Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "M.A.D." (season 1, episode 20)

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Veronica Mars - "M.A.D." (season 1, episode 20)


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 April 26, 2005/written by Phil Klemmer & John Enbom; directed by John Kretchmer): This is an episode of betrayals. While the hunt for Duncan continues (Keith traces a red herring to Tijuana and Mac discovers a passport from Argentina), Veronica learns that her father has been serving notice to Lianne in the newspaper every day, a first step toward getting a divorce. She tracks him down at literally the last minute only to freeze in her attempt to stop him: he's taking ballroom dance lessons with Alicia...and he looks completely happy. The other "betrayals" in the episode will not end so benignly. The very next day, Alicia is confronted by Clarence in a Kane Enterprises conference room. She's infuriated when he threatens her job due to her relationship with a company enemy, but when he reveals that her son brought a bugged plant into his office, she begins to wonder if Keith has been using her after all.

The A-story is one of the darkest yet, a tale of sexual jealousy, homophobic blackmail, and revenge porn, closing with a revelation even darker than the preceding material. Headed for the Naval Academy in the fall, Tad Wilson (Jeff D'Agostino) is dumped by longtime girlfriend Carmen Ruiz (Natalia Barron). He forces her to stay with him through the threat of a phone video she can't remember, in which she performs sexual acts with a popsicle in a hot tub. Once Veronica elaborates swipes Tad's phone, it seems like a simple story has come to an almost comically easy end. It hasn't. Tad has saved the video elsewhere and a more elaborate strategy is enacted, dubbed Mutually Assured Destruction. Tad is framed, via photos (both arranged and Photoshopped) and cleverly-edited audio, as a closeted homosexual who is romancing Seth Rafter (Robert Clark) - not only a personal humiliation for the gay-baiting Tad but also a sure dismissal from the Navy (still under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy). Despite being confronted with this manufactured but convincing evidence, Tad pulls the trigger on his own weapon, sharing Carmen's video and destroying her reputation at the school. Still, she declines vengeance, allowing Tad to get away without consequence. Or so it seems.

Weevil, who has always resented Tad's relationship with Carmen (a Latina girl from his own neighborhood) punishes Tad by tying him naked to the flagpole. In a rare fortuitous accident - so much of Veronica's "luck" is usually the result of keen maneuvering - Veronica is at school early that morning. She needs to turn in a book report before playing hooky with Logan on his yacht and volunteers to cut him loose before other students arrive, on one condition. She wants to know where he got the date-rape drug he used on Carmen that night, at the same party where Veronica was drugged and raped. Tad's answer stops Veronica cold: "Logan Echolls." She approaches Tad with the switchblade and makes the most devastating cut she can. Rather than slice through the duct tape that binds him she removes the bandage covering the fresh back tattoo he was given during Carmen's set-up. Surprise: it reads "Seth." And then Veronica walks away as Tad continues to call out impotently. This last betrayal, at least, is utterly deserved.

My Response:
This is a strong episode that seems both prescient and dated. Its withering portrayal of entitled male possessiveness and drug-fueled sexual assault depicts phenomena no less common thirteen years ago, with revenge porn not yet widely accepted as an actual crime. On the other hand, the taken-for-granted ubiquitous homophobia of the students and the show's coyness on the subject feels fairly 2005, or earlier for that matter (it isn't even entirely clear if the "gay" character who Tad hates is openly gay). "M.A.D"'s standpoint on this, while it probably seemed more clear-cut at the time, feels less so today. Yes, the argument could easily be made that since the character's own bigotry is being used against him it's actually pro-gay rights. But weaponizing anti-gay culture against an enemy - even if that person is themselves homophobic - potentially perpetuates and participates in said culture, a bit like the Trump/Putin memes so popular on social media now (maybe this trope is not so outdated after all).

The big reveal of course is that Logan may be Veronica's rapist. I've obviously been wondering if another shoe would drop, given how nice the series has been making this once-reprehensible character. I didn't expect it to be this, despite how likely Logan seemed as a perpetrator when the event was first introduced. The show has done a good job leading us astray - if that's, in fact, what it's been doing. I don't think Tad is lying (that would be too easy), but the show could still concoct an elaborate out for Logan's responsibility. Still, it fits, doesn't it? There's that earlier moment, following an aborted makeout session on the couch, when Aaron drives Veronica home (one of the best scenes), lamenting that his son lost his way and glad to see him happy again. But is this supposed redemption simply another self-pitying, self-serving gesture for the character? Is Logan's recent sweetness toward Veronica, his general softening, just another manifestation of the same underlying narcissism that made him so hostile early on. Watching him brood on his yacht, petulant as Veronica fails to show and he pours himself champagne, feels like a potential return to the old Logan, but with a much harsher shadow: now not simply a brat, but a manipulative psychopath. Even if he wasn't the one who raped her, it's hard to see how he didn't provide the means for her rapist.

After making the rape an important component of the pilot, it was almost never mentioned in this season. By bringing it back now - but also by waiting until now to bring it back, Veronica Mars reminds us that this trauma is essential to the impending climax and also submerged in the psyche of both Veronica and Veronica. Despite the silence, this has haunted the other mysteries and personal stories all along.

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