This is a spoiler free review of The OA. Though it does contain spoilers for Season 1 and some plot details already included in Netflix’s trailers for the season.
When it landed on Netflix in 2016, The OA was a bit of a revelation. A strange, gorgeous, sprawling sci-fi yarn about love, death, faith and humanity, packed with indelible images and unfolding revelations. It was a highly emotional, grown-up drama that also weaved in Stranger Things vibes from the four youngsters and their teacher enlisted to hear and participate in Prairie’s (Brit Marling) weird, mesmerising tale. The ending was shocking and bizarre, so for fans of the show, Part II couldn’t come soon enough. It’s been three years and it feels like The OA has been O-A for ages.
Picking up right after the school shooting which closed the first part, The OA Season 2 (styled as “Part II”) is set in 2016, though exactly which version of 2016 is another story. Nina, a woman who looks just like Prairie but speaks with a Russian accent, collapses on a ferry claiming to have been shot in the chest. But when she wakes up in hospital, her accent has gone, she doesn’t know where she is and she says her name is Prairie.
Turns out the dance was a success then, and Prairie has lept dimensions on her mission to find Homer (Emory Cohen) and the others and learn what happened to them after she was able to escape Doctor Hap’s (Jason Isaacs) prison. But when she’s finally reunited with Homer, there’s a problem…
The OA Season 2 is bigger, more bonkers and expands on what we learned in the first series. Burning questions are answered, new ones posed and a whole additional subplot with a range of new characters is introduced. It’s compelling – or at least it is once it gets going – but it’s a very different beast to season one, swapping out ambiguity for hard sci-fi fantasy.
The switch allows the show to get wilder, wackier and weirder, and if suspension of disbelief isn’t a problem for you, there’s heaps here to enjoy. However, by leaning hard into the multiverse, Part II loses some of the gentler, more moving parts of the story. The sweetness of the dysfunctional new-found family of the four boys and Betty (Phyllis Smith), who actively decide to trust Prairie and each other, is somewhat diluted and in Part II the gang is a bit lost without Prairie. Meanwhile, outside Hap’s lab, plot points relating to Rachel (Sharon Van Etten), Scott (Will Brill) and Homer render them less compelling as characters. Part II is a cool cosmic psychedelic sci-fi. But it lacks the emotional weight of the first.
Concurrently with Prairie’s story in episode one is the case of a missing girl. Michelle has vanished and her distraught grandmother has hired streetwise Private Investigator Karim (Kingsley Ben-Adir), paying him with a large sum of crypto-currency she claims her granddaughter won playing a strange game on her mobile phone (not Sun Bingo, obvs).
The game seems to be connected to elusive tech billionaire Pierre Ruskin (Vincent Kartheiser), who Nina had a relationship with, and as Karim delves deeper into the game, his path crosses with Prairie, Hap and the rest of the former captives.
Meanwhile, back in our 2016, Betty and the boys find themselves on a roadtrip to help Prairie when messages from the other dimension seem to be calling to them.
Part slightly-hokey Mr. Robot-lite, part not-as-fun Stranger Things riff (at first, anyway), the series starts slow compared to season one’s punchy finale, though as the show progresses, the high-concept elements kick in in ever more daring ways delivering some standout set pieces and eye-bulging imagery.
Marling teams once again with her frequent writing partner and director Zal Batmangli – the two worked together on The Sound of My Voice and The East – and the show has a feel that’s distinctive to the pair but takes things way further than any of their previous offerings. If part one felt like a companion piece to The Sound of My Voice, this feels like something way more outlandish. The OA is ambitious and philosophical, and while Part II doesn’t reach the emotional heights of the first part, they’re still two of the most exciting talents working in film and TV right now.
The camera loves Marling, too. She’s never less than captivating, even if the central love story between her and Homer doesn’t quite land – or at least it doesn’t in the first six episodes available to us for review.
Conversely, it’s Prairie’s relationship with Doctor Hap, played by the excellent Jason Isaacs, that provides the most fizz. Hap is a fascinating psychopath and a deliciously compelling foil with plenty more secrets and atrocities in his closet. Make it through the first couple of episodes and viewers will likely be hooked by the multiple and complicated strands, ever-odder visuals and standout performances. Even with caveats, The OA is one of the most interesting new shows on Netflix.
Fans of season one, though, might prefer to quit while they’re ahead, deciding for themselves whether or not Prairie was telling the truth and leaving the The OA and The Original Angel herself as perfect and complete entities on their own.
Listen to our discussion of The OA on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: