‘The OA’ Season 2 Review: An Ambitious, Wondrous Exercise in WTF Storytelling

     March 22, 2019

If you thought Season 1 of Netflix’s The OA was a mind-bending banger, brace yourselves. Series creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij double down on the insanity and invention of their expansive story in Season 2, and the result is a show that’s bigger, bolder, and ultimately better. The OA‘s first season was a surprise sensation from the filmmakers behind Sound of My Voice and The East, and it sparked quite the debate over its final episode — a piece of cinema-meets-performance art that was at once gorgeous, emotional, silly, strange and well, a bit ill-advised in its cursory approach to school shootings. At the same time, it was undeniably innovative, and the very fact that its earnest absurdity made people bristle with such discomfort and unease spoke to something special in their approach. Season 2 taps into that wild streak of creativity and mines it for all its worth, even when its self-seriousness continues down a path that’s equal parts amusing and endearing.

In case you forgot in the near 3 years since The OA last aired, the series follows Marling (who also co-created, co-writes and co-produces) as Prairie, the young daughter of a Russian aristocrat who eventually moved to America after being blinded in an assassination attempt. She was then kidnapped as a teenager, spent seven years underground in a bunker where she and her co-NDE (aka, near death experience) survivors were tortured for years, and started something resembling a cult when she escaped and shared her story with five other outcasts. It was a lot. Oh, and she’s an angel — in fact, the Original Angel, hence OA. In a first season that spanned multiple timelines, the finale left audiences on a brutal cliffhanger — after teaching BBA (Phyllis Smith) and the Boys (Patrick Gibson, Ian Alexander, Brendan Meyer and Brandon Perea) how to travel dimensions via the “Five Movements,” OA got shot square in the chest when the movements seemingly subverted a school shooting.


Image via Netflix

In a wise move, the second season wastes no time answering the biggest questions posed in its infuriating finale — after all, the show came out in 2016; we’ve waited long enough for answers. Prairie did indeed travel. The Five Movements worked. But, (and I’m only revealing this because it was in the trailer and synopsis), the new reality she lands in shares many of the same pitfalls, and she finds herself back in captivity with the horrid Hap (Jason Isaacs) once again. There’s also an all-knowing tree, a bit of robotics, and boy, just wait until you meet the character called “Old Night.”

In its second season, The OA hasn’t lost its touch for — pardon my French — batshit fucking crazy storytelling. In fact, it leans in. And in doing so, it elevates the material by completely owning its own weirdness. This season books it through plot and mythology — bring a notebook because the revelations are coming hot and fast — answering most of your burning questions from Season 1 while setting up a whole new web of mysteries for the audience to untangle. If the first season ended on the series’ biggest, most ambitious swing, Season 2 swings even harder and gets even more ambitious with a sprawling, utterly unpredictable dive down the rabbit hole(s) of Marling and Batmanglij’s expansive universe.

That’s the good part. The unfortunate part is that by nature of that very ambitious storytelling, The OA also struggles to give all of its character the time and development they deserve. The first season was already a crowded ensemble, spread over multiple timelines, but the new series adds new dimensions and vast mythological invention to the equation, and while the overall result is thrilling, certain characters suffer from the overflow. In particular, BBA and The Boys have less screentime than some fans are hoping for — especially when you consider that the audience entered the story through these characters in Season 1. Of the boys, Jesse (Meyer) draws the shortest, sharpest stick with a rushed arc that never feels earned, and the culmination of that arc may rub people the wrong way in the same way Season 1’s rushed school shooting subplot did. Renata (Paz Vega) gets even less to do, though she was always one of the more minor characters.


Image via Netflix

In trying to tie all these threads together, The OA‘s second season suffers from a lot of the plotting and pacing struggles that plagued Season 1 — it’s just so much story — and the writers make peculiar decisions that certainly don’t make it easy on the audience. Foremost among them is the decision to start the season by introducing a new set of characters. The most notable newcomer is Karim (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a no-bullshit detective turned private eye on the hunt for a mysterious, possibly deadly puzzle app, who unfortunately gets saddled with being the focus of the first 30 minutes of Season 2. It’s a writing decision seemingly designed to test audience patience, and it ensures the only thing you’re thinking about during his intro is how badly you want to get back to Prairie and the mysteries of OA. All the same, Ben-Adir is a welcome addition and fine fit in the cast, and does an admirable job of carrying that burden, giving us a cool, calm problem-solver with both street smarts and regular-old-smarts to spare.

However, when the story focuses on OA and her perils, it thrives. If Season 1 didn’t have you convinced, Hap is shaping up to be quite the long-game villain; pioneering and smart, maybe brilliant, with enough charm and empathetic qualities to make you care about him, even in his darkest moments — and he’s just as bad, if not worse after the jump. Where the first season was baffling, the second season gives enough context to give you the sense that this story is a long-term play. Marling and Batmanglij have taken a novelistic approach to their vast narrative, striving for depth, intimacy, and mythological intricacy usually reserved for the page. It doesn’t always land, but damn they take some wild and bold detours. As a fan of genre storytelling, I found myself more entranced by the imaginative world-building than distracted by the occasionally halting pacing and structure. By finally giving the audience answers, The OA revealed a fascinating universe where extraordinary moments of creativity can bloom and thrive. After the prolonged mysteries of Season 1, the new episodes are the equivalent of finally turning the corner on a long drive, realizing there’s a gorgeous landscape out there that was previously obscured.

Ultimately, some viewers will be understandably frustrated by the rate at which The OA posses new questions and builds new mysteries. Certainly, there’s more puzzle-building and mystery-boxing than definitive answers in the six episodes provided to the press — and with only two more in the season, there’s the sense that we’re going to be left hanging again, pondering some great new mystery for the next few years until Part III comes around. There’s only so long you can keep our audience on a string (see also: Lost), but Marling and Batmanglij have created quite an exquisite rope to dangle on, and no doubt we’ll be preening through the threads for answers.

Sometimes the enormity of their ideas threaten to topple their narrative house of cards, but there’s no denying the ambition, and occasionally outright awe, of their inventive, audacious approach to storytelling. Netflix has carved out a space for itself as a home for innovative genre storytelling, and The OA might just be their crowning achievement in that regard. There’s nothing else like this on TV, and even in its most ridiculous, far-reaching, utterly self-important moments, you can’t help but chuckle and admit “At least they had the guts.” The OA has always been a show that asks you to surrender, to leave the door open, and Season 2 makes even bigger, bolder asks of its audience. But this time it feels worth it. And it turns out, if you were one of the viewers who believed, who left that door open for The OA all these years, you might have welcomed some bonafide, baffling magic into your home.


The OA returns to Netflix on March 22.