a way to get from A to B. That’s like using an atomic bomb to dig a hole in your garden.
And THEN, then, then then then…my goodness, then the four main kids, along with Betty (who ran back into the building in, honestly, a genuine sweet moment) stand up off the floor — having zero, none, no reason to believe this will work — and proceed to perform the “five movements.” It is a moment presented with a face so straight it belongs on Mount Rushmore; everything from the music, to the camerawork, to the intensity of the actors is begging, begging you to take this seriously.
Here’s what it looks like:
The school shooter is…God, I don’t want to say “understandably” because holy shit…but he is, understandably, pretty perplexed by what he is seeing, long enough for a cafeteria worker to tackle him to the ground. Tragically, the gun goes off, firing bullets through the window and hitting Prairie, who saw all this happening in a premonition (Don’t ask, it is honestly not important).
So, here’s the thing. Well, no, here’s one of MANY things: There is two different ways to understand this ending. Either A) The “five movements” are legitimate, and our heroes caused a rift in time and space just long enough to save everyone’s lives and transfer Prairie to a higher state of being, or B) Prairie was lying the entire time, and five innocent people just stood in front of a loaded gun doing spastic Tai-Chi while Prairie is just, uh, dead. For no reason, really. That bullet was going through an empty window.
The craziest part…well, no, the craziest of MANY parts is that the scenario where four children and Depression from Inside Out opened up a portal to another dimension is the more logical option. At least it tracks and, more importantly, doesn’t render 95 percent of what we just saw as a waste of time. Because otherwise, let’s be honest, those five people straight up joined a cult. Prairie convinced these young, pliable minds that they could stop bullets with the magic of dance by telling them a story. That’s terrifying! That’s…sort of interesting, actually. Prairie-as-dangerous-cult-leader is a The OA I would possibly accept.
But, it doesn’t look like that’s the direction we’re headed. After Prairie is carted away in an ambulance (with Steve trailing and screaming “take me with you,” meaning, I guess, the hospital?), she awakes in a white room. The last words we hear are Prairie asking, “Homer?”
Again, two options here: Prairie has been spastically karate-chopped to another dimension, or Prairie is dead. Neither option is satisfying, because neither conclusion works to pick up the boatloads of hanging plot threads abandoned on the road to get there. Why are these five people so devoted to Prairie, even after learning she’s a liar? Why are Steve’s parents so chill about him not going to reform school? Why, if you are deathly allergic to tomatoes, to anything, would you let a blind woman prepare your stew? Why…honestly, I could write a book on my questions The OA didn’t answer. I suggest you read Vulture’s interview with Brit Marling, where she reveals The OA was conceived and pitched out-loud, from beginning to end; if anything, I’m comforted in my belief that Marling and Batmanglij never, at any point in the process, wrote any of The OA‘s story down. The OA is the equivalent of that novel idea you scribbled on the back of a bunch of bar napkins before the wind blew half of them away.
In my initial review, I said “If we take The OA exactly 1000 times less seriously than The OA takes itself, we might have found the best show of 2016.” I don’t know if “best” is the right word, but I’m confident no show in years has perplexed me like The OA. Nothing has made less sense on a scene-by-scene basis much less overall, and yet I kept watching because, like these kids going to that abandoned house night after night I felt compelled to keep listening to this story, whether or not it made sense, whether I was listening to something profound or just profoundly stupid, and that is kind of an otherworldly achievement in its own right. I know I hate The OA, just as sure as I know I love The OA. I never want to watch this show again, for as long as I live. It is my favorite show, possibly of all time.
Wait, why the fuck did they have to leave their doors open? Was that ever explained?