Part II of Netflix’s bizarre but ambitious pseudo-existential sci-fi series The OA offers up a compelling continuation of its main story, one that gets even weirder than the weirdest moments from season 1, but it also proves the show can be a lot of fun, if you let yourself go along for the ride.
The brainchild of writer-star Brit Marling and co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij, The OA seemed to epitomize the potential and the potential pitfalls of what Netflix could offer those with a solid pitch for a new series. The story of a missing blind woman, Prairie Johnson (Marling), who returns after seven years in captivity, with her sight restored and an outlandish tale of a deranged scientist, Dr. Hunter Aloysius ‘Hap’ Percy (Jason Isaacs), who kidnapped a group of people who’d all gone through near death experiences and seen another dimension, must have been one hell of a pitch meeting. Add to that the use of interpretive dance as a means of accessing parallel dimensions, a group of wayward teens eager to believe Prairie’s story, and an ill-advised and completely unearned season 1 finale that revolved around a school shooting, and you have a recipe for one of the biggest mixed bags on television in recent memory.
It’s been quite a while since The OA first debuted on Netflix, and its second coming — titled The OA: Part II — is even more ambitious, ostentatious, and downright bizarre than what came before. It’s also more focused and, often, more compelling than the first season, as Marling and Batmanglij — along with their writers’ room and fellow directors like Andrew Haigh (Lean on Pete) — have constructed an almost alarmingly expansive three-pronged narrative structure that not only continues the events set in motion last season, bringing back the teens played by Ian Alexander, Patrick Gibson, Chloë Levine, Brendan Meyer, and Brandon Perea (as well as The Office’s Phyllis Smith) but also creates two entirely new scenarios set in an alternate dimension.
The central new storyline features Kingsley Ben-Adir as Karim Washington, a former FBI agent turned private investigator who is searching for a missing girl and winds up discovering a clandestine operation tied to Dr. Percy and fellow newcomer Pierre Ruskin, a Russian entrepreneur played by Mad Men alum Vincent Kartheiser. Saying more would give away too much of what the series has up its sleeve, as The OA, like Marling and Batmanglij’s film efforts Sound of My Voice and, to a lesser extent, The East, tend to function first and foremost as J.J. Abrams-like puzzle boxes — though with a less blockbuster-y, more pseudo-intellectual vibe that helps distinguish them, for better and for worse.
While the puzzle box-ness of it all worked to hamstring the story and climax of season 1 (excuse me, Part I), it’s clear early on in Part II that Marling and Batmanglij are keen to offer up at least a few answers to many of the biggest questions left dangling from 2016 — namely what happened to Prairie after she’d been shot in the chest and carried off by an ambulance, but also what happened to Dr. Percy and the others held captive in his underground research facility. But a willingness to be more forthcoming about what’s going on doesn’t mean the show has tamped down its offbeat storytelling ambitions. If anything, The OA Part II is even more offbeat and ambitious than the season that preceded it. That will no doubt be cause for concern by those who were left largely unimpressed by season 1 (this reviewer included), in particular how it felt as though the show wasn’t going anywhere, and couldn't quite articulate what, if anything, it was trying to say about life, death, and the human condition. But even as it sometimes becomes far weirder than anything seen in Part I (just wait until you see what happens with an octopus), it also feels as though, finally, the series has a greater purpose beyond smashing a bunch of philosophical questions and quantum theories into one another to see what happens.
Some of that newfound purpose comes from a more focused episode-by-episode structure. While The OA Part II continues to tell a largely serialized story, one that now covers three distinct plot threads, and gives a surprising amount of time to Karim’s investigation into a missing girl, nearly every episode takes pains to deliver a complete beginning, middle, and end. Making use of a more episodic structure helps make Part II more captivating (if still occasionally overlong), particularly when it works to devote its storytelling energies to the perspective of a single character. This gives the show greater freedom to explore enormous ideas it's working with, while also working to ground them within the context of the story more, so as to limit the dorm-room philosophizing of it all.
That’s not to say The OA Part II isn’t just as high on its own supply as it was in Part I. If anything, the show's creators seem to have spent the last few years doing just that. The upside, though, is that Marling, Batmanglij, and everyone else involved in front of and behind the camera have returned more earnestly committed than ever before. And perhaps that’s what ultimately makes this show work in its own strangely endearing tinfoil hat-wearing way. There are no winks to the audience, subtle or otherwise — though nothing The OA does is ever subtle. Instead what’s on screen is the product of a group’s wholehearted dedication not only to something that is utterly ridiculous most of the time, but also to the fact that the very thing to which they are so dedicated must be ridiculous in order to even work. As ambitious series go, there’s really nothing quite like The OA, and while your mileage will certainly vary, it’s hard not to appreciate the grand scale of what Marling and Batmanglij are attempting to do, even if it’s difficult at times to discern what, exactly, that’s supposed to be.
The OA Part II begins streaming on Friday, March 22, 2019 only on Netflix.