Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "Betty and Veronica" (season 1, episode 16)

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Veronica Mars - "Betty and Veronica" (season 1, episode 16)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Veronica Mars. Every day, except Saturday, I will offer a short review of another episode until I finish the first season. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on March 29, 2005/written by Diane Ruggiero; directed by Michael Fields): Veronica discovers her mother was with Jake at the time of Lilly's murder (a storyline that mostly unfolds in flashback) and eventually checks Lianne into rehab. She also poses as Betty from Riverdale (har har), a new student at Neptune's downscale arch-rival Pan High, to figure out who has stolen Neptune's mascot, a parrot named Polly (in return, Neptune's athletic elite steals the Pan goat). Although personally disgusted with the cult of school spirit, and far more amenable to Pan's social milieu than that of her own school, she gets some perks from her principal for taking the case. More importantly, she is personally invested in tracking down Polly after the kidnapper releases a video threatening Polly unless Wallace - Neptune's star player - sits out the big game. Veronica notices a "13" on the masked figure's sneakers, leading us to suspect Pan's #13, Richie (Kyle Searles). In fact, the real culprit is Neptune's own #13, Wallace's supposed friend Jack (Christopher Babers). The conniving gambler is perhaps partially motivated by jealousy of his teammate, but mostly by more mercenary considerations. With Wallace out, he can control the flow of the game and ensure a loss to Pan, paying off on bets he's made (and following a tradition of cheating for profit that goes back years).

Meanwhile, romance complicates Veronica's social life while simplifying her work: she's clearly discomforted by Meg's blooming relationship with Duncan but greatly appreciaties new boyfriend Leo for sending Lilly Kane evidence her way. Veronica listens to recordings of her father interrogating the Kanes about a hotel date at the time of Lilly's death (the then-sheriff doesn't know that in fact his wife was there too), and she figures out a way to even the playing field in her ongoing surveillance war. The reason Clarence spotted her in Barstow wasn't that he was watching her mother - he was watching, or rather listening to, her. She finds the bug in her bedroom but rather than destroy it she decides to keep it installed, letting him continue to listen in as she feeds him what she wants him to hear. Having planted a bug in his office, she's able to spy on his own response when, for example, she states that Abel Koontz must have taken a payoff in order to confess, and that therefore the payoff must be benefitting someone else. Clarence orders his secretary to call Amelia DeLongpre, whom Veronica quickly discovers is Abel's daughter.

My Response:
Though a fun episode in some ways - I enjoyed the introduction of the inter-school rivalry which, like everything else in Veronica Mars, is framed as class warfare - some of the material was a bit muddled. After the big build-up, Veronica's reunion with Lianne didn't quite land; the delivery was awkward at times, and the information (and, more to the point, its emotional significance) felt convoluted, though perhaps it will pay off later. Maybe the flashback structure was the problem, since the show is usually cutting back and forth across much greater distances of time. Flipping between the events of that morning in Barstow and a day or two later doesn't work as well - instead of striking a balance between the more earnest melodramatic tone of the family drama and the light, more playful flavor of the mascot material, the two modes clash. I wonder if the Mars crisis would have been better served by an A-plot with complementary thematic material, even if treated in a more farcical manner.

On the plus side, in addition to enjoying much of the Neptune/Pan stuff on its own terms - yet again, I didn't foresee the perpetrator although he makes total sense in retrospect - it was nice to see Wallace in a beefed-up role. His newfound popularity starts to drive a subtle wedge between them (he invites Veronica to the jocks' lunchtable but she declines) and deepens her fondness for him (the mysterious snickerdoodles that pop up in his locker each day are, it turns out, baked by her). The series has often taken the Veronica/Wallace friendship for granted but lately he's cultivated a more colorful personality, less the meek sidekick than a presence in his own right. Weevil is also a welcome presence in a small role, though I hope he gets a significant arc soon. After making such a strong impression in the first couple episodes, he's slipped into the background as Logan in particular rose to prominence (at times it feels like Dohring was the breakout supporting actor of the show, a smug, snarky celebrity spawn, cutting a privileged but resentful profile in tune with the O.C./TMZ times). And I like Meg a lot; in a show full of characters with shadowy sides, her guileless goodwill is charming rather than grating.

There is at least one effective dramatic moment during the flashbacks: Veronica asks her mother, who threatened Jake with a paternity test, whether it would reveal that Jake or Keith was her father. Rather than inquiring all at once, Veronica asks, painfully and hesitantly, each name in turn, and Lianne has to answer that she doesn't know. This is clearly a devastating response for her daughter to hear. I wonder if any of this has to do with Lilly's death or if the paternity crisis stands on its own (with, in a way, the murder mystery serving as a MacGuffin for this more crucial element, directing Veronica's attention to something she never would have dug up, had Lilly lived). With six episodes to go, "Betty and Veronica" is definitely building toward some big twists, revelations, and perhaps grim confirmations for the finale...or sooner.

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