Life is a Mystery

Image shows Netflix's release poster for THe OA: Under a night sky with a silver white clouds that give way to glimpse of the starry universe beyond stands the figure of a woman loking skyward within the A of title The OA. At the very top in smaller letters is Trust the Unknown.It’s cold. The evening darkness lasts, encouraging me to hunker down with clever entertainment available without the usual buildup of a television premiere. And so I do. Over the last few weeks I consumed chapters of a new Netflix web series, The OA. Plus, Netflix offers audio description. I can’t say enough about this accessibility feature. The more services offer it, the greater audiences will grow. But enough about that. Back to the show.

The protagonist of The OA is a lady we meet as she wakes up disoriented in a hospital room, hypersensitive to touch. She can’t speak her name and there’s a push to identify her. Immediately, the documentary-styled scenes shot with washed out pastel color reminded me of the energy drain of emotional pain.  Predictably, Concerned Family Members arrive bedside followed by the discharge home with an intense media swarm of our 24-hour news cycle. We learn our blonde, otherworldly heroine, Prairie Johnson, an upgraded Luna Lovegood for HP fans, lived with vision loss. Yep, she went blind. Her circumstances changed–for reasons I won’t spoil–and everyone wants to know why.

Including a character who is blind opens the series to criticism here on Adventures in Low Vision. You know I could nitpick stuff like how touching faces isn’t really a thing people with visual impairments do. We talk or use tactile signing. How about that time Prairie walks through a subway station, ferries over to Liberty Island, and disembarks near the Statue of Liberty. What on earth is she doing with her cane? Simply holding it in front and tapping occasionally is not much feedback in unfamiliar metro areas. Granted, if you were walking in a familiar place, you might minimize the sweep or tap of a white cane. Finally, I could rage against the flirtation with a notorious plot crutch: a miraculous recovery from blindness, but I won’t.

In contrast, I could complement elements that reflect Prairie’s blindness such as when she arrives home from the hospital she sinks her toes into the carpeting. A sense of recognition flashes across her face. Or how there’s screen reading software on her computer. Or the time when she’s in captivity and we see her cooking with heat, prepping ingredients with knives, and measuring liquids with level readers. This doesn’t come with further narrative explanation. We watch her doing things she is capable of carrying out. The audience will figure it out.

With the Oscars coming up, it reminds me how some viewers don’t like it when a person without vision loss portrays a character living with vision loss. In the context of acting, as long as people with disabilities are given a fair shake in auditions, I don’t mind. In this case, The OA was co-written by Brit Marling. She cast herself as the lead; it’s her right. She’s given interviews in USA Today and The New York Times and CBC’s Q about her efforts to spend time with and learn from a man living with vision loss in NYC. She seems to grasp the concept of adjusting to a new situation by learning alternative methods and awakening focus through all senses rather than indulging fear. This attitude flourished in The OA when I heard Prairie say to another character:

“Maybe you should close your eyes more often. Being blind is powerful. It makes you listen. And people underestimate you.”

Sure, blindness is a part of this story, but there’s more going on here. A series stands on its storytelling. The OA features perspectives from people Prairie hangs out with in the midnight Breakfast Club of misfits. It’s a trajectory of stories spiraling to other stories, testing your beliefs. It’s kinda hard to follow.  I would anticipate where a chapter was headed, and instead it pans to a new angle, possibly never to return where it left off. After each episode, I sat on the couch my snack bowl empty, my mind blown apart. I needed a break. I felt exhausted. I’m interested in the strange, metaphysical story, but I’m weighed down by episode revelations. It’s unnerving, yet compelling.

With a few episodes left to watch, I don’t know the ending of The OA. From online posts and chats with friends, I gathered viewers hold passionate opinions. With plenty of winter nights ahead of me, I will finish the series. At this point, perhaps all I can say about The OA is: are you along for the mysterious, transcendent ride, too?

What do you think of The OA? Are you a committed Netflix subscriber? Do you like trying to solve the puzzle of a mystery in books or TV programs or movies? Tell me about it.

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. Jenelle says:

    I started watching this show in December and found it riveting, but ultimately too creepy for me to sleep well at night. I mostly liked how she portrayed blindness, although that initial scene of her feeling her mom and dad’s faces made me laugh and roll my eyes. But I liked how she explained how people underestimated her when she was blind. Great post, Susan!

    1. Thanks, Jenelle. It’s very dark and not a great idea to watch it right before bed, I agree!

  2. Steph McCoy says:

    This one slipped past my radar but I really can’t add another series to my Netflix marathon watching repertoire. Good review Susan.

    1. It’s tough when the shows stack up. Only have so many hours in a day.

      1. Steph McCoy says:

        Tell me about it. But I prefer binge watching Netflix to watching tv and I’m closer to cutting the cable cord.

  3. johnmill79 says:

    Awesome review, I hadn’t known that show’s content but am now inclined to check it out. I do subscribe to Netflix. Don’t get to take in as much as I’d like with grad school and a million other things going on, but I give them my dollars because they have begun to provide audio description. I don’t know if they care about my position specifically, but think we should support the things we like if financially able to do so. And regarding creating a show depicting blindness, I’d be surprised if they didn’t fall back on at least one of those tropes. It sounds like they’re better than many others, though. I also don’t have a real problem with people who are not disabled acting as ones with disabilities, since acting is in itsels exploration of character. So long as those with disabilities are given more opportunities at some point to fully enter the dialogue.

  4. Casee says:

    The OA sounds very interesting. If I ever sign back up for Netflix I will check it out. Nice review. You should do more of them.

  5. Brandi says:

    I love the OA. It was great to see a main character as blind. There needs to be more of this. I did not know netflix had descriptive video either. Thanks for posting this.

    1. Thanks, Brandi. Let me know what you think of descriptive video if you try it on Netflix.

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