This post discusses plot points from the third and fourth episodes of the first season of Veronica Mars.
Noir is mannered, but I admit through the first several episodes of Veronica Mars, the show’s stylized nature was keeping me at a bit of a distance. That all changed with these two episodes of the show. It’s not so much that the cases got to me—I suspect that after the first two episodes, which used crimes to pull the basic cast of characters together, that Veronica’s clients will be a little more disposable. It’s that the, despite its use of private eye conventions, and in fact because of them, Veronica Mars became piercingly emotional in these two episodes, which focused substantially on the relationships between parents and children. In noir, everyone has secrets, but in Veronica Mars, the gap between public and private selves takes less time to unravel, or at least to become apparent. But that doesn’t mean that Veronica is free to send clients on her way faster than Sam Spade—instead, mysteries matter less than the consequences they open up.
In her first case, Veronica is employed by a boy named Justin to find his father—except that as far as Justin knows, his father is dead, and the gig is just an excuse for him to talk to Veronica and to give her mix CDs built around 311 releases. But instead of pulling off a successful ploy, Justin ends up discovering something that requires much more maturity from him than the quota that’s required to hit on a cool, older girl. His father’s transitioned and is living as a woman named Julia, played beautifully by Melissa Leo, who regularly patronizes the movie rental business where Justin works so she can have a chance to talk to him about film and take his recommendations. In one of the slyest, most impressive arguments for tolerance I’ve seen, she is clearly and deeply loved by the man she lived with. And Justin is in terrible pain not just because he’s discovered that his father abandoned him, but because his mother couldn’t trust him to react well to the truth.
“This is hard, I know. I wish I could have found a way to tell you,” Julia tells Justin. “This is something I had to do. This is who I am.” Justin is focused on the betrayal rather than the rare opportunity he has not just to be loved again, but to act like the kind of man Veronica would admire, until Veronica explains what it would mean to her to know that her mother wanted to visit her, even in disguise. “90 miles,” Veronica tells Justin. “That’s the distance your dad travels every week to see you for a few seconds. Look, my mom’s been missing, too, and I would give anything to feel that she cared enough about me to do that.” The case ends, and Justin’s resolution begins, with him tentatively calling his mother to tell her that the copy of Body Heat he recommended to her and special ordered for her has arrived—and giving her his regular schedule. The mystery matters far less than the emotional landscape that it opened up, noir’s secrets giving way to the complexities of contemporary life, which is difficult enough even before you introduce guns, gumshoes, and dames to die for into the mix.
As Julia’s taking the risk that Justin can love her as his mother, rather than his father, Keith Mars is confronting his daughter’s maturity, rather than his worries about her lack of it.
When he’s called into the principal’s office because she wants to tell him “We’ve noticed a dramatic change in [Veronica] over the last year. She’s late, a lot. She has attitude with certain teachers. She falls asleep in class. And socially she seems a bit isolated,” Keith downplays these changes. “I’d say Veronica is doing pretty well given the circumstances,” he tells the principal. “I can handle it, thank you.” But while he can manage Veronica’s behavior in limited ways, he can’t exactly arrest the forward march of time. When he asks Veronica about her first date with Troy, he’s rattled by her explanation that it was “Lousy conversation, but the sex was fantastic.” He gets territorial when the two keep seeing each other. “If he’s going to be kissing my daughter on my front porch for eight and a half minutes, I’m going to have to meet him,” Keith demands. “He’s taking up a lot of daddy-daughter time.” And Keith can even use his private-eye skills to put the kibosh on Veronica’s plans for homecoming. “You won’t mind, then, that I cancelled your reservation at the Four Seasons?” he tells Troy over Diet Cokes. But tracking down hotel registers one at time can only go so far—Keith’s business, in fact, depends on the idea that the world will stay richly supplied in venality. He can intimidate Troy out of sleeping with his daughter on one occasion, but he can’t predict her slipping out of her red dress and racing into the water in Lily Kane’s memory, can’t stop her from being exposed to hurt and seeking out new forms of joy.
The strongest part of these two episodes involve parents who aren’t aware of their limitations in the same way that Keith is, who, now that their daughter is dead, seem to have seized upon the opportunity to erase the parts of her personality they found most inconvenient. And the Kanes are doing the same thing to their living child as well. “We all lost Lily and we all miss her. But that doesn’t mean we stop living our lives,” Jake Kane tells Duncan in trying to encourage him to apply for an internship in the Senate. “Darling, there’s no shame in taking anti-depressants,” Duncan’s mother tells him as he slips pills down the dish disposal—she thinks they’ll make him snap out of his fugue state, but he’s terrified that they’ll expose him to the full horror of losing his sister. “Here’s the thing. The truth is going to come out,” Lily’s apparition tells him. “It doesn’t add up. You know that deep down inside….Break out of your stupor. Wake up.”
Part of Duncan’s problem is that his parents want him to participate in a lie about the kind of person that his sister was. And as the show reveals in a development that I found both surprising and tremendously gratifying, that attempt to airbrush Lily is causing enormous pain to Logan, previously Veronica’s antagonist, too. “What part of my ignoring you makes you think you’re welcome?” Logan snaps at Veronica when she finds him reviewing tape of her dead friend and his dead ex-girlfriend. “What are you doing?” she asks, brushing by his provocation. “Assembling the world’s most boring memorial video…Memories both misty and watercolored,” Logan tells her. “It’s Lily as a long-distance commercial,” Veronica agrees. “It isn’t really about Lily, is it?” Logan cuts to the point.
It’s revolting to see Celeste deliver a wholly fictionalized eulogy for the daughter she chastised for drinking, for dressing too provocatively, who appeared to care about Veronica and Duncan more than any other wider vision of the world. “Lily really loved this place,” Clarice says at the dedication of the school memorial fountain. “So it’s only fitting that as long as this fountain remains here, a part of Lily will always be here. And you, her peers, will always be reminded what a generous, kind, sweet girl she was. And how she embodied Pirate Pride, and the school motto, service, loyalty, honor.” But watching Logan and Veronica as they watched the video they put together, the one that argued that Lily was wild and gorgeous and silly and tremendously fun, that she was worth everything even if she was none of the things that her mother wanted her to have been, was exhilarating, moving in a way that television has rarely made me feel. “You love me, don’t you?” Lily asks.
And the answer in Veronica Mars is yes, of course, every day, no matter how much it hurts. At the end of The Big Sleep Philip Marlowe “stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.” But in Veronica Mars, Duncan finally takes his anti-depressants and wakes back up to the world, having seen his sister again as she truly was, if only for one last time.