The OA: Stranger, More Interesting Things

Netflix’s surprise mystery series goes deeper than its summer supernatural hit

[Spoiler warning for the first four episodes of The OA.]

An unearthly, nosebleed-prone female creature flees to a Midwestern suburban town. A huddle of boys — her only allies — are rapt by her doleful past and mystical powers. The stories she tells transports them to worlds they’ve only known through fiction — ones filled with evil scientists, cruel experiments, and alternate dimensions. She understands these boys far better than they understand themselves — their potential for kindness, and the limits of their helpfulness.

The synopsis above describes both Netflix’s summer hit Stranger Things and the streaming site’s just-released The OA. Starring and co-created by Brit Marling (with her creative partner Zal Batmanglij, who directs all eight episodes), the supernatural mystery begins with the return of Marling’s Prairie to her hometown after a seven-year disappearance. Even more startling than her reappearance are the formerly blind woman’s restored sight, the bizarre scars on her back, and her new name: The OA. She won’t explain to her parents (a heartbreaking Alice Krige and Scott Wilson) or the authorities where she’s been. “It would hurt me to hurt you,” she tells her mom. “And it would hurt you.”

But The OA does want to talk. And so she does for the rest of the season, parceling out her life story, from her fairy tale–like origins in the Russian neo-aristocracy to the existential horror of being imprisoned underground without knowing why. Through her account, the atmospheric drama reveals its saving grace: its female perspective. The OA is in many ways a feminized version of Stranger Things — and that gender difference makes the Spielberg homage a fan’s slick scrapbook and this ambiguity-laden tale an original, idiosyncratic vision with a distinct point of view. The new series thus reminds us that the most familiar stories can feel fresh when told with new frames of reference. And that’s true even we can’t quite trust the storyteller — as is the case with The OA’s recital of her fantastical autobiography.

Stranger Things was a disappointing throwback not just because of its nostalgic influences, but also its ’80s-inspired sexism. Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven was othered into the extremities of space by the show’s everyboy POV, and purported star Winona Ryder was given the barest of character arcs. The teenage love story with Nancy (Natalia Dyer) in the middle easily comprised the season’s weakest story line, constructed as it was for the redemption of hobbyist photographer Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), whose opportunistic creepiness is never fully acknowledged. As for inexplicable fan favorite Barb (Shannon Purser), her story line essentially traced her conversion into chum. The small boys at the center of the narrative, as naturalistic as the kid actors were, never quite felt real because children are rarely that blandly likable.

In contrast, The OA’s best elements lie in the show’s gendered takes on genre tropes. Compare, for example, the shows’s villains. Killing more or less defines Stranger Things’s brute beast — a literally faceless butcher the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, have likened to the similarly depthless shark from Jaws. The monsters from both series abscond with their victims to their lairs, but The OA’s demented doctor, Hap (Jason Isaacs), is that much more terrifying because his analogues, no matter how loosely based, exist in the real world. Though Hap holds captive both men and women, the figure of the kidnapper turned warden is a profoundly patriarchal one, with Hap’s cousins darkening projects as diverse as Room and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. As the season progresses, the deranged quack grows increasingly sexually possessive of The OA, especially as she grows closer to Homer (Emory Cohen), her closest friend underground. The surprising circumstances of her freedom, too, are undeniably gendered, adding another layer of queasy complexity to the already tangled relationship between abductor and abductee.

There’s a corresponding development of emotional intricacy in The OA’s story line about Prairie’s new friends. Unlike the fairly simple camaraderie between Stranger Things’s boys and the utterly flat romances between the high schoolers, The OA uses its teenagers to explore troubled and atypical masculinities to truly compelling effect. An unstable blend of power, drugs, pity, violence, and defensiveness forms the glue joining lonely fuck-up Steve (Patrick Gibson), overburdened prodigy Alfonso (Brandon Perea), orphaned Jesse (Brendan Meyer), and trans kid Buck (Ian Alexander). The boys collectively showcase the series’s unobtrusive diversity, and each character is sharply defined enough on his own for us to want more of his story. The OA’s unexpected rapport with them allows them to get in touch with their vulnerabilities (or their “invisible selves,” in her New Age–y parlance), muddling their preconceptions about manhood. Most poignantly, The OA’s contagious openheartedness serves as a kind of emotional prep for their touchingly genuine bond with their teacher, Betty (Phyllis Smith) — a character who receives the kind of resonant humanity that women of a certain age and size seldom ever do.

Other feminine components add to The OA’s sumptuous spectacles and unusual mythology. The contemporary dance pieces are so beautiful and evocative that I wondered why we don’t see more performances like them elsewhere on television. And the drama’s biggest gamble, the otherworldly exposition, hits a sweet spot between the familiar and the specific while roping in angels — an archetype that we still rarely see in a magic-driven pop-cultural landscape dominated by face-punching superheroes. The twist that the prisoners must travel inward, rather than outward, also follows a stereotypically female narrative path — one that forces Marling and Batmanglij to create a visually seductive cosmos that’s as gorgeous as anything on TV this year.

But The OA’s biggest delight lies in Prairie’s literary self-creation via telling her story, recasting herself from the “Michigan Miracle” she was dubbed by the local newspapers to the astral pioneer she hopes to become. Her accounts are as addictive as Scheherazade’s — and she, too, is fighting for a way out of female disposability through storytelling. The OA’s ultimate struggle is for her to become the main character in her own tale instead of a footnote in someone else’s, from her father’s nemeses to the doctors who diagnose her as delusional to the sociopathically narcissistic Hap. That long struggle to assert her own identity — keenly though not exclusively female — is The OA’s most powerful narrative, no matter its unreliability. Accuracy might not line up with authenticity, but in The OA’s case, only the latter has the power to remake the world.