“It was like a member of our family dying.”

By Isabel Jones
May 11, 2021 @ 10:28 am
How Rachel Bilson and Melinda Clarke Reacted to Marissa's Death on The O.C.
Credit: Warner Bros/Getty Images/Instyle.com

My childhood was highly influenced by pop culture — partly because of an underlying passion for television and movies (that has obviously sustained and informed my career choices), but also … boredom? A fun Saturday in Hood River, Ore., consisted of a walk to the local Safeway to buy and subsequently eat a pint of Ben & Jerry's in the "food court" (read: three tables and a Starbucks). The closest mall was 60 miles away, the local movie theater never seemed to get the movies I actually wanted to see, and most of the shops in town were closed by 5 p.m. 

As a pre-teen who was often scolded in P.E. for misinterpreting the rules, I didn't have a lot of options when it came to hobbies. You could not have paid me to join the soccer team — not even in Lacoste polos

But soon I found my capture the flag/windsurfing/lacrosse/snowboarding/[insert whatever else the "cool" Oregon kids did — I was not privy]: The O.C. 

Suddenly, a new world had emerged, and I was convinced that it held people who, however fictional, would get me. One of said people was Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), Newport Beach's troubled social chair, the couture-clad girl next door whose polished facade negated the assortment of destructive vices behind it. 

She, along with Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), and Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) made up the fantasy friendship roster I kept in my mind. A rich and fulfilled life awaited me in Orange County, I imagined. We'd eat Balboa Bars together and sway to indie bands at the Bait Shop. (Note: In this fantasy I was also very wealthy.)

But 15 years ago, on May 18, 2006, everything changed. Marissa, our dear friend, sister, and daughter, was killed in a car accident instigated by her bitter ex-boyfriend. After three seasons of non-stop drama (she'd overdosed in Tijuana by episode 7, discovered her mother was having an affair with her ex-boyfriend by episode 22), Marissa had lost consciousness before our very eyes, her final breath punctuated by Imogen Heap's haunting cover of "Hallelujah."

It was a lot for a sixth grader to handle. 

I showed up to school in all black the next day. The following October, I dressed up as "Dead Marissa" for Halloween complete with a handmade tombstone, sticky makeup-induced head wounds, and an empty but nonetheless inappropriate flask.

Rachel Bilson and Melinda Clarke Opened Up About Mischa Barton’s Exit on The O.C.
Credit: Isabel Jones

Evidently, I wasn't the only one gutted by Marissa's solemn season 3 exit. Ahead of the launch of Rachel Bilson and Melinda Clarke's O.C. rewatch podcast, Welcome to the O.C., Bitches!, the actors opened up to InStyle about the death that shook Newport Beach to its yogalates-firmed core. 

"I was shocked," Clarke said of initially learning of her TV daughter's death. 

"It was like a member of our family dying," Bilson echoed. "We've talked about all the scenes we had after the fact, and how emotional it really was, because it was pretty surreal."

"And you have to give it to Mischa," Clarke went on, "I mean being killed off on a show, it's hard not to take that personally ... That girl acted, she did such an amazing job at her performance in that last episode. I remember acting with her in some of her final scenes, and just really being blown away about how brave and present she was."

"I can't imagine, now being a mom and having to do that and go through that, that your daughter dies," Bilson, who shares a 6-year-old daughter with Hayden Christensen, added. 

Many rumors circled the decision to kill Barton's character, which creator Josh Schwartz has since described as "complicated," noting that there were "a lot of factors involved."

In 2013, Tate Donovan (who played Marissa's father, Jimmy Cooper) told Vulture that when he'd returned to direct a season 3 episode, "the kids on the show had developed a really bad attitude."

"They just didn't want to be doing the show anymore," Donovan said. "It was pretty tough; they were very tough to work with."

Though Bilson and Clarke both assured me this topic would be discussed on their podcast, they shed a bit of clarity on the situation during our conversation. 

"I think anybody, when they have success at a young age and you experience something else like movies or whatnot, you're anxious to give that a go as well," Bilson explained. "But for me,  personally, I never took The O.C. for granted, and was always happy and willing to be there."

"I'd like to go on record and say feeling a little bit burned out is certainly not unique to The O.C.," Clarke volunteered. "This is an extremely, extremely time-consuming, difficult industry, and a minimum day is 13-hours, if you're lucky. Any actor or performer who says that it's blissful every moment, doing 27 episodes a year and doing 10 months out of the year, is lying."

Clarke also said it was perhaps easier for her given the amount of exposure the show provided compared to that of the four young leads. "[My fame] was kind of like that Goldilocks "just right" for me, whereas the responsibility of Ben and Mischa and the kids … [they] were there a lot more, and it's a lot."

There are still conflicting reports surrounding Barton's O.C. exit. While Schwartz told The Daily Beast that Barton "wasn't actively seeking to leave the show," the actress implied in an interview with the New York Times that it was her decision. "I felt like things were really heavily reliant upon me, and I was getting no time to do any of the other offers that were out there," she explained. "Making the show was a lot towards the end."

Burnout is real, and so are the tears I cried over Marissa's death (and through the many re-watches that followed). Those 13-hour days were worth it, if only to provide this out-of-place 12-year-old some hope for the future. 

Welcome to The O.C., Bitches! airs every Tuesday.