Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "Drinking the Kool-Aid" (season 1, episode 9)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Veronica Mars - "Drinking the Kool-Aid" (season 1, episode 9)


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 November 30, 2004/written by Russell Smith, story by Rob Thomas; directed by Marcos Siega): The Moon Calf Collective sounds for all the world like a dangerous cult. An agricultural commune located in the country, it's led by charismatic guru Josh (Chris William Martin) and promoted by Holly Mills (Amy Laughlin), a flaky English teacher who has roped in Neptune student Casey Gant (Jonathan Bennett). The young man has abandoned his wealthy family and now spends all his free time with Moon Calves, so his parents (Rebecca Kitt and Albie Selznick) hire Keith to dig up some dirt, bust the cult, and break their son free. They've even employed a "deprogrammer" (Ray Proscia) to convert Casey back to their way of thinking once they've exposed the collective. There's only one problem: the dangerous cult isn't actually a dangerous cult. The more time Veronica spends with the Moon Calf Collective, the more convinced she is that they are harmless, even beneficial. Besides, Casey's parents have less than pure motives. Casey is about to come into a vast inheritance from his dying grandmother, and they're terrified he'd give it all to his newfound community.

One thing's for sure: Veronica much prefers the new, improved Casey over his bratty earlier incarnation. And Keith has to admit she has a point about all of this, even though the $5,000 reward is pretty tempting. Ultimately, they decide to sit on some potentially damaging information they've acquired (a member of the collective, played by Megalyn Echikunwoke, is a minor, who ran away from abusive but legal foster care). Nonetheless, Casey is kidnapped by his parents at his grandmother's funeral; when the episode ends he's back to a more materialist "normal." Veronica has her own familial concerns, tricking Keith into drawing blood and sending their samples to a DNA-testing company. Initially convinced that she must find out if Jake Kane is her father, Veronica finally changes her mind at episode's end. If Casey's true family can be compassionate strangers rather than his much colder blood relations, then Veronica's real father can definitely be the man who loves her deeply rather than the tycoon who never raised her. The loyal daughter shreds her DNA results before reading them, confident that she's better off not knowing.

My Response:
Perhaps more than any other episode so far, "Drinking the Kool-Aid" pushes the boundaries of the episodic structure. Its investigative story is certainly self-contained, but we lead off right away with a continuation from the last scene of episode 8, with an upset Veronica crying in her car. She vows to follow up on the question that Abel posed in such a mocking rhetorical fashion, and before we even dig into the cult stuff, we spend a lot of time with Veronica tracking down the Kane employee who took those threatening photos of her. Even when the other plot gets going, this larger matter never really disappears. The plot questions (Is Veronica related to the Kanes? Were the photos threatening to expose a secret rather than endanger Veronica's life?) share space with character questions (Does it matter in terms of Veronica's relationship to Keith? Does she want to know for the right reasons?). Veronica Mars continues to ably balance narrative and thematic aspects of the overarching mystery.

Once again, the episodic investigation neatly parallels developments in the serialized story - Veronica's reversal on the cult question not only amplifies but possibly inspires her change of heart on the paternity test, and both shifts are related to larger questions of family and money. And of course Casey's crisis provides yet another clever exploration of the "09er" ethos, the corruption that greed and privilege breed in Neptune. Without abandoning the no-bullshit outlook of the beleagured Mars clan, the episode even manages a fondness for hippies as a viable alternative - at least for some - to suffocating social norms. Veronica Mars continues to carve out a unique space in an often cynical TV procedural landscape, fostering a hard-boiled realism that nonetheless leaves room for deeper-seated idealism, not naive but fiery, like the best heroes of past detective fiction.

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