This article contains spoilers through all eight episodes of The OA.
The OA, which was released in its entirety on Netflix this month, is one of the more divisive shows the streaming service has debuted in its history, with critics calling it “a strange, haunting mess,” “beautiful bullshit,” and “a two-hour movie with a seven-hour-plus run time.” For the record, I loved it, though I can understand what might put many viewers off. The very qualities that mark the series as distinctive and ambitious—its labyrinthine plot, its mutating style, its interpretive dance moves—are the ones that also make it potentially infuriating. The finale, which saw the protagonist Prairie’s visions finally manifested in the real world even as it also seemed to reveal her as a fraud, could be either maddeningly ambiguous or offensively clumsy, depending on your worldview.
The OA is dense with clues, allusions, and imagery, some of which contribute to a better understanding of the show, and some of which are still totally baffling. Still, you can come to your own interpretation of the series based on how you relate to the story. For some, the show might be a complex meditation on the aftermath of trauma, as its creators, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, have suggested. For others, it might be an examination of the power of storytelling, and how different cultures have, since the earliest days of language, passed down myths to foster a sense of community. In that, the finale’s ambiguity about whether Prairie (or OA, as she calls herself) was truthful about what happened to her while she was missing is deliberate: It doesn’t matter, since her story serves a larger purpose for the people she tells it to.
But there are also definitive signs throughout all eight episodes that at least some of OA’s visions are real—and, as predicted earlier in the show, they help prevent a great evil from occurring. Since a series as complex as this one seems intended to be forensically analyzed by viewers (and since Batmanglij has directly referenced the clues buried in episodes), it’s worth focusing on some of its smaller pieces to build a greater comprehension of what The OA was trying to do.
For starters, having rewatched most of the season’s episodes, it’s clear that the cafeteria shooting in the finale doesn’t come totally out of left field, even if seems like an odd, sideways lurch. In the very first episode, OA tells Betty Broderick-Allen, or BBA (Phyllis Smith), that Steve’s (Patrick Gibson) aggression and violence is an instinctual response to his surroundings. “It’s not really a measure of mental health to be well-adjusted in a society that’s very sick,” she says. This is emphasized again in the seventh episode when he stabs OA in the leg with a pencil (after, she digs a piece of lead out of her skin that seems to portend her being shot outside the cafeteria). Steve’s tendency to use violence as an outlet to express his deeply rooted pain is felt throughout the series, as are the isolation and trauma of OA’s other misfit followers.
Even if you dismiss OA’s stories about her captivity as a fantastical narrative devised by a deeply traumatized person trying to conceive of a way out, certain elements are indisputable. She was blind when she went missing but could see seven years later, when she returned. Whatever happened to her during those seven years led to malnourishment and vitamin-D deficiency. And she has a vision that causes her to run to the high school, where a shooter is standing with a loaded assault rifle in the cafeteria.
Capping a narrative that has hinted at the possibility of a more spectacular, multidimensional conclusion—one that involves the rescue of OA’s four fellow captives in Hap’s basement—with a school shooting understandably feels stark, even cheap, by comparison. But it isn’t unearned. And the group’s silent agreement to perform the movements OA taught them, rather than to run or hide, is a leap of faith—a gesture of desperation, perhaps, but also of hope. Again, whether you find the scene incredibly moving or utterly ridiculous will depend on your tolerance for interpretive dance. (The lovely, haunting music scoring the scene includes Nina/Prairie’s violin solo from episodes prior.) Either way, it confuses the shooter enough to allow the cafeteria worker to tackle him.
The scene also contains moments that seem to suggest OA’s stories about near-death experiences aren’t totally fantastical. At the beginning, when Jesse’s friend is staring out the window, frozen, the shot warps and wobbles a little, as if reality is shifting. After the five complete the movements, the trees blow in the wind and the light changes on Steve’s face, before the camera cuts to OA behind a pane of shattered glass, as if to symbolize her freedom after being behind glass walls for so long. “You did it,” she tells them. “Don’t you see? I have the will.” Then, as the ambulance doors close, Steve hears a whoosh in the air, just like the sound Hap described as the soul leaving the body.
The finale definitively offers more questions than answers. Is OA actually able to read the books that were under her bed, given that in her goodbye note to Nancy and Abel she was barely able to write her name in block letters? What was her FBI counselor doing in the house in the middle of the night? Why does the color purple recur so much throughout the show? Why can’t OA tell the FBI everything that happened at Hap’s—all the evidence she and her friends supposedly wrote down in their note on the Verizon envelope—in order to help identify him? If her story isn’t true, where did her scars come from?
But as an allegory for the power of faith and community, it all functions surprisingly neatly. Steve, Buck, Jesse, Betty, and French are saved, literally and metaphorically, by their union as a group. The students are freed from their glass-walled, locked-down cafeteria, just like OA hoped to free Hap’s prisoners from their cages. Whether OA’s stories are true or not (“I’m scared, Homer, that’s why I think I made you up,” she says in the first episode), they got her through her own imprisonment. “How did you survive so long down there?” Steve asks her after he stabs her in the leg. “I survived because I wasn’t alone,” she replies.
While the rational response to OA’s stories is to assume that they’re fictitious, there’s imagery throughout the show that lends them weight. The wolf sweatshirt she wears when she’s shot could be construed as pointing to Veles, the Slavic god of the underworld, often imagined taking the physical form of a wolf. OA’s three names also have significance: “Nina” means dream, or dreamer, “Prairie” implies earth, and “OA,” or “original angel,” points to heaven.
The ambiguity of the final episode seems intended to reinforce the theme of the show: that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. OA’s stories are steeped in mythology that dates back millennia, and her therapeutic conversations with the FBI counselor are no different in helping her process what happened to her than her stories in the abandoned house. The five movements (choreographed by Ryan Heffington, who’s worked with Sia on five of her recent videos) may look ridiculous to Western audiences, but they tie into a history of group movement that can be seen in the Maori haka and rainmaking rituals traditional across continents. Even the basic structure of the finale seems directly inspired by the ending of A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving’s 1989 novel, in which a series of rehearsed movements help prevent the mass murder of children.
For now, a conclusive interpretation of The OA might depend on whether there’s a second season. Marling herself has implied that there is one answer to take away from the show. “I would never want to deprive anyone of their interpretation of the ending,” she told Marie Claire. “The thing I will say is this: if we should be so lucky to have a season two, there are answers to all of the questions. That’s the delicious thing about the gap between seasons. People watch and take it in, revel in the mystery, argue about it online. And then, if they should be so lucky, the storytellers get to meet the audience when the story continues.”