At first glance, The O.C.’s Marissa Cooper might seem like the epitome of the ‘poor little rich girl’ trope – she’s gorgeous, lives in a mansion in southern California, and never seems to be having a good time. But the show gave us a chance to see beyond the outer facade of Marissa’s seemingly perfect life and into the darkness hiding beneath that beautiful surface. Marissa was a complex young woman trying to figure out who she really was in a world that was intent on telling her who she had to be. Let’s take a deeper look at Marissa’s attempts to break out of her gilded cage, find real connections, and grow.
CH 1: Tragic Beauty
We first see Marissa through the eyes of Ryan Atwood, a troubled teen from Chino, as he has his first taste of life in Orange County. Standing at the end of the driveway, she looks at once ethereal and forlorn. And this could have been how Marissa stayed, like so many girls next door before her, trapped in the constraints of someone else’s perception. But instead, The O.C. subverts this, letting us experience things from Marissa’s point of view. And from her vantage point, we can see how stifling her reality is.
Marissa’s mother, Julie, is dead set on climbing to the very top of the social ladder of Orange County – at first this seems to be purely out of ego, but we eventually learn it’s a bid for safety and security, as she grew up incredibly poor and doesn’t want herself or her daughters to have to struggle. But because she is so single-minded in this goal, she ignores everything else, including Marissa’s emotional needs. Julie expects Marissa to do her part in creating the image of a perfect family, no matter what. Marissa deals with this pressure by acting out. Julie often brushes off as regular teenage rebellion – but we quickly come to see that Marissa’s problems are much deeper than that. When her friends drop incredibly drunk Marissa off in episode one, we, too, might at first think she’s just a party girl that went a little overboard. But as we begin to see more of Marissa’s quiet moments alone, we realize that it’s a much bigger problem. With a mother that was seemingly only concerned with appearances and a father that’s only concerned with himself, Marissa never really had anyone to turn to for guidance, or role models for how to deal with her issues.
A lot of Marissa’s sorrow stems from the fact that no one ever really seems to listen to her. To those around her she in many ways exists more as an object to be admired than as a full person – from her boyfriend Luke wanting her to be his quiet arm candy, to her mother wanting her to look picture perfect for magazine photos. She bottles up her emotions because she knows that even if she did speak up, no one would take her seriously. Since Marissa seems to have a perfect life, and everything that a teen girl could want, people find it hard to believe that anything could actually be wrong. It’s only when she takes really drastic measures that people in her life get clued into just how far Marissa’s issues extend beyond more run-of-the-mill teenage sadness. Early on in season one, what little stability Marissa did have in her life begins to crumble when her parents announce that they’re getting a divorce and, much to her dismay, her father (who she always felt closer to) will be moving out. She then begrudgingly agrees to go to Tijuana with Summer, Seth, and Ryan for the end-of-summer trip – only to run into her boyfriend Luke making out with one of her best friends. Despondent, she flees and eventually resorts to downing a bottle of pills she swiped from Summer. Her friends have to search frantically for her, and thankfully find her just in time, unconscious in an alley. It’s only at this point that Julie finally realizes that Marissa needs real help. And unfortunately, this pattern continues throughout the seasons, with Marissa having to reach her breaking point for anyone to really listen.
CH 2: Personal Growth Through Connecting With Others
Though her emotional isolation can sometimes lead her to close herself off even more, Marissa does foster important connections with a few people in her life. Her only stable relationship from inside her bubble is with childhood best friend Summer Roberts. Having grown up in the same environment, Summer gets what Marissa is going through on a level other people don’t. And the two friends are always there for one another – to be a shoulder to cry on or to provide some much-needed tough love. Even as close as they are, they still on some level feel the need to perform for one another – like Marissa hiding the true extent of her problems to seem fine, or Summer initially pretending she’s not a virgin to seem cool. But no matter what, they’re willing to stand up for each other when things get tough, and help one another through the tough times. As their lives begin to diverge in season three, they do start to grow apart. As Summer starts finding her footing and really planning for her future, Marissa even worries that she’s holding Summer back from reaching her true potential. But the deep tie of friendship and understanding never truly leaves them.
Much of Marissa’s personal growth comes from interacting with people from outside of her affluent bubble. With Alex, for example, Marissa gets the first taste of living out on her own in the real adult world – and eventually comes to accept that she definitely isn’t ready for it yet. And Seth Cohen, who is technically from her world but is definitely not from her bubble, becomes a positive source of friendship in her life. He’s pretty much the only guy in her life who isn’t trying to date her, so once they get past the whole ‘being from completely different social strata’ thing, they realize they do have some things in common and eventually develop a nice platonic relationship that benefits them both.
And then, of course, there’s Ryan. Their initial driveway meeting leads to an on-again-off-again, on-again-off-again-on-again relationship that spans Marissa’s entire time on the show. Initially, she just sees him as a new opportunity for rebellion and a way to annoy her mother, but they come to find that they have a deeper connection than either one expected. Though they’re from two very different worlds, they have a lot in common. Both have a difficult time opening up about their feelings and trusting people – they both grew up in environments where their feelings were ignored, or even punished. They also have pretty wild tempers that can flare up from the smallest spark – with Marissa self-destructing, and Ryan usually punching someone. While all of these similarities pull them together, and help them understand each other’s struggles on a deeper level, they also unsurprisingly cause a lot of problems in their relationship. They never seem able to get quite on the same page at the same time – they’re always questioning if they should really open up to each other, or if maybe the other person would be happier if they broke up. When one of them builds up the courage to make a big gesture, it’s often met by hesitancy – leading to another spiral of wondering if they should be together at all. And their being from different worlds can at times get in the way. Ryan is constantly fighting an uphill battle to have the O.C. elite take him as anything other than an intruder with bad intentions, and sometimes even Marissa falls into this trap. When Ryan points out how dangerous rich guy Oliver seems to be, Marissa assumes he’s just jealous – and this rift even leads to the pair breaking up. In the end, it turned out Ryan was correct about Oliver, who ended up holding Marissa hostage in an attempt to force her to be with him. And Ryan, too, is pulled away from the relationship by his other life – he constantly battles with the feeling that he isn’t ‘good enough’ for Marissa, and at one point even returns to his old life after thinking he got his ex-girlfriend pregnant. But they somehow always end up getting pulled back together, because even through all of the emotional murkiness, they know that deep down they really care for each other.
Over the course of the show, Marissa even starts to find a real connection with her mother. While they’re constantly feuding early on, Marissa eventually comes to realize that while Julie may be more intense and exacting than her father, it’s because she’s trying to keep their world from falling apart, and to give Marissa and her sister the life free of financial struggles that she didn’t get to have. She also comes to understand that while her dad may have seemed to be more caring, he actually was just willing to let Marissa do whatever she wanted because he was only really concerned with himself. And while Julie is always around, no matter how wild Marissa gets, her father has no problem disappearing – even when she works up the courage to beg him to stay. Marissa and Julie might never really get along, but they do come to realize that they love each other no matter what (even when they kind of hate each other.)
CH 3: An Early Goodbye
At the end of season three, Marissa finally ends her tumultuous relationship with the devious Kevin Volchok after she catches him cheating on her – though he is desperate to get her back. As the friends are preparing for graduation, Marissa receives both an invitation from her father to come stay with him in Greece and an unwelcome visit from Volchok. She accepts her father’s invitation, gets rid of Volchok, and gets ready to spend her year abroad. She hops in the car with Ryan and drives off into one of the most shocking teen show season finale moments of all time.
As the pair are heading to the airport, Volchek appears and slams into their vehicle, sending them flying. The car tumbles and comes to a rest in an upside-down heap. Ryan scrambles out and manages to pull Marissa clear of the wreckage. He tells her he’s going to go find help, but she realizes that it’s too late and so asks him to stay with her. She had dodged death on multiple occasions, but unfortunately this time she wasn’t so lucky. Marissa dying in Ryan’s arms is still a tearjerker all these years later That a teen show would kill off its female lead was pretty surprising – thanks to the ads in the lead-up to the episode, fans knew that someone was going to die in the finale, but they never thought it would be Marissa. As Mischa Barton noted to E News, “People still come up to me to this day and they’re like, “I remember where I was when your character died!” And they’re still emotional about it, like it was really me. I think that that’s cool that people actually took something away from it. There were lessons to be learned from Marissa, for better or for worse.”
Marissa’s death was sad because it sent the characters closest to her into a tailspin and changed the trajectory of the show, but also because of what it meant for the character herself. Marissa was someone who had tried so many times to get her life together, to find her own way to happiness, and so for her to never get the chance to truly make it was devastating. Mischa said, “It’s tragic, it’s poetic… and I know her, as a character, she had really battled to keep it together and was unable to do so… I felt like it was actually a great ending when I read it.”
Marissa’s end wasn’t just a narrative choice – Mischa had been trying to get off of the show for a while. She wasn’t able to take the film roles she wanted because of the show’s grueling shooting schedule, and as the youngest of the main cast, she had often felt like the odd one out and had even had to endure bullying on set. She told E, “I was getting offers from big films at the time and having to turn them down… My dream was to be offered those lead roles, so that’s what happened. It just felt like it was the best thing for me and my health and just in terms of not really feeling protected by my cast and crew at that point.” So when the writers asked her if she wanted to be written off, she gave a resounding yes – and the rest is history.
Unlike the other characters, who got to continue to grow into adulthood and live their lives, Marissa is forever frozen in her tragic teendom: young, beautiful, and desperate for connection. Marissa provided a window into the complexities of girlhood – both the joyous moments and the pain of never being listened to or taken seriously. And she reminds us that no matter how perfect someone might seem, they might have some very intense storms brewing within.
Bricker, Tierney. “Mischa Barton Is Finally Ready to Tell the Real Story behind Her Exit from the O.C.” E! Online, 19 May 2021, www.eonline.com/news/1270301/mischa-barton-is-finally-ready-to-tell-the-real-story-behind-her-exit-from-the-o-c.