A young woman reappears after a seven-year absence — with the ability to see after years of blindness and a incredible story about her ordeal. So incredible, in fact, that she’ll only share it with a small group of teenagers and a high school teacher — not even her adoptive parents, who’ve spent the intervening years desperately searching for her.
This is “The OA” — Netflix’s mysterious new drama, written and produced by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, and starring Marling as the titular character, who once went by the name Prairie but now calls herself “The OA.” It’s a tale woven with near-death experiences, mystical adventures, and a torture-laden kidnapping — even as the characters bond over their mutual yearning for any sort of human connection.
The questions raised by the show — is she telling the truth? — will keep viewers talking, long after the final scene. Here, the creators talk to Variety about their inspiration for the series, their plans for a second season — and, yes, that big mystery.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first come up with the idea for the show? How did you get interested in near-death experiences?
Marling: It’s funny because Zal and I were laughing the other day that you know that this will be a question later. At the time of when something starts to come together, you try and be vigilant and think, “Well, how does this actually come together?” For some reason, it does sort of escape you. There were a lot of different things, I think, colors in the water that started to pool together. I had met a young woman at a party once, quite randomly, like maybe a decade ago, who described to me a near-death experience she had. I was really moved by the encounter, and also by her electric way of being. It just felt like she was humming at a different frequency from everybody else, like she had touched something at the other side, whatever that is, and she had come back, and was invested in life with a kind of passion and ferocity of someone who just knows more than everybody else.
We started reading more about it, and we would read these case studies of people who would flat line and come back seven minutes later, 20 minutes later, with perfect pitch, even though they’d been tone deaf before, or they’d come back with fluency in a language, or with perfect artistic rendering ability, they could draw with a photographic realism, if they’d never been an artist before. These things are really interesting ideas. What’s happening? Is something opening in the brain? I think it was a sort of springboard to a kind of science fiction concept of, “If all these stories converge around a similar set of themes, and an idea of leaving the body behind and going somewhere, where is that somewhere? Are people going to different places? Are they going to the same place? Is it a metaphysical experience?” Every one of these things was an early part of the form that we started brewing.
Batmanglij: I think there were a lot of things that were interesting at the time we started this story. One of them is how do you survive trauma and then integrate after you’ve been traumatized or experienced a traumatic experience? How do you integrate back into society? That’s something that fascinated us in our own lives, to a lesser degree, and then also when you read about these horrific experiences that people like Elizabeth Smart experienced and the bravery that she had is just remarkable. When you see her interviewed or you read things that she’s written, you can tell that she has been somewhere and come back, and she can’t fully tell you where she’s been because you’re not ready for it, but you feel it.
Another theme of the series is the restlessness among teenage boys. What interests you about that?
Marling: We spent some time traveling around the Midwest of the country, and we sat in classrooms, and we met kids, and we talked with their parents, and we hung out at their sports’ practices, interviewed their teachers, trying to figure out what it’s like to be a young person right now. We really wanted to make sure we weren’t writing about our experience of high school, which was so different and it’s influenced by all the John Hughes films we’ve taken in. We wanted to talk to these kids and sort of figure out where they’re really about. I think what we found is there’s this sense of kind of dislocation. It feels like my generation, when we were growing up, felt this great sense of purpose, and there was still some kind of investment in the American dream. I think these kids feel that something has sort of hit the wall or been derailed. It’s hard to answer the great questions of, “How shall I live my life? What is the meaning of life?”
Batmanglij: We were struck by how grown up these kids all seemed. They all had a wisdom to them, a sense of an awareness of something bigger than themselves. We thought that it was interesting that Prairie can’t tell her story to her parents or the FBI, but she can tell it to these kids. These kids have some quality that allows them to receive a story like this. Then I think it just naturally came about that not only do they have a capacity to understand the story, but that they desperately need it, and that when they are faced with their own trauma, that there’s something in the story that guides them, which I think is the thing that’s missing a lot from our lives these days.
Marling: I think young boys in particular feel that their female peers still feel a sense of expansion from the feminist movement of the ’70s, and so the idea of what it means to be a woman is still opening and changing. You can have a credit card in your name, and run a company, and wear pants. But there hasn’t really been an accompanying movement for boys that has expanded the definition of masculinity. You get the sense that they’ve sort of been left behind, and coming of age and becoming a man feels fraught and complicated and narrow, constricted.
That really seems to play out in particular with Steve (Patrick Gibson).
Marling: Steve as a character, I think, was born out of all of that. This young man who’s getting into his more hyper-masculine side, and has this violent expression, but beneath that is this really sensitive creature with a deep yearning for something bigger or more meaningful than what he feels he’s being offered, and this woman, this trauma survivor, comes and meets this group of boys with this story that I think allows them to access something wild that is missing from their lives. All those things are kind of in the earliest stages of it, and then of course the story leads to some pretty wild places from there, but those are the early seeds.
The OA’s story also resonates particularly with their teacher, Betty (Phyllis Smith).
Batmanglij: I had teachers like that, and she has turned off a lot of things in her life, or they’ve been turned off for her. Phyllis has told me that she feels a lot of times, as an older woman, that she’s invisible. The idea of someone who feels that invisible being seen by this survivor, it’s interesting. The moment you just say that line, the story just erupts, especially stories that don’t have anything to do with her finding love late in life. Her story just seems really organic to her. One of my favorite parts is when she saves Steve and gives up her brother’s money to save him. That’s one of the things that I think is so cool about this story that I didn’t expect at all, is that these characters evolve over the course of the eight hours. I believe that’s a genuine evolution.
So, let’s get to the burning question: Is the OA telling the truth? Or is that the question you want the audience to be asking?
Marling: I think there is something really delicious in the mystery about questioning the storyteller’s truth. Certainly, you go back and forth on it. As an audience member, the boys are kind of your surrogate. I think just as the boys go back and forth on the truth of her story, you do, too. I think the place it kind of ultimately arrives at is that it maybe doesn’t matter as much the details are true, because there’s some essential core that she’s imparting that smacks of honesty. Whether part of the story is a metaphor, or it is a literal truth, tends to matter less when you get to the end and see that the DNA of the story contains something that just this group needed.
Batmanglij: I guess I believe the trauma in her story is true. Maybe she couldn’t tell her story as it actually happened, but she experienced something. I don’t think the details matter. I think that there are lots of different interpretations. I think that’s what’s going to make it fun, if people do connect to it. If people see the show.
Do you believe her?
Marling: It’s funny, Zal and I a couple of years ago had this tiny film called “Sound of My Voice,” and we made it for very little money. It had an ending that was very open. It was about this woman who claimed to be a time traveler living in the basement of her house in the San Fernando Valley. What was really cool about the ending is that there was something conclusive that happened. Peter, the person who we’re experiencing the story through, is a deep skeptic, and by the end, you can tell his skepticism is more broken. It is open-ended as to whether or not she was really a time traveler. The delicious thing about that is the audience really takes sides. We would do Q&As, and be like, “How many people think she’s a time traveler?” Half of the audience raise their hands for this. “How many people think she’s not?” All the other half. I think it revealed something about how you think about the world.
I think we felt that’d really be good about the ending of this, that our interpretation is less important than the audience’s. Certainly as an actor playing a part, I have to believe it as I’m playing it, but as writers, we’ve always maintained the idea that our interpretations of them doesn’t matter as much as the audience’s. There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s just what you feel, which is kind of what being alive is like. If you’re going to have faith in something, you have to have it in the face of incredible doubt. Nobody can take your doubt away.
Talk about the resurrection. At the end of episode 5, she and Homer (Emory Cohen) bring another one of the captives, Scott (Will Brill) back to life.
Batmanglij: It’s the thing I think about the most on my own, as if I had just watched it. It really moved me when they did it. I don’t know if it’s because I saw it happen in real life, where Brit and Emory communicated to each other using movement. That was not scripted. It was scripted that they get up and do the movements, but it’s not scripted that she’s so angry with him that he cheated on her, even though they can’t have a romantic relationship, right? As I see it, she gets up to do the only thing she knows how, this gift that she’s been given of these movements, to do it as sort of an elegy for Scott. Then I think he feels embarrassed for her that she’s doing these crazy movements, and so he gets up so that she knows she’s not alone, but then she rejects him in that moment. That was not scripted. He is so hurt that she rejects him. I remember it being on set. When the electrician was crying, you knew that something was happening.
What do you want viewers to take away from the show?
Marling: I think for people who have recently experienced a loss of a loved one, Betty Broderick Allen’s storyline really leaks to the surface. I think if you’re a parent and you have a young teenage boy who’s troubled like Steve, I think that really leaks to the surface. If you’re a young woman, and you’ve been through a traumatic experience, and you feel like most of the stories out there keep you in the realm of the passive victimhood, and now you’re watching this story, the classic kidnapping story. It’s about a victim taking agency and ownership over her recovery, with a sense of a mission. Then I think that’s what leaks to the surface. I think we’ve tried to make it honest at every turn, and see what the audience then tells you about what it means. We think of this as like an eight-hour film, or like a novel. I think it’s true with films, they really do have to meet their audience, and then you give it away. It belongs to the world then. It doesn’t belong to you anymore. That’s the funny part of this process, because you feel like you’ve been carrying a baby, you went through the labor, and you’ve gotten them through their toddlership, and then you just have to like let the kid go, and you have the world receive it.
Do you have plans for a second season?
Marling: Oh my goodness, that would be so much fun. We spent a good three years just cobbling the mathematics of the labyrinth of a mind-bender that could go for many, many hours. We wanted to solve the riddle. We wanted to know what was at the center of the labyrinth within the very first chapter. I would think that’s one of the exciting things about where we leave the ending, is that in some ways, it resolves in a satisfying sense, especially with the boys, but it also leaves something open. It’s exciting to leave that gap between one season and another and see how people feel about it and what they’re thinking, and then to get to continue, to actually answer the questions. If we get to be so lucky as to get to another round, I would be so excited.
Batmanglij: Yes, we designed it that way. Whether it will happen or not, I think that’s up to you guys. All of you in the world. If people connect to it. I would like to see this story continue… Brit and I figured out the whole thing. The whole thing’s a riddle. There are a lot of clues. Very few people have really picked up on all the clues. Our sound engineer picked up on a major one that kind of blew my mind. I was like, “That is designed for only the closest, creepiest viewer to find.”