On ''The O.C.,'' in a confrontation on the beach with surf nazi Volchok, Ryan practices nonviolence; meanwhile, Seth fends off Taylor, and Julie outmaneuvers Charlotte
The O.C., Benjamin McKenzie
Credit: Benjamin McKenzie: Ron Tom/FOX
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”The O.C.”: Ryan learns not to hit

I can’t remember the last time an episode of The O.C. has felt so long. Recently it’s been over too soon, and I’ve been left feeling like nothing much happened. Tonight there were so many dramatic confrontations (Seth-Summer, Ryan-Volchok, Ryan-Punching Bag) associated with so many classic O.C.isms (the Bait Shop, a silly fund-raiser, the rise and fall of Julie Cooper) that at the 30-minute mark, I couldn’t believe the show was only half over.

Another reason for my satisfaction with the episode was that lately many of the characters have become more enjoyable. Marissa, for example. Who knew she was so cute? (Sorry: That Old Navy commercial — ”I know why you’re so cute!” — is on a constant loop in my head. Shut up. Shut up!) When Marissa visited Ryan before school and half-sang a request for breakfast, she actually made me smile. It was weird, but so is the idea of her eating. Marissa also showed some Julie-esque cunning by trying to trade her Cartier watch for Volchok’s promise to stop confronting Ryan. Of course, she lost all the respect she had accrued when she willingly hopped into that sketchy van. Idiot.

The episode focused largely on Ryan, who made great strides in his lifelong battle against rage. I liked what they did with the Volchok story line — Sandy’s advice to Ryan that his nemesis must be angry about something more deeply rooted than him really seemed to hit home for Ryan, who ended up shattering the surf nazi not with his improvised jagged-glass weapon but with his powerful words: ”You wanna bash my face in ’cause your life sucks? Fine.” In a sense, he was talking to himself. Special moment alert: Ryan just realized that fighting is never the answer! The whole pier scene was very after-school special, especially Volchok’s sudden change of heart. One minute he wanted to kill Ryan, the next he was all ”Ooh, he got me there! I’m mad at my lot in life, not this innocent, dreamy-looking boy. Time to go home. Anyone for ice cream?”

Luckily Ryan’s finally found something worth bloodying his knuckles for. (Marissa doesn’t count.) He and his punching bag are so sweet. They really understand each other. I also liked the image of Kid Chino hanging up his hoodie — very appropriate to the themes of ”old Ryan” and ”fighting.” I can’t believe none of the Cohens ever thought to give the punching bag to Ryan before. I would have thrown it into bed with him his first night in Newport. Then he could have taken it with him to all his fights and impressed his adversaries with his left hooks and alarming resemblance to Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man. It’d be a win-win for everyone.

Taylor Townsend was the other big surprise this week. Even though she was always pathetic and pitiable, she’s never been quite so entertaining. For me, her shift from creepy to kind of cool occurred right after Seth asked her why she thought he and Summer were breaking up, and she delightedly replied, ”I made it up.” Yay! Taylor’s funny! This is great news. I also liked her line to Ryan in the hallway: ”You’re funny. I didn’t know that you were funny.” It’s like the writers were being self-referential. Have they ever done that before? It really works for them.

Other pleasant changes weren’t actually surprising, just relieving. Seth seems to have come back full circle to his season 1 persona, the guy who’s so unapologetic about his geekdom in the presence of the cool kids that they don’t realize he’s the victor every time. His interactions with Volchok’s crowd in the diner and during the car-keying scene (”We’re all strangers. I’m Seth. I like comic books. You obviously like…uhhh…flaming-heart tattoos”) were all priceless, as was his incredulous response to Taylor: ”You think Summer’s your friend?” Ahhh, Seth Cohen. Welcome back.

Julie, too, showed that she had returned to her superior original personality by sabotaging Seven of Twelve Steps’ plan to rip off the Newpsies. Then she reclaimed her position by sweetly declaring, ”This town’s only really big enough for one manipulative bitch.” Damn right, Seven. Bye-bye.

Uh-oh. This is getting long. But I think an episode this solid calls for a brief Memorable Moments list:

Chili responding to Volchok and his friends saying, ”Hey, dork!” with just ”Hey.” Very Seth Cohen in training, but they’re no longer forcing the connection on us so obviously that it feels strained.

Johnny to Marissa and Ryan at the Bait Shop: ”Wow, you guys are sooo not subtle.” Uh, neither are you about the fact that you can’t act.

The cardboard cutout of Summer’s comic-book likeness peeking over Taylor’s right shoulder when Taylor confessed to liking Seth. Maybe a cartoon cutout of Taylor herself should have been superimposed over the left shoulder to make it easier for Seth to choose between Good and Evil. Ooh, what would Taylor’s secret weapon be? A clipboard?

Finally, Sandy’s dismissive wave to Kirsten after he saw her looking gorgeous at the fund-raiser but realized on his way over that Seven was approaching her. Anyone still have this episode recorded? Go back for this. It’s so worth it.

What do you think? Will Seven leave for good? Can she, please? Will Taylor do any serious damage to Seth and Summer’s relationship? And am I the only one who can’t stand Sandy’s sneaky new business partner? He comes on the screen and I just shut down. Discuss!

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