Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The OA and the Metaphysics of Trauma

If you pressed me for an adjective for these times I'd have to go with "bleak." The Obama era opened with so many promises and ended almost exactly as they began, with a nation bogged down in war abroad and dangerously polarized politically and economically at home. The Trump Administration and its discontents are only exacerbating the process.

With huge swathes of the country written off as obsolete by the decision makers on the coasts, any sense of national unity has terminally eroded. For the moment, the disposessesd have been kept pacified with entertainment and opiates but there's a growing sense that the American experiment is nearing its completion. 

This is why you have the richest of the rich planning their escape to hold-outs in New Zealand and other remote locations, exactly as Roman knights and aristocrats did when central authority began to collapse in the Western Empire. Not a sign of rude health, that.

Everywhere you look you're confronted with trend-lines pointing towards a number of crisis points; social, political, economic. We have all the technology in the world yet, for the moment at least, the future is starting to look a bit bleak


The Netflix series The OA is certainly bleak. So much so that it makes bleakness into its own kind of poetry. The camera's eye is relentlessly documentary and dispassionate and there's very little musical score to relieve the sometimes unbearable tension. Cold, washed-out colors dominate the photography. This isn't Hollywood you're looking at here.

And as such it's not necessarily an easy series to watch. A lot of viewers didn't make it through.

Its central themes are death, trauma and captivity. The zeitgeist is captured in the person of a maverick scientist whose quest makes him into a monster, a callous, obsessive Dr. Frankenstein whose inability for basic human compassion drives him to murder, over and again.

The story is fairly simple and for some viewers, a bit repetitious. A young woman named Prairie is saved from jumping off a bridge and is brought to a hospital. It's discovered that she was the adopted daughter of an elderly couple and she's been missing for several years. Her back is mottled with strange scars. 

And even though she was blind since childhood she can now see.

Brought back home to a dismally anonymous, semi-finished housing tract she brings a group of misfits into her orbit with her otherworldly charisma: a drug-dealing thug and his sidekick, an honor student from a troubled home,  a transgender boy in the midst of transition and an emotionally-fragile high school teacher. 

Prairie begins telling them her story, which starts in Russia: she was the daughter of an oligarch who fell afoul of the Mob. To get at their parents the Mob arranges the deaths of her and other rich children on the way to school. In death Prairie is confronted by a woman, who is apparently her guardian angel. The woman returns Prairie to life but takes her sight.

When her father dies Prairie ends up in America in the care of a shady adoption racket. There her adoptive parents (played by Alice Krige of Star Trek: First Contact/The 4400 fame and Scott Wilson, best known today for The Walking Dead) discover her. But they soon find out she's extremely troubled, given to weird, visionary episodes during sleep. She's then heavily medicated.

When Prairie reaches adulthood she begins to entertain fantasies that her birth father is still alive and travels to New York to meet him. But instead she's found by Hap, an anestheisologist obsessed with near-death experiences who can tell Prairie had an NDE when he hears her play violin in a subway.

Hap seduces Prairie into coming home with him so they can study her condition but instead she's taken prisoner in his basement. There she meets his other prisoners, all middle American archetypes. She bonds with Homer, a young football player who died and was resuscitated after sustaining a fatal injury during a game.

As Prairie tells it, Hap subjects his prisoners to brutal experiments in which they are repeatedly killed and medically resuscitated. During one of the experiments Prairie meets the woman from her childhood vision again and is told she has a great mission to carry out. Along the way, Hap takes Homer to Cuba to seduce a female musician whom Hap wants to abduct.

Desperate to fill long hours of captivity, Hap's prisoners begin acting out complex ritual dances, believing that they can cross into other dimensions by following an exact sequence of movements. The dances seem to have palpable effects, as we see in two memorable scenes.

As she tells her story, Prairie's circle is increasingly drawn into her world, forming a kind of cult around her. The stories have a hypnotic, transformative effect on them, changing their lives and redirecting them from potentially self-destructive paths. But crisis is always looming in the background and everything ends up blowing up in the end, leading to a shocking denouement.

 At the same time she's contacted by a journalist who wants to tell her story and by an FBI psychologist, whose motives are somewhat opaque. Later he will act as the linchpin as it becomes increasingly evident that Prairie's captivity may have in fact been part of a much larger conspiracy. 

And this is where the series will burn itself into your brain. We are asked finally if Prairie's stories are real or are in fact the product of a gifted but damaged psyche who's been subjected to an unimaginable ordeal. Was her captivity in fact even more traumatic and damaging than her stories will say? Are her stories, compelling as they are, elaborate constructions meant to shield herself from an even more terrifying reality? 

It's a question often asked when people claim experience with alien abduction, MKULTRA testing or other socially unacceptable traumas, isn't it?

But the season's climax doesn't let you off the hook that easily. We see inarguable evidence that Prairie is not just a delusional victim of an ordeal we're finally asked to guess at, but is in fact a prophet. One whose mission it is to avert a harrowing outcome for her small circle of followers and the larger community they represent.

In many important ways, The OA is an arty, indie, more than slightly pretentious companion piece to Stranger Things. 

Both deal with suburban monotony broken up by the arrival of a female character possessing otherworldly powers. In both series that character brings a group of misfits into her orbit, as well as an authority figure. In both series we see horrific human experiments undertaken and in both series the subjects of them cross over into other realities. 

But The OA is as elitist as Stranger Things is populist, as cold as the other is warm. It's not perfect by any means; it bogs down to a crawl in some spots and dials up the cringe-meter in others. 

But it goes a little deeper into the esoteric than Stranger Things does, taking issues like the mutability of reality by the horns and leavening the dough with some seemingly well-studied metaphysics. Nothing seems sloppy or dashed-off; on the contrary it can feel almost too meticulous in spots. The symbolism gets a little bit on-the-nose more than once.

The OA is worth sticking with, especially given the formulaic inter-changeability of so many series these days. (I actually dropped the series during the Christmas season and picked it up again after the New Year and I'm glad I did). It's like nothing else out there.

In the end it leaves you asking questions about the transformative nature of trauma and the grueling reality of captivity and the need it creates to construct alternate perceptions of reality in order to cope. And other questions as well.

Like why do some trauma and/or NDE experiencers emerge with heightened or changed abilities and perceptions? Why have mad scientists like those in MKULTRA believed that controlled trauma could lead to enhanced psychic abilities? Does that somehow justify their abuses, if not just in their own minds? Are NDEs tricks the brain plays on the dying or objective experiences? Does the paranormal work the way we want it to or does it follow its own inscrutable logic?

I can only assume that these are questions the series will address in its second season. It will if it's smart.

Bobby Beausoleil once said that Charles Manson's ability to seduce weaker minds into his alternate reality was the by-product of solitary confinement and the need it created to construct narratives to endure the crushing isolation. He had a lot of time to practice the powers of persuasion.

I'm not sure if the producers of The OA were aware of that fact but it certainly carries through in the story. It's an interesting comparison to make; are cult leaders themselves all damaged personalities who need the adoration of others to plug in the holes? 

The obvious answer is yes. But some cults also have had positive (and sometimes ecstatic) transformative effects on their followers, something we're not usually allowed to admit.

No, The OA is not perfect, not by any means. I'm not sure it's exactly entertaining, even. But the way it chooses to address complex metaphysics, and at the same time ask uncomfortable questions, makes it important.


  1. I actually feel it is the opposite of bleak. Overall it is very optimistic while remaining a dark story. I can't wait for it to return.

    1. I'm curious as to where it will go. The final episode opened up a lot of new cans of worms.

  2. I watched in binge mode, taken in by the mesmerizing premise of the connection OA made to the "other side". Well her and the others. It was not neatly packaged, by any means, and yet had a hopeful warmth to the power of the self to overcome the trauma. The choices she had the make each time she passed over. To go back or to stay without the pain of that living. She chose each time to go back to a perceived purpose. She did have the ability to "foresee", markedly so at the end, saving those around her. I found a greater requirement to perceive than with Stranger Things. This was a story based in fact, I believe. The writer and the star of the series were one and the same, lending a veracity to the stories she told. I've experienced the NDE, not in myself, however with someone who was in a coma. He had to make the choice of leaving, or going back. I felt the premise of this situation to be very accurately portrayed in the series. Very well done. Can't wait to see more.

    1. It's certainly different and approaches the subject matter in a way we've never seen before. It really leads you to wonder where it's all coming from.

  3. The bleakness I feel comes from the willingness of so many in America to overthrow democracy when it doesn't go their way.

    1. Yeah, there's plenty of bleak to go around.

  4. Hadn't heard of the OA, looks a worthy addition to the 'must watch' list.

    Checked out the trailer and noticed it's another Brit Marling work. She's starred in/co-written several indie films with weird themes - parallel worlds, religious cults, alternative politics - and now we can add mind-control into the mix.

    Definitely an interesting character and one to look out for in the future:


    1. She's got my attention. I'll be looking into her more closely for sure.

  5. I think if you watch the movie "Dr. Strange" it will unlock for you the power the "The OA" is tapping into, and of course the audience by extension.

    1. There are some subtextual similarities, oddly enough. Maybe connections being made on another plane of some kind.

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  7. There seems to be an interesting connection to Carlos Castaneda's work in the OA. In particular the system of movements he called Tensegrity. You can watch his disciples performing the movements on youtube.

    1. Yeah, people have brought that connection to my attention. I've seen Tensegrity performed but hadn't made the connection myself before.

    2. It also puts me in mind of Gurdjieff's movements/dances.

  8. I'm quite surprised no one has made the connection to Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff's sacred dances are called "movements" and are essential part of his system. Additionally, the Russian storyline connects with Ouspensky, Gurdjieff's Russian student, and the whole storytelling aspect seems to evoke Beelzebubs Tales to his Grandson. I appreciate the effort and the intentions of the show, just not a big fan of the execution. Regardless, I think you have done a great job of capturing the unique novelty of the show here.

  9. Haven't seen this one yet, thanks for pointing it out. It does seem like these MK tropes are entering entertainment vectors now with increased frequency. Someone trying to tell us something? One wonders.

    I have however watched the first two episodes now of the new show "Legion" on FX. I would be very curious about your perception of it. It was advertised as being "A Clockwork Orange meets the X-Men", but from what I've seen so far, it seems way more influenced by "Beyond the Black Rainbow". Certain scenes, old school synth soundtrack included, seem lifted right from that movie. I know the show was created by Noah Hawley, who was also responsible for the series "Fargo", based on the Coen Brothers movie. (That show had some interesting moments as well, esp. the 2nd season.) I'm also seeing some influence from David Cronenberg's early films. Just thought I'd mention it.

    As far as the bleakness goes, yeah, feeling it. Keep hearing about how investigation of Michael Flynn might be tip of the iceberg. Just heard this morning talk about the possibility of the US sending ground troops into Syria. & a Russian spy ship was recently sighted off the coast of CT. There are daily flights of loud fighter jets out of Westover half a dozen times a day now right over my home. Are we having fun yet? Meh.

  10. Having experienced both trauma and an NDE, I was captivated by this series. I was insatiably curious about the inspiration, and it turns out Brit Marling met an intriguing woman at a party who had an NDE. This article explains it http://www.vulture.com/2017/01/brit-marling-the-oa.html

    I felt like the bleakness and hyper vigilance was too real not to be from a lived experience. Anyone with an NDE, sighting or abduction story can relate to the stubborn insistence on the validity of the event. It's a passionate insistence, but it's often quiet (once it's been invalidated too many times). It's a difficult conviction to describe, but the OA does it perfectly.

    My auto-cringe reaction to modern dance was the only thing that distanced me from the show.

    1. So you're suggesting the author of the series lives with the emotions described...no doubt. There is a level of passion in the writing and acting that is impossible to fake. I recognized a true kindred spirit(s) in the series' characters. It was really shocking to see-- for want of a better expression -- myself on the LCD panel. And in such a subversive narrative. That it feels so homey would be scarier except, well like I said, it's 'homey'. Home-boys, girls and inbetweens. And ditto the modern-dance cringe...those moves would, at best, only momentarily flummox an assassin (as they did, to the writer's credit, in the finale). Had they "Jedi'd" the dude, I wouldn't be writing this!

  11. Bleak means learn. Bleak means wisdom is near. And the future is always bleak -because we don't know. Bleak means that the time of gathering self, the time of, well, feeling like shit, happens before one ascends...I say this as someone who has seen the hardest of times. You have lit many paths.

  12. Hey chris are you going to write about how the deep state is colluding with the mainstream media to try and get rid of trump, its so open that people are actually using the word deepstate in a mainstream manner and buzzfeed wrote an article about how the deep state is totally not real, hah, close your eyes guys heh hehe.

    I think even more depressing than a trump presidency is the fact that we have a shadow cabal controlling everything and it doesnt really matter who you vote for.

    Well, at least trump was smart enough to get the military on his side, and he has the people, who despise the media.
    He did a press conference where he tore the media a new asshole and shifted the news cycle from flynn and russia to trump versus the media.
    People need to realize trump knows what he is doing.
    Just a little bit.

  13. Chris, your and everyone's critical observations on the OA are dead-on, so to speak. "The OA" is a desperate, bleak, dark and provocative story, yet full of revelations and questions even deeper than the "answers" ostensibly or plausibly posed by the writer's big idea-cum-narrative.

    I recently re-binged the entire series to better understand myself, literally. When I first watched The OA I was recovering from a broken bone in a foot due to a freakish accident and could not walk on it at all. Nonetheless watching the series inspired me to dance a bit and explore some novel martial arts moves related to a particular style of fighting art the likes of which I would never have thought of taking up seriously, except now I find myself using those moves unwittingly.

    I did this, balanced on one foot only, for about a month, and then, slowly, began to use the partially healed one. In the process I more or less healed a knee and hip injury on my good side. I have no clue really what it means, but it worked.

    Now that you mention it, it is clear that some of the moves and shakes I learned from simply watching the movements, at great length, of two people, about twenty-five years ago, both of whom were well-versed in Tensegrity, among a great many other systems of movement.

    Seemingly coincidentally, and rather to my consternation, at the same time with all of this I have found myself becoming more and more an ad-hoc mentor and protector (in some sense) of a bunch of high-school to to college-aged, gifted dropouts and otherwise neuroatypical dealers, musicians and mystics. Like magic, almost, but then again, there is the whole question of, "What does it really mean to have had an NDE -- or many NDE's". Obviously it means a heck of a lot more than I realized. I dare say, having narrowly escaped death a few times might be just as good as having repeat NDE's.

    So that is my 'review', post-second-bingewatch. I'm not questioning my own sanity, but still, I sort of feel like a dupe. Literally, as if almost cloned (or chimerified) into a novel, unsuspected pattern of movements (including forced relocation, which is old hat) by a moving-image archetype, albeit an exceptionally well-crafted one, from a literary perspective.

    To call that awesome or synchronistic is understated. Even the location shots are so close geographically and in appearance to places I know well -- cf. the name-drop in the following paragraph -- left me shocked and stunned by their (literal) vicinity. Also, being from a remote part of Michigan.

    I wonder if Britt knows Bruce Rubin. Now there is someone whom, based on browsing (and being permitted to walk off with an all-you-can-carry, ex-libris gift of) his recent research library, I believe must admire her work. Given that and the geographical setting of the series locations (in addition to the obsessional themes they share, as writers), I wonder if BR is a direct (albeit uncredited) part it.

    Something to look into for hollywood historiographical sleuths. In the meantime life is more interesting than T.V., that is, until or unless there is Season 2.

  14. I preface this note by stating this morning I was drawn to my brother's photo in which he wears an EP sweatshirt. Which stands for Eden Prairie.
    I've begun to watch The OA... I have too much sigil homework to do for RuneSoup to be doing this but I feel - compelled -. I will watch the first ep/isode and then get back to my homework for Gordon. I now include for it seems somehow relevant at this time the comment I wrote and then did not yet send, the comment I wrote for this blog based solely upon its title. I hope it finds sympathetic ears/eyes.

    I - knew - there was a reason I was lead here at this time. Just shot off an email to Gordon, themes of which touch upon this very topic. What the fuck. I'm just saying. Kids are so impressionable. Clockwork Lithium. Our lives are spirals. There are so many out there that have their futures cut out from beneath them at such a young and tender age. Truly the evil is fed one pill at a time. Talk about 'station to station'. There is only one solution, and that is to prevail, to rise, and to become greater and greater in proportion to the imbecility that was visited upon 'we' as we were so young. These days, there is only ourselves to blame, or rather, only ourselves to raise our fates higher than where the faceless medical men and women may have desirelessly pointed them.

    I would have preferred to have simply emailed you this, CLK, but I do not know that address. For now this comment can be here. I may ask to have it removed in the future. Or not. This is all so nebulous. 'I know the pieces fit'.

  15. Talk about bleak, I just watched "Top of the Lake" a 2013 show from New Zealand.

  16. check out dan davidson on grimerica. connections.

  17. You turned your little cult against me, into a worship brit marling and make her rich stunt. Now, you'll be putting your metaphysical money where your mouth is.

    1. Nobody did anything to you. No one knows who you are and no one cares. There's no cult here and no one has done anything to bother you on my account.