“If you try to explain to someone, ‘Here’s what happened in the finale of ‘The Leftovers,” you sound insane.”
That’s Damon Lindelof talking about how he came up with the ending for Season 2 of his critically-acclaimed HBO drama. If I were to simply tell you what happened during the second season finale of “The Leftovers,” I would indeed sound insane. Absolutely. One-hundred percent. Roll out the Hannibal Lecter stretcher. After I finished explaining what would undoubtedly be a long-winded account, you probably wouldn’t want to watch the show, either (aside from my constant pleas for you to do just that). You’d simply think, “Wow, I can’t believe anyone actually made that into a TV show,” and move on.
But here’s the thing: The nearly-feature length Season 2 finale is one of the best episodes of television ever made. To miss out on seeing it would be a shame, but to think you can appreciate what it was able to accomplish simply by hearing it explained — or reading it online — would be a disservice to the medium in which it was made. A television is a visual and audible storytelling device, and the best television programs are made to take full advantage of these factors. To best gauge the effectiveness of these stories — especially such wildly original entries — you can’t simply be told what happens or read a summary online; the equivalent of saying you “get” Shakespeare by reading the Cliff’s Notes to “Macbeth.”
In other words, you need to watch TV to properly engage with its stories — even when an ending is as flawed as “The OA’s.”
After its “surprise” roll-out on December 16 (a label assigned to the series when it was given zero promotion until its week of release), much of the buzz surrounding “The OA” focused on its ending — and rightfully so. Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s series is, in essence, a mystery waiting to be unraveled and one that promises a memorable payoff. It delivers on the memorable part, which contributed to all the hoopla (a.k.a. online debate), but the appreciation of its go-for-broke finale varied wildly.
[Editor’s Note: Spoilers for the season finale of “The OA” are below.]
Now, no matter your subjective interpretation, the execution of “The OA’s” Season 1 finale is objectively worse than that of “The Leftovers.” For one, the latter doesn’t include a school shooting used as a backdrop for the magical power of interpretive dance. The group’s passionate enactment of the Five Movements simply doesn’t gel with the starkly terrifying scenario surrounding it, and these crucial, climactic moments have been called silly (at best) and insulting (at worst). As I discussed sans specifics (to avoid spoilers) in my initial review, the disparity between The OA’s fairy tale telling of past events and what’s happening in the present with Steve (Patrick Gibson) and the other kids comes to a jarring head during the shooting.
The OA’s trauma in captivity and what she does to survive it is presented like a fairy tale, or, on the other hand, like a person who’s gone through an unimaginably painful experience and found a way to cope with it. One could argue that’s how she found hope in a hopeless place, but what matters is the separation between the two worlds. The past feels far away and magical; literally presented as such from the second she starts telling a story suddenly set in Russia. The present feels very, very real; from the vivid sex scene introducing Steve to how he’s rescued from military school using good old fashioned dollars and cents. We knew these two time periods would have to come together, one way or another, when her story ended. But there was no precedent, no foreshadowing, and no justifiable reason to incorporate something as bluntly shocking as a school shooting when doing it.
For this reason — as well as more specific plot holes — “The OA” isn’t perfect. Anyone offended by the ending has every right to be. It’s not as well-crafted as other ambitious efforts out there, like “The Leftovers.” But where the two shows intersect (outside of a shared obsession with the afterlife) lies in the sincerity with which they’re told; the courage to go there with their respective stories; the hope against logic that the audience makes the leap with them.
The descriptive phrase used above — “the magical power of interpretive dance” — while accurate, is only serviceable to those who have seen “The OA.” Otherwise, it’s reductive to what its creators were trying to do. While that may be one of the few succinct descriptions befitting what Steve, Betty (Phyllis Smith), and the rest of the kids were doing, it doesn’t convey the import placed on the Five Movements so arduously built into the series. Those who liked the ending (and thus, probably, the show) were able to buy into that belief because of the decisions made by Marling and Batmanglij.
The two creators had to be aware of how ridiculous the ending could seem if they didn’t justify it, and they chose to do so by emphasizing the labor-intensive study that went into properly performing the movements. We watched the OA and Homer practice, again and again, for months if not years, and then we watched Steve, Betty & Co. do the same. It went beyond discussion — even though there was a lot of discussion — into belief. Eventually, we had to believe, too, and it’s here where the split between lovers and haters of “The OA” likely stems.
Yet those who have strong feelings either way should at least appreciate the narrative knowledge evident onscreen and honest intentions driving the series. Marling and Batmanglij, who’ve earned a cult film following with past efforts like “Sound of My Voice” and “The East” dared to create a story definitively made for television. To engage with it any other way doesn’t do it justice. Whether or not you need to watch “The OA” is clearly up for debate, but just as clear is that judging it without watching is just shy of insane.