At the heart of “The OA” lies a fundamental ambiguity: Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling), may be the formerly blind daughter of a Russian oligarch who was adopted into an American family, kidnapped by a mad scientist, held in a dungeon for seven years, and subjected to numerous murders by drowning, all of which she miraculously survived, each time learning a new modern dance routine which could be used to heal the sick and/or unlock a portal between dimensions and timelines… Or — to put it as tactfully as one of her little friends — that bitch is crazy.
The Russian-oligarch story, of course, is the one Prairie tells about herself — the one which, in a bit of “Westworld”-y narrative trickery, viewers are led to believe via copious flashbacks to the events in question. But the possibility of Prairie’s mental illness is never entirely absent from the picture: This is, after all, a character that we meet while she’s throwing herself off a bridge.
We’re subsequently told she was diagnosed with “serious” mental illness, and that she was put on medication at a young age; we see that her parents treat her like a small child or fragile object in the present day, and that her mother wonders aloud if she “needs some time in medical care.” The question “The OA” flirts with is whether it’s fair to attribute Prairie’s various symptoms and diagnoses to a real illness, or whether even looking for a diagnosis is a sign that you, the viewer, are too jaded to believe in magic.
The trope of the Magic Mentally Ill Person is not new; pop culture has always had a hard time distinguishing between mental illness and supernatural activity. The most notorious example is the 2001 Kevin Spacey vehicle “K-Pax,” in which the Oscar-winning actor plays a sassy, sunglasses-clad mental patient who claims to be an alien from the titular planet and (gasp!) may even be telling the truth.
According to the movie, being a space alien and/or schizophrenic largely revolves around delivering Deepak-Chopra-level dialogue like “every being in the universe knows right from wrong, Mark” and “your Buddha and your Christ, they had quite a different notion!” in between teaching your gruff, workaholic psychiatrist how to love.
“The OA,” with its new-age undercurrents and intentional ambiguity, shares more than a few strands of DNA with “K-Pax.” (At one point, it’s even suggested that Prairie’s powers originate from the planet Saturn.) But the issue doesn’t start, or end, there.
On “Lost,” the character with the most overtly supernatural back story — Hurley (Jorge Garcia), possessor of the “cursed” Numbers that may or may not have held the secret to the universe — was also the most directly tied to mental illness, with various plot lines showing him being institutionalized and having vivid hallucinations of an imaginary friend, “Dave,” who at one point tried to make him commit suicide. On “Firefly,” River Tam’s erratic behavior is explained by either trauma-induced psychosis, severe brain damage, telepathic superpowers, or (most likely) all three.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Magicians,” both shows uncommonly interested in and insightful about their characters’ mental situations, both also aired episodes which implied their main characters might be hallucinating the show’s premise from inside a mental hospital — a formal gimmick that plays less with our ideas about reality, in the wooby “Matrix” sense, and more about the shame that would entail, if it were all a big joke on these characters we love so much.
Some of these characters ascend into the realm of the supernatural — K-Pax’s alien returns to his home planet; Hurley becomes the nigh-immortal “guardian” of the mystical Island, never to return to the human world — and some merely return there, with mental illness thrown into their fundamentally fantasy-based plots as a red herring or temporary obstacle. But the message is clear: Madness and magic are so closely connected, they might as well be the same thing.
The thing is that, for most of human history, they were.
These tropes don’t arrive out of nowhere; they come to us from a long history of human beings trying to explain complicated, frightening diseases they didn’t yet have the tools to diagnose. The human brain is so complex that we’re still learning how it works now, at the beginning of the 21st century. When we had no knowledge whatsoever, it was common to assume strange, uncontrollable mental states were caused by demonic possession or the curse of a vengeful god — like, for example, the Old Testament God, who threatened sinners that “the Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.” In colonial Massachusetts, people who believed they were persecuted by shadowy conspiracies and claimed their neighbors were in league with the Devil to torment them were “bewitched,” not paranoid, and so on.
One of my favorite theories argues that Ireland’s rich fairy mythology — centering on the existence of an amoral, invisible race that curses or kills those who fail to follow their nonsensical rules — stems from the fact that Irish people have the highest rates of schizophrenia in the world, and contract the disease at four times the rate of the general population. When your niece suddenly stops eating or getting out of bed, or when your husband begins talking to people who aren’t in the room — both reported after-effects of fairy encounters — a medieval peasant would have no way of understanding, let alone deriving comfort from, phrases like “enlarged lateral ventricles” or “over-production of dopamine.” In that situation, particularly if you’ve seen similar things happen to your neighbors, it would actually be more logical to assume that your husband is speaking to an invisible man in the kitchen because the invisible man is there.
We’ve largely moved on from the supernatural theory of mental illness, and for good reason: It kills mentally ill people.
There are multiple cases of people with treatable illnesses being killed by “spiritual” cures, and they are harrowing; in one 1998 incident, a teenager named Charity Haynes who “had lost her willpower and become depressed” suffocated when her mother not only concluded that her mood swings were demonic in nature, but abruptly escalated from “praying out loud to try and drive the demon [out]” to tying a plastic bag over her daughter’s head.
Yet this sense of mental illness as a magical phenomenon — and the corresponding sense of mentally ill people as “cursed,” touched with the otherworldly; not quite human themselves — still bubbles through our storytelling, often undermining the storytellers’ best intentions.
Which brings us back to “The OA,” which has a few of these going on: It is good to hate the sin and love the sinner, and to return wickedness with comfort, and to turn the other cheek… But the first time these ideas are expressed, it’s because their object has just permanently injured a classmate, depriving him of a talent and possible future, for no reasonable cause. Showing pity and compassion for a student who is acting out is crucial — but the show is so focused on this that it leaves out the victim altogether: Do we wait until he attacks the next gay kid? Do we wait until he actually kills someone? At what point are people responsible for their own actions? It’s a regrettable side-effect of “The OA’s” attempt to cram the highest-minded philosophy into the most faulty vessels: To express the divine, with such grounded stakes, inherently means an Eckhart Tolle-via-GOOP sensibility: An obliviousness that can, and rightly should, seem insulated to the point of cruelty.
Whether Prairie is magical or mad, we are certainly meant to find her special; her fragile, ethereal presence, combined with her apparent ability to unite her town’s high-school outcasts in a new quasi-family, all indicate that when she calls herself an “angel,” we’re more or less meant to buy what she’s selling. But the season finale underlines this “specialness” in the most callous way possible: After Prairie’s family of outcasts discovers evidence she most likely made up the supernatural elements of her narrative, they nonetheless use her magical dance moves to distract a school shooter, causing him to accidentally fire his one and only bullet into… Prairie, who has just shown up on the scene.
Prairie seems surprisingly fine with this — “I have the will,” she gasps, implying this outcome is what she was really after all along — and her newfound friends provide much in the way of weeping and protestations of love, as her bloodied soon-to-be-corpse is lumped into an ambulance. Yet just as with the ending of K-Pax (in which the alien in question “goes home” by vacating the body of an actual patient it had been possessing, thereby leaving a man catatonic as part of its “inspiring” conclusion) it’s hard to ignore the message that Prairie is only “special” because of her ability to improve others’ lives — not because her own life has any inherent value.
After all, if we take this narrative at face value, we’ve just watched a mentally ill, traumatized woman commit extremely elaborate suicide just so a bunch of non-disabled people can learn the true meaning of friendship.
There are, apparently, lots of ways to be moved by this. Her death, one Redditor explains, “is the end of Prairie’s suffering with mental illness.” (Jesus. They couldn’t just adjust her medication?) Another explains that Prairie “shows how people, no matter whether mentally ill or not, can help out others.” Still, it’s hard to tell compassionate, humanizing stories about anyone when you believe they exist mainly to “help” other, more important characters — or that they’d be better off dead.
“The OA’s” inability to resist this trap is all the more frustrating because the story actually contains another character with a heavily stigmatized medical condition — Buck, a transgender boy, played by Ian Alexander — and handles his story better in just about every way. Buck requires medical help to transition, and takes testosterone on a regular basis, and “The OA” does not shy around that. But it also doesn’t sensationalize Buck’s trans-ness. The testosterone detail passes by so quickly and quietly that you can miss it (which I know because I initially did, and therefore spent several episodes wondering when we’d meet the transgender character I’d heard so much about).
Being trans doesn’t automatically make Buck a saint or elevate him above the other characters, but neither does it degrade him: He’s just Buck, a kid, who happens to need his medicine.
Believe it or not, this is what living with mental illness is like for many people: A daily, unexceptional process of maintenance, which is only one of a million concerns they need to address over the course of an average day. Mental illness is not especially otherworldly or glamorous, and though it can be intensely painful — illnesses aren’t known for being pleasant — the one thing it does not do is turn you into E.T.
The myth of the Magic Mental Patient is frustrating for many reasons, but chief among them is the fact that, so long as pop culture keeps turning the mentally ill into otherworldly creatures and mythical figures, the everyday, complicated, human stories of people living with mental illness will never be told. And as with so many aspects of the very worthwhile “OA,” the answer is as simple as privilege — must be nice from the cheap seats!, as they say — and a very human instinct to simplify past the painful, complicated, messy roots and arrive at the perfect theory.
“The OA” Season 1 is streaming now at Netflix.