Most people watched The OC between the years of 2003 and 2007, and then moved on. They enjoyed the series (except for maybe season 4) and went on with their life, satisfied with the knowledge that Summer was off to save the world, Ryan was HEY KID, YOU NEED HELP?ing like a champ and Seth was pretty happy being Seth. And that was that.
For me, it wasn’t. IT WASN’T THAT AT ALL. And as a result, I have been watching The OC on and off pretty much non-stop since the day it first aired on E4 13 years ago. I love everything about this show. Sandy and Kirsty Cohen taught me more about adult relationships than I could ever hope to convey. Ryan and Summer are the king and queen of character development. I enjoy analysing Volchok’s minimal backstory, I boo internally when Oliver arrives onto the scene, and I marvel at Kaitlin’s occasional profound moments.
But you know who I’m most taken with, always? MARISSA COOPER. Coop, if you will. CosmoGirl, if you read Atomic County. Newport Barbie, if you’re a jealous girl from Harbor’s state school equivalent. Marissa, in my eyes, gets a raw deal. Despite her untimely screen-death 10 years ago, she is still discussed on pop culture websites and Twitter profiles (mostly mine) on a regular basis and seems to be largely regarded as A BIT OF A BRAT – a spoiled, privileged, melodramatic little girl who does nothing but destroy the lives of those around her.
To that I say: NOW JUST HOLD ON ONE SECOND. Seriously, please do. I have a lot to say about Coop, and seeing as she’s not here to defend herself (GET ME A TISSUE), I’m happy to share it with you. I get that she’s not perfect, and yes, I agree that she has her fair share of selfish and straight-up annoying moments, but I also think that she deserves to be cut a little slack from time to time. I have overthought perhaps every word Marissa Cooper has ever spoken, and so I feel sort of, maybe, potentially qualified to talk this through with you. Are you ready? Let’s go, Ryan!
That was an OC reference. Expect a lot of them.
THAT WAS AN OC REFERENCE, TOO. I TOLD YOU TO EXPECT A LOT OF THEM.
I’d describe Marissa as a bit of a family girl – or at least someone who wishes her nearest and dearest were tight-knit enough for her to be a family girl.
It’s obvious from the outset that her relationship with her mother, Julie, is strained – in season 1 she tells Ryan she’s “scared” of her – but it’s also clear that Marissa cares about the Coopers. She describes her dad, Jimmy, as the “one thing” keeping her sane (no pressure, Jimmy) and in season 3 she’s totally willing to leave her boyfriend Ryan and everything else in Newport Beach behind if it means her family can regroup in Hawaii. Like, I wouldn’t put it past Marissa to pull some Parent Trap stunt with Summer in tow, because that girl seems to yearn for a nuclear family – even one as dysfunctional as hers. She looks to the Cohens as a source of normality, stability and bagels during Cooper family disputes, and compares her own parents to Sandy and Kirsten. During one argument with Jimmy, she says “For once, I wish you would just grow up and be like a real dad.”
The trouble with Marissa’s relationship with her family is that it’s shaky. Her parents adore her in their own messed-up ways, but they’re always coming and going: leaving without notice, becoming obsessed with tennis instructors, marrying for money. They’re 15 year-olds in adult bodies. Marissa is often sneered at for crying at family events and shouting obscenities at her mother, but I’m wondering who can blame the girl. She aches for a unit – a solid, dependable team. But instead she’s given a mother who sleeps with her ex-boyfriend and tries to frame her current boyfriend, a father who steals from his clients and leaves town at the first sign of trouble, and a sister who returns to Newport almost only to STIR STUFF UP. The Coopers love each other, I’m sure of it, but there’s nothing anchoring that family down. Not even Jimmy’s boat.
The only thing that might come close is Julie, who, despite being manipulative and ruthless, does almost all of what she does with Marissa in mind. Julie’s “personal sacrifices” with Caleb might creep Marissa out – and being dragged to live in his mansion doesn’t help much, either – but Julie does what she does to provide for her daughters. She literally refers to it as “keeping a roof over our heads” in season 2. This is why season 4, despite all its flaws, wasn’t a complete waste of time – because we get to see Julie move from the Riverside-denying, depressingly dependent housewife to the college graduate with self confidence and, for once, her own money. U GO GURL.
Season 1 Julie, however, is a different story. Season 1 Julie attempts to have Marissa sent away to a psychiatric hospital, embarks on a weird, motel-based relationship with Marissa’s ex, Luke, and marries Caleb Nichol just months after divorcing Jimmy. Season 2 Julie isn’t much better: remember when she tried to bribe hot-yard-guy-DJ to stay away from Coop? The less said about that, the better.
Marissa’s dad is kind and well-meaning but that doesn’t get rid of the fact that if you looked for the word ‘flake’ in the dictionary, the definition would be: ‘JIMMY COOPER’. Jimmy lives in a dream world where stealing millions of dollars is totally okay as long as you say sorry – even almost-angel Sandy becomes frustrated with his sheer lack of interest in taking any responsibility for the things he messes up. If there’s one thing Jimmy’s good at, it’s burying his head in the sand. He also seems to hold the belief that IF ONLY HE’D MARRIED KIRSTEN things would be perfect and amazing and never ever sad. Ignoring the fact that if he’d married Kirsten his own children would not exist, I think this mindset kinda blows. Marissa and Kaitlin are young and impressionable, and to see a strong-willed, family-focused father who says things like “YES! YOU CAN DO THAT! LET’S ACKNOWLEDGE OUR MISTAKES AND MOVE ON! POSITIVITY IS KEY!” would be great for them. But instead they get Jimmy, whose self-defeating, woe-is-me outlook is enough to make anyone have a tantrum with the pool furniture.
Julie and Jimmy, although unintentionally, make everything worse for poor Marissa. After dealing with their divorce, she later has to put up with:
- the whole Luke thing
- Jimmy leaving
- Jimmy coming back
- Jimmy getting back together with and later proposing to her mom
- Jimmy leaving (again)
- being blackmailed into living in Caleb’s mansion
- the whole sex tape thing
- the whole YOUR DAD IS STILL A THIEF thing
- Julie bribing Trey to say Ryan shot him (wtf)
- the whole I LIED ABOUT THE CONDO WE ACTUALLY HAVE TO LIVE IN A TRAILER thing
- Julie getting together with Summer’s dad (…weird at best)
Right? RIGHT? I’m not saying Marissa is perfect, far from it, but you have got to give her that. Her parents try their best, sort of, but Julie admits herself that the Cooper household is “no place for a child” (i.e. Kaitlin). I’m not sure it’s really a place for an alcohol-dependent teen either, but that’s just my two cents.
Marissa is shown as a caring friend who occasionally goes off the rails a little (a lot) but means pretty well. She’s less stable and dependable than her best friend, Summer, who comes across as a fairly rational person and a calming influence in Marissa’s life (as soon as she moves on from hotboxing Luke’s car and saying stuff like “gnarly”, that is).
Is Marissa a GOOD friend? It depends which way you look at it. Like all of us, she’s got so much going on at times that she physically can’t deal with much more than she has on her own plate – but most of us are able to push past this and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, at least temporarily, and that’s where Marissa seems to struggle.
Her friendship with Summer really interests me. I love Coop, but I want her to be like “How are YOU, Summer? Stuff with Seth seems kinda tough recently; how’s that going? Do you miss your mom? Are you sad that your dad isn’t around much cos of all the rhinoplasties he’s performing?”
This never seems to happen. Summer grows from a vapid, fairly one-dimensional character at the start of season 1 to an intelligent, mature, loyal friend in seasons 2, 3 and 4, and although we’re dropped hints about her backstory I feel like we could use some more in-depth Summer storylines. We know that her mother left when she was younger and that she lives with her dad, who works all the time. So that’s literally just only child Summer, in a mansion, on her own.
Summer also has a stepmother, Gloria, who she refers to – completely unaffectionately – as “the stepmonster.” Summer goes to a Mexican pharmacist in season 1 to buy drugs for this woman, because she knows she won’t need a prescription. She regularly mentions that Gloria has passed out at home or is so dosed up that she doesn’t know what’s going on. If this was a Marissa sub-plot we’d hear a lot more about it, I’m sure. There’d be tears and underage drinking and POSSIBLY SOME SHOPLIFTING. But Summer, like Seth, tends to only be around for the comic relief most of the time, and so it barely gets mentioned. Marissa doesn’t question it, or ask how Summer is doing, and that seems like a cop-out when you consider all the times Summer has supported her.
It kind of doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that Summer and Marissa fall out in season 3. Marissa – jealous of Summer’s long-term relationship with Seth and ‘perfect’ home life – lashes out, and Summer tells her to grow up, adding “Aren’t you just the saddest girl in the world?”
I get Summer’s frustrations. I really do. And the thing is, if Marissa would just BREATHE, she’d be able to see that Summer’s life is far from perfect. Everything that Marissa deals with, Summer deals with too, because it’s impossible to avoid Marissa’s melancholy. Summer’s relationship with Seth is pretty much fraught with drama throughout The OC, and between Seth blowing off his Brown interview and telling her he doesn’t love her anymore, I’m sure season-3-Summer has enough to deal with. But, as usual, she’s left to battle with it on her own. Perhaps Marissa’s worst quality as a friend is that when the chips are down, she becomes so consumed by what’s happening in her world that she doesn’t always remember that her pals are trying to navigate scary little paths of their own.
‘Niceness’ might not feel like the right word, but I feel like Marissa, despite her flaws and what I’ve just rambled about above, is actually one of TV’s quintessential nice girls. For starters, she’s kinder than she gets credit for. She shows her generosity in season 1, when she opts to make friends with Theresa Diaz, Ryan’s ex, even though she can’t think of anything worse than Ryan getting back together with her and rekindling his love of musicals and Girls Who Used To Live Next Door To Him In Chino. She even goes as far as giving Theresa a makeover so Ryan can do his annoying “Wow… you look… you look… amazing” spiel that he does every time one of his girlfriends makes an effort.
And when she discovers Theresa is potentially pregnant with Ryan’s baby, does she freak out? Not as much as you’d think. While everyone else is falling apart on the outside, Marissa wishes Ryan well and tells him that although she wishes he didn’t have to leave, she totally gets why he has to. Sure, she goes home and drinks straight vodka on her balcony later but THE MAIN THING IS THAT SHE’S THERE FOR HER FRIENDS. She could have been mean to Theresa. She could have been awful to Ryan (I sure woulda been). But she wasn’t, and no-one ever seems to remember that. When it comes to the big stuff – especially big stuff that isn’t about her – Marissa can actually get it together and support the people who need supporting.
But when I say ‘niceness’, I actually don’t mean ‘generosity’. I mean the good old-fashioned nice gal syndrome that Marissa encapsulates perfectly. If you don’t know what I mean, I will say a few words which might jog your memory: OLIVER. TREY. JOHNNY.
What do all three of these characters have in common? They all stuck around for longer than they should have done because Marissa is nice.
Let’s take Oliver as our first example. He lives alone in a hotel, he meets Marissa at therapy, he has an imaginary girlfriend, blah blah. Oliver is clearly troubled, and Marissa is visibly uncomfortable to be around him at times – she doesn’t even seem to like him the first time she meets him – but before we know it she’s attending his New Year party instead of hanging out with Ryan, skipping school to plan trips to Paris and so on.
Trey is Ryan’s brother. Marissa looks out for him when he gets out of jail, throws him a birthday party, finds him a flat and buys him a lava lamp. All perfectly lovely things, hmm? Trey thinks so, too – so much so that he gets it into his head that Marissa wants to switch Atwood brothers. I’m not sure if the word ‘rape’ is ever actually used in The OC, but if it isn’t then it should be, because Trey snorts coke, takes Marissa to a beach under the premise of a PALLY WALK and then tries to rape her. It’s really hard to watch. When Trey tells Marissa that no-one has ever been this nice to him, Marissa says “Yeah, because you’re Ryan’s brother!” and her voice cracks.
Remember Johnny? He’s season 3’s Guy Who Becomes Obsessed With Marissa And Then Meets A Sticky End. When everyone realises he’s got it bad, it’s suggested that he and Marissa stop hanging out for a bit – Johnny just wants to be left alone with his broken heart and his broken leg – but Marissa won’t hear of it and turns up every day to be Johnny’s nurse.
This is, in my humble OC-loving opinion, where stuff starts to get complicated. I really feel for Marissa in every single one of these situations, because throughout all of them she was genuinely, honestly just trying to be a good friend. Summer later admits that Coop isn’t the best judge of character, which is possibly true, but you know what? Coop also isn’t the best at allowing outsiders to keep feeling like outsiders. I really do believe that. Behind her incredible face and privileged lifestyle it’s clear that Marissa struggles to fit in, and as a result she does seem to gravitate towards other people who don’t quite slot into typical Newport life. You know how we all have that one friend who only dates boys who need a bit of looking after and would adopt a shy dog with three legs instead of a Cockapoo? I feel like that’s Marissa.
Plus, she’s pretty much besotted with Ryan for 90% of her time on the show. We can all see that. When she’s making Johnny food or helping Trey find jobs, she’s not doing it because she wants them to fall madly in love with her – she’s doing it because she’s nice. Is she too nice? Is she so afraid of hurting people’s feelings that she doesn’t feel able to remove herself from certain situations? Are the characters in The OC still buying into the whole ‘women can’t be attractive and down-to-earth and if they are then they definitely want to have sex with you’ myth that should have died a death many moons ago? Maybe. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure: you can’t blame Marissa for the people who read too much into her kindness.
That said, there are occasions where I just wish Coop would slow down, take a step back and think “Is my friendship with this boy I didn’t care about three weeks ago REALLY worth upsetting Ryan and all my pals over?” Largely because if she did, I reckon the answer would mostly be “No.” The Oliver situation, for example, is not one of her proudest moments. Sure, Oliver was manipulative and a liar, but there was still something in Marissa that said “Ignore everyone you trust and tell your boyfriend – who has thus far shown himself to be pretty sensible – he’s imagining Oliver’s craziness. Don’t worry about that time Oliver got caught trying to buy drugs, or the fact that his girlfriend doesn’t go to the school he said she did. It’s totally fine.” Why did it take her so long to cotton on? Why did things get to the stage where Oliver had isolated her from everyone she was close to? I’m not sure even Marissa would be able to explain that one, but it’s interesting.
Marissa’s appearance is a huge theme throughout the entire series – as a viewer, you get the impression that although people think Summer’s a hottie (duh), Marissa is somehow on another level, one of unattainable, ethereal beauty. Boys can’t talk to Marissa without wanting to date her and save her from danger (“The compulsive need to rescue Marissa Cooper”). Girls seem to automatically hate her a bit (early season 3 Taylor Townsend) or feel jealous of and intimidated by her (Jess, face-down-in-the-pool girl).
Lindsay, Ryan’s season 2 girlfriend, is a great example of someone who takes one look at Marissa and wants to curl up into a ball and never leave the house again (I feel ya, Lindz). She describes Marissa as “the most beautiful girl in the history of high school” and wonders why she turns up to school every day looking as if she got dressed to star in a fashion show. This jealousy gets explored as season 2 continues: Lindsay tells Marissa she likes her outfit and Marissa – surprised – struggles to genuinely return the compliment, eventually mumbling that she likes Lindsay’s “…backpack.” There’s no malice on Marissa’s part. She’s portrayed a bit like Belle from Beauty and the Beast – unusual and obscenely beautiful, while not really realising she’s either.
On one occasion, Lindsay is mad as HELL when she sees Marissa and Summer are eating burgers for lunch. When she realises the duo aren’t gonna be “hours on the elliptical trainer” workin’ it off, she asks “So… you guys can just eat cheeseburgers and look like you?” This comment flies far over the heads opposite her. Marissa is confused and Summer simply replies “Sometimes we get chili fries, too.” Lindsay stares at her low-carb meal the way Ryan used to stare at Oliver.
Marissa seems to have a strange relationship with food. When we see her eating it’s almost all stodgy junk food – fries, milkshakes, bagels – but that isn’t often at all. In season 1 a psychiatrist asks about her ninth grade anorexia, and on one occasion Summer actually remarks that her friend is looking “a little thin.” Marissa responds in a slightly defensive way, firing back with “I… eat!” But it feels like her brain is ticking away, wondering when her last full meal actually was.
Why couldn’t we have expanded on this conversation? Why did Marissa struggle with anorexia? Did it ever really go away? Is she healthy now? It would have been interesting to explore her relationship with food in a deeper way but we never really got much more than this, which I think is a massive shame. The chili fries scene could have opened up at least a short dialogue, but instead it reinforced the ‘Marissa is so insanely beautiful she doesn’t even have to try – she never exercises and actually eats burgers all the time, so don’t even bother‘ thought that every 15 year-old girl was having along with poor Lindsay.
Would you describe Marissa as confident? I think it’s a toughie. On one hand, she can definitely switch it on when she needs to – she arranges that fashion show in season 1, remember? They play that ALL AROUND THE WOOOORLD, HEY GIRL song and she flashes Ryan a winning smile (soz Luke), so we know that she can do it. She’s social chair (although Oliver hits the nail on the head when he says he doesn’t find her to be very social at all) and seems to get involved in occasional extra-curricular stuff as and when she needs to.
On the other hand, there’s a real shyness to Marissa, which I don’t think anyone could miss. While Summer’s body language is largely relaxed, Marissa crosses her arms, slouches and looks at the floor. She’s tall – when she wears heels she totally dwarfs Ryan – and when she sits her shoulders hunch downwards, as if she’s trying to shrink herself. If I was gonna really overanalyse, I’d throw that out as a potential early insecurity for Coop, who might have started developing before the rest of her class and been embarrassed by the attention her appearance brought her as a quiet ninth grader. But who am I to say?
I feel like Marissa has a lack of self-confidence – she never seems to feel as if she can make it on her own. As much as I love her, she’s someone I’d worry about being friends with because I’m pretty sure that if I ever drifted away from her or forgot her birthday she’d use it as a reason to drink alone in a bathroom or write a list called Reasons Why Marissa Sux.
When she discovers Luke has cheated on her – on the same weekend she finds out her dad is moving out – she tells Summer “I have no-one.” The thought is enough to push her to overdose, while Summer, Ryan and Seth frantically search the streets of Tijuana for her. After the incident with Trey, she tells her friends that she won’t be applying to college because that’d mean she’d have to discuss what happened. She talks about not fitting in and tells a guy she meets at a college open day (who also wants to date and then save her, by the way) that some people “just get lost.”
You can’t blame Marissa for freaking out – especially with the plethora of shit that she has to deal with between seasons 1 and 3 – but part of me wants to step into the TV, take her by the hand and have a chat over a bagel in the Cohens’ kitchen. I want her to get that even if her dad doesn’t live with her, her boyfriend cheats on her and she doesn’t feel comfortable at college, she can still do it. She doesn’t need everything to be perfect in order to move forward with her life. But she never quite seems to realise that.
Marissa occasionally dates girls or yard-guys, but she’s at her happiest with Ryan Atwood and I will absolutely fight anyone who says otherwise. Ryan, despite all of his own issues, is a real source of stability in Marissa’s life – he looks at her like I look at enchiladas and he genuinely wants nothing more than for her to be safe and content.
Although I will defend their relationship until I am on my deathbed, I do agree that Ryan and Marissa had an intense, angst-ridden few years together and that it might not have been sustainable on a long-term basis unless stuff changed. I always wonder if Ryan – in a Freudian kind of a way – might be attracted to Marissa because she represents the only kind of woman he’s ever really known: vulnerable, sad and unpredictable. She’s familiar – and he’s so used to taking care of his mother that he almost doesn’t know that other, more emotionally-sorted girls are out there, except for maybe Theresa. You can see in season 3, when Ryan goes out with Sadie, that he almost breathes a sigh of relief and thinks “OH. So you can date a girl who does stuff on her own and doesn’t cry five times a day.”
That said, Lindsay, Theresa, Sadie and other short-lived flings aren’t ever quite enough to fully take Ryan’s attention away from Marissa. Their close friendship serves as a source of jealousy and anxiety for Alex and Lindsay respectively and it’s not surprising – you just KNOW that if Ryan was on a ~hOt DaTe~ and Marissa called about her broken-down car, he would be by her side with a toolkit within seconds.
But even Ryan has his limits, and when Lindsay gets drunk and almost dies in the sea in season 2 (ahh, memories), he isn’t happy. Assuming that Marissa encouraged her to drink, he yells “You spent all of last year trying to drag me down with you, and now her, too?!” This is an unusually honest revelation from Ryan – and although he speaks in the heat of the moment and later regrets it, you can tell that he’s kept that resentment buried pretty deep for a while. Maybe some of it was directed at his mother, not Marissa. But again, that’s just my opinion. PRETTY SURE I’M RIGHT THO.
What I think is really interesting is that although Ryan is a sweet, caring boyfriend, he’s also someone who struggles to talk about his feelings – and he can’t deal with Coop talking about hers, either. Ryan likes to save people but he likes that to be the end of the situation: he doesn’t enjoy revisiting awkward or upsetting moments. That’s partly why Marissa is drawn to Johnny as a friend – he lets her vent to her heart’s content. He doesn’t just want to fix things and close the case.
Coop seems to have one criteria for her significant others: if her mom doesn’t like ’em, she’s onto a winner. Julie goes as far as to call Alex Kelly (WHO IS 17 BUT SOMEHOW RUNS A FREAKING BAR???) Marissa’s latest “weapon of torture” – she’s well aware that her daughter likes to act out and doesn’t believe that her new relationship will be anything but short-lived.
When Kevin Volchok comes onto the scene as Marissa’s boyfriend, no-one’s quite sure what to make of him. First of all, how do we say his name? The characters on The OC seem to flit between “Vol-chuck”, “Vol-check” and “Vol-chock” but in all honesty it’s still a grey area even 10 years later. That doesn’t really matter, but SECOND OF ALL, why is Marissa even entertaining the idea of dating someone who clearly isn’t going anywhere and once held her hostage under a Newport pier?
I think it’s all down to self-confidence, once again. After Johnny’s death, Marissa kind of flounders for a bit. She and Ryan break up, she spends a lot of time hanging out near lifeguard huts… you know the drill. Kevin Volchok is affected in his own way – he tells Marissa he was always jealous of Johnny, who – from his perspective – had a perfect life and everything going for him. Maybe Marissa can understand that. Maybe she can see a bit of herself in Kevin and a bit of Summer in Johnny.
Volchok can’t get his head around what happened and suddenly starts to think of Marissa as a kindred spirit who also happens to be really hot, so he decides to follow her around and skulk outside her trailer park until she eventually relents and sleeps with him. Like, that is literally what happens. And I think that’s one of the saddest moments of season 3: that Marissa reaches the point where she feels so damaged and afraid that she embarks on a sort-of relationship with someone she has no attachment to and who doesn’t really care about her.
Volchok isn’t there to upset her mom – worse than that. He’s there because she doesn’t believe she deserves any better. She’s gone from the popular social chair with a mansion and a ‘normal’ family to the girl who lives in a trailer park and can’t deal with the events of the previous year. Everyone is moving on and doing well and Marissa can’t see herself doing the same, so she gives up.
But the old Coop is still in there, and although she’s nervous to remove Volchok from her life, she still does it. Something inside of her knows that she is worth more than what she’s giving herself right now, and I feel like that’s THE very best realisation she could have had before her death. She prepares to leave Orange County single and afraid, but not in a bad way. She’s going to help herself. And this is maybe the first act of self-love we’ve seen from Marissa.
“Sorry for all the craziness.”
“I wouldn’t have done it any differently.”
I can harp on about happy endings and self-love as much as I like, but we all know what happens next. Marissa dies, and everything changes. But was her life a waste? Was what we saw from her genuinely all brat-fits and life-ruining? Absolutely not. We can tell from season 4’s pretty much constant theme of grief that Marissa is desperately missed and was nothing short of CHERISHED.
I can’t pretend that Coop is perfect – I said that before. There are moments when I want to throw her damn Berkeley hoody in her face and say “JUST PUT IT ON AND SUCK IT UP, MARISSA.” Sometimes I can’t watch what’s coming next, knowing that she’s about to ignore the people who care about her and run as far away from The Rails as humanly possible. But Marissa is a teenage girl who dealt with more in three years than most people can expect to juggle in a lifetime – and to me, she’s endearing, frustrating, exciting and exquisitely tragic in equal measure.