The OA and Today’s Secular Prison of Self
Brit Marling is one of the more interesting young filmmakers working today. And like most artists who aspire to something more than the usual, after-work, antiseptic-type programming, Marling doesn’t have anywhere near the name recognition that she deserves. One suspects that she cares a lot less about ratings or cash grabs than making interesting, provocative film.
It helps that she’s smart. So many filmmakers who might be gifted storytellers or inspired visual artists necessarily run up against the limits of their own intelligence. Marling was valedictorian of her class at Georgetown University where she majored in both studio art and economics. Her intelligence doesn’t necessarily explain her creativity, but it does seem to open a lot of opportunities to her (ambitious storylines, familiarity with high-end visual art, a curiosity about more cerebral themes) that might be closed off to run-of-the-mill writers and directors.
You can witness this intelligence at play in films such as Sound of My Voice (2011), which Marling co-wrote with creative partner Zal Batmanglij. It’s a beautifully shot slow burner about two slightly bored twentysomething school teachers in Los Angeles who decide to make a documentary film exposing a secretive time-traveling cult leader as a fraud. Coming from lesser and less tasteful minds, Sound of My Voice could have been a total failure. But what the film does well—and in this sense it’s sort of a synecdoche for the rest of Marling’s work—is that it perfectly balances the anodyne details of infiltrating a cult against larger, exciting metaphysical concerns like time travel and man’s search for meaning. You’re introduced to the big, wild themes slowly, through the almost mundane repetition of things like going through cult security, group meetings, and so on. By the end of the film, the viewer wonders whether the cult leader isn’t actually a time traveler, and the suspicion is earned through slow and methodical world building. It’s this slow burn and attention to detail that sets Marling apart and makes her so unique.
Netflix’s latest season of Marling’s show The OA is the perfect showcase for her strengths as a storyteller. The first season, which aired back in 2016, was about a blind woman who is kidnapped by a researcher obsessed with people who have had near-death experiences. Told as a sort of story within a story, Marling’s character, who calls herself “The OA”, gathers a group of mostly local teenagers together and tells them her highly unbelievable tale while teaching them a series of sacred movements that she claims allows people to jump between dimensions. If that sounds wild and totally cartoonish, it is. But Marling does a great job of slowly building the story from the ground up, with the teenagers and other characters sharing the suspicions of the audience. So like in Sound of My Voice, the end of the first season of The OA leaves the audience ready to believe that The OA character might have been telling the truth after all.
The new season of The OA picks up almost right at the end of the first. Without giving away too many spoilers, I’ll just say that what Marling presented as a slow burn in the first season has now reached a complete boil. It’s quite a wild plot, involving The OA character jumping into the life and body of another self in a parallel world. There she faces down the same evil scientist who’s teamed up with a tech mogul to create a map of the multiverse and its dimensions—all at the cost of the lives of some teenagers. The OA finds herself institutionalized and under the psychiatric care of her old enemy, the researcher Hunter Percy (or Hap, as he’s called, because of his initials), played to creepy perfection by Jason Isaacs. She escapes with the help of a private detective who is fighting his own demons (as private detectives so often seem to be doing), and is eventually able to enlist the help of the teenagers from the world of last season to help her in her final confrontation with Hap. There’s also a mystical house that exists in both dreams and waking life, the Russian mob, a psychic octopus, and anthropomorphic tree roots.
That all sounds like a lot, and it is, but Marling does a wonderful job of slowly inoculating you to the absurdity throughout the course of the two seasons. Besides the acting, which is top-notch across the board, what’s most compelling about The OA is its seductive world building. Slowly, along with the other characters, you learn the rules of a world that is always just a little more magical than you would have guessed. And as things get stranger and stranger, you’re not just ready for it, but actually find yourself hungry for more quasi-magical New Age absurdity.
The biggest weakness of The OA is that for all the time and energy it puts into sketching out the details of this world, the actual “spiritual” or philosophical elements of the show are a bit muddled and confused. We don’t seem to take any great moral lessons from it. The notions of good and bad are vaguely Judeo-Christian, but the details of the ever-unfolding multiverse that we’re thrust into doesn’t necessarily underscore those values. If anything, The OA seems like it might just be a giant metaphor for acting—a kind of self-referential meta exploration of how the self is really just a variation on a theme, and how by doing what amounts to theater warm-up exercises with a group of people, you can access these other “selves.” I think that might be the most enjoyable way to watch the show, as a matter of fact.
The multiverse aspect of the show is interesting, but ultimately sad. It seems to be a pretty popular theme these days. Fringe was doing it a while back; Counterpart, Stranger Things, and even Rick and Morty have explored the idea. But how far does the infinite refraction of the multiverse actually take us? Rather than expressing something exciting and meaningful, it almost seems like a nihilistic trap representing the imaginative limit of secular notions of reality. In a world denuded of transcendence, there can only be an almost autistic accumulation of more of the same. Instead of transformation, there’s just a perpetual endless stream of equivalence and correspondence. In a way, it’s related to Black Mirror’s uploaded consciousness. The stakes are the same. Transcendence, in any meaningful sense, is unthinkable. Reality is fundamentally a prison of self, as far as the mind can roam.
Of course, none of this is the fault of The OA. If anything, the show is simply an artifact of the times, a symptom of our inability to imagine and artistically represent anything truly shocking in secular terms. But at least it’s an incredibly interesting artifact, compelling and hypnotic.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that The OA character in season was deaf. She was in fact blind.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.