FANDOM: The O.C.
PAIRING: Ryan Atwood/Taylor Townsend
Some relationships make sense. There are some pairings on some television shows where you can just look at the characters and tell, because of their personalities and their issues, that they would be absolutely perfect for each other. Sometimes you get to spend years screaming at the writers to get with the program and realize this, and sometimes they never realize it all.
And then you have pairings like Ryan Atwood and Taylor Townsend, which make absolutely no sense until you see them in action, and then you wonder why it took you so long.
Ryan Atwood was the focal point of the FOX drama The O.C., and very often our partner in disbelief when it came to the privileged and often ostentatious world of upper-class Newport. We meet him in the pilot episode as he’s aiding his brother in stealing a car. Two things become clear within moments: Ryan is not a natural criminal and doesn’t want to be doing this, and two, he’s still going to be in a lot of trouble if someone doesn’t give him that helping hand out.
That helping hand comes in the form of Sandy Cohen, a public defender who is assigned to take Ryan’s case. Something about Ryan strikes at something within Sandy: rather than seeing a hardened young punk on his way to becoming a professional criminal, which is all too common in his line of work, he sees a kid on the verge of going under who is way too smart for the line of work that his brother is trying to push him into. Sandy gives Ryan his home number so that Ryan can call him if he has any other problems, something that we get the sense is unprecedented even for a defense attorney who takes his work home as often as Sandy does, and, when Ryan’s mother refuses to protect him from another in a long string of abusive live-in boyfriends and kicks him out, Sandy does what anyone would do in that situation: he and his wife adopt Ryan altogether.
Naturally I’m being sarcastic when I say that anyone would do what Sandy and Kirsten did, but it’s their act of overwhelming kindness that changes Ryan’s life. Over the next three years on the show, he confronts his demons, does well in school, still gets in fights like nobody’s business and has a tendency to fall for women with the same need to be rescued that his mother has, and at the close of the third season has graduated high school and is about to go to college, making him the first one out of his biological family to do so.
Then his ex-girlfriend and second-oldest friend in Newport, Marissa Cooper, is killed in a car crash while Ryan was at the wheel (though the crash was instigated by another ex of hers and Ryan was most assuredly not at fault), and Ryan’s entire world collapses.
Unlike Ryan, who is the series’ ostensible viewpoint character, we don’t meet Taylor Townsend until the third season. What we do meet is not at first glance terribly sympathetic. Taylor is portrayed as a well-to-do Newpsie in training who has taken advantage of Marissa’s being distracted all summer by shooting and nearly killing Ryan’s brother (partly all of this drama is part and parcel of The O.C., and partly it’s because drama just follows Marissa Cooper around like a storm cloud) to usurp Marissa’s social position within the school. She does this through a combination of vicious rumor and the fact that she’s sleeping with the school’s new dean-not a character that one would expect to stick around and become one of the show’s most endearing heroines. However, Taylor has her own reasons for what she does. She’s eager to take Marissa’s place because she’s desperately lonely, having grown up strange and friendless and with an absolutely terrifying harpy for a mother. Her father left the family for a new one when she was very young, so she’s as eager for love and approval in her own way as Ryan himself is. It’s easy to say that she sleeps with the dean out of his same desire, but I don’t want to overlook two other key aspects of Taylor’s personality at work in the doing so: one, Taylor is, to a degree that is fairly slight and on the whole harmless but nevertheless still there, not quite sane. Even after the show reforms her and makes her one of its Core Four group of younger people, it is not difficult at all to see why the woman who ropes Ryan into pretending that he’s in love with her so that she can procure a divorce would also think that sleeping with an authority figure would be an excellent way to win herself the place of Social Chair. When Taylor Townsend decides that she wants something, armies tremble.
Secondly, and this is something that the show had to start being shyer about once Taylor did become a lead character and thus a role model for teenagers, Taylor likes sex. Taylor really likes sex. One of the reasons that I like her so much is that, for all that she sometimes gets insecure about whether or not she’s appearing too slutty, she is one of a small handful of women on broadcast television who is bluntly honest about when she’s feeling horny. As much as social climbing factored into her nutty vision, it can’t be denied that Taylor also slept with the dean because he was a good-looking man who gave her lots of orgasms. Even after the dean was ousted and Taylor was slowly pulled into what was then the Core Four on the good word of Summer and Seth, she carries on several different flings over the course of the season, and when we see her again at the start of the fourth season she is actually hiding from her mother so that she doesn’t have to admit that she managed to both get married and get divorced over the course of a single summer.
The O.C. became a radically different show in the hiatus between the third season and the fourth. Marissa Cooper, one of the core cast members since the pilot, was dead. Everyone was grieving her loss, and most especially Ryan. Always prone to living within his own head, Ryan has shut down and pulled away from the Cohens altogether, to the point where he has moved out of the home and is living in the back room of a bar where he works. He is also dealing with his grief through the admittedly novel way of volunteering for cage fights so that he can get the living shit beaten out of him. When the family is finally able to bring him back to the house by showing him how much worse off their lives would be if he had not come into them (as Ryan is also harboring a conviction that Marissa is dead because she was involved with him, not seeing that Marissa is dead because Kevin Volchok was simply a dangerous man), it soon becomes clear that he’s in a holding pattern. He will go back to the Cohens’ house to avoid drama for now, but he still intends to find Kevin Volchok wherever he has hidden himself. And then Ryan intends to kill him.
Taylor’s introduction into the fourth season carries with it far less baggage. She graduated high school at the end of the third season with intentions of attending the Sorbonne in France and becoming a world-class something or other. (Personally, I think that Taylor would be happiest if she pursued an advanced degree in linguistics, but the eighteen year-old Taylor of the fourth season is, like a lot of recent high school graduates, not quite through baking yet.) However, these plans became derailed when Taylor fell into a whirlwind romance with Frenchman named Henri, married him, panicked, and then filed for divorce all in the span of a single summer. She’s slinking back into Newport with a view on getting her head back together and figuring out where she’s going to go from here, and she’s hiding from her mother as she does so. This leads to a lot of creeping out in big hats and dark glasses, and much less cage fighting.
Ryan and Taylor don’t start to take off as a couple until after the Thanksgiving episode, during which Taylor admits to her mother what she’s done (and during which her mother both kicks her out and tells her that she will never be truly thin because she has “an unusually large thorax”) and Ryan finally tracks down and has a chance to confront Volchok. He comes right up to the verge of doing the unconscionable, but backs off when Volchok nearly begs him to just get it over with.
In the very next episode, it is clear that Ryan is still emotionally shuttered and grieving, but Taylor has her own problems that she needs some help with. Her husband has followed her to Newport and, convinced that she still loves him, is refusing to grant her wish for a divorce. In a move that really makes perfect sense once you spend any degree of time around Taylor Townsend, Taylor appeals to Ryan to pretend to be her lover. He refuses initially; her response is to convince him to come with her to the meeting with Henri’s lawyer and then simply lie in French that he is her lover. Ryan is smarter than that, however, makes a note of what she says, and then finds a French to English dictionary. Annoyed, Ryan tries to wash his hands of Taylor’s entire mess, only to be convinced by his family that he needs to go back because this is at his heart what Ryan does: helps people. He finds Taylor and Henri’s lawyer at another meeting and, before either of them can say anything, swoops Taylor up into a kiss:
The lawyer is convinced. So am I.
Taylor is smitten with Ryan from that point forward. Ryan doesn’t want to be in a relationship with anyone, however, and hasn’t been able to sleep since he let his chance to kill Volchok slide by untaken. Taylor is quick to jump on the opportunity to be his sleep therapist, bringing him everything from hot tea to offering to stay with him all night. (Having spent three years-I skipped most of S3-staring at Ben McKenzie, I don’t blame her. Frankly, I’m amazed that she restrained herself to showing up in fairly innocent pajamas and not a negligee.) All of her efforts are for naught, as Ryan is both neither sleeping nor seeing her obvious appeals, until yet another Newport soiree comes along. On Kaitlin’s advice, Taylor is wearing a stunning red dress which highlights her posterior (which Ryan admires when Taylor asks him to dance). They’re having great chemistry together, until Seth and Ryan get a chance to talk and Ryan states that he has no romantic interest in Taylor. In perfect Newport timing, Taylor happens to walk up behind him at the perfect moment to overhear this. She flees, only to be followed outside by Ryan. They try to talk, but Taylor flees again, horrified, when Ryan says that he likes her as a friend.
Taylor returns to Ryan’s pool house long enough to drop off a remedy that helped her sleep when she was going through the same sleep problems, and with it asks for one thing: for Ryan to kiss her one time, and then honestly tell her that he doesn’t feel anything. They kiss, and as Taylor pulls away she sees that Ryan is wearing a completely blank expression. Taylor misinterprets this to mean that Ryan really didn’t feel anything, not realizing that this is Ryan’s version of the same gobsmacked expression that Taylor was wearing at the close of the last episode. It ends with Ryan finally able to sleep, Taylor’s remedy untouched on the table beside him.
By the next episode, Taylor is embarrassed by her stalkerish tendencies and is avoiding Ryan as much as she can. Ryan is avoiding her, too, but for a different reason: ever since he and Taylor kissed that last time, he has been having erotic fantasies about her that could have been taken straight out of an eighties rock video. Taylor dancing in a negligee on the kitchen counter (and it doesn’t hurt that the ballet-trained Autumn Reeser is fantastically limber), Taylor sudsing up one of Ryan’s windows (in which we learn that, in addition to Taylor having a fantastic ass, Ryan is a man who particularly appreciates one of those), Taylor in roller-skates and short-shorts. His attempt at having a date with Taylor goes horribly, and she rightly calls him on it, only to attempt to make him jealous later by flirting outrageously with one of the clerks at the comics store where Seth works. Things go awry when Taylor and Summer try to keep a party thrown by Kaitlin from getting too far out of control, and Ryan happens to find Taylor’s guy in bed with another man. (Ryan, once he gets over his initial shock, doubles back to ask if Taylor is under the covers somewhere with them. He knows this girl.)
Upon finding Taylor in the house, Ryan confronts her, and they have the following hysterical conversation (make much funnier by Autumn Reeser’s perfect comedic timing):
TAYLOR: Well, what if I did, hmm? What if I did rent a homosexual for the evening? And pay him with rare collectibles from Asian cinema? What difference does it make?
RYAN: Well, it’s strange.
TAYLOR: And so am I! Which is why you ran away from me last night.
RYAN: No, it wasn’t because you’re strange.
TAYLOR: You don’t find me strange?
RYAN: No, I do, but that wasn’t the reason that I took off. Look, I’m not really ready for a relationship right now. Or a girlfriend.
TAYLOR: Uh, girlfriend? Cart, horse? Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself there? I mean, just because I want to use your body like a jungle gym doesn’t mean that we have to get married.
RYAN: I see.
TAYLOR: I mean, my divorce papers aren’t even dry yet. Look, you’re a sweet, smart, great guy, Ryan Atwood. And hot. Did I mention hot? So whatever happens...happens.
RYAN: Taylor, that’s...normal.
TAYLOR: I have my moments. Hey, this is my first high school bash. Have you ever played seven minutes in heaven?
Taylor might be an amateur when it comes to the time-honored games of adolescent lust, but she’s a quick learner. Frankly, Ryan’s pretty eager to teach himself.
I wanted to spend as much time as possible on the genesis of the Ryan/Taylor relationship so that I could highlight one of the most remarkable aspects of it, and the reason that it’s so different from most of the teenaged far on television. Rather than casting themselves in terms of big, epic love filled with sturm and drang, they start off with low-key emotional and physical compatibility. It’s refreshing.
Not that they manage to exist entirely without drama, of course, because this is still The O.C. Ryan is still grieving for Marissa, and the resurfacing of a letter from her, long lost by the post office, makes him reevaluate even a tentative relationship with Taylor. They both fall off of the Cohens’ roof during an argument and, long story short, wind up in an alternate universe in which Ryan never came to Newport and it’s possible that Marissa is still alive. Maybe Taylor could compete with that after she and Ryan have spent several months together, but so early on she doesn’t stand a chance, and the most heartbreaking thing is that she knows it. It is only because Marissa is dead in this universe, as well, that makes Ryan come back. It’s a realistic stumbling block to have, and the show handles it well.
Also realistic is the way that the show handles Ryan’s and Taylor’s sexual relationship. In the New Year’s episode, Seth and Summer have a pregnancy scare, but through a series of misunderstandings that could only occur on this show, Ryan discovers the pregnancy test and assumes that it’s for Taylor. His attempts at handling it well by assuring Taylor that what they have isn’t exclusive and that she has to do what she has to do don’t go over well, with Taylor becoming convinced that what Ryan really thinks is that she’s a kinky, sex-starved slut. Their attempts to sleep together for the first time are derailed, and they instead decide to do “everything but”. While I was disappointed upon watching to find that Taylor’s natural and refreshing sex drive was going to be filed away so that she and Ryan could serve as teen role models, I was impressed to see a show alluding to the fact that there is a whole, vast expanse of things to be done between casual necking and full, penetrative intercourse. That doesn’t happen often. The rest of the season, while it never actually admits that Ryan and Taylor are sleeping together until the finale, is filled with context clues which say that they are, from Ryan leaning forward and whispering to Taylor that he intends to have his way with her to Ryan kissing her neck and pushing her down against a bed while she giggles and swats at him. Ben McKenzie and Autumn Reeser have a great erotic chemistry between them which suggests that, while Ryan and Taylor are busy building together an emotional relationship, they are also having plenty of uninhibited, angst-free sex. The issues that Ryan and Taylor have across the remainder of the season are shockingly normal ones, as far as this show is concerned: rather than being concerned about one or another’s spiraling drug problems or the attempted rape of Taylor by Ryan’s brother, they struggle with when one should tell the other that they love them and finding the boundaries between family and each other. While the finale has them broken up, and then having incredible, smoking sex before seeing how it will go, the flash-forward that ends the series is more ambiguous. At Seth and Summer’s wedding, Ryan and Taylor share a look that was deliberately left ambiguous on the part of showrunner Josh Schwartz. I’ve always read it as “We’re not even going to make it through the first dance before we have to run off and have sex, are we?” Others have taken it as simply the two of them acknowledging what they had and then moving on. The subtext is in the eye of the beholder on that one.
The third season ended in an especially dark place for Ryan. His first love, and with her one of the most epic relationships of the series, died in a shocking, senseless accident. Nearly three years of work towards recovering from the trauma that the first fifteen years of his life was wiped out, and he was actually fighting in cages because it was the only way that he knew to deal with his grief. And then came Taylor. I’m not saying that Taylor is the sole reason that Ryan was able to move on from Marissa, because that would be trading one crutch for another, and using women that he needs to save as crutches is one of Ryan’s enduring flaws that he needs to get over. What Ryan and Taylor do say, however, is that losing one love or going through one trauma doesn’t mean that your life has to stop there. I was never a Ryan/Marissa fan, but even if I was, I think that Ryan/Taylor would still be an enduring statement of the human capacity to heal. Because they are so normal, so free of drama, they’re actually one of the most grounded relationships that the show produced in its entire run. They make almost no sense until you see them in action together, but they are different enough to keep each other interesting and yet similar enough so that they have common ground with each other beyond the sex. In the very first episode which suggested that the two of them could be a couple, Ryan commented on Taylor’s tendency to know exactly what he was thinking before even he could put it into words, and she him. Ryan is sober and grounded enough to keep Taylor from fluttering off on the power of her own crazy, while the very fact that Taylor is so strange and frequently off-putting keeps Ryan from giving in to his tendency to brood. They just work together. On a show that was known for the melodrama, it’s refreshing to find a pair so functional.
taylor_ryan is dedicated solely to Ryan/Taylor fics, vids, and the like, and is a great resource for those just getting started in the ship. It’s where I cam by most of the individual fics that I’m reccing now.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear by overnighter. This was written before the fourth season premiered and before Ryan/Taylor was even a whisper on the show, but it’s glorious. It’s pure smut, guys, and I love it.
They Call Them Classics for a Reason by elzed. You’ll, uh, notice that there’s a theme with the porn. This is scorchingly hot.
She Smiles by Bama02614. Okay, so this one’s not porny. It’s just sweet and wonderful.
Love Story, if I’m allowed to pimp myself. My own take on the particular way that the Ryan/Taylor relationship started with the merely physical and then moved on to more.