Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "Driver Ed" (season 2, episode 2)

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Veronica Mars - "Driver Ed" (season 2, episode 2)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Veronica Mars. I will cover each TV episode (and eventually the film), several days a week; this will conclude just as the revival (which I will also cover) premieres on Hulu. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 5, 2005/written by Diane Ruggiero; directed by Nick Marck): In the aftermath of the bus tragedy, the show doesn't have much room for a light-hearted Veronica-helps-a-student B story. Instead, Wallace takes over that role for an episode, assisting the tough-as-nails Jackie Cook (Tessa Thompson) - on whom he develops an instant, proudly proclaimed crush - as she tries to figure out who scratched her wealthy father Terence Cook's (Jeffrey Sams') car in the school parking lot. Even there the resolution has a connection to the larger tragedy: the culprit is a reporter posing as a student, part of the rabid media presence that has descended on Neptune recently. One of the most grotesque news stories involves Ed Doyle (no actor listed), the bus driver whose last day on earth becomes the focus of a police investigation and social gossip as well as press smears. Convenience store clerk Duane Anders (Kevin Smith, yes that Kevin Smith - very much playing to type) shows up on a broadcast to pontificate about what Ed bought at the store, and then begins selling "angel bus" merch (T-shirts and hats featuring the school bus decked with halo and angel wings) to exploit his proximity to tragedy.

The glum but pugnacious Jessie Doyle (Ari Graynor) hires Veronica to salvage her dead father's name, but the prospects don't look good. Not only does Sheriff Lamb haughtily announce Ed's past mental problems, but the cops found what appears to be a suicide note on his hard drive. Plus Ed bought a St. Christopher's medallion from Duane only to toss it in the trash before taking his last ride. Case closed? Not quite. Veronica's sleuthing, perceptive as always, builds a counter-case from numerous little details. The medallion was purchased to make change for a phone call, and Veronica traces that call to Carla Cotter (Kristin Dattilo)...Ed's mistress. That note, it turns out, wasn't written because Ed was going to kill himself but because he was going to leave his family for Carla. A distressed Jessie pleads with Sheriff Lamb to re-open the case and he refuses, inspiring a previously reluctant Keith to run against Lamb in the upcoming election (a nice tie-in for what seemed to be a minor subplot throughout the episode). But "Driver Ed" has one more surprise in store: Veronica's name, scrawled on the palm of a corpse (the driver's?) as it is pulled onto shore.

My Response:
This episode allows the class tension to simmer down a bit as it shifts focus on the damage of media narratives. Still, the economic subtext is present when reporters ask the sheriff about the town's lack of funding for new buses (noting that it's mostly poor students who take them), and in the stigma Jessie faces, explicitly as the daughter of an apparently murderous bus driver but implicitly as the daughter of a bus driver, period (she decks a couple 09er girls when they mock her in the restroom). There's also a potential class element to the romance developing between the humble Wallace and the flashy Jackie, whose first encounter with Veronica (trading insults over the cafe counter) hints at some three-way tension on the horizon. Still, for the most part, we're focused on other aspects of the tragedy here as the episode artfully tugs all the different threads through the eye of that particular needle. I particularly enjoyed how Ruggierio crafted Veronica's investigation to both fit inside a neat episodic arc (introducing a compelling new character in Jessie) and advance the more serialized season two story, an echo of some of the best episodes in season one.

Jackie's entrance into Neptune seems to be part of a broader effort to expand the ensemble by bringing on new characters and expanding the presence of older ones (she appears in the opening montage as a main character, alongside the Casablancas brothers who were not featured so prominently last season). This suggests that she won't simply be a small arc, multi-episode diversion for Wallace, but a more lingering presence. Will she develop a relationship to Wallace that inflames rather than dampens her sparks with Veronica? Or is that a momentary diversion, getting us involved with a character who will play another role entirely? Certainly Veronica has her hands full with her own romantic life, running into a smug Logan emerging from a hotel room across from her own, each apparently emerging from a separate tryst. In Veronica's case, she has reconciled with Duncan after a hiccup in their romance (she doesn't think he's sufficiently grief-stricken after the tragedy, although perhaps it's because Meg is the sole survivor, lingering in critical condition at the hospital). As the world of Neptune continues to crumble, Veronica herself seems to be thriving - but will this closing, secret message change that dynamic?

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