Brava, “The O.C.,” brava!
In anticipation of its 20th anniversary, I finished rewatching the final season over a week ago, but I’m still in a semi-permanent state of a figurative standing ovation, having been fully re-welcomed to “The O.C.” through this rewatch experience. Every time I try to start writing about these final episodes, the tears start flowing again and I have to stop. I’m not ready for this story to end, even as I type these words.
My emotions are heightened by the fact that Season 4 absolutely redeemed the show. As I shared in my Season 3 rewatch essay, the prior season felt like a departure from the incredible first two seasons. I was terrified that the show wouldn’t bounce back from those lows, especially following Marissa's (Mischa Barton) death. But somehow, from the start of the last season, I felt as though I was back in the Season 1 and 2 of “The O.C.” that I’d come to feel inherently part of 20 years ago.
I explore this redemption season more fully below, but first, a few words on the series finale.
The Final Episode
I mentioned in my Season 1 rewatch essay that I still had a bookmark I’d written on when I originally watched “The O.C.” series finale in 2007. Back then, I pulled away from the show before being overwhelmed with emotions from an unexpectedly fulfilling finale. So, this time around, as I started rewatching the series finale, I got out that same bookmark, shut off all the lights, and pulled my chair closer to the TV, wondering if the experience would be the tear-jerking moment of growth it had been for me over 16 years ago.
Well, again, I say, brava!
The series finale wasn’t perfect, but the imperfections were minor and didn’t detract from the hour's cumulative excellence, so I won’t spend any more time on them. The final episode was moving enough that, the morning after I rewatched it, I felt like my best friend moved away, or worse, like I had moved away from all of my best friends.
I had to take over a week to process not just this bittersweet loss of an incredible show, but also the unbelievable skill with which the writers gave closure to the storylines in a way that made Season 3 if not a “good” season, then at least one that made more sense contextually. That was no easy feat!
The Final Season
The fourth and final season of “The O.C.” began with an episode titled “The Avengers,” and I think we can title the entire season this because it did a good job of making up for the prior season. The major players all underwent story arcs that successfully charted their growth and change not just from the beginning to the end of the season, but also across the entire series. Here’s how I feel about how we got closure with all our favorite characters.
Kaitlin and Julie Cooper
The Coopers started “The O.C.” as a family of four. Over the course of the series, Jimmy (Tate Donovan) and Julie (Melinda Clarke) divorced, and Jimmy mostly disappeared from the show. Marissa died. Kaitlin disappeared and later reappeared as a whole new person, literally (Shailene Woodley played the character originally; Willa Holland, later). Despite much turmoil, the surviving family unit of Julie and Kaitlin ended the series, having finally established the trust and appreciation with each other that was always missing.
Julie had the most significant growth of any of the characters. She went from a full-on money-hungry villain in Season 1 to someone we could unabashedly root for in Season 4. She came to realize the attention she should be paying to daughters whose names aren’t Marissa and even went back to school to get her college degree. It warms my heart to think that the little boy she has at the end of the finale grows up with the mother Julie became.
Kirsten and Sandy Cohen
In some ways, the Kirsten and Sandy story arc over the course of “The O.C.” was the least dramatic, and thank goodness! When we met them in Season 1, their marriage was strong, and despite a few minor temptations along the way, their relationship remained the same at the end of the series.
It’s this steady and reliable quality Sandy and Kirsten have infused into their marriage and family that makes the entire series work. Ryan (Ben McKenzie) would have been nowhere without them! Seth (Adam Brody) would have been nowhere without Ryan! And so on. That they end up returning to their first home, back in Berkeley, was the assurance we needed that their future was always going to be golden.
And baby Sophie being named after The Nana? *insert sobbing emoji*
Summer (Rachel Bilson) started out the series as a materialistic, superficial teen who didn’t get much deeper than dissing Ryan’s hometown of Chino with her trademark reaction “ew,” but she underwent a massive character arc to become a stalwart environmental advocate by the time the show ended. To be fair, we started seeing new sides of Summer as Season 1 went on and she gave in to her feelings for Seth, but the progression was on the slow side.
Then, in Season 3, Summer's intelligence really started to play a big role in her trajectory (hello, Brown University!). Some of her character shifts along the way seemed unlikely, but I love that the writers made an effort to fully develop Summer and give her a calling in life. She’s now the perfect daughter-in-law for activist Sandy Cohen!
I love you, Seth! He started out in Season 1 lonely but hysterically funny. Along the way, he found, lost, and found love once more, gained a brother and friends, lost his sense of humor and thankfully got it back.
I’m certain Seth is most people’s favorite “The O.C.” character and for good reason. For most of the series, he provided the wit that was necessary to balance a very dramatic show. I was thrilled to see the flash-forward at the very end of the series finale of Seth and Summer’s wedding. Cohen really was her destiny, and vice versa.
I can't help but wonder what Ryan’s future would have been like had Sandy not been assigned to be his public defender on that fateful day in juvie. He was always an intelligent person, and he might’ve figured out a way to escape his troubled background and become a functional, contributing member of society all on his own. But I don’t think he would’ve ever gained the ability to be so vulnerable without Sandy in his life. Sandy's mentorship and the Cohen family are what made all the difference (now I’m crying again!).
In the last scene of the finale, we see Ryan offer to help a young boy in distress — just like he was in the pilot. It’s a small but tear-jerking moment and the perfect way to close the series. Ryan becomes Sandy at the story's end, and I don’t think that ever would’ve happened if Ryan hadn’t met the Cohens. Maybe it wouldn't have happened if he never met Marissa either. His heart would have stayed too guarded.
Boy, did “The Chrismukk-huh?” play with my emotions, teasing the possibility that Marissa was still alive in an alternate universe! Alas, she wasn't — because in that world, Ryan never saved her when she overdosed in Tijuana. So, we don't actually get to see Marissa alive and well in Season 4, but maybe we got to see something better.
Our last glimpse of Marissa in the finale is the same one in the pilot: Ryan flashes back to seeing Marissa as he heads away from the Cohen house. At this moment, we once again see her through Ryan’s eyes. We’re able to see that Marissa’s story, while cut short, served as one of the defining forces that made Ryan into the advocate and nurturer he became. Ultimately, her death was for a larger purpose, and I was so thankful that Season 4 honored her. Marissa deserved a peaceful ending.
Season 4 Coda
I had promised my final pieces on “The O.C.” would include a ranking of all four Chrismukkahs, but I am going to retract that promise because the Season 4 installment, the aforementioned “The Chrismukk-huh?”, is on such a different level that the editions in Season 1 through 3, as good as some were, completely falter in comparison. This one is not just a stupendous holiday episode, but it also served as a necessary component as the writers attempted to pull off a daunting double feat: begin to successfully close out the series and contextualize a faulty penultimate season.
One of the notes I’d made on that bookmark I mentioned above, moments after the series finale ended in 2007, was, “I think I’m going to be OK.” To hear Kirsten say “It’s going to be OK” as the closing words of this holiday episode brought about such a strong feeling of completion and redemption for me that this hour could have easily served as the series finale and I would not have wanted more (but I sure am glad we got more!). Much like the season as a whole, “The Chrismukk-huh?” provided incredibly necessary closure for everyone grieving Marissa, with hints of promise and happiness for all ahead.
As much as I absolutely adored the series finale, I didn’t think it was perfect. Very close, but not perfect. Our final Chrismukkah in “The O.C.,” however? Just perfect.
Change is hard. During my original viewing and my summer rewatch for the show's 20th anniversary, “The O.C.” taught me a whole lot, but I think the most important lessons are solidified in “The Chrismukk-huh?”. We have to change to grow. When we hit the difficult parts of change, remember that it’s going to be OK.
Thank you, “The O.C.” Brava!