Secrets of ‘The OA’: Co-Creator Brit Marling Explains What the Hell Is Happening in the Netflix Sci-Fi Mystery
The writer and star of ‘The OA’ is here to tell us what exactly is going on in her compelling new show.
To watch indie auteur Brit Marling’s latest cerebral sci-fi effort The OA is, frankly, to be confused as hell.
Of course, that’s on purpose. The eight-episode labyrinth of strange spiritual mysteries ends on a deliberately ambiguous note. (Be warned, spoilers ahead through episode eight.) Prairie Johnson (or the OA, as she calls herself) and her wild, surrealistic story about being abducted by an abusive scientist, regaining her sight, falling in love with a fellow captive, and finding a way to return from the afterlife is either redeemed or totally debunked.
It all depends on how you read those final, pivotal moments, when a group of teenage boys and their teacher unleash a feral dance around a school shooter, distracting him long enough to be taken down. In a final twist, a bullet flies through a glass window squarely into Prairie’s chest. Whether there’s any real power in the dance Prairie taught the boys, whether her dreams really tell the future, or whether her story is just a looser metaphor for deeper, inarticulable traumas is left open to interpretation.
To hear Marling (who stars in, co-created and co-wrote the series with creative partner Zat Batmanglij) tell it, the veracity of Prairie’s story “matters less” than the fact that telling it “healed” her and “prepared these boys to face coming of age, which is its own kind of trauma.” Still, she does have answers to the finale’s lingering questions, like what Elias (Riz Ahmed) was doing in Prairie’s apartment, or how Steve evaded military school long enough to be in the cafeteria that day.
The OA, which was announced only days before it hit Netflix last Friday, marks a new sort of project for both Netflix and Marling, best known for her breakout role in 2011’s Another Earth and her collaborations with Batmanglij on Sound of My Voice and 2013’s The East (like The OA, her resume favors big ideas and ambiguous endings). “It’s exciting to see people be open to something more fluid,” she says, describing the series as not-quite-TV, not-quite-film, with each episode lasting between 30 and 70 minutes.
It’s certainly no Stranger Things—as we said in our review, it’s bolder, more ambitious and altogether weirder than that; an oddball treasure made possible by the advent of peak TV. To delve deeper into the show’s mysteries, we talked to Marling about near-death experiences, that shock ending, and what to expect from Season 2.
What is it about near-death experiences that interests you and how did that lead to writing a show?
Raymond Moody coined the term “near-death experience” in this book Life After Life that was published, I think, in the mid-’70s, and he noticed this sort of convergence in storytelling behind near-death experiences, when people had flatlined and had brain death and were medically classified as dead, and then some amount of time later—two minutes, seven minutes, 20 minutes—they would return to their bodies. Many of them described similar experiences, having a sort of out-of-body experience or a bird’s eye point of view, seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, being drawn away from it, in some cases being asked if they wanted to return to their body or if they wanted to stay in what is often described as “euphoria” or a kind of connectedness with all things. It was interesting to read that book because I think he was trying to put language to something that is very hard for science to grasp and quantify, because it’s about storytelling and not about measurable things necessarily. So that seemed really interesting and like a springboard for a science-fiction premise.
That tension between science and spirituality is a big part of Prairie’s narrative, with Hap, the scientist, and his abusive treatment of the captives.
I always think of science and spirituality as growing in two different directions, like on a line, but the line actually ends up being a circle. They’re attempting to arrive at the same place and often do. I think especially in early, mystical texts, they talk about things that quantum physics is actually now finding language for in a different way. So I think everyone’s after the same thing, it’s just a matter of approach. Hap is very dogmatically pursuing his attempt to nail it down to facts and figures and numbers and things that can be quantified and held. He wants to know [about life after death] in a tangible way. Then there comes a point where his subjects begin to leap ahead of him and he has to play catch up.
And of course the main question by the end is whether or not the OA was telling the truth about where she’s been for seven years.
With the end, the question certainly remains about whether she’s telling the truth, but I think the larger thing is that whether her story was a metaphor for traumas that were darker and harder to put into words or whether it was a literal truth matters less than the fact that this girl experienced something and survived it and came back and told a story that, in its telling, healed her and prepared these boys to face coming of age, which is its own kind of trauma. There was something at the center of her story that was nutritious, that was something the boys needed. To me, that’s where it leads.
What inspired the show's visual representation of life after death, that space with the cabin and the pool of water and Katun? Did you draw from anything preexisting for that? I think we’d read a lot of stories and the convergence of things we tried to borrow from were hallmark moments that we’ve all probably heard of at this point: the light at the end of the tunnel or being in a space or a place that is unfamiliar. But from there we tried to find our own visual expression for it. Alex DiGerlando, who’s our production designer, was really so amazing on that. He’s like another writer in the writers’ room, he’s really talented and committed to the story. From the earliest draft of the script, he was already coming up with images. I loved his idea of having a cabin in an expanse and when you enter it, it becomes infinite. I think that playing with those ideas, taking things that are normally dressed in spiritual language and pushing them into a surrealist, sci-fi space seemed more interesting.
Back to that ambiguous ending: I’m one of those who thinks Prairie’s story was more metaphorical than literal, but there’s no way to know for sure. What did you want audiences to feel at that ending? Are you OK with them being frustrated?
Yeah, I mean I think the great thing about long-format storytelling is that you can keep telling the story. It would be unfortunate to wrap everything up in a bow because then where [do you go from there]? So I think that’s there by design but I think the core emotional story is actually resolved. There’s a group of lost boys who are looking for something and, very oddly, this strange outsider girl who’s experienced something traumatizing, in a kind of Scheherazad style, begins to tell them this story over many nights and the story ends up stitching a community and a sense of tribe where there wasn’t one before, where there was just alienation and awkwardness and violence and confusion. And then that tribe ends up becoming important and meaningful to them in the last moments of [episode] eight. So I think in that sense, the main thrust of the story really kind of opens and closes in that season. But yeah, in terms of whether everything in her story was true or not, (laughs) you’ll have to wait until next season. Hopefully we’ll get to do another season. Who knows?
You have answers laid out for reveals in the second season?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Why make the final confrontation a school shooting? It’s obviously such a fraught, raw image in America, and a delicate thing to work into a TV show. I think it’s something that’s really on all of our minds now. It just seems like this sort of crisis that keeps occurring, and it seemed pretty honest as something that this group of boys might face. It’s honestly really hard to talk about. I think the whole thing is largely building to that last chapter. [The OA] tells this wild story and it asks the boys and the audience to continually make bigger and bigger leaps of faith with her. But there’s ultimately something in its center, something about faith or belief that enters those boys and their teacher and ends up really connecting them and giving them something in that moment that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. That’s a very complicated and delicate moment to build to, but it’s also something I don’t think I can add anything to. Meaning like, I don’t think I could tell you something about it or give a point of view. It sort of is the observation. Does that make sense? I think that’s why it enters wordlessness. It enters that weird language of poetry or cinema. It’s about the juxtaposition between nihilism and... whatever the opposite of nihilism is. (Laughs)
You have a really vivid group of characters in the boys, and a real sense of suburban restlessness that comes through them. Little signifiers like the local Costco and Little Caesars feel familiar from that kind of space. What went into writing their stories?
We were really worried in the beginning. We wanted to tell a story about teenage boys and we were like, “Gosh, we don’t have any business talking about this, neither of us is a teenage boy and neither of us has been in our teenage years for a really long time.” You end up mixing your own teenage experience with John Hughes films and sort of rewriting it. Like, you look back and suddenly, somehow, Ferris Bueller was at your high school—or at least maybe for me, ‘cause I grew up in Chicago. So what was really exciting was when Netflix greenlit the show, we asked them if we could take the time to go do, like, an anthropology study of high school in the Midwest. They were really excited by the idea so we traveled through Illinois and Ohio and Pennsylvania and went to dozens of high schools, sat in the classrooms, interviewed kids and teachers, made friends with people and went to their sports practices and followed them home and had Little Caesars pizza with someone’s family.
I’m sort of tired of all the stuff that makes fun of suburban landscapes, or makes fun of the box superstores. Everything has a kind of ironic, cutting edge to it. I get why we’re all inclined to do that, because we all feel a little embarrassed or something. But those spaces, I grew up in those spaces, and pretty amazing moments happen inside Panera and Costco. People are falling in love and getting their hearts broken and having epic fights in the parking lot of K-Mart and inside Target, you know? These are the spaces our lives are happening in. So I wanted to go in those spaces and explore them with the proper honesty and also resonance. The neighborhood we shot in, we looked all over for that neighborhood and just couldn’t find it. Sometimes these spaces feel ordinary and sometimes they feel mystical and full of wonder because people inhabit them, and people have that ability. So that neighborhood, sometimes you look at it and it looks like a bunch of disjointed houses thrown together quickly. And then you see it in just the right light at twilight and it just gains this otherworldly feeling.
But yeah, we tried really hard to make it feel real and to write about what kids really feel right now. They seem both really way ahead of their years and in some ways not. It’s like, just talking about sex alone—they’re all having sex imitating porn because they watch so much of it. So the movements and the positions are really advanced, but the intimacy doesn’t necessarily match that. And it sort of feels like that across the board. To me, some of them seemed very overwhelmed by how much they’re taking in. Beheading videos, you know, so much. They don’t have adult minds yet. Nobody’s ready for these things, but certainly you’re not ready when you’re a teenager. And yet they’re inundated with all this stuff and asked to take it on, so there’s this profound sense of alienation and a desperation to be liked because so much of that is given a literal metric now. And there’s a lot of pain and confusion about what this all adds up to. What am I supposed to aspire to? What am I supposed to study that there’s actually going to be a job for? You just feel like these kids are growing up in a time when the mythology of the American dream is deeply, obviously fractured to them. When I was growing up, I didn’t have that awareness. I felt there was a pretty linear footpath for how to advance. That all seems to have crumbled in a lot of ways. So we just spent some time talking to people and trying to figure out how to honestly look at that.
The teen actors you found are a pretty great bunch too.
The actors, oh my god, though. All these kids are just so wildly talented. Like, ugh, jeez, they’re amazing. And they work so hard. I mean, they trained so hard learning the movements and they were so committed to their parts. They really came to love each other. We all came to love each other so deeply. That part of it was really amazing. About the five movements—they’re probably the biggest stretch for audiences in terms of what they’re willing to believe as part of Prairie’s story. Were they meant as a provocation in that way? What else did they convey?
Definitely, yeah. I think when we were in the early phases, I was talking quite a bit about this concept of violence that is uniquely cinematic. There’s something about seeing [violence] visualized in moving images that can make it visceral in a way that’s without comparison. I started thinking about if there’s a cinematic antidote to violence that’s also a uniquely visual thing that you can’t really write or capture on the page, but if you saw it, it might have that impact. We asked Ryan Heffington, who’s done choreography for some of Sia’s videos including “Chandelier,” to come onboard [because] we always felt like he’d be the person who could create a language of movement that would be able to get at this idea that’s hard to articulate. And from the very beginning, he just intuited somehow. It’s a massive risk to write something that’s sort of at the heartbeat of the story and then just trust that another artist is going to be able to bring that part to the table. Ryan did and he realized it beyond anybody’s expectations. The movements do for whatever reason have a certain power to them. I think all the actors who trained to learn them felt that. In the beginning, because most of us are non-dancers, we felt a little sheepish and embarrassed because we all sort of live from the neck up now. You know, we’re all kind of just walking heads. And we feel embarrassed to be in our bodies and to move differently or do something strange. Even as actors, when it’s supposedly our job. (Laughs.) So I think we all felt odd at first and then moved past that and then it became sublime. It became, like, a profound ritual and a language for communicating, in some ways a lot more viscerally.
You know, there’s that scene where the OA and Homer have an argument and they just use the movements to talk to each other. You know exactly what they’re saying for some reason. She’s like, “I cannot believe you cheated on me.” And he’s being like, “Please forgive me.” And she’s like, “Hell no!” And he’s like, “But baby, please.” And you feel that, even though they haven’t said a word out loud, so that’s definitely a testament to Ryan’s choreography and to the power of filmmaking. And finally, will we find out in Season 2 what Elias was doing in Prairie's house? Or what Steve was even doing at school on the day of the shooting, when his parents had been about to send him off to military school?
(Laughs.) Yes. And I love that you hit on exactly all the things. That’s my favorite part. Yes, those are all the threads that it would be very fun to continue but you’re going to have to wait and see.