The following contains spoilers for Netflix’s The OA.
The OA is a labyrinth of a show, full of puzzles, curiosities, and questions. Depending on how you look at it, it’s True Detective Season 1 with a mythology that’s better integrated into the narrative, or it’s Pan’s Labyrinth with a slightly less coherent story. It’s The Leftovers with more angry teen boys and less Justin Theroux, and its Lost with Lucius Malfoy instead of a Smoke Monster. And while it contains a great deal of loose ends, there is one glaring question with an easy explanation: What the everloving fuck is the OA, anyway?
The OA stands for Original Angel. It’s like an OG, with less implied street cred and more near-death experiences. Protagonist Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) begins her life as a Russian child named Nina who experiences prophetic dreams. After a Near Death Experience — or an NDE — she loses her sight. Fearing for her safety, as he’s implied to be entangled with the shady Russian criminal underworld, her father sends her away. She’s subsequently adopted by a midwestern American couple who renames her to hide her from the Russian mob. Her adoptive mother says her eyes are blue as the prairie skies, and the name Prairie sticks.
When she’s 21, she runs away to find her biological father. Instead, she finds Hap (Jason Isaacs), a doctor obsessed with NDEs. He imprisons her in his basement along with his other human subjects.
In the course of Hap’s inhumane experiments, his human subjects die and return several times. During one such NDE, Nina/Prairie encounters a mystical being named Khatun and learns about the potential to travel to alternate dimensions through NDEs. When she awakens and imparts her new knowledge upon her fellow captives, she begins referring to herself as “The OA.” She at first says that it’s a name truer than Prairie, truer than Nina. This eventually evolves into “The OA,” but it isn’t until later in the season, during dinner with her adoptive mother at Olive Garden of all places, that she claims the title Original Angel.
Her fellow captives also call themselves angels, and they call Hap — whose first name is Hunter — the Angel Hunter. In their attempts to travel to another dimension using dance movements, they continuously fail, but they learn they have the power to heal through these movements.
In the eighth episode, when the OA and her fellow captive, Homer, attempt to heal a woman suffering from MS, the woman tells them of her own NDE in her youth. She saw a little girl who told her, “One day you will help two captive angels.”
Because the show has an ambiguous ending, it does not take a definitive stance on the existence of angels, but Nina/Prairie/The OA certainly believes she’s one, and she touches the lives of a group of lost souls in the real world.
In that regard, as strange as it seems, this deeply confusing show might just be the ideal holiday watch.