Film studies, Literature, science fiction

‘We all died more times than I can count.’ Reincarnation, Social Mobility and the Multiverse in the Netflix Originals Series The OA

David Sweeney discusses the Netflix Originals Series, The OA, in the context of reincarnation, social mobility and the multiverse, as well as questions that arose following the series.

Death is not the end for Prairie Johnson in the Netflix Originals TV series The OA (2016-19); rather it creates the opportunity for her to travel to another dimension within a multiverse and reincarnate into the body of her counterpart there. Prairie, played by Brit Marling who also co-created The OA with director Zal Batmanglij and co-wrote most of the episodes, ‘jumps’ dimensions after being shot dead at the end of the first season. Prairie’s continued existence in this new dimension is the focus of the second, and final, season of The OA which confirms claims made by her in the first that she was one of a group of prisoners held captive by a scientist named Hap (Jason Isaacs) obsessed with Near Death Experiences (NDEs, hereafter) which all the prisoners, Prairie included, had previously undergone. Hap initially believes NDEs allow visions of the afterlife; after experimenting on his captives, drowning then reviving them ‘more times than [Prairie] can count’, he realizes that NDEs instead show glimpses of other lives in the multiverse.

Prairie is reborn in a parallel dimension, taking over the body of her counterpart there, Nina Azarova, a wealthy Russo-American businesswoman. Prairie’s reincarnation provides her with upwards social mobility: Nina’s affluent San Francisco milieu contrasts sharply not only with the dungeon in which Hap had imprisoned Prairie for seven years, but also with the depressed middle-class Michigan suburb of Crestwood where Prairie’s adoptive parents reside and to which she returns at the start of season one after being freed by Hap. This rebirth is at Nina’s expense as Prairie’s consciousness sublimates Nina’s. Prairie spends little time pondering the ethics of interdimensional travel, and the body occupation that comes with it, being preoccupied with her mission to prevent Hap, who has also jumped to this dimension, from learning how to further navigate the multiverse. However, in the second season she encounters another inter-dimensional traveler, Elodie (Irène Jacob), who is a veteran of the multiverse, having taken over the bodies of several of her counterparts; Elodie informs Prairie that she need not dominate the consciousness of her counterpart – which she considers to be a ‘vicious’ act – when she can, instead, ‘integrate’ with it as Elodie has learned to do with several of her own counterparts, making her impersonation of them much easier to accomplish.

According to the Prairie in season one, she was born Nina Azarova, the daughter of a wealthy Russian oligarch who had ties to organized crime. Because of this, her father was later assassinated and Nina taken to the US where she was adopted, experiencing downward social mobility. In season two, she is able to experience the life she could have had if her father had survived. As Prairie tells Hap in the second season finale, ‘I got to see another version of my life here, one in which I was given everything’, Nina’s wealth and taste being evident in the stylish wardrobe and opulent apartment Prairie is able to temporarily enjoy. Although they started out as the same person, Prairie and Nina’s lives have diverged sharply; indeed, Nina is in many ways Prairie’s opposite, gregarious and sensual where Prairie is rather ascetic and taciturn. While impersonating Nina at a nightclub, in the second season’s fourth episode, Prairie participates in a performance with a Lovecraftian psychic cephalopod which reveals Prairie’s ‘true face’ to her by triggering an NDE in which she glimpses yet another counterpart, a woman with short blonde hair later revealed to be ‘Brit’, a fictionalized version of Marling herself.

In the second season finale, Karim (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a detective helping Prairie, returns alone to a labyrinthine house in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighbourhood which he had earlier investigated with her, opening the attic’s circular ‘Rose Window’ which allows him to see into yet another dimension. There, a version of The OA is being filmed on a soundstage, complete with a backdrop of the San Francisco skyline and a mock-up of the houseboat where Karim lives. Awed by this sight, to the point of tears, Karim seems to realise that he is actually a fictional character. As Karim beholds the third dimension, Prairie – who had been in the midst of a confrontation with Hap – jumps into this dimension, entering the body of her counterpart there, the woman, Brit, whom she had glimpsed while undergoing an NDE in the nightclub, who is performing the role of Prairie on the soundstage. Prairie enters Brit’s body just as she falls from a great height to the soundstage floor, fatally – it is implied – injuring herself. We then learn that Hap has followed, entering the body of his counterpart, a fictionalised version of Isaacs.

The finale raises a number of questions about the metaphysics of the multiverse, the ‘rules’ of inter-dimensional travel and the ethics thereof, questions which sadly have gone unanswered as a result of the series’ cancellation (although speculation, in the form of fan fiction, has continued). The finale’s use of metalepsis – the intrusion of one fictional world into another – recalls David Lynch’s 2006 film Inland Empire in which Laura Dern’s character Nikki disturbs a film set on which another version of herself is performing. Furthermore, the round Rose Window seems to be a reference to what Mark Fisher identifies as Inland Empire’s ‘dominant motif’ of ‘the hole’ which he considers to be, like the Rose Window, a ‘threshold’ (2016: 57).  Inland Empire presents another version of a multiverse, consisting of several worlds through which Nikki moves, taking on a different identity in each one (the death scene mentioned above shows Dern pass away in the identity of ‘Sue’, a sex-worker). As Fisher puts it, ‘in Inland Empire you are whatever world you find yourself in’ (57); this contrasts with the way in which the inter-dimensional travellers of The OA such as Prairie, Elodie or Hap are able to retain their identity when they cross worlds. As Fisher observes, the ‘world-haemorrhaging’ (58) of Lynch’s film creates a situation where there is no hierarchy of worlds; therefore, there is no hierarchy of identities; however, the season two finale of The OA implies that the third dimension accessed by Prairie and Hap is the point of origin for all others in the multiverse. However, this hierarchical arrangement is destabilised by Hap and Prairie’s occupation of their counterparts there: have the characters taken over their creators?

Death may not be the end for Prairie, but cancellation was the end of the series. The ‘death’ of The OA left, as we have seen, many questions unanswered; nevertheless, the series remains a powerful representation of the factors which shape individuals’ lives and their social mobility, in every dimension of the multiverse including that of the viewer.

For more information on The OA by David Sweeney visit our website.

Fisher, Mark, The Weird and The Eerie, London: Repeater Books, 2016.

Inland Empire. Film. Directed by David Lynch. US: 518 Media, 2006.

King, Geoff, The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to Reality TV and Beyond, Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2005, Chap. 14, ‘The Aura of Snuff’.

The OA. TV series. Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. US: Netflix Originals, 2016-2019.


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