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"The O.C." Graduates Celebrating
“The O.C.” Graduates Celebrating (Image: Warner Bros. Studios)

Whelp, Marissa (Mischa Barton) died.

After a year of torturing her, I guess there was nothing left to do to the poor girl. But the specifics of how her tragic death happened still came as a surprise to me.

When I started my rewatch of “The O.C.” almost two months ago, I didn’t remember much from my original viewing two decades ago, and I have opted to remain as spoiler-free as possible. The only research I've done is for spelling purposes and to provide images as I put together these season-by-season reflections. I try not to even look at the number of episodes the actors are in.

When embarking on my rewatch, I, of course, remembered the show's basic premise: Ryan’s (Ben McKenzie) integration into the new world of Orange County via the Cohen family. I certainly knew the major players. I remembered a New Year’s Eve of almost-swinging parents. I knew there were four seasons, and that Marissa died at some point in Season 3. I remembered that “Hallelujah,” one of my favorite songs, was playing in connection to her demise. I was certain she died in an episode that aired in March and that she was on the beach when she died. But I was wrong on those last two counts!

As I rewatched Season Three, I spent the last quarter of the season twiddling my thumbs, waiting for those haunting, opening chords of “Hallelujah” to begin. If nothing else, the thumb twiddling provided a temporary distraction from the unavoidable fact that 3-quarters of the season I’d just watched was the absolute freaking pits.

What Didn't Work in Season 3

Two men look glum in this image from Warner Bros. Studios
Even Ryan (Ben McKenzie) and Seth (Adam Brody) know Season 3 was a struggle! (Image: Warner Bros. Studios)

Among Season 3’s letdowns: Seth (Adam Brody) stopped being funny. In fact, almost everyone stopped being funny, besides Julie (Melinda Clarke) and Summer (Rachel Bilson). (I will admit to falling madly in love with Summer’s “Ew!”s this season.) My couple goals, Sandy (Peter Gallagher) and Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) lost their charisma. I could not bring myself to care one bit about Sandy's hospital debacle, and I’m still not sure I fully understand it.

Poor Marissa couldn’t catch a break, and I was completely uninterested in her new school or her strange friendship with Johnny (Ryan Donowho), or even that Johnny ultimately fell off a cliff to his death. Every time someone mentioned the name, Johnny, it was like that old '80s one-hit wonder played in my head: “Who’s Johnny?” Similarly, going into the season, I had zero recollection of Sadie (Nikki Reed), and about five minutes after she disappeared from my screen, I forgot about her again until I started writing this.

The season was dark, and that’s okay. Season 2 was pretty dark at times, but it worked because the darkness was balanced with humor and humanity. Season 3 simply lacks the sparks that made the first two seasons fly.

What Worked in Season 3

Two women with leis are featured in this image from Warner Bros. Studios
Summer (Rachel Bilson) and Taylor (Autumn Reeser) are among the strong female characters who save Season 3. (Image: Warner Bros. Studios)

Season 3 started to redeem itself around Episode 20, and I found the final moments of the gang’s high school career to be moving. I cried when Summer gave Marissa the pink Berkeley sweatshirt and cried harder when Marissa tossed her pink prom corsage aside. I loved that we had some nice family closure with Marissa and Kaitlin (Willa Holland), particularly when Marissa helped her little sister get out of some trouble at boarding school. I also have to admit the Marissa and Volchok (Cam Gigandet) relationship was interesting. Their chemistry leaped off the screen, particularly in that one trailer scene — yes, you know the one!

Also, Taylor (Autumn Reeser) was a great addition to the cast, even if she got on my nerves at first. Her humorous personality was much needed, and maybe we didn't get enough of it. But Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke) absolutely stole the show and, in my estimation, saved the season.

The other aspect of Season 3 that stood out to me was that the writers did some very interesting role-switching, flip-flopping the established dynamics of some of our favorite pairs. Each player had an identity crisis, which made Ryan and Summer stronger, better human beings. I can't say the same, unfortunately, for Marissa and Seth. (But I haven’t given up on Seth. Yet.)

Ryan and Marissa's Role Reversal

A man and woman sit closely in this image from Warner Bros. Studios
It’s a real “Freaky Friday” of a season for Ryan (Ben McKenzie) and Marissa (Mischa Barton). (Image: Warner Bros. Studios)

In Season 3 of “The O.C.,” Ryan drives a Range Rover. Marissa lives in a trailer and attends an undesirable public school. Ryan wants to go to college. Marissa wants to sail around the world doing manual labor on a boat. Who are these people?! Certainly not the Ryan and Marissa we met in Season 1 or even the ones we watched in Season Two.

This switch in personas and lifestyles for the on-and-off couple neatly sets up the ending of the season. Marissa dies in Ryan's arms, and though he couldn't save her as he had many times before, he's completed a story arc that makes his future possibilities — higher education, a stable relationship, etc. — not only believable but also things we can root for heartily as we move into a post-Marissa world.

Seth and Summer's Role Reversal

A man and woman look at each other in a diner in this image from Warner Bros. Studios.
When did Summer (Rachel Bilson) turn into the smart one? (Image: Warner Bros. Studios)

Also in Season 3, the formerly spacey Summer is accepted to Brown University. Seth is not. Summer is hysterically funny! Seth is not. Again, who are these people?!

I adore that Summer became more of a real character in Season 3, developed beyond just being Seth’s bombshell girlfriend and Marissa’s ditzy best friend. We finally get some real family scenes with her dad, allowing us to understand Summer’s background better and solidifying her somewhat-sudden onset of smartness. It helps make her Brown acceptance exciting and believable, and this tempering of Seth’s humor and humanity is something we hope he can rebound from. I want to rejoin the Seth Cohen fan club in Season 4!

Season 3 Coda

A group of graduates is featured in this image from Warner Bros. Studios
Graduation made one of the final times the Core Four were together. (Image: Warner Bros. Studios)

Because I have been rewatching “The O.C.” as blindly and organically as possible, I don’t know or remember the circumstances surrounding Barton leaving the show. I wondered, as I rewatched the season and tracked Marissa's trajectory, if I would see her death coming. As noted above, I kept waiting for it, and when it finally happened, I felt the profound loss of someone we watched battle some real demons in life. I am sorry she’s gone, and I am sorry the Core Four is no more. Starting the final season knowing our favorite foursome has irretrievably imploded feels heavy.

However, I’m moving into these final episodes with some hope, thanks to a few old and new words of wisdom.

  • “Confidence, Cohen!” I was so happy to see Anna (Samaire Armstrong) again in Season 3 and even happier to hear her callback instructions to Seth. He needed to hear it, and I did too.
  • “Everyone belongs somewhere.” This line came courtesy of Matt Barr, perhaps best known for playing Psycho Derek on “One Tree Hill.” Here he plays a non-psycho Berkeley student that Ryan and Marissa spend some time with during their college visit. This declaration now feels bittersweet knowing Marissa's ending, but let's look at it a different way …

In life, we have to find our people; we all need a tribe to belong to and a secure place where we can be our true selves. I am confident that the characters who remain for the last season of “The O.C.”’ will find new, rewarding roles and where they truly belong in Orange County or elsewhere. While I am sad to forge ahead without Marissa, life has to go on. Season 4, here I come!

One thought on “‘The O.C.’ 20th Anniversary: Rewatching Season 3

  1. Lindsay says:

    Love this recap. Thanks for helping me relive my youth!

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