Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "I Am God" (season 2, episode 18)

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Veronica Mars - "I Am God" (season 2, episode 18)


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 April 11, 2006/written by Diane Ruggiero, Cathy Belben; directed by Martha Mitchell): In a reference made explicit in one line of dialogue, Veronica is haunted by her own version of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Varying between self-protective insomnia and disturbing visions of her deceased fellow passengers on the doomed school bus, Veronica decides to take a deep dive in their individual lives. PCH biker Cervando Esparza (Max Arciniega) got in a fight with Beaver after Dick destroyed his new jeans. Meg was being pressured into some kind of arranged romance with "Lucky" (James Jordan), an Iraq vet turned school janitor from her church. Betina Marone (Blythe Auffarth) was fooling around with Dick and hoped to get pregnant so she could make their relationship public. Rhonda Landers (Audra J. Morgan) is remembered by Wallace as "PWT" ("poor white trash") - a description oddly embraced by an episode otherwise attuned to the condescension embedded in class differences - although Keith discovers that her family received a $2 million settlement from Woody. And Peter had a crush on Mr. Wu (Martin Yu), the science teacher who - it turns out - was not himself gay; he also scrawled the ominous message "I am God" with nine coffins on the back of one of the bus seats. This at least is resolved in the episode as a dead end (apologies for the pun): the image and title are off a favorite album cover. Another, even more troubling possibility opens up when Veronica's vision of Cervando asks why Weevil just so happened to be around to give her a ride - particularly since the location of the explosive proves the bomber needed to know exactly when the bus was passing the cliff before setting off the cell phone trigger.

Keith busies himself with a school-sponsored investigation into a doctor who has accepted bribes to diagnose students with a fake grieving disorder so they can bypass final exams. This isn't simply civic spirit - Veronica was recently accepted by Stanford but her helpful class rank may have to be reversed due to a technicality; fellow student Angie Dahl (Kayla Ewell), also a Stanford applicant and contender for the Kane scholarship, stands to benefit from this correction. Much emphasis is placed on an egg-dropping class contest which could boost or diminish her grade (Wallace and Logan are teamed up to try and knock her out of the competition), but ultimately it's Keith's detective work that saves the day. Medical excuse gone, she has to take that test after all. Keith also makes a bigger discovery while helping Veronica: Dick and Beaver had hugely generous life insurance policies. If you follow the money, it looks an awful lot like Mr. Casablancas may have orchestrated the crash to kill the offspring he expected to be on the bus with the others.

My Response:
In my rundown of possible bus scenarios in the previous review, I didn't mention much about the dead students themselves. So far Meg has been our primary focus among the victims, although some earlier subplots offered glimpses of the other characters. "I Am God" gathers these together and greatly expands on them, not just verbalizing but visualizing. The puzzle is pieced together from photos, anecdotes, memories, audio recordings, and financial records, providing a half-dozen or so possibilities we never even though of before (in that sense, this overflowing episode is a microcosm of the whole season, albeit a bit more anchored in the central incident). I loved this approach, including the gathering of students on a netherworld bus - coincidentally, an approach I once considered for a short film myself, although I ultimately went in a somewhat different direction. The whole episode serves as a great reminder of that the crash isn't simply a MacGuffin; it's a genuine tragedy with far-reaching implications. And the students aren't simply saintly martyrs, they were complex people with their own various shades of gray.

This is one of the strongest episodes of the second season, and certainly the most effective of those dwelling directly on the crash and its aftermath - fully realizing the potential of this rich storyline and getting me quite excited for the final four. I also liked the episode's aesthetic gambit, which has apparently been criticized (that said, the effective day-glo surrealism of the bus dreams bleeds a little too readily into actual flashbacks). Storywise, I'm beginning to strongly suspect that chipper Woody is responsible. Between his payoff to Rhonda's family, blackmail cover-up, and pressuring Gia into the limo there's quite a bit of smoke to cover up this fire. And as the series keeps returning to the theme of closeted homosexuality, maybe this too played a role in who Woody killed in the bus: two gay students, including one who pointedly asks Veronica why he would have gone on this field trip in the first place and another of whom warned of the "outing to all outings." Mr. Wu did not have a relationship with Peter...but did Woody?

If there's a strong personal motive for the crash, I imagine there are political and financial reasons as well. I haven't found much opportunity yet to discuss the incorporation storyline but it's perhaps THE major social thread running through the season. It's a marvelously evocative summation of the show's jaundiced view of elite privilege, with the 09ers literalizing their haughty disdain for the surrounding hoi polloi and the past few episodes - between Mr. Pope's property value analysis and Logan's sarcastic "wall" speech - have done a great job reminding us of its implications. And in the decade since the real-world economic crash that followed a few years after this episode, Veronica Mars' vision of ruthless greed and yawning inequality has only grown more pertinent. Considering the cultural landscape of the time, it's all the more impressive.


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