Sunday, May 22, 2005

Not with a whimper

On the other hand my wife and I caught the season finale of The O.C. last night, and boy oh boy did that one ever deliver the goods, so much so that even the most dedicated Season Two haters have renewed their faith in show creator Josh Schwartz. Although I myself didn't find the sophomore season as objectionable as most fans--including Mrs. Jersey Exile--I must admit that I did find the show's return to Melrose Place levels of conflict and plot onesupmanship as the season drew to a close rather satisfying. And you simply couldn't beat the final scene of the episode, where broody Ryan and his ne'er-do-well older brother Trey settled their differences once and for all with a savage brawl that ended only when Ryan's love interest Marissa shot the latter (who a few episodes earlier had attempted to force himself on her in a moment of drunken asshattery) in the chest and presumably dead.

According to the Gospel of Joseph Campbell, the hero must often confront one's own doppelganger in the course of his or her personal quest. Last year Ryan had to overcome his former bad boy self in order to deal with the mentally unstable Oliver, who by playing the evil genius had insinuated himself into Ryan's world so as to attempt to replace him. Like a villain from Greek mythology or the pages of a superhero comic, any attempt by Ryan to engage his nemesis directly only served to make him stronger and more sympathetic in the eyes of everyone else. Trey, however, was a doppelganger in the truest sense, the noirish unredeemed dark knight that Ryan had been at the beginning of Season One to the white knight that Ryan had become by the season's end. Whereas Ryan was able to deal with Oliver by relinquishing his aggression, such a tack only gave his brother the leeway he needed to turn Newport into a miniature version of Chino that finally forced a violent resolution when the nastiness began to ensnare the people Ryan loved.

So what is Schwartz trying to tell us here--that in the end there is no forward progress? On the surface of things, perhaps, but if one looks to the parallel plotlines also at play in the finale I think you'll find that the answer is a little more complicated and perhaps even optimistic. Kirsten's bottoming out with her alcoholism suggests that salvation does not turn on a dime, but that it requires more than just one Very Special Episode. The path to redemption is not an easy one, and may involve quite a bit of stumbling and outright falling along the way. But that doesn't make the fight not worth fighting. Ryan doesn't lose his humanity by virtue of one angry act, just as Trey despite his myriad iniquities was not irrevocably lost.

For all of its Buffy sense and sensibility, The O.C. is a world where good people do bad things and villains aren't necessarily all that evil (Julie Cooper, anyone?). By embracing the gray realm between light and dark in the end Josh Schwartz avoids those easy answers so many other shows succumb to and makes us no promises, other than that the struggle will continue well into a third season, and hopefully many years beyond.

Next up: the Lost finale. More on that at the end of this week!

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