The OA is the intriguing story of a young woman who returns home after 7 years in captivity. She was blind when she left home, but now her sight has been restored. She’s unable to talk about her ordeal, and seems changed in indefinable, mysterious ways. The pilot, at least, focusses more on character and setting up the mood and world of the show than getting a fast-paced plot going. The feel of the show reminds me of The Man in the High Castle in that way, even though they are otherwise very different shows. It slowly builds tension and doles out clues, allowing us to piece together the mystery and understand the show’s universe.
The pilot begins with a phone video shot through the windshield of a car as it crosses a bridge in St Louis. A young woman in a flowing sundress dodges between cars to cross the bridge and climb over the side rail. She briefly looks back toward the camera with a blank face, then steps off the bridge to let herself fall into the Mississippi River below.
We cut to the woman’s face as she lies in a hospital bed. She’s been unconscious for three days. She asks the nurse who’s in the room with her if she flatlined. When the nurse says no, the woman asks if she’s sure. She shrinks away from the nurse and refuses to be touched. The nurse also asks about the scars on the woman’s back. The nurse throws a lot of questions out quickly, in an annoying way, considering the woman just tried to kill herself and then was unconscious for 3 days. The nurse finally gets the woman to give her name: The OA.
An elderly couple are at home when the wife gets a phone call. She watches an online video of The OA jumping off the bridge. She cries to her husband. It’s their daughter. They rush to see her at the hospital. Once there, a caseworker informs them that their daughter is in a fractured mental state. She doesn’t respond to the name they gave, she’s agitated, and she keeps trying to get to the computers in the ICU. She has unusual scarring on her back. She won’t talk to anyone, including the police, about what happened. It’s the hospital’s recommendation that she be committed to in-patient care. The hospital knows nothing of her background or situation, and she’s not harming herself or others at this point, but they don’t understand her, so she should be locked away. I’m really not sure why wanting to use the internet is a sign of mental illness, or having old scars that had to be inflicted by someone else, based on their positioning.
The OA’s parents just want to see their daughter. She doesn’t recognize them. The mom, Nancy Johnson, goes over to OA and lets her feel her mom’s face. She recognizes her mom’s face right away through touch. The dad, Abel Johnson, explains that their daughter, Prairie, has never seen them before. Seven years ago, when she disappeared, she was blind.
They bring Prairie home to their suburban Michigan house. There’s a crowd of press and onlookers waiting outside the house. Prairie is frightened by the onslaught of people, but happy to be home.
The police come to her home to question her. She’s not able to tell them much that they find useful. She says that she walked a long time, maybe days, before she got to a road. An old woman gave her a ride to a place with a lot of lost people, that might have been a shelter. She wanted to leave, so they let her go. She kept walking, trying to get back to them. The officers interrupt her constantly here, so she never really gets to finish what she’s trying to say. Prairie: She wanted to get back to them, possibly meaning the other captives, but she knew they were all gone. Cop: Dead? Prairie: (We) all died more times than she can count. Cop: Is that why she was trying to kill herself? Prairie: She wasn’t trying to kill herself, she was trying to get help or get back to them. Cop: She could have called the police. Prairie: That wouldn’t have helped.
The cops give up on trying to make sense of Prairie’s story, and leave. They’ll try again in a week or so. Maybe she’ll have processed her experience more clearly by then.
Prairie tries to use her computer to get on the internet, but it’s password protected. She searches her father’s office for the password, and sees articles about her disappearance. She also finds a video camera. Nancy finds her just as she’s opened up a container of handheld cutting tools and started to run her finger over the blade of one. Maybe I was wrong about the scars not being self-inflicted. Nancy suggests they go for a walk.
Outside, it’s dark, breezy and quiet. The neighborhood is full of partially finished houses that were abandoned when the developer ran out of money. Nancy asks how Prairie regained her sight. Prairie says that she can’t tell her. There are teenagers fooling around on the roof of one of the houses. They recognize Prairie.
The next afternoon, a high school boy and girl are having sex in his bedroom. It’s clear that this is just sex, not a relationship. He wants it to be more, but she isn’t interested. She’s interested in someone in the school chorus. Steve punches a hole in the wall after the girl leaves. His father comes in and asks him about the hole in the wall, then tells him that his teacher, Broderick-Allen, emailed about bullying. Steve hasn’t been keeping the promises he made to his dad, and he needs to fix it.
Prairie is laying on her bed, under the covers, vlogging to Homer. She tells him she’s scared and she didn’t leave him behind. Nancy tells Prairie that her internet usage must be monitored at all times, according to the hospital’s guidelines.
Prairie goes back to the abandoned house, where neighborhood kids congregate to buy and sell drugs after school. Steve is the drug dealer. He has a guard dog with him. He gets angry when he sees Prairie with the video camera in her hand and grabs the camera from her. She’s looking for someone to give her their internet password. They argue. When neither backs down, Steve sets the dog on Prairie, and holds back anyone who tries to help her. Prairie bites the dog back and subdues it. All four guys in the room are stunned and frozen in shock. Prairie takes the camera out of Steve’s hand and leaves.
Nancy is helping Prairie bathe and clean her dog bite wounds. She asks if Prairie is hearing voices again, then reveals that she’s watched Prairie’s videos, which makes Prairie feel violated. Nancy tells her that even though she’s adopted, Nancy still feels her daughter’s pain as if she’s her own flesh and blood. Prairie says she can’t tell her parents what happened because it would hurt her to hurt them. She needs time.
At school, Steve listens to the chorus to check out his competition. He finds Miles, the best singer, outside in the parking lot later and punches him in the neck hard enough to lacerate his trachea.
Steve then comes through Prairie’s bedroom window during the day while she’s making another video for Homer, filming her Barbies and Barbie mansion. She’s in the midst of saying that she met a boy she thinks is part of “it.” Steve’s brought her a router with prepaid internet as a peace-offering. He wants to make a “Strangers on a Train” deal. If they help each other out with things no one would expect from them, they should be able to get away with it.
Steve needs Prairie to get him out of trouble for assaulting Miles, before his dad sends him to military school in Asheville. Prairie agrees, provided he finds her a team of five strong, flexible people willing to meet at the abandoned house and do what she asks. No one is to touch her. Steve agrees.
Steve and Prairie go clothes shopping for Prairie’s meeting with Steve’s teacher. They talk about why Steve punched Miles. Prairie suggests that he work on his invisible, inner self, and that he try seeing the world with his eyes closed. While she’s trying on clothes we see some of the scars on her upper back. They are red lines that appear to be some kind of symbols, on her left and right sides, but not on the middle, down her spine. Technically, she probably could have drawn them on herself, but that doesn’t tell us whether she did, or someone else did.
Prairie puts on her grown up costume and goes to the meeting with Steve’s teacher, Betty Broderick-Allen, a dedicated middle-aged teacher. Prairie presents herself as Steve’s new stepmother. Betty wants to expel Steve from school because of his increasing bullying and violence. Prairie and Betty get into a deep discussion about the nature of teaching, and why she got into it to begin with. Prairie says “this dimension is crumbling to violence, pettiness and greed. Steve is sensitive enough to feel it and he’s angry. He’s angry and he’s lost. And in order to find him, you’d have to teach yourself again. You decided somewhere along the way that you were done learning. It’s too painful to stay open…If you want to be a teacher, teach Steve. He’s the boy you can help become a man. He’s the one you lost. He’s your first reason [for becoming a teacher].”
As Prairie’s leaving, Betty asks for her first name. “I’m the OA,” she responds.
Betty smiles and winks at Steve the next time he comes to class.
Prairie/OA looks up Homer Roberts. He was a Missouri college football player who suffered a serious injury and a near death experience in the championship game on November 2, 2007. It left him paralyzed when he woke up, but he insists he’ll play football again. Prairie bursts into tears after watching the video and wonders where Homer is.
Steve calls to tell Prairie her trip to school worked. She tells him they need to get started on her side of the bargain, tonight. Five people, meet at midnight at the abandoned house, and leave their front doors open. They argue about the open door, and whether Steve will even fulfill his part of the bargain. Prairie insists she chose him, not the other way around, and he needs to go through with it.
Betty runs into Steve’s parents in the supermarket and learns that Prairie isn’t his stepmother. Steve and his parents show up at Prairie’s house, accusing her of impersonating Steve’s mother, which is true. But, his parents go on to blow it all out of proportion by insinuating that she’s leading their innocent babe astray and might even take advantage of him…sexually!* They want her in a mental hospital and away from decent people, such as themselves, immediately. Steve argues for Prairie’s side the entire time. Prairie overhears the conversation, and runs to upload a Youtube video asking for help, before she loses her internet access. I feel like I’m watching the scene from The Wizard of Oz where Miss Gulch has come to take Toto from Dorothy. The letter of the law is on her side, and Steve’s parents’, sure, but they aren’t really the good guys.
Auntie Em and Uncle Henry Nancy and Abel still have to follow the rules of society, whether they are fair toward their daughter or not. The hospital’s Invasive Guidelines for Mentally Unstable, Scary Women Who Won’t Submit go into effect in the Johnson home. Prairie’s bedroom door, and thus all privacy, is removed. Her access to the world outside of her home is removed. Her camera is taken away. She is a prisoner in her own home, even though she hasn’t shown any tendencies toward violence or delusions, and Steve vouched for the fact that this was a consensual deal made between the two of them. Prairie is a 29 year old adult. People have attacked her and done things to her body without her consent, and she’s defended herself. People have verbally cut her off when she’s tried to explain what happened while she was missing, instead of listening with an open mind while she tried to put things that have been jumbled in her mind by the trauma she’s experienced into understandable terms. She’s a desperate person taking desperate actions. No one is really seeing HER, they are seeing what each of them is projecting onto her. Suffering from trauma doesn’t automatically make her incapable of rational thought. It does, however, provide an excellent excuse for controlling her.
Various characters watch Prairie’s Youtube video. Betty, who has been googling “The OA”, is one of them.
“I need help. I need to cross a border that’s hard to define. Maybe you know what I’m talking about, or you don’t, but you feel it. Because you’ve felt other borders like youth, and adulthood, maybe. I can’t change your fate, but I can help you meet it. We begin our journey to the border tonight, midnight, at the unfinished house at the edge of Crestwood View. Don’t come unless you leave your front door open. You have to invite me in.”
While the voiceover plays, we see the kids from the attack dog scene watching it, and making their way to the house. Steve is walking his dog and runs into his sex buddy. She gives him a ride and they talk. He realizes he doesn’t want her after all, and heads toward the abandoned house. The four boys all arrive together. Betty arrives a few moments later. They have the five that OA needs. She says she needs to do something specific, and leave something behind. The process will only work if there are five people plus her.
She lights candles and begins to tell her story, asking the group to trust her, and to close their eyes and see the story as if they’re her.
She was born in Russia in 1987 to the wealthy owner of mining corporation. Her name was Nina. Her father had gotten very rich, very fast. The newly rich were in danger from a Russian crime organization called the Voi, so they lived in a secret enclave outside of Moscow, with the other newly rich. She was born with her sight, and remembers how beautiful Russia was. She grew up surrounded by wealth and beauty, friends with the children of the wealthy who lived nearby. Her mother had died in childbirth, so it was just her and her father.
She had frequent, intense dreams that gave her nosebleeds, then. In one of the recurring dreams, she was trapped underwater in an aquarium, and she couldn’t get out. Her father took her out to a frozen lake, and chopped a hole in the ice over shallow water. He told her that in order to beat the cold, she must become even colder. Even though she was barefoot and in her nightgown, Nina got into the water up to her shoulders. Her father taught her to be brave, and she never had the aquarium dream again.
Months later, she started school. Her school bus was attacked by the Voi while it was on a bridge, and fell into the water. She figured out where there was a broken bus window to escape through, but none of the other children followed her. She was the only one who escaped, but she still died trying. While she was dead, a woman (Goddess?) named Khatun gave her the choice of staying dead or going back. If she went back, she would experience great love, but also great hardship. Nina chose to go back. Khatun took Nina’s eyes from her, because she couldn’t bear for Nina to see the horrible things that she would experience.
Nina was revived on the shore with her father, but she was blind.
Observations and Questions:
-Nina/Prairie’s near death experience makes her special, and seems to have something to do with her disappearance, since she was hoping that jumping off the bridge would make her flatline, and take her back to the others.
-Homer Roberts also had a near death experience, and is most likely another hostage. It seems like someone gathered people who’d had near death experiences (NDEs) and made them have more, since Prairie said she’d died more times than she could count.
-It’s possible that the hostages have developed a way to find and communicate with each other in the place they go during NDEs. But it takes a certain amount of psychic energy to get there, and to leave a message, which is why Prairie needs five people besides herself.
-There was something special about Prairie to begin with. She was already having predictive dreams before her NDE. Did she have an NDE during her own birth, when her mother died? Or does she have some other special talent that gives her these dreams?
-Who are the Voi? The Russian mafia is the Bratva. The Voi seem very powerful and secretive, to be wielding all of this power over such rich men, and to have the rich hiding in fear.
-Khatun took away Nina’s sight so that she wouldn’t have to look at the horrible things she was going to live through. Does she have her sight back because she’s lived through the worst of it?
-Prairie has almost hypnotic persuasive powers over people who are open to listening to her. She sees what’s inside someone, and speaks to that. Unfortunately, her adoptive parents are well-meaning but too small-minded to open themselves fully to a heart and mind as powerful as Prairie’s.
-Steve is an interesting character. We haven’t been given a reason for his behavioral issues and anger, beyond that he’s a bad, spoiled kid, which is too easy to apply to anyone. Is there some trauma, abuse, or neglect in his background? Does he have an undiagnosed disability or mental illness? The actor is doing a fantastic job making Steve feel erratic, tensed-up, and violent, like he’s a bomb that’s waiting to blow. But, he also could be a kid who maybe isn’t so bad underneath it all. He has the shell-shocked look of someone who’s as surprised and hurt by his own impulsive, self-destructive behavior as anyone else. Prairie was right, there’s some interesting potential for growth in Steve, if he can learn to channel his impulses.
-The other boys are Jesse, Alfonso, and Buck. Alfonso is an athlete and good student. Jesse is a geek who wants to create personal training videos with Steve. Buck is a FtM trans boy who doesn’t appear to be out to his family and gets his hormones from Steve. The five people who are helping Prairie all seem lost themselves in some way.
-Prairie was born in 1987. Assuming the series takes place in the present time, she disappears when she’s about 22, and returns when she’s 29. Yet her bedroom is filled with dolls, especially Barbies. Prairie and the Barbies look very similar, with their long blonde hair and even features. Is Prairie everyone’s doll and plaything? Does everyone, including her parents, simply put the clothes and persona they want onto her? The doll imagery was overwhelming in this episode. Prairie even replaced herself in bed with a doll when she went to the abandoned house at midnight. Was she leaving her parents the kind of daughter they really want? Certainly it’s the kind of patient the hospital guidelines want. Even Steve tried to subdue her, then dressed her up to be a real life doll with a stepmommy persona. Nina’s father was the only person who accepted her as she was, bare feet and all. He tried to give her what she truly needed by helping her face her fears to become strong.
-Not only does Prairie leave a doll in her place when she leaves her parents’ house, she goes to a broken, unfinished house to do her important work. A house that’s always open, with no windows or doors, but whose inhabitants come and go by choice. No one is forced to give up their agency or privacy here. The normal rules of society are broken here on a regular basis. It’s a liminal space where anything can happen, the complete opposite of her parents house where conformism is more and more strictly enforced, in the name of protecting her from herself. And in this place, she finds her voice again, and speaks freely, after being unable to put her experience into words in the stifling atmospheres of the hospital and her parents’ house.
-In this version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy/Nina was born in the beautiful Emerald City/outskirts of Moscow. She somehow ended up blind/seeing in black and white, and living in Midwestern Kansas/Michigan, renamed Prairie to cement the reference. The question is, where did she go for those missing 7 years? Was she held by the Wicked Witch, who thought she had some version of the Ruby Slippers/immortality/magic? Who is she planning to rescue? Is her new team the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Scare Crow, or is that Homer and the other hostages? Or have I stretched this analogy too far? Is her father the Wizard? He gave her courage. If the parallel holds, Nina should wind up somewhere happy and beautiful with her father, or a father substitute, at the end. (She didn’t start in Kansas, so she shouldn’t end in Kansas, but the enclave in Moscow doesn’t seem feasible either.)
-There is the possibility that parts of her story aren’t true, though I believe her.
*I’m not in any way advocating for this, but Steve and Prairie having a sexual relationship in the state of Michigan would be legal. The legal age of consent there is 16. She’s not an authority figure over him in any way. We’ve seen that he’s sexually active and his father, at least, knows about it. Steve is impulsive, violent, and possessive. The person who would be in the most danger if they were to get involved is Prairie, especially if she’s as mentally fragile as the other characters believe she is. The level of hypocrisy his parents displayed is ridiculous.