By Samantha Highfill
May 18, 2021 at 12:30 PM EDT
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Still crying over a fictional character's death from a movie you saw years ago? Grieving a canceled-too-soon show? We are, too. So with "I'm Still Not Over...," EW staffers pay tribute to something in the pop culture world they're, well, still not over. Below, Samantha Highfill mourns the death of Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) on the 15th anniversary of The O.C. season 3 finale.

Marissa Cooper's (Mischa Barton) greatest trait (and ultimate downfall) was her ability to see the best in people ... even when they didn't deserve it. But when it came to new guy in town Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), he definitely deserved it.

When Ryan arrived in Newport in The O.C. pilot, he didn't know what to expect from a group of rich kids who spent their days planning massive social events and their nights drinking away their problems at their parents' beach houses. But from the moment Ryan first walked down the Cohens' driveway and saw Marissa, he knew he might just have a place in this world ... with her. As Ryan would go on to say in the third season, "Ever since I got here, she's always accepted me for who I am."

But Ryan saved Marissa, too. Despite appearances — and an impressive collection of Chanel — Marissa had a rough life. It wasn't easy being the daughter of Jimmy Cooper (Tate Donovan), a man who loved her but whose own mistakes kept him from really being there for her, and Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke), a newpsie who struggled to show her love (and then there was that time she slept with Marissa's ex-boyfriend).

To deal with everything, Marissa often turned to alcohol, and as we'd come to find out in season 4, had Ryan not shown up in Newport, she would've overdosed in Tijuana after finding out that Luke (Chris Carmack) was cheating on her.

Together, Marissa and Ryan taught each other what it felt like to be loved, to be safe. And that's why it was so devastating when she died in his arms just after they graduated high school.

With everyone preparing for college at the end of season 3, Marissa was going to take some time off and join Jimmy as a crew member on his latest job: Sailing yachts. She was finally going to get some time away to find herself. Naturally, Ryan asked to drive her to the airport. As he said, "You were the first person I met here, I'd kind of like to be the last person to say goodbye." IF ONLY HE KNEW WHAT HE WAS SAYING!!!

On the way to the airport, an upset Volchok (Cam Gigandet) showed up. Desperate for Ryan to pull over so he could talk to Marissa, he drove them off the road. Then, as Imogen Heap's version of "Hallelujah" — a beautiful combination of the season 1 finale song and the season 2 finale artist — played, Ryan tried to save Marissa one last time. Only this time, he failed.

THE O.C.
Credit: Michael Desmond/FOX

As a teen, I made everyone I knew — sorry, dad! — watch this scene and tell me if they thought it was possible she could survive: "Did you hear the brakes?! Maybe Volchok pulled over and called for help just in time!" Deep down I knew she was gone, but it was impossible for me to accept that Ryan and Marissa weren't going to get a happy ending after everything they'd gone through. (Oliver! Trey! Public school!) Despite a handful of amazing characters, the center of this show was always the core four of Ryan, Marissa, Seth (Adam Brody), and Summer (Rachel Bilson), and for them to lose a member seemed unfathomable to my teen mind. And quite frankly, my adult mind doesn't handle it much better.

Even show creator Josh Schwartz has talked about what's known as one of the show's most controversial decisions. Although there were many factors leading to Marissa's death, when asked which story he would want to re-do in a recent Instagram Live with Rachel Bilson, he said, "We've talked a lot about how Marissa exited the show. I think that's something that we've had a lot of thoughts about in the intervening years."

Look, there's no denying that if she had to die, it was an epic way to go: Being carried away from a flaming car by the man she loved during another great music moment. But the question that will always haunt me is: Did she have to die? Could she have found happiness outside of Newport? Could she and Ryan have had a happy ending?

At this point, 15 years later, I've just accepted that this is something I will think about for the rest of my life. Now, please excuse me while I go watch YouTube compilations of Ryan and Marissa's best moments and cry.

Read more from I Want My Teen TV, EW's summerlong celebration of teen shows past and present.

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