Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "Normal Is the Watchword" (season 2, episode 1)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Veronica Mars - "Normal Is the Watchword" (season 2, episode 1)


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 September 28, 2005/written by Rob Thomas; directed by John Kretchmer): The tension in Veronica's life has been released. Well, mostly. When we met her at the outset of season one, her fire burned brightly: resourceful, traumatized, lonely, loyal, and observant, she'd been cast out of the town's elite circles alongside her beloved father. Despite intersecting with many different social spheres, she did not have a firm place in any of them and this outsider status endeared her to us. Throughout that season, her family life consisted of broken ties and terrifying secrets, her professional life was submerged her in the community's dirty business, her school life grappled with social stigma, and her romantic life endured frequent betrayals and disappointments. Now? At the start of her senior year, Veronica's mother is long-gone and not missed (her father has moved on and continues to date Wallace's mother); meanwhile, her dad is her dad and Duncan is, thankfully, very much not her brother. She is working at a restaurant instead of as a private eye (while her father reluctantly banked on the Echolls bust to publicize a true-crime bestseller), she's been accepted back into the company of the upper-class "09" zip code, and after breaking up with the moody-as-ever Logan Echolls (whose star has fallen as much as hers has risen) she is back with kind, quiet Duncan Kane.

But if Veronica's life has returned to normal (and a "normal" with heavy class connotations), Neptune has only plunged further into a kind of cold civil war with occasional hot flashes. The night Aaron Echolls was arrested for Lilly Kane's murder, a knife-wielding Logan was found passed out next to a dead biker. He claims innocence, and Veronica believes him; so does the justice system - but at least half the town does not. Instead, no doubt due in part to the shocking revelations about his celebrity father, Logan becomes the poster boy for unjust privilege in a town already simmering with class (and, as Weevil reminds us, racial) tensions. Veronica sticks with him through this trauma, which earns her the enmity of Neptune's have-nots (except the ever-loyal Wallace), but their relationship doesn't last once Logan, Dick, and Beaver vandalize the community swimming pool (knowing all the rich kids have pools in their backyards) as revenge for Weevil's gang firing a shotgun at the car of Logan and Veronica. Logan confronts Veronica about the break-up (she accuses him of partially enjoying the drama) and an angry Keith storms inside, throws the ex-boyfriend against the wall, and warns him never to come by again. Duncan, who has been showing up at the cafe where Veronica works all summer, is the beneficiary of this break-up which sours Duncan's own ex, the once-sunny Meg Manning (Alona Tal), on her former buddy. Logan, on the other hand, moves on by sleeping with with the Casablancas' boys new stepmom, the scintillating young Kendall (Charisma Carpenter), a former Lakers cheerleader.

On a lighter note, Veronica offers her long-dormant services to Wallace and several other athletes kicked off their teams for failing drug tests (even goody two shoes Meg fell victim). She quickly disposes with a red herring, the bullied Vincent "Butters" Clemmons (Adam Hendershott), who had access to the test results because his dad is the principal, before settling on the real conspirators: a group of wealthy parents whose children stood to benefit if the top stars on each team were dispatched. There is pleasure in revisiting these gumshoe antics, but most of the premiere's energy is focused on these more long-term crises and they come together in the episode's last act. Following a field trip to a baseball stadium, where the town's wealthy mayor (Steve Guttenberg, natch) introduces his daughter Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter) to her new classmates, Veronica is invited to take a limousine ride with Gia, Duncan, and the Casablancas brothers. She initially accepts, which leads Meg to refuse; a guilty Veronica decides to get back on the school bus that took her there so she can make up with Meg. It doesn't work, and then at a rest stop along the way Veronica runs into another friend-turned-enemy; she and Weevil hurl accusations back and forth (she thinks the biker was killed by one of his own gang while Weevil too was out cold, and he thinks she abandoned all of them because inside she's an 09er too).

They argue so fiercely that Veronica misses her bus and Weevil, softening, offers her a ride on his bike. In fact, this argument appears to have saved Veronica's life. Along a coastal highway, the motorcyle slows to park alongside the limo on cliff's edge. Gia stands shocked, staring down below, and Duncan races to Veronica's side, embracing her. Strewn among the rocks below, floating in the stormy surf, is what's left of the bus. Coming after a year of shocking violence and simmering tension, this accident is just the thing to spark an all-out war amongst the hostile members of the fraying community. All the more so since, as Veronica's ominous narration reminds us, nothing in Neptune happens by accident.

My Response:
That was a long synopsis, but there's a lot of ground to cover in the twenty-third episode of Veronica Mars and the first to move past the question of "Who killed Lilly Kane?" For myself, this viewing followed an eight-month break from the series (I finished writing the last viewing diary just a few days before it was published in May 2018) and was also immediately preceded by my discovery that the show will be coming back later this year, with a Hulu mini-revival. As such, "Normal Is the Watchworld" represents not only a trip back into nostalgic mid-zeroes pop culture but a peek into the future: what is it like to come back to this world after a (short or long) break?

When the marvelous first season of Veronica Mars ended, I wondered how the show could follow up its riveting murder mystery and hoped that rather than try to duplicate the success with another mysterious, charismatic victim of (so it initially seemed, and so it eventually turned out) the town's wealthy power players. I hoped that season two would pick up one of the first season's most promising, yet somewhat unfollowed, threads: the social divide in Neptune between the wealthy 09ers and everyone else. And "Normal Is the Watchworld" really delivers on this front. If anything, this premiere hints that the season will present not just an overarching narrative but a united front on the theme: the two season-long mysteries ("who knifed the biker?" and "did someone sabotage the schoolbus?") both hinge on class tensions in the town, Veronica's personal story is even more directly linked to those tensions than it already was in season one, and (this time at least) the small-scale episodic mystery relates to the elite's hubris too.

What's also notable, and particularly gratifying from today's standpoint given how shaky the zeroes generally was on this front, is that thus far the season doesn't seem particularly interested in playing "both sides" when it comes to class warfare. Despite Veronica herself aligning with the 09ers now, it's clear that the brunt of the town's hostility has been borne by its underclass, whether they're citizens unable to swim in the community pool, star athletes cut from their sports teams, or students attending a school trip on a bus instead of in a limo. Having resolved a tight, focused, iconic little but larger-than-life whodunit to catch its audience's attention, Veronica Mars' best move was to bite off an ambitious, sprawling slice of intrigue going forward. Veronica's position in all of this will be compelling as well because she's no longer the gritty underdog with a chip on her shoulder. Perhaps after asking and answering a number of other questions, Veronica will face one of the toughest, most timeless questions of all: Which side are you on?

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