Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "The Bitch is Back" (season 3, episode 20)

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Veronica Mars - "The Bitch is Back" (season 3, episode 20)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Veronica Mars. I will cover each TV episode (and eventually the film), several days a week, concluding with the Hulu revival. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 22, 2007/written by Rob Thomas & Diane Ruggiero; directed by Michael Fields): Eager to get revenge for her surveillance and exploitation, Veronica unleashes her wrath on the scummy men who passed her video around. It turns out that the reason she was spied on in the first case is, of all people, Wallace. Not on purpose of course, but since his athletic performance got him recruited into "The Castle," a legendary, exclusive secret society, he was being watched by existing members. Piz being his roommate, and Veronica being - at this point, pretty fully - Piz's girlfriend they simply got caught in the crossfire. Who could have expected that the weird guy trailing Wallace in the library, in what seemed to be the most minor of minor subplots, would lead to Parker dumping Logan, a hospital visit for Piz, Wallace undergoing sadistic shock treatment, the unveiling of a century of elite secrets, Veronica's privacy and personal reputation unfairly destroyed, a scandal that may remove Keith from office and even place him in prison, a possibly permanent rift between Veronica and Logan and, hell, maybe even (someday) Logan's murder?! On the bright side, Veronica and Nish get to patch things up, Veronica and Weevil get to steal a douchebag's tires, and Logan eventually apologizes to Piz for brutally assaulting him. And Gorya "Gory" Sorokin (Matthew Alan) the vicious son of a Mafioso - this time a much more deserving target - also gets demolished by Logan, although the consequences could be, well, consequential. We'll take what we can get.

The initiation for "The Castle" pledges is held at a grand Neptune estate that Veronica doesn't recognize. She parks outside, hops over the gate, squeezes through the doggie door, and hides behind the curtain. A middle-aged man enters his office with a college student and uploads video files onto a heavily-guarded hard drive. The videos are of pledges forced to confirm their gravest secrets, to be used as implicit blackmail keeping the entire tight-knit elite group in line for the rest of their lives. Veronica realizes whose home she's in when, tiptoeing past the room where the pledges are gathered, she comes face to face with a creepy painting of Lilly Kane. The Kanes are back in Neptune and Veronica is going to be in a lot of trouble. So is her father; he quickly realizes that the break-in he's been called to investigate was her doing. A thread from her sweater was caught on the doggie door and the neighbor's security system shows someone who looks a lot like her trespassing next door. As Jake and Clarence demand that Keith turn over the DVR that he confiscated, the sheriff has a decision to make - as if he really had a choice. At risk of losing his job and worse, he destroys the only evidence that can confirm Veronica's theft. Veronica, meanwhile, has used Mac to crack the drive's password and returns it to Jake in exchange for him letting the matter drop. He will, for his part, but it's too late for Keith. The district attorney has brought him up on charges of obstructing justice and the scandal is front page news, on Election Day no less!

Veronica goes to the polls to casts her lone ballot, exits into the wet street, and heads into the horizon as "It Never Rains in Southern California" plays and the show ends on a melancholy, ambiguous note...for now.


My Response:
I wondered if the season three finale would dip back into and tie together some of the "concluded" mysteries or plot threads we'd left behind. Would the Fitzpatricks finally stop lingering on the margins and play a central role in the narrative? Would Kendall reappear (I don't think we ever saw her body, just the lover firing his gun), bringing us back to the way the season kicked off? Would the creepy prisoner/guard game reveal itself as a hidden underbelly, a cultlike presence at Hearst, and would Mercer's supposedly wrapped-up storyline relate to this? And did Logan know something about Piz? As it turns out, Veronica Mars' intentions are both more expansive - stretching back to the show's roots - and more inconclusive than that. We do finally get to glimpse that secret society I've been hoping for all season, but placed at the top of its pyramid, the all-seeing eye collecting data to maintain his omniscience, is none other than Jake Kane. The Kanes have always haunted the Mars family, revealing a multifaceted portrait of wealth of power that looks different depending where you stand in relation to it. Best friend, boyfriend, secret father, bitchy mother, tech conglomerate, political threat, elite cabal: even the Kanes' most reassuring faces - Lilly and Duncan - are looming, unreachable, vaguely threatening when Veronica runs into them as gigantic portraits.

Jake has descended fully from pillar of the community to scheming recluse wandering around his empty mansion unshaven and in a bathrobe, but instead of diminishing his presence, this eccentricity only seems to enhance it: the half-mad king ruling over his dominion of Neptune without any pretense to being an ordinary citizen. It's significant that the act which will degrades the Mars' social status once again involves Veronica breaking into a home she was once welcome inside. If you dig all the way into the pre-history of the series, the material we flash back to in the pilot, Veronica was at home with the 09ers: a middle-class kid allowed inside their gates even if she wasn't ever truly one of them. But the mythos of the series, its more profoundly foundational psychodramatic origin, locates Veronica as a natural outsider, an underdog, with her dad right there with her. He was only ever sheriff the first time in order for a downfall to provide his origin story. The place we end up in here feels grimly appropriate - not the election results but Veronica's stoic vote before she walks out into the Southern Californian rain. We don't need to see what comes next; in a sense, we already have.

"The Bitch is Back" reminds us not only of the show's personalized class warfare and dynastic absent presences, it also recreates Veronica's social isolation. "Great," she remarks to herself as her sex tape-viewing college classmates snigger behind her back and even to her face. "I'm back in high school again." As for Logan's attack, turns out it was unjustified - after my own frequent doubts about his intentions, it looks like Piz is just a normal, decent guy. Partly for that reason - but mostly because of the Pacific Ocean's worth of water that's passed under their bridge in three seasons - Logan has finally gone too far. Veronica's "I want you out of my life" smackdown is probably the most dramatically momentous scene, although the episode eventually (and thankfully) undercuts this when Logan talks to Veronica again in the cafeteria before cathartically kicking the shit out of Gory. Logan's grinning "Someday," a response to Gory's promise that he's going to die, is the perfect send-off for this character although I expect to see him soon in the movie. Indeed if Logan rides off into the sunset as an antihero with a chip on his shoulder, it's part of a larger pattern: pulling the characters away from any sense of reassuring closure, and reminding us of their inescapable core. In 2007 this must have seemed bleak, but in 2014 and 2019 Rob Thomas would open up the case, and offer fans something more.



What will that be? I have no idea, except I seem to recall reading that the film takes place at a class reunion (the writers taking a creative liberty since only eight years had passed since her graduation). And for season four, I know even less than that. However, now that I don't have to be so nervous about spoilers I've finally taken the opportunity to learn more about the history of the series. Aside from some minor revelations - apparently everyone else likes the Paul Rudd episode way more than I did - this was particularly clarifying about the overall shape of the third season. Unsurprisingly, creative decisions were influenced by poor ratings and network concerns (as well as, a bit more surprisingly, the creator's own self-doubt). The original plan was for three mini-arcs: the serial rapes, the Dean's murder, and the Coach's suicide. But the CW network refused to grant more than twenty episodes and when the series was placed on a long hiatus in the spring, it was - apparently mutually? - decided that the last stretch of the season would consist of standalones. There was real concern that Veronica Mars' "ongoing mystery" structure made it hard to follow, particularly for the new viewers the show desperately needed to stay alive. (Thomas also pitched, and even filmed, a Veronica-in-the-FBI concept that didn't get much traction.)

But this more episodic approach wasn't just a matter of untapped audiences; according to Thomas, the season-long arcs were  the most criticized aspects of the series including even the first season (unless I'm misreading his statement). That's too bad, because to me the serialized mystery is at the heart of the show's appeal, alongside the strength of the characters and the inventiveness of the community (an aspect that unfortunately, and understandably, took a backseat as Veronica went to college). Yes, it's fun to tease out clues and anxiously anticipate what the show is keeping from us at episode's end. But more crucially, these "long cons" engage a worldbuilding process that makes Neptune feel larger than life. The right kind of standalone mystery can occasionally do this too; "The Girl Next Door" remains one of my favorites of the whole series for the way it establishes the Mars apartment complex as a world unto itself. But episodic narratives, like season three indulged in near its end, more often feel neaty, tidy, self-enclosed, even as they offer smaller charms. The sprawling mystery spanning multiple chapters, a form of storytelling usually more common in self-contained feature films than TV shows (though it's become much more common in the past couple decades), can provide a transcendent thrill that other modes can't rival. They map out interconnected points in a way that hints at the grandeur of "whatitallis" not just "whodunit."

And now, much more so than with a dense story universe packed tightly into a three-year span, we'll have the element of time to work with too. What does Neptune look like in the teens? See you tomorrow, when we find out.

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