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.