pop culture

The Tragedy of Marissa Cooper

Marissa Cooper might be one of the most tragic characters to ever grace the television screen.

I say this after giving the concept a lot of thought.  Many would argue that I’ve given it too much thought: after all, she’s a fictional character from a mediocre TV show that ended quite a while ago.  Mischa Barton, the actress who played her, doesn’t have much of a career to cling to and has never been much of an actress to begin with.  Knowing all of this, why does it even matter?  Why am I still thinking about the character of Marissa Cooper after all this time?

I’ve been watching The O.C. again, obviously.  I tore through the first three seasons and have stalled out, like I have in the past, at the beginning of the fourth.  I’ve always claimed that the fourth season sucks in general, but upon closer inspection, I’m starting to think it has something to do with Marissa Cooper.  She was always destined to be a tragic character: that was clear from the pilot, when her friends dump her drunken, passed-out body on the front steps of her house.  Ryan carries Marissa’s slack form into the pool house while Mazzy Star sings sadly in the background.

Despite Ryan’s best efforts to save Marissa, again and again, she seemed unable to pull herself away from bad boys.  It began with Ryan, actually.  The fact that Marissa found herself drawn to him from the beginning is no great surprise: he was quiet and mysterious and represented everything that was different from her privileged world.  The problem was that Ryan was the anomaly in Marissa’s life: he was the only bad boy who wasn’t really bad.  The rest of them–Oliver, Trey, Johnny (who, admittedly, wasn’t bad so much as pathetic to the point of emasculation), and finally Volchok–only managed to further drag Marissa down.  Each time, it seemed as though Marissa had finally learned her lesson–but she never quite did.

Before she even started trying to rescue boys, she had a host of problems.  Her father lost all their money (and the money of his clients) and got punched out at her Cotillion.  Her mother divorces her father and immediately takes up with an older, richer man.  Marissa’s water-polo boyfriend Luke cheats on her with her friend in Tijuana (and later goes on to have an affair with her mother).  That same trip to Tijuana, Marissa overdoses on tequila and opiates.  The fact that she’s also an alcoholic at sixteen is hinted at but never really said outright.  It is after this, when she enters therapy, that she meets her first real problem: Oliver.

Oliver is the first in a string of Bad Ideas.  While Oliver’s main purpose was to cause problems in her relationship with Ryan, he was also mentally unstable.  He quickly falls in love with Marissa (although it’s more like obsession than love) and traps her in a hotel room, threatening suicide.  After Oliver, it’s Trey, Ryan’s brother.  She befriends him when he’s released from prison, and he tries to rape her on the beach one night.  Things escalate when he and Ryan get into a fight and Marissa shoots him in the back.

That’s just the first two years.  By her senior year, Marissa finds herself kicked out of her chi-chi private school.  It is in public school that she meets Johnny, who is a surfer dude from the wrong side of the tracks.  To this day, I’m not entirely sure what they were trying to do with the character of Johnny.  He might be the only character in the history of The O.C. who has less of a personality than Marissa (and in that respect, they were kind of perfect for each other).  At any rate, she breaks his heart, he breaks his knee, and then he falls off a sand dune to his death.

Marissa’s still not done with her bad boys, though.  Grief-stricken and angry at the world, Marissa takes up with Volchok, a truly bad guy who doesn’t do anything to hide his nefarious ways.  The two have an ill-conceived (and gross) relationship.  When she tries to end it…well, that’s when it all ends.  A car chase with Volchok sends Ryan and Marissa’s car off the side of the road.  Like in the pilot episode, Marissa’s limp body ends up in Ryan’s arms again, only this time she dies.

The girl never even had a chance to become a whole person.  Like in this essay, she was always defined by the boys she was with.  Tragic, indeed.

Well, my dad lost all his money, the pony lost all its hair, and my mom kind of lost her mind. Also, I got kicked out of school, and my friend died. I guess everything happened…

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8 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Marissa Cooper

  1. This is silly. This show has been over for years now, and this post itself is almost a year old. But I still can’t get Marissa Cooper completely out of my head. I see in that character what I saw in my best friend in high school – a beautiful, self-destructive, and ultimately very sad person. The difference is, my friend had a chance to experience life outside of the turmoil of late adolescence. She was able to expand her worldview and grow into herself in college and beyond. When I think of Marissa Cooper, I think about my friend. And I feel a sadness for the character of Marissa Cooper, who didn’t get the chance to become the person she would have been as an adult. I know it’s silly. But the similarities between her and my friend made me feel like I knew exactly what she was going through. And so a second-rate character from a long-canceled TV show evokes in me the same feeling of someone I knew that died, long ago, before they had the chance to really live.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It’s not silly at all–I mean, I wrote the post years after the show was over. I think these sorts of things are worth examining and thinking about and reflecting on. I don’t think there’s an expiration date on that sort of thought, you know?

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      1. I don’t understand why this show tugs at my mind the way it does. I know it’s fiction and I’m not nuts, so why do I ache for these characters like I do? Is it a mid life crisis?

      2. Assuming this is not a troll comment, I’d say it’s just something that happens sometimes–you connect with things and get a little obsessed. It’s pop culture. It happens.

  2. Wow I’m very late to this chain but I agree. I have just rewatched all four seasons of the OC and the thing that stuck with me the most about Marissa actually happened in the fourth season after she died. When Ryan and Taylor fall into comas and experience life as if they had never existed, Ryan finds out that Marissa would have died in Tijuana if it weren’t for him. Something about his realization that she was destined for tragedy made me immensely sad. I think it wasn’t so much the things that happened to her that killed her, although they definitely played a role in her death, but I think she was just unable to cope with the things in her life, she lacked Julie’s resilience and was always going to be someone who would struggle with life. I think, like the commenters before, that her character rings true me because there are so many people in my life, who have faced a normal (or maybe abnormal) amount of adversity, but lack the strength to deal with it.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Beth! I love what you said about Ryan and his realization that Marissa was “destined for tragedy,” because I think you hit the nail on the head completely. She was TOTALLY unable to cope with life’s hard stuff. In that regard, what happens to her makes total sense.

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