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When I was in high school I read John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany.  The OA has the same structure of a story as that novel.  The structure of the story is the spoiler of the whole thing so really if you don’t want to be spoiled on the novel or The OA, do not read any further.  

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, the story is told of a boy of small stature and his best friend.  The boy, Owen Meany, is sure that he has some important role to play in the world, there is even discussion of angels.  Strange things happen in the story, they practice a basketball move throughout their childhood, Owen Meany claims to know things, he has a very high-pitched voice.  Then there is a tragedy and the basketball move becomes the move that allows Meany to save a bunch of kids while sacrificing himself and his voice leads them to listen to him.  Irving’s novel is successful for one because the earlier details that seem random come to have a purpose in the outcome of the story and because the whole story is worthwhile without the ending.  Nothing could have ever come of all the in between things, Meany could have just been a strange kid, but reading the novel, you are glad to have known him.

A couple days ago I binge watched The O.A.  While I was watching I enjoyed the show.  But I often kept watching to get to the end and have some mysteries solved.  I do not think that was worth it.  Most of the reviews of the show I have found consider it in the context of the many many shows that question the world as we know it and suggest other metaphysical possibilities for that world.  But they don’t, and perhaps for the sake of avoiding spoilers can’t, talk about what the show really does.  Unlike Owen Meany, this show is one long deception.

Now I’m not opposed to being deceived when there is some pay off, a reveal.  But I’m not sure that pay off is here.  In the end, it seems like the whole story the OA presents is made up.  But it isn’t clear that it is made up for any purpose, it only has a purpose accidentally, and then, a strange one that does not obviously or in an directly causal way achieve what it achieves.

The metaphysical questions of an afterlife turn out not to be the metaphysical questions that the show poses.  A Prayer for Owen Meany poses questions of fate in a pretty straightforward way.  Owen Meany believes he is fated.  He knows the date on which he will die.  He is ready for it.  The OA tells her friends that they are angels who through some moves can save people.  This turns out to be true, according to the show, but the way she tells the story of how they believed the moves would save people turns out to be irrelevant.  Frankly, I was glad I wasn’t going to be asked to believe that some hand gestures were going to allow them to teleport to the rings of Saturn.  I could slightly more believe that the hand gestures saved kids from another kid with a gun, but so could have a Tai Chi class, why not just her say she spent the last seven years learning Tai Chi?  But I didn’t see how The OA got the fate part off the ground.  There was nothing necessary about her story.  In fact, it really did seem like we were left at the end without any reason to believe her story.

I like the idea here, but I don’t think it worked.  And since it isn’t original — neither is Irving’s novel which is inspired by Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, which I have not read but look forward to reading now–it seems like it carries a certain responsibility to execute the idea well.  Moreover, the questions of fate don’t carry the story through.  Sure it is fine that we are deceived because they do accomplish a destiny, which is finally revealed at the end, though I would say this destiny feels more accidental than the destiny in Owen Meany.  The reason for learning the five moves that the OA gives to her friends is that they need to be learned to free the prisoners.  And then we just have the destiny changed to save others.  But what that initial purpose for doing the moves sufficient to motivate them?  I had a moment when they were doing the moves in the unfinished house when I was like this is corny and no way would those kids be taking this seriously.  At the end I was thinking about how much more willing I was to believe that Owen Meany wanted to do a special basketball trick that required his friend to lift him up, and the practice of which allowed them to carry off what needed to be done to save the kids in the novel.  There a more local explanation comes to have a larger significance.  Here one cosmic significance just gets replaced by another.  Eh, it’s ok, but it wasn’t satisfying.

Some parts of it just seem to have no relevance whatsoever to the whole story.  Like why did they go to Cuba to get the fifth person?  Because she needed a reason to say five people were needed?  But were they?  I did not see evidence of that in the end.  It might be that my problem is that while I am willing to suspend my disbelief to a certain degree, I still need to be given at least some reason that makes it worth while.  I can believe that she has premonitions that lead her to see that the cafeteria is the site of the coming violence.  Owen Meany had premonitions, too.  But I don’t see how the premonitions connect to the now-suspect story of what the OA was doing while she was gone.  She came up with five moves. She carved them into her back.  She taught some friends. They did them and reduced the impending violence from a kid with an automatic weapon at the high school.  For the life of me, I don’t understand what her story about dying over and over again, about being held in a cage, about the trip to Cuba, about all of that, had to do with the final story.

I’ve got questions.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Michael Norton #

    And what was the point of her being there outside the cafeteria at the end??

    January 7, 2017
    • Obviously, those moves wouldn’t work with only four people.

      January 7, 2017
      • Michael Norton #

        But weren’t there 5 people without her? The 4 students and Phyllis from the Office?

        January 7, 2017
      • Oh right I forgot about the shaggy haired kid. Maybe she had to take the bullet?

        January 7, 2017
      • Michael Norton #

        Yeah, because otherwise it would’ve hit… the ground? A car?
        We binged this too, and were left similarly unimpressed and with questions.

        January 7, 2017
    • She has to take the bullet because … that’s what sends her on the next stage of her journey to save her friends. Well that’s how I read it.

      May 29, 2017
  2. Shannon Mussett #

    Love this post. I think you are spot on in a lot of ways. And the comparison to Owen Meaney is sooooo good. Damn, haven’t thought about that book for a while. That is a really provocative comparison you made there. I don’t really think I can defend the show form some of the more damning problems. But I am cool with that. A good try is better than a washed up rehash any day of the week.

    Okay, did the OA accomplish everything it set out to do? Most certainly not. There were a lot of loopholes and loose ends. The one that irritated me the most was her dad. I mean, wtf? What happened to that whole story line?

    But, I found the payoff very good. Not in a way that it answered the big questions—where they angels? Were the moves magical? Was she alone and made the whole thing up? Did she buy the books to reflect on her thinking on the others or to make them up? Etc., etc.

    It didn’t answer them. Now, I happen to think that in fact, there were others and that the moves did do something. I mean, she did run—with no warning except a dream—to the high school, where there was an active shooter, and the others and their weird jazz hands did distract the shooter and the OA was the ONLY casualty. And now she dies, and who knows what’s to come?

    But what if she did make it all up? Then it is a dark and terrifying exploration of how abuse and imprisonment forces a kind of alternate world insanity that is the only thing that can keep a person in any way alive—even if only by totally leaving reality. The scars, the stories, the loss of time—all interesting to me when thinking about solitary confinement and torture.

    But then again, she was blind, and now is not. So clearly, SOMETHING is up.

    Was packaged with a neat and tidy bow, nah, it felt like they needed a couple more episodes (like Penny Dreadful which was like, okay, surprise! We are OUTTA HERE). But I was sucked in and even able to look past the stupid dance moves (a hell of a lot more easily than I can the embarrassing and silly orgies of Sens8—sorry West) to see an original (enough) story there and would recommend it to folks who want a good A-/B+ show to binge watch. Phew, that was a lot of parenthetical remarks. Kind of like the show itself.

    Now, if you want an A+ show to watch, the Expanse is awesome. But you gotta like bona fide Sci Fi to get into it.

    January 7, 2017
    • The dad! I totally forgot about him! Yes, she was blind and now she is not. That is true and maybe the strongest evidence that something happened. I accept wholeheartedly that she had premonitions. That’s why she saw the high school in her dreams but couldn’t figure out what she was seeing and then she did finally figure it out. And I agree you are right that the made up story would also point to the effects of trauma – though we don’t actually know if she was imprisoned, I mean she could have been making that up too. One other thing it occurs to me is very odd. Why does she need to look up the football player on the internet in the first episode? Is that confirming her story or is that her effort to make up a story?

      Two lines in the story were great: “The biggest mistake I made was believing that if I cast a beautiful net, I would catch only beautiful things,” and “Knowledge is a rumor until it exists in the body.” The second should be an epigraph on a Merleau-Ponty paper somewhere.

      January 7, 2017
  3. Laurie Rettig #

    So many movies seem hole-y to me; sort of insultingly non-cohesive, so this was fun and affirming for me to read. Gonna grab a copy of Owen Meaney!

    January 9, 2017

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  1. The Unreliable Narrator: Dirk Gently, Mr. Robot, The OA (Spoilers) – Online Offal

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