In the second season of Netflix’s series The OA, its creators question the relentless technological progress of our time, but the result is somewhat scattered.By Sanja Grozdanic.
In early 2017, soon after the release of the first season of The OA, its co-creator Brit Marling spoke at length with her friend Malcolm Gladwell about the series for Interview magazine. During the conversation, Gladwell asked Marling why she is so drawn to fantasy and speculative science fiction, both as a writer and an actor. These genres, she explained, best reflect her view of the world and the deep mythology she naturally invests in everyday moments and objects.
“I think I need to believe in that version of reality because I get very scared when I don’t,” she said. “I feel very alone when I don’t feel that.”
Social isolation, technological domination and the profound discontent of a generation are all explored by The OA, a series that positions itself against the exploitation demanded by capitalism and is strung together by a storyline dense with time travel. Understandably, it has divided audiences. It has been called “absolutely insane”, “batshit” and “brilliant” – and yet has also gained a cult following and brought into focus a desire for the construction of new narratives and mythologies.
As Marling told Gladwell, “The OA is our attempt at writing and making a new human language through movement, this mythology we’re inventing.”
The series began its first season with Prairie Johnson (Marling), a woman missing for seven years who is rescued following an ostensible suicide attempt. Prairie was once blind – now she can see. She will not reveal to her family how she gained her sight, nor tell them what happened to her. She denies she was trying to kill herself, insisting she was only trying to “go back”. To where is the central mystery of the show’s first season, tagged as Part I, slowly revealed over eight episodes.
As the first season unfurled itself, I understood The OA to be an extended metaphor for post-traumatic stress disorder. In another life, in another dimension, Prairie is held captive by the show’s central villain, Dr Hap (Jason Isaacs), a scientist obsessed with near-death experiences and the power they bestow on survivors. Prairie, I believed, constructed her captivity as a trauma response – a hyper-fantasy of good versus evil, which allowed her to regain a sense of control.
The show’s perplexing narrative structure echoed a survivor’s frenzied mental state, a reading of existential crisis that I liked. When mental illness is feminised, it is often depicted as tepid and lifeless. But The OA gave weight to Prairie’s somatic condition, depicting it not so much as a defect but as a lifeline; a way to give form to what she cannot say. “Madness as a defense against terror. Madness as a defense against grief”, as Susan Sontag described it. One cannot live in such a world, but its genesis is all too human.
Part II of The OA proved my reading entirely incorrect.
In this season, the series relocates from North Carolina to San Francisco, California. It feels a fitting evolution in many ways – from the margins to the centre of technocapitalism.
In San Francisco, Prairie awakens in the body of Nina Azarova – a Russian heiress who lives in a penthouse, dresses in Gucci and is engaged to a tech billionaire named Pierre Ruskin. She has no memory of this life of material excess, but no one from her former life – of Prairie, the blind orphan – remembers her. Concerned for her welfare, a psychologist sends Nina to a facility on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay for a 14-day psychiatric hold.
At the same time, elsewhere in the city, private investigator Karim Washington (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is hired by an elderly Vietnamese woman searching for her missing granddaughter, Michelle. Michelle disappeared after winning thousands of dollars playing an app, which seems to alienate and consume its users, while tempting them with the possibility of vast riches.
Following Karim’s attempts to trace the app back to its creator, the series starts to question the ethics underlying the startling decadence and terminal decline of the Silicon Valley social order. Karim discusses the app with a tech worker who suggests crowd-sourcing is nothing more than a euphemism for free labour. “What, erase the boundary between work and play, hide your sweatshop in the cloud?” he asks her. “Exactly,” she replies.
Who will protect those most vulnerable, like Michelle, in this rigged game? How are we compromised when our most intimate, private desires are mined as data? In a sprawling converted factory, Karim finds young women held in a literal dream farm, an attempt by a tech billionaire to instrumentalise the social unconscious in a search for the secret to time travel. A dystopia perhaps not radically removed from our present.
But amid all these subplots, the point is scattered, lost between too many narrative arcs. The choice to be so laser-focused on Marling’s character feels like a misstep – particularly while the profound discontent of this season’s younger characters seems far more urgent and vital than Nina’s struggle. Those characters are sidelined. Instead, the series insists upon a love story that has long since lost its romance or intrigue. Karim, too, is denied sufficient screen time and character development.
It is clear The OA is attempting to tap into something deeper. A renewed interest in the exploration of multiple dimensions and realities, including the series’ Netflix stablemates Russian Doll and Stranger Things, suggests a general recognition of a profound cultural lack. Suspended over a void, we face several conflicting futures. History repeats itself endlessly – infinite parallel worlds with interchangeable players.
Pierre Ruskin could be Peter Thiel, the billionaire tech investor long dogged by rumours he wants to inject himself with the blood of young people to stave off the effects of ageing. In another, more socially minded dimension, he could have been Alexander Bogdanov – the Soviet physician, philosopher and science fiction writer who also had an interest in what blood transfusion could do, but from a communist, rather than hyper-capitalist, perspective.
The 19th century defined the idea of progress as an infinite and irreversible improvement; the Hegelian idea of cumulative progress. Indeed, the myth of progress has been the West’s ruling ideology. But for downwardly mobile millennials facing social collapse, environmental catastrophe and unprecedented species extinction, this narrative has lost its primacy, or indeed its validity.
In the final episode of Part II, detective Karim saves one of the app’s users, but in doing so only manages to seem moralising and out of touch. Though addicted to the physically invasive, impossible game that inherently negates social life, the millennial doesn’t want to be saved. Remorseless and defiant, they see no future in the present Karim offers.
With this season, Marling and her co-creator, Zal Batmanglij, show themselves to be genuinely interested in moving The OA beyond emotional landscapes to the structural conditions fomenting this discontent. As Batmanglij explained, the pair sought to make “a gangster movie without the gangsters, because it’s the idea that it’s not just killing one bad guy or two bad guys, but it’s a whole city is to blame”.
But the question remains whether a show commissioned by Netflix – a company now worth more than Microsoft founder Bill Gates and only slightly less than Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos – can ever honestly critique our present moment, shaped by the dominance of the tech giants. A successful Netflix product can be judged by its compulsive consumption; how quickly do viewers watch a season? “At Netflix, we are competing for our customers’ time, so our competitors include Snapchat, YouTube, sleep, et cetera,” said Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings. Where profit was once maximised with families and romantic comedies, in our moment of precarity it is apocalypse that is commercially seductive.
THEATRE Winyanboga Yurringa
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VISUAL ART Adrian Bradbury: The Lost World
Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart, May 9-June 1
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THEATRE Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play
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MULTIMEDIA Tarryn Gill: Guardians
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until May 5
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Techno musing". Subscribe here.