Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Next Dimension, Please: The OA - Season Two

Is there such an animal as the Theatre of Depression? If not, there should be. Online technology has converted most of the industrialized world into indoorsy introverts, even Instagram globetrotters (who seem to travel solely to snap selfies of themselves in front of exotic landmarks).

Which is to say online technology is depressing the shit out of the world.

The OA seems like a fine examplar of the Theatre of Depression. Every character in both series is demonstrably depressed and seems to be processing that depression in various fashions, and coping with it in other fashions still.

The OA herself is no less depressed but is also ridden with a savior complex, one that she then infects those drawn to her with. The question becomes how much is the OA is a projection of Brit Marling herself. Not if it is, mind you, but how much of it is. My guess is quite a lot.

The first series had Marling play the OA in her Prairie Johnson incarnation, the adopted Russian daughter of an elderly Midwestern couple, played (perhaps significantly) by Scott Wilson (from The Ninth Configuration) and Alice Krige (from The 4400, as well as the Borg Queen). The anonymous housing tract that the OA uses as her mission field was a stroke of inspiration, as it showed the devastating effects that 16 years of the Bush-Obama Syndicate has had on the American Heartland. 

Life in the tract-- like most everywhere else-- has been erased of meaning or purpose by a distant and implacably-hostile ruling class, of which Marling is a shining product of, oddly enough. The OA recruits here for her own private mystery cult, whose liturgy and rituals betray a significant degree of familiarity with the ancient versions of such.

It’s not unreasonable to assume The OA is in fact an expansion of Marling and creative partner Zal Batmanglij’s indie film, The Sound of My Voice, since it deals with many of the same themes and seems to act as an outlet for Marling to analyze her own messianic tendencies. Where Marling ends and the OA begins is probably only something her analyst could answer.

But for me, the cult that assembled around the OA was a lot more compelling than the OA herself, and a lot more compelling than the fellow prisoners who shared her ordeal in Hap’s dungeon. For my money, they’re still the most interesting thing about Part Two as well. 

The latter were all victims of circumstance but the OA cultists were seekers searching for spiritual meaning. Their ordinariness, their dreary suburban environment and the absurd stories they were so entranced by made for a fascinating, if not disjointed and terminally-pretentious, narrative. I wanted to know what it was about these people that would make them desperate enough to be drawn into this troubled woman’s very private world. 

Part Two takes us to a parallel dimension in which the OA has escaped death at the hands of the school shooter, incarnating as a version of Nina Petrova that didn’t die and resurrect as a child.

In this dimension, she’s the apparent courtesan of a psychotic Silicon Valley billionaire named Pierre Ruskin, who’s played as a cross between Pierre Omidyar and Elon Musk. Nina’s also the ostensible owner of what comes across as an old-school haunted house, which leads us to inevitable Haunting of Hill House comparisons, whether that’s the intention or not.

There’s also a B-plot in which a private detective (with the dazzlingly uncreative name of "Kharim Washington") is searching for a girl who seems to have been lured into the haunted house by a video game devised by Ruskin.

Ruskin is also running a side project in which he harvests the dreams of female volunteers, which later plays a significant role in Kharim’s story-arc. That project was shepherded by a former British Intelligence agent who suddenly leaves the project when she discovers Ruskin’s true intentions.

Ruskin is also working with a psychiatrist running a high-profile hospital on Treasure Island, a place in which Hap and the rest of his prisoners come to inhabit following their dimension-shift.

Hap is psychotic as ever and has deceived Homer into denying his other-dimensional identity and convincing him he’s this dimension’s Homer (who’s an irritating dweeb, and comes across as a CRISPR-cross of Chaz Bono and Wil Wheaton). Incidentally, good job with casting Jason Isaacs, as he seems to come across as extremely Hap-like IRL as well.

The third arc deals with the OA cult trying to cope in the aftermath of Prairie’s ostensible murder. Steve- the violent, drug-dealing jock— has morphed into the truest of true-believers in the OA and her message. He’s even recruited his new girlfriend into the faith.

The others continue on in their own trajectories; Jesse is lapsing into an opioid stupor. French is still in denial while at the same time cruising for older men on Grindr. Betty continues to fall apart emotionally and Buck becomes the conduit for a traveler leaving the OA’s new dimension.

This contact sends the new five off on a pilgrimage to reunite with the OA, whom all have come to believe has successfully incarnated in another dimension. However, Buck fails to tell his parents where he’s going, which triggers an Amber alert and an APB on Betty, who is portrayed as a manipulative cult leader who has essentially abducted the youngsters and not the hapless mess she really is..

Most of the action takes place in San Francisco and as such is a lot less interesting a setting for these dramas. Cultists and occultism are nothing new or unusual to the Bay Area, and the rarified air that Nina and Ruskin (and, of course, Marling and Batmanglij) travel through is hard for normal people to relate with.

Kharim’s an interesting character in many ways— he’s apparently racked by guilt over his former career as an undercover FBI agent working the entrapment ops that are the Bureau's bread and butter— and Kingsley Ben-Adir is an appealing actor.

But I couldn’t stop myself from wonder if the character and his arc were actually necessary for the story or were part of the old Gary 7 spinoff routine. And I can’t say the second-line characters in this arc were particularly interesting or believable either.

In fact, it feels like Kharim’s subplot would have been a lot more effective had it involved another character from the first series. And given the biographical details I couldn’t help but wonder if this role were originally written for Riz Ahmed’s Elias Rahim character, but was recast because Ahmed wasn’t available. I wanted to see a lot more of his character based on his chilling final appearance in Part One, but we only get a brief cameo by him late in the second series.

Another major peeve I had with this series was that the huge chunks of screentime in which the characters explain the story to one another sucked out a lot of that air of mystery here.

The exposition in Part Two is very thick, viscous and generously-portioned, and I kept comparing it —unfavorably, mind you— to how Lynch and Frost explained next to nothing about very similar themes in the Twin Peaks revival. 

Don’t get me wrong, on the whole I enjoyed Part Two of The OA and recommend it, but I didn’t feel like I had to go online and read other people’s interpretations of what I just watched—never mind argue them— because Marling and Batmanglij go to such extreme lengths to have their onscreen surrogates spell everything out in excruciating detail. 

Even the ending— which some critics have bitched about— wasn’t even close to a mystery to me. Why? Because the show’s rules justified it well ahead of time.

Brit Marling is a fascinating character. She chose to veer off the elite-career Autobahn— Georgetown, Goldman Sachs— to make weird and idiosyncratic films and a weird and idiosyncratic Netflix series, ostensibly driven by her own depression. Of course, a pretty strong argument could be made that she’s simply taking an alternate route to the same ultimate destination.

And maybe her messianic tendencies took her off-road as well, since merely being fabulously wealthy didn’t seem to suit her emotional needs. It certainly wouldn't be the first time for gifted, privileged people like herself. 

If that’s the case, you’d think she’d work a little harder in making her character as compelling in the second series as she did in the first. I never felt like the OA was a mystery I just had to solve in this series. She didn’t come across as the otherworldly invader she was before. 

It all felt more than a little Mulholland Dr., to be honest: the rich and glamorous woman struggling to remember just how rich and glamorous she is, plus godlike. That’s not really a character most people can relate to. I had no problem believing the OA was an incarnate angel in the first series. This time she feels a bit more Nancy Drew with a trustfund.

Some of you have asked me about some of the symbolism dropped here and there but I didn't really see anything to write home about. I certainly didn’t notice anything that felt out of place in the context of the overall themes. Just the New Normal, is all.

I did perk up a bit with the Old Night scene, especially since it was clearly Twinned to that operatic soprano. That was quite, oh, tantalizing, but it didn’t feel like Marling and Batmanglij would (or could) close the deal. That scene also felt a bit Arrival, for obvious reasons. 

There’s always next time.

So Part Two of The OA is perfectly fine television and well worth a watch. It’s nothing like the shitshow that Stranger Things 2 was. I don’t know if I’d go out of your way to see it, and I wouldn’t recommend you do so if you’re feeling a bit blue. Go rewatch Stripes or Grosse Pointe Blank or something and save The OA for later.