Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "Return of the Kane" (season 1, episode 6)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Veronica Mars - "Return of the Kane" (season 1, episode 6)


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 2, 2004/written by Phil Klemmer, story by Rob Thomas; directed by Sarah Pia Anderson): It's election season on the series, as it was in the U.S. at this time (this episode aired the very night that George W. Bush defeated John Kerry). Rebellious student Wanda Varner (Rachel Roth) launches an impromptu campaign for student council president, which takes off like wildfire. Condemning the "Pirate Points" awarded to wealthy students for "09er"-dominated activities, Wanda attracts constituencies among excluded groups like artists and band members, tapping into a widespread resentment among the school's have-nots. Veronica herself finds Wanda's message - and her energetic delivery - attractive, and when Wanda loses to Duncan (who didn't even want to run but has been put forward as the figurehead of the school's elite), Veronica is able to prove that the results were manipulated. A recount ensues, as does as a negative smear campaign condemning Wanda as a narc. Ultimately it works and, more surprisingly, it's true. Weevil tells Veronica that a friend of his was busted soon after he began dating Wanda, and when Veronica tests this theory, it leads to her own near-bust...and Wanda's confession (she was caught with drugs herself a year earlier, and informing is the only way she can keep this off of her record and get into a good school).

Anyway, Veronica was already having second thoughts about Wanda; although she condemns Duncan at one point for "standing idly by" while other rich kids act badly, she also remembers a time he let a less popular kid sit at their lunchtable, shutting down a bully from his own class. Sure enough, when Duncan officially wins he offers a reform to the Pirate Points, preserving the perk but expanding it to other clubs at the school as well. Logan makes a stand of his own this episode, albeit a generally less noble one. Having arrogantly bribed homeless men to box for him and his pals, the story is blown wide open by gossip columnists...after all, Logan's dad is the movie star Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin). Humiliated by this event, but only because it makes him look bad (not because he actually cares about his son's greedy abuse of the town's underclass), Aaron forces the boy to volunteer at a soup kitchen and make a public apology. Logan turns the situation on its head by announcing that his dad has decided to donate half a million to the town's food bank, a subversive fuck-you to the old man that earns a literal whipping but seems worth it to him.

Meanwhile, Veronica finally reveals her interest in - and pursuit of - Lilly's real killer to her dad, showing how a sneaker cited as evidence for Abel Koontz's guilt was actually still at the crime scene when photographers arrived. Koontz has fired his lawyer and seems ready to be executed, but Veronica believes in his innocence - and in someone else's guilt (we're not just sure who yet). As one Kane leads the student body, another leads Veronica and Keith back into a case that caused them so much pain, and may cause more yet to come.

My Response:
The class politics of Veronica Mars are back in a big way this time but if initially they seem populist and egalitarian, they reveal a more pernicious edge by episode's end. Duncan's decency is demonstrated in troubling ways: instead of agitating against the hierarchy of the school, he quietly defends an individual whose path crosses his; instead of abandoning an elitist privilege, he cloaks it in meritocratic language, extending it to other groups (but not everyone) without sacrificing his own class. In both cases, the gestures are intended to reveal Duncan's good heart, and they do, but - contrasted with Wanda's righteous anti-rich rhetoric - they also endorse patrician goodwill over actual structural change and redistribution of power. Accusing revolutionaries of being corrupt demagogues (because they're willing to identify an enemy) is the oldest conservative trick in the book, so it's a little disappointing to see the show take this tack, even if it makes for a clever narrative twist. Despite its scrappy underdog mentality, in this case at least Veronica Mars can't escape the era's or the medium's dominant ideology, its preference for status quo-preserving top-down reform over radical, confrontational upheaval (although it also comes out as solidly anti-narc, so there's that).

As far as the other Kane goes, I found it a bit hard to follow the Lilly stuff in this episode, but it seems like it will add up with time. I was mostly just intrigued to see the show ramp up the investigation after allowing Veronica's personal life to crowd out long-term sleuthing for a while. With the Todd arc over, clearly she has more room to play detective. I think Veronica Mars played its cards wisely here, allowing us to invest in the heroine as a person before prioritizing the plot. This also built our interest in Lilly herself as a character (it's surprising that the character's role wasn't beefed up until Seyfried impressed the producers...who she was seems so vital to the mystery thus far, even if we can't be sure why). Meanwhile, "Return of the Kane" gets a lot of worldbuilding accomplished as well, this time less in the broader community than within the confines of Neptune High. Another question occurs to me: with its shifting spotlight on different students each week, is Veronica Mars building a roster of suspects? I don't really think so. The Lilly Kane murder seems to big to peg on a guest player (hell, maybe Paris Hilton did it), or, for that matter, on some sort of adolescent rivalry or drama. Whatever happened to her probably has more to do with broader social dynamics in the town than with - pardon the expression - high school politics.

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