The OA: Stranger than Stranger Things
Netflix released over the holidays, almost without any warning or publicity, the new series The OA. This new show, created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who previously have collaborated in the movies The Sound of My Voice and The East, is a mystery sci-fi drama about Near Death Experiences (NDEs), angels, alternative dimensions, trauma, the power of storytelling, the alienation of youth in contemporary America, and the metaphysical power of movement. As some reviewers have pointed out, the show has some similarities to another Netflix series, Stranger Things, but The OA embraces philosophical and religious ideas in a way that Stranger Things doesn’t, which makes The OA an ideal show to discuss in this blog.
The premise of the series, in its most non-spoiler version, is described in Wikipedia as follows:
The series centers on Prairie Johnson, an adopted young woman who resurfaces after having been missing for seven years. Upon her return, Johnson calls herself “The OA”, exhibits scars on her back, and can see, despite having been blind when she went missing. The OA refuses to tell the FBI and her adoptive parents where she has been and how her eyesight was restored, and instead quickly assembles a team of five locals to whom she reveals that information, also explaining her background story. Finally, she asks for their help to save some other missing people who she claims are currently in the same situation she has described to them (Wikipedia)
The reviews of the show have been mixed, with some critics admiring its original storytelling and ideas (Vulture and Variety), others finding it rambling and outlandish (Uproxx), while a few others were just completely puzzled by it (Daily Beast). This post is not intended as another review of the strengths and weaknesses of the show (one of those “8 reasons why The OA is the best TV show right now,” or “5 reasons why The OA sucks”), since there are plenty of them online. What I want to do here is to discuss some of the interesting religious and philosophical themes that are at the heart of the show in order to frame the viewing and interpretation of the series in a new light. I want to focus, in particular, on its interesting approach towards the embodiment of the sacred and its take on the metaphysical power of movement, which I think are at the heart of some of the most unusual but also the most compelling ideas of the show.
Warning: I will spoil some central ideas of the show in the rest of the post, so read at your own risk. If you want to read a good overview of the show, I recommend the Rolling Stone and the Variety discussions of it.
Near Death Experiences and Alternative Dimensions
Before I get into the main point of the post (the way in which the series develops an embodied notion of the sacred as well as its embrace of the metaphysical power of movement), it is important to discuss one of the main plots of the show, mainly its exploration of Near Death Experiences or NDEs. In the series, Dr. Hunter Hap (played by Jason Isaac) is a scientist who in his pursuit of incontrovertible proof of the existence of life after death decides to undertake unethical (not to mention illegal and inhuman) experiments on human subjects in an undisclosed remote location. In order to proceed with his experiments, he has kidnapped five different individuals who have had traumatic accidents that led to an NDE. One of them is Prairie Johnson, the main protagonist of the series, a high school student who is blind due to an accident she had when she was six years old. Dr. Hap conducts tests in which he repeatedly induces NDEs on his prisoners in order to obtain scientific evidence of the existence of the after life. Dr. Hap believes that death is not the end of life and that humans do continue existing in a different reality or dimension after death. He is single minded and obsessed in his pursuit of what he considers the ultimate truth to the point that he considers that the end of the experiments justify the means (the kidnapping of innocent people and, on some occasions, their death). Dr. Hap develops a unique relationship with Prairie who seems to have particularly powerful revelations through her NDEs. During her first NDE at the age of 6, she found an angel named Khatun, who granted her the chance to go back to our world in exchange for her sight (Prairie is blind from that moment on until she recovers her vision in another NDE during one incident that takes place during her captivity with Dr. Hap). But Prairie is also particularly attuned to this other dimension, and has powerful revelations through her Near Death Experiences, one of them being that she is “the original angel,” a term that reveals the meaning of the title of the show, the OA (although the significance and implications of that title are not totally clear by the end of the first season).
The show makes very clear in its last episode that the inspiration for most of the NDE storyline comes from Dr. Raymond Moody’s 1975 classic book on the subject Life After Life since one of the main characters to whom Prairie is explaining her story of captivity finds the book in Prairie’s home while looking for her. In Life after Life, Dr. Moody investigated dozens of NDEs from people across many different cultures, which made him conclude that there are many common themes and symbols among those experiences. Moody concludes in his book that death is not the end, and that after we die:
“we enter into another stage of existence or another state of consciousness that is so extraordinarily different from the reality we have here in the physical world that the language we have is not yet adequate to describe this other state of existence or consciousness. Based on what I have heard from thousands of people, we enter into a realm of joy, light, peace, and love in which we discover that the process of knowledge does not stop when we die. Instead, the process of learning and development goes on for eternity.”
This idea of life after death is central to the show’s story, with Dr. Hap being an evil version of Raymond Moody in his attempt to find unquestionable proof of the existence of another plane of reality after we die. The issue for Dr. Hap and Prairie, the two main characters and antagonists in the show, is not only how we can access that alternative dimension without actually dying (Hap achieves that by provoking NDEs on his captors and then reviving them before they are too far gone), but how to keep that portal open. Here is where the show offers an interesting take and were those dance moves come into play.
Embodying the sacred:
The show’s answer to that question, mainly how to open a portal to that after-life dimension without actually dying, is through the use of symbolic physical movements that look very much like contemporary dance. In the show, Prairie claims that through her many Near Death Experiences, she has received a message from the angel called Khatun, who has told her that the key to open a door to the after-life dimension is through a series of physical movements. In order to open that door, it is necessary to have five humans performing “with precision and feeling” five different movements in a sort of mystical dance. During the eight episodes we see how each of the five captives (with one exception, but you’ll need to watch the show to find what exactly happens there!) are trying to unlock the secret moves that will open the interdimensional door. The final result is a strange but visually arresting dance in the final episode.
According to the creators, they envisioned these dance movements as a cinematic way to express a spiritual language and collaborated with the famous choreographer Ryan Heffington (of Sia’s Chandelier video fame)
“When we first started this, Zal was talking a lot about the idea that violence is kind of a uniquely cinematic thing,” Marling says. “You can read a very violent passage in a novel, and it can be very impacting. But something about seeing it as a moving image on screen is more visceral and potent that way. So what is the cinematic antidote to violence? What is another language of expression that doesn’t work on the page but works on the screen … a sort of counter-balance to violence?“
This has been one of the most criticized and, in some cases, mocked, ideas of the show, but I would argue that it is, in fact, one of the most original and interesting. A recent trend in religious studies has been to “materialize the study of religion,” by focusing not so much on doctrine and ideas (what does a particular religious scripture say, how are we to interpret it, etc), but on embodied practices, material culture, and the importance of the senses in our understanding of religion. A good example of this trend is Duke University Professor David Morgan’s book Embodied Eye. In this book, Morgan asks himself “what is the meaning of [the word sacred] and how shall we understand its relationship to things and feelings and bodies and seeing?” Morgan echoes in his book the ideas of another important religious scholar, Northwestern professor of religion Robert Orsi, who stressed that “religion is not about meaning but about relationships, materialization, and making the invisible visible.” According to Morgan:
“this [materialization of religion] comports closely with what I have in mind by the visual construction of the sacred, which articulates an embodied relation with the saint or ancestor or nation or god. The medium of this relation is seeing, but not in most cases a pristine and distant form of contemplation. The forms of seeing that I have explored here enfold the senses, feeling, and flesh into a visual medium to embody the sacred in a variety of ways. To study seeing is to study embodiment as the mediation of the visible and invisible.”
David Morgan, Embodied Eye
If we are to apply this idea of embodying the sacred to The OA, we can see how in the series, Prairie articulates a notion of the sacred not by simply expressing it through language (although she also does this), but by also embodying it. She does this through the language of dance, and it is through that language that she can open a portal to the alternative dimension that humans inhabit after death. Morgan’s reference to Robert Orsi’s idea of religion being about relationships, materialization, and “making the invisible visible” can be also seen in the show since Prairie alone cannot open the portal, she needs four other people, a community that has faith in her message. Together they can create a language (an embodied language) by which they can make the invisible visible. As David Morgan says in his book “humans change what and how they see by modifying the state of their bodies,” and this is exactly what the characters are doing, modifying their bodies in order to be able to see in new ways. I would argue that most people who seem puzzled, if not turned off by the use of symbolic moves as a legitimate language to express and approach the sacred, is because they conceive religious language as expressed mainly (or only) through words or scripture. David Morgan’s Embodied Eye, though, makes a good argument for the necessity of opening up our understanding of religion in terms of its materiality since:
“Collective representations congeal with the assistance of ‘tangible intermediaries’ such as movement, which take a definite form and are ‘stereotyped’ and acquire the status of a recognized symbol.”
David Morgan, Embodied Eye
In The OA, the “tangible intermediaries” are the symbolic moves revealed to each of the five captive individuals, which acquire the status of “a recognized symbol” by being translated in a symbolic language that Prairie develops to translate those moves into a unique form of language (which each of the individuals then inscribes on their own flesh in the form of scars). Each of the five victims receives a revelation by an angel not through language, but through symbolic dance moves. The expression of the divine in the show is not through words that will be materialize in scripture, but physical movements that will materialize through dance.
The metaphysical power of movement:
If this idea may seem strange or even eccentric to some viewers of the show, it may help to understand that physical movement as a form of codifying a spiritual/religious language is nothing new. In religious practices such as Indian Yoga and Chinese Taichi, there is a long history of codified positions that articulate a very sophisticated soteriological language. We also find dance as a form to religious expression in the swirling of the Sufi dervishes, or in some forms of traditional Indian dances.
Examples of this metaphysical use of movement as a form or religious expression can also be found in some contemporary traditions. The Japanese practice of Katsugen is one of them, and while I lived in Charlottesville during my graduate school years at the University of Virginia, my wife and some of her friends were really into Five Rhythms, which is a modern type of dance that combines all sorts of styles and contemplative traditions and can be defined as:
a movement meditation practice devised by Gabrielle Roth in the late 1970s. It draws from indigenous and world traditions using tenets of shamanistic, ecstatic, mystical and eastern philosophy. It also draws from Gestalt therapy, the human potential movement and transpersonal psychology. Fundamental to the practice is the idea that everything is energy, and moves in waves, patterns and rhythms. WIKIPEDIA
The OA does something very similar to what we find in some of those religious traditions, but the moves are drawn from contemporary dance. The expression of the metaphysical power of movement in the series finds its climax in the last episode, when the five people to whom Prairie has explained her story and taught the five moves, perform it in the school cafeteria in order to stop a shooter.
Some of the negative reaction to this aspect of the show may have to do with the fact that dance is not part of our popular culture vocabulary, unless it is in a music video or in a reality show competition (like Dancing with the Stars). But as I have tried to explain in this post, the use of movement as an embodied form of religious expression is nothing new in the history of religions, and embracing this idea is what makes the OA such an interesting and intriguing show.
There are many other interesting philosophical and religious ideas hinted at in the show: the existence of angels, the nature of faith and revelation, but those will have to wait for another post.