*This Blog Post Contains Spoilers*
I have just finished watching the first season of the Netflix original The OA. Not since Lost have I watched a TV series that questioned the fabric of human existence in the same way.
With only 8 episodes in the first season, it doesn’t take too long to watch. Brit Marling co-wrote the show with Zal Batmanglij and is also the lead actress. For a Netflix series I was impressed with the production, acting and scripting. It was especially nice to see Phyllis Smith from the The Office back on the screen, she plays the awkward middle-American school teacher brilliantly.
Production aside, what really interested me about the show were the themes and philosophical questions posed.
Hippocrates is famous for the oath which bears his name, and is still at the core of modern medicine. Wikipedia supports my lay-person’s understanding that it can be summarised as ‘do no harm’. We can assume that this applies only to humans, as much of our advances in psychology, neurology, and many other medical fields are owed to the lives (and suffering) of countless rats, mice, monkeys and other animals. When it comes to people, however, there is generally still a strong negative feeling regarding harmful, non-consensual experimentation on humans.
This is not to say that it hasn’t happened, the activities under the Nazis being just one example. The West is also far from unblemished as the MKUltra program run by the CIA in the 1950’s revealed.
In case you missed my spoiler warning, the core of this season of The OA is Doctor Hunter Percy, creepily played by Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), who is experimenting on captive humans who have undergone Near Death Experiences (NDE).
Dr Percy is selecting NDE victims/subjects because they have a better survival rate when killed/revived multiple times. The supposed goal of the experimentation is to prove the existence of an afterlife. This topic is old ground and already the subject of significant real-world research, the Wikipedia page on NDE’s cites numerous studies relating to cardiac arrest survivors. Many of the aspects of NDE observed/recorded by science are faithfully depicted in the show.
Prairie Johnson, played by Brit Marling, becomes one of Dr Percy’s prisoners and through a series of lucid dreams / death experiences decides that NDE sufferers are angels and that an entity from the ‘other side’ is giving them physical movements that can allow them to escape.
This is the part that held my interest, the connection between human movement and spirituality. My children and I enjoyed watching both Avatar: The last Air Bender and the follow-on series, Legend of Kora. In these two shows, the Eastern belief that physical movement is not just about fighting but can also be used as a vehicle to control the elements is central. In my own practice of Qi-Gong (Falun Xiulian Dafa), this idea is also fundamental.
I have frequently visited Hawaii, and every time I see Hula performed I feel that this cultural practice has a much deeper meaning. Rather than just telling stories, or practicing fishing techniques it seems like there is some Sympathetic magic going on, just as there is in the dances of the first Australian People.
This idea is not without at least some recognition in the field of science. Mirror neuron research has shown that our brains have the capacity to observe movement and have it directly impact the motor centres of our own brain. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense for the young of a species to quickly learn from their parents simply by watching what they do. At its most basic level, when you watch sport and pay attention to your own body, you will find yourself mimicking the movements. Thus the reason young boys will instinctively cover their own groin when witnessing a peer suffering an unfortunate impact.
The OA uses the sequence of attaining new movements as a plot device, and two movements allow the captives to revive a dead captive and heal a terminal illness. One of the other interesting concepts is the idea that these movements are gained by swallowing something while in a near-death state. The White Snake, collected by the brothers Grimm is one of many examples from folklore where wisdom can be obtained by eating a specific animal. The Greenwood Encyclopaedia of Folktales and Fairytales, by Donald Haas, has a whole disturbing section on food in fairy-tales, especially the cannibalism that has been largely edited out in the Disney versions. I spoke a little about the importance of movement to religious/spiritual experience in my post on David Bowie’s Blackstar.
The season is full of plot-twists and hide-and-seek timelines common to any thriller, however, I didn’t have any moments where I thought “well that is just ridiculous”. I don’t know what it is, but some people seem to live their life without an overriding discomfort with religion and science’s inability to explain our existence coherently, whereas people like myself are constantly driving by this discomfort to wonder, search and postulate.
Entertainment like The OA prods at those uncomfortable grey areas of our knowledge and bids us to look into the darker corners of our consciousness.