Thoughts on “The OA”

So when I first mentioned this series awhile ago, I called it an ethereal fairy tale for adults. That was based on the first episode.

It gets dark real quick. So if you’re not into that, you should probably not watch.

But it’s good though. Really good. It has flaws, but it’s captivating and occasionally beautiful and I was hooked. Enough to finish the last 3/4 of the series in 2 days even though I am not at all a binge watcher and tend to take months, even years to finish a drama. (Comedies are easy, they go in the background while I do other work. Dramas I have to watch, which means I have to stop, which I hate doing.)

There’s a few things I want to talk about with this series, so I’ll divide them up a bit and tackle them one on one rather than trying to discuss the whole thing. All the spoilers. And yet, no plot summary! There’s too much. I cannot give an actual coherent plot summary. I will try for a silly one, though. Here goes.

A kidnapping victim is discovered and brought back to her hometown where she recruits a high school teacher and a bunch of students to a weird Dead Poets’ Society/storytime/dance/interdimensional travel club. It doesn’t go well.

A lot of this show is about freedom, and the lack of it. When OA is brought back to live with her parents after years in actual captivity, they follow a lot of advice designed to protect her but that denies her autonomy. This is an adult woman who granted hasn’t really lived on her own before but is probably still capable of learning to do so. But because of her former blindness and recent trauma, her parents feel justified in being over-protective to the point that it becomes oppressive. She winds up having to steal wifi and sneak out of the house to have any sort of control over her life.

A lot of the people she brings into her little storytelling/interpretive dance club are similarly trapped in their lives. At the same time, they’re disconnected enough from their respective families that they can leave their homes in the middle of the night leaving front doors wide open without attracting attention. They form their own community based on trust (more on that later as well), and they start to notice and help each other explore their options and get outside their cages.

It’s interesting to me that this happens through art. That at the end in particular, there doesn’t seem to be much that their movements would do in terms of actually stopping the shooter and protecting classmates – it just puts them right in front of the bullets. But this sudden act of courage and expression and just overall not-what-you-expect confuses the shooter long enough for someone else to jump in and stop him. Creating our own communities and finding the courage to be ourselves and have faith in something bigger/better disrupts control and oppression.

Throughout the entire show, OA’s parents ignore her request not to be called Prairie. The hotheaded bully is a jerk, but when he starts to bond with her he calls her nicknames at first and then more and more switches to OA. The rest of the group calls her by her preferred name as well, as does her therapist.

It becomes a really quick and easy marker for who can be trusted and who’s “in.” The people who see and hear her, who really respect her identity and believe in her ideas call her OA. The refusal to recognize her true name shows that no matter how much they might love her, her parents just aren’t ready to see her and be part of her story. They’re still trying to control rather than trust and support.

Names are so important. Being recognized the way we see ourselves and feeling supported in our identities lets us know where we’re really safe and empowered. It’s hard to trust someone who won’t even trust you to know yourself. Every time someone called her “OA,” my heart warmed a little. That person became very special to me. It’s a small thing, but it makes such a huge difference. There really aren’t many things that make me happier than hearing someone use my preferred name and pronouns, and that’s not an issue I’ve seen represented much in entertainment. I think it was done really well here and I appreciate it.

“You need to pretend to trust me until you actually do.”

UGH. This. Line.

It’s stuck with me since I first heard it. So beautiful and so important. A much better (to me) way of stating the Mark Twain quote – “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” That makes it sound like deliberately ignoring facts and choosing lies and delusions, and that doesn’t ring true for me at all.

But sometimes, the world is overwhelming and sad and unjust and it’s hard to believe we can be better. Faith for me is pretending I believe that when it’s hardest, choosing to live like it’s possible until it becomes easier to see glimpses of that better world. Trusting that somewhere, someone is doing good even in the midst of all this awfulness and that those little bits of good make a difference.

And another thing I like about this is that it doesn’t matter if OA’s stories are true. The trust is the important thing, not the interdimensional travel or the specifics of what happened to her. It’s about her interpretation and the story as she knows it, and the willingness of others to listen to her story and accept her ownership of her experiences.

My personal reading is that of course she was not only telling the truth, but right about the things she couldn’t know for sure yet. There are a few details to contradict that, but they can be dismissed as just mistakes in writing or (for an in-universe explanation) things she misunderstood at the time or remembered wrong. And there are fewer things to contradict her being right than there are to suggest she was lying.

But either way, it’s not the point. What matters is that her chosen family believed in her, no matter how bizarre and unlikely the story sounded. When it mattered, when they were in a bad situation and even after having their group torn apart, they decided to trust that the things they had learned and the bond they shared mattered and could do something to help.

I think they were able to do that at least in part because they looked around and saw each other, realized that the others had the same experiences and wanted to believe too. It’s hard to have faith when we isolate ourselves. Having faith in each other and in the community makes it easier to act on our beliefs and values.

Discussion Questions
Have you watched The OA? What stood out to you about it? What does faith mean to you? What things help you hold onto it? What experiences and actions let you know you can trust people?

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