Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "Chino and the Man" (season 4, episode 2)

Friday, July 26, 2019

Veronica Mars - "Chino and the Man" (season 4, episode 2)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Veronica Mars. Each day, I am covering every episode (and the film) including the brand new Hulu revival. I am watching this series for the first time, so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (premiered on July 19, 2019/written by Diane Ruggiero-Wright; directed by Michael Fields): With the town reeling from catastrophe, everyone has something to do in "Chino and the Man," and few witnesses, friends, or family members are content to demurely answer questions for the detectives - emphasis on the plural. Indeed, many are more interested in joining the ranks of those detectives themselves. Penn, it is revealed, is not just a pizzaman but a cold case-obsessed sleuth in his spare time. And as he tweets to his newly grown follower base, he has little faith in Neptune officialdom. ("But didn't you lose an election due to evidence-tampering?" he asks Keith, wide-eyed. "Didn't you investigate the wrong person in the Lilly Kane case?") A bit of a meta-element within this world, a true crime Greek chorus, Penn explicitly ties Neptune's present to its past even if his understanding of what went down then and now is a little screwy. By episode's end he's on national television spouting theories about Daniel Maloof planting a bomb in his sister-in-law-to-be's make-up bag. Given the Carrs' already belligerent attitude toward the Maloofs - the stereotypical roughnecks, looking for Tawny's expensive engagement ring, attack the congressman before Logan lays them out and gets hired as Daniel's bodyguard - I don't think murder accusations are going to help the family dynamic.

Penn's cavalier pronouncement also places the prominent U.S. politician in the Mexican cartel's gunsights - after Alonzo and Dodie have already slain the (apparently) wrong suspect. For the most part, their antics are played for laughs (even this bloody execution, with a severed head as the punchline). Attempting to fit in with the crowd of American kids the duo are more comfortable making smiling threats than casual small talk; if they operate as comic relief it's thanks to their bemused fish-out-of-water quality rather than incompetent bumbling. Then again, their cold-blooded proficiency as strongmen and assassins is not exactly matched by investigative prowess. Taking some frightened college students at their word is an amateur move and if these two are going to actually earn the wad of cash El Despiadado gave them, they'll probably have to join their ruthlessly sharp teeth to a real detective's keen nose. (I can think of just the Van Lowe for the job.) Veronica seems to desire a similar arrangement between her and Matty, but the kid has her own plan. She confronts Liam Fitzpatrick for selling her dad a possibly explosive snack machine and destroys their merchandise before Veronica arrives just in time with a getaway car and a gun. "Goddamn, I hate that girl," Liam growls, to which his pals retort, "Which one?" The now fully-grown Mars is forced to see herself through the looking glass: "Parents split up, then a murder, followed by the agony of not knowing where to focus her rage. I know the sort of person who emerges on the other side. I thought if I could solve the case quickly enough, she might not have time to set and harden. Once a girl sets and hardens, her life becomes a series of apologies."

And Veronica primarily owes an apology to Logan. Punishing him for his gentlemanly stoicism - why has he taken her rejection so gracefully? where's that old explosive Echolls temper? why does he seem so sedated? - she eggs him on until he punches a hole in the kitchen cabinet...and then they go straight to the sack (or rather, they don't even make it to there). Veronica, it seems, has internalized and articulated the writers' own rueful recognition: the more fucked up these two get, the hotter their chemistry. Logan, currently seeing a therapist and trying to keep his traumatic battlefield experiences from simmering to the surface, immensely - and rightfully - resents his girlfriend's expectations. If Veronica knows this dynamic is unhealthy she still craves it, or at least some sort of unattainable balance between the bad boy and the grown adult. Logan's beloved sardonic side, at least, does reveal itself more in the presence of the Casablancas, who feature heavily in episode two. Dick, Jr. is now an actor celebrating his latest movie while Dick, Sr. cavorts around the golf course and boardroom boasting about his years in the slammer. He even goes by "Big Dick," as his arm tattoo proudly proclaims, although a flashback reveals that the mark - violently etched by burly gangbangers - was supposed to read "Bitch" before Clyde Pickett (J.K. Simmons) intervened to protect him.

In fact, Clyde planned that whole encounter, guessing correctly that it would encourage a worried Dick, desperate for an ally, to offer Clyde employment on the outside. For the most part, Clyde spends the episode quietly observing, obeying, and enforcing (as when he chases away an underage girl, played by Victoria Bruno, who's clinging to Dick, Jr. at an afterparty). There's one notable exception: the gruff buzzard gently approaches Veronica to ask if she can find an old lover and she firmly but respectfully shoots him down. Clyde is impressed by her integrity and we almost wonder if this gesture was a test on his part. And why did Veronica, always pushing her dad to run a business rather than a charity, take the high road here? Perhaps she just wants one less thing to apologize for.

My Response:
While I've been avoiding most information about the new season, I have noticed comparisons to True Detective. Most obviously, this refers to the opening credits with its dazzling, bleeding colors and transparent floating faces and profiles, cut to a mellow new version of our old favorite theme (whoever created the titles for True Detective either designed this sequence too or is looking into a lawsuit right now). More broadly, I'm guessing this reference describes the structure of the show: begin the season with a big opening case, our detectives gathered at a crime scene while we also get acquainted with their personal lives, and then follow up in episode two as they drop in on various persons of interest for interviews, offering glimpses into the victims' backgrounds and the killers' possible motives. At least one fan (Andrew Cook, whose comments throughout this diary have been well worth reading) has pointed out that True Detective's much-maligned second season is the most obvious antecedent and indeed it does seem like a short trip from Vinci to Neptune, whether due to Southern California urban crime/corruption or the multiple intersecting storylines of the sprawling ensemble. That latter point brings me back to an even more familiar reference point, of course: Twin Peaks.

Though Veronica Mars' point of view is more closely pinned to its lead detective than either True Detective season two or Twin Peaks, it does warmly recall Peaks' ability to turn almost every character into a detective in their own right. Enthusiastic amateurs insinuate themselves into the official investigation (was Audrey Horne a "murderhead" avant la lettre?). Drug-dealing criminals skulk around in the shadows, conducting their own operations off the books. And all-too-personally-invested teens get in over their heads - causing headaches for the pros. Meanwhile, we take breaks from the central murder mystery to tease out an unrelated (or is it?) corporate intrigue with Dick Casablancas, Sr. stepping in for Ben Horne (I love how the show brings Dick Jr. back, by the way - and yes, for a good ten seconds or so I thought they really had killed him and that he really was an undercover cop; I'm not sure which is more implausible). I guess this makes J.K. Simmons' streetwise ex-con character Veronica Mars' Hank Jennings, a comparison which should call his apparently mild-mannered visit to Veronica into question. If the series continues in this direction, it could build to a rich tapestry of multiple, intersecting climaxes. Both Twin Peaks and Neptune have always been communities in which so much is going on that the events and personalities seem impossible to contain in a single show, and yet all of this activity feels somehow connected, a web drawn around a single vital core.

"Who bombed the Sea Sprite?" doesn't yet have the clarity of "Who killed Laura Palmer?" (or, for that matter, "Who killed Lilly Kane?"). But perhaps, as in later seasons of Twin Peaks, the direction of the investigation will reverse and the detective rather than the victims will become the central subject of inquiry...

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