Monday, September 30, 2019

Veronica Mars, Season 4

Veronica Mars has got a Veronica Mars problem.  This is the inescapable conclusion one must draw from the multiple attempted--and, for the most part, failed--reinventions the show has undergone since the end of its first, transcendent season in 2005.  In those fourteen years, we've watched the show try to repeat history (the second season, which furnished Veronica with another high-school-set mystery reeking of sexual violence and the entitlement of the rich), switch formats (the third season, which split its storytelling into three multi-episode arcs, each dealing with a different mystery), attempt to switch settings (the "Veronica Mars, FBI agent" sizzle reel Rob Thomas produced in an attempt to earn the show a fourth season), make a time jump (the 2014 movie, which did have a mystery story somewhere in there but was mostly concerned with delivering all the fanservice viewers could stomach), and now, with Hulu's eight-episode revival, seemingly do all of those things at once.  None of these attempts have recreated the magic of the first season, and at this point, one has to conclude that it's not the mystery writing or the setting or the format that is at fault, but the one thing that all of these trips to the well have in common--the show's heroine.

None of this is to say that the fourth season of Veronica Mars is bad.  It is, on the contrary, a solid and entertaining mystery story (it gets a little wobbly towards its end, but that's for reasons extraneous to the mystery plot which we'll get to in a minute).  It makes good use of the streaming format without devolving into the shapelessness that afflicts a lot of intended binge-watches.  It lets Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni shine as smart, creative detectives and a loving father-daughter team.  It delves into the show's recurring themes of class war and deepening inequality in its setting of Neptune, California.  It features fun, memorable guest performances from J.K. Simmons, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Patton Oswalt.  And it checks in with almost every important recurring character in the show's history.[1]  It's a fun season of television, but it still feels a bit rote and samey, and I think a lot of fans will have walked away from it feeling curiously dissatisfied.

But that's not what you want to talk about.  That's not what anyone wants to talk about when they come to talk about the fourth season of Veronica Mars.  The thing that everyone wants to talk about is the ending, in which (spoiler, in case you care about a season that premiered two months ago and still haven't figured the ending out from the veritable din of shocked reactions and memes on social media) Veronica's perennial ex turned long-term boyfriend turned (as of a few hours earlier) husband Logan Echolls is killed in a car explosion, a parting gift from the season's villain.  As if wanting to make sure that we can't bargain this shocking ending away, the show even flashes forward a year, making sure we know that Logan is dead, dead, dead.  Roll credits.

I liked Logan as much as any Veronica Mars fan with a pulse, but I can see the arguments for killing him off.[2]  Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring have always had off-the-charts chemistry (the reason they became so many fans' OTP in the first place), but the truth is that when I realized the reunion movie was going to put them back together, I sighed.  Veronica and Logan have never really worked as a couple, and while the show likes to pretend that the problem is Logan's bad-boy proclivities (hence the bizarre decision to make him a Navy pilot, and now a Naval Intelligence officer), the real reason is that they didn't have much in common except for intense, obsessive personalities.  Whenever they try to do couple things, they feel false and awkward, and inevitably return to the well of their dysfunction--his short temper, her emotional unavailability.[3]

So the choice to kill Logan bothers me less for the sake of the character himself, than for what it says about the show's attitude towards its heroine, and its approach to the project of growing her as a character and a person--a project at which it has consistently failed.  The reason that season 4, like all the attempts that came before it, falls short of the greatness of season 1 is that it can't figure out what to do with its heroine, how and whether she should change.  For as long as we've known her, Veronica's strength and resilience have been the flip side of her intransigence and hostility to change.  Again and again, people who have tried to get close to her have been rebuffed not just by her distrust of others, but by her total resistance to intimacy and emotional honesty.  This is what defined her as a teenager who had just crawled out of the wreckage of her best friend's murder, her mother's abandonment, sudden social ostracism, and being drugged and raped.  Veronica's reaction to these abuses was to pursue justice and comeuppance, but as a result she never processed her various traumas, was indeed highly resistant to any attempt to get through her defensive barriers--an attitude that has persisted into her adult life.

To be clear, this is something that Veronica Mars, the show, realizes, and comments on throughout the fourth season.  The question of change, and of Veronica's resistance to it, is present in many guises.  There is, for example, the entire "Veronica Mars, older millennial" vibe of the season and of Veronica's interactions with her old friends and former classmates, most of whom have grown up, mellowed out, settled down, or sold out, even as Veronica has stayed mostly in place.  There is a moving subplot in which Veronica and Keith are confronted by the specter of his mortality when he begins experiencing memory lapses.  Veronica is given a protege, teenager Matty Ross (Izabela Vidovic), who mirrors her traumatic origin story in several ways and is, like a young Veronica, determined, resourceful, and prone to getting in over her head.  And of course, the question of marriage, introduced by Logan in the season premiere, hangs over the season, with Veronica reacting in shock[4] and total rejection, then getting angry when Logan takes that rejection in stride.

Above and beyond the marriage issue, Veronica spends the season being confronted with challenges to her preference for stasis.  Keith wonders why she doesn't put her law degree to good use in defending the people of Neptune from the predations of their ultra-rich neighbors.  Weevil angrily points out that she has multiple Ivy League degrees that she is doing nothing with, even as she chastises him for going back to the life of a gangster.  The various villains she sent to prison in season 3 sneer at her when she visits them in jail, pointing out that they have an excuse for not getting anywhere in their lives, but Veronica is still voluntarily doing the same thing she did in high school.  And Logan asks simply: what do you want?  Reminding Veronica that she has options, that despite her constant carping on being stuck in Neptune, a town that she rails against, she has always had the ability to leave, and simply chooses not to.

The problem is that Veronica herself never makes an answer to any of these challenges.  She waves them off or ignores them or storms off in anger.  The closest she comes to introspection is when she muses about Matty that if someone doesn't help her deal with her anger over the murder of her father (the crime that kicks off the season's mystery), she will "set and harden", an obvious reference to Veronica herself.  Nor is this new behavior on her part.  Veronica Mars, the show and the character, have always resisted anything resembling self-analysis or progress towards change and growth.  The second season came closest, with Veronica feeling obvious ambivalence about the role she'd taken on as a crusader for justice[5], but quickly abandoned this line of thought.  And the movie trotted out the extremely unconvincing argument that to Veronica, the PI life constituted an addiction that she just couldn't shake.  But on the question of what she wants and who she wants to be, Veronica has always been silent, and this doesn't change in the fourth season.

The problem is, Veronica Mars has never been good at portraying its heroine as anything other than a hardened detective, and it is increasingly unclear to me whether this represents a commitment to the character's trauma-induced emotional stasis, or an inability to write her as a rounded human being.[6]  You see this, in particular, in those moments when Veronica does decide to move forward with her life.  In the final episode of the fourth season, she suddenly decides that she truly wants to marry Logan, and it's completely unconvincing.  And, as much as I've criticized the Veronica/Logan relationship for its unsustainability, this has been equally true for every other partner Veronica has had--she has always felt fake and unlike herself when playing happiness and romantic fulfillment.

The issue here isn't that Veronica needs to have a happy ending, or that she needs to achieve emotional growth and well-being.  It's that, at the age of thirty-four, she still seems like exactly the same person she was at seventeen.  It would be one thing if I believed that this was something the show was commenting on--that Veronica's refusal to grow as a person, or her inability to be happy in a relationship, are an outgrowth of the same trauma that has made her such an effective detective and crusader for justice.  But as the show keeps trying to reinvent itself, to try on new formats and shuck off old characters, it increasingly feels as if Thomas and his writers don't even realize what their central problem is.  Maybe killing Logan off is the magic ticket.  Maybe getting rid of this last bit of connection to the girl she once was will kickstart the next chapter in Veronica's life and story.  But we've said that before and ended up disappointed.

In the season's final scene, Veronica listens to a voicemail message left by Logan for his therapist, in which he explains why he wants to marry her.  He talks about how much he admires her, and how he wants to see her traits in his children[7].  In a show that tends to subject Veronica to constant criticism (including from herself), this is a rare and welcome reminder of why we love this character, and why she deserves to be happy.  But then Logan adds one final reason: "I want to marry Veronica because she's the toughest human being I've ever met.  Blows that would destroy most people... she always picks herself back up."  The season ends on a close-up of Veronica's face as she takes in this final bit of praise, which is clearly intended as a summation of the character.

But am I the only one who finds that insufficient?  We've always known that Veronica is tough and resilient.  That's been her defining trait since the series's first episode.  But is that all she is?  Is killing Logan just a way of giving us the artificial high of watching Veronica pick herself up from yet another blow, and distracting us from the fact that she hasn't changed or grown in half a lifetime?  Instead of working towards new goals and challenges, is Veronica doomed to always be getting over fresh traumas?  After an entire season in which one supporting character after another asks Veronica what she's going to do with her life, the only answer the show seems able to give us is "she's going to get over yet another tragedy, and she'll be great at it."  I don't think Veronica Mars knows how to show us a Veronica Mars who isn't miserable in the  exact same way she was in high school, and until it solves that problem, the show will always exist in the shadow of the story it told about that girl.



[1] Except Mac, because Tina Majorino apparently wasn't available. And Piz, because my god, why would he ever step foot in Neptune, or anywhere near the Mars family, ever again.

[2] Which, again, I was made aware of within a day or two of the season dropping in July.  One of the things no one ever talks about when discussing spoiler etiquette is that while an individual person might make an oblique reference that only people who have seen the episode will understand, when several hundred people each describe their personal glimpse of the elephant, it's pretty much impossible not to piece together what they're all talking about.

[3] Compare Veronica and Logan to Kristen Bell's other fan-favorite on-screen relationship, with William Jackson Harper's Chidi on The Good Place.  Bell and Harper don't anything like the chemistry she shares with Dohring, but Eleanor and Chidi make so much more sense than Veronica and Logan, and are so much more fun to watch together, simply being a couple.

[4] This is, to be clear, utterly ridiculous.  Veronica and Logan have apparently been together since the movie, which was five or six years ago in the show's chronology.  They've been living together for a substantial chunk of that time.  It is inconceivable that marriage wouldn't have at least come up in conversation, and that Logan's proposal would have come completely out of the blue.  The show even tries to hang a lantern on this--Logan tells a new acquaintance that he sometimes wonders whether his job at Naval Intelligence, which sends him away from home for weeks and months at a time on no notice, isn't the glue that holds his relationship with Veronica together; and when Veronica crosses paths with almost-old-flame Leo, he points out how strange it is that the marriage question has never reared its head in half a decade.  But acknowledging the weirdness of the situation isn't the same thing as defusing it.

[5] Not coincidentally, this is the season most fans seem to like the least.

[6] As an additional data point in debating this question, we should look to iZombie, another Rob Thomas show which aired its fifth and final season this spring.  iZombie's heroine, Liv Moore, is as different from Veronica as it is possible to be--emotionally open (her function in the show is to take on the personalities and character traits of the people whose brains she eats in order to solve their murders), nurturing and mature, a den mother to her friend group.  But she is just as static as Veronica, often ending up edged out of the show's main storylines because she lacks the dynamism to drive them.  For all her emotional awareness, Liv remains just as allergic to personal growth as Veronica ever was, suggesting that this is not an organic character trait.

[7] One thing the show avoids by killing off Logan is the kids conversation, which would surely have been apocalyptic.  It's clear from his behavior throughout the season that Logan has started thinking about children, and just as obvious that Veronica wants nothing to do with them.  This is, again, an absolutely ridiculous thing for a couple who have been together for as long as Veronica and Logan have not to have talked about, and yet the two marry without seemingly having had this very basic conversation.  The bomb was blessing, is what I'm saying.

4 comments:

TRUTH said...

Why Logan and Veronica don't work ? Why Chidi and Eleanor are believable ?.. I don't see it and you don't give any arguments to prove your point. eyeroll.
And by the way the second season of this show was loved despite the convoluted plot.

Foxessa said...

There's yet another VM thing? And social media knows all about it?

I don't.

Guess I'm not on all the wrong ones ... hell, I'm hardly on about two right ones (and these do not include FB, Twitwat, Insta, etc.)

timb said...

Abigail, this was thoughtful and insightful. Although the thing I loved most about Season Two was the villain reveal, I do note that Veronica hasn't really changed. But, could she change and still have the mysteries? Rob Thomas thinks she cannot. That she's a noire detective who damage is her calling card. It's why he freed her from the anchor that was Logan (thank god for that explosion).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think the entire question of "can the heroine change and still be a detective" becomes infinitely more fraught when you're talking about a detective we first met when she was seventeen. The fact that Veronica hasn't changed since she was a child isn't simply annoying to the viewers. It is genuinely tragic, verging on pathological. It would be one thing if Veronica Mars were willing to confront Veronica's serious emotional problems, but it isn't. What it defaults to, instead, is the kind of valorization we get in the series's final moments, in which the ability to withstand trauma is offered as a substitute for any sort of emotional growth.

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