This post discusses the fifth and six episodes of the first season of Veronica Mars.*
Since I started this project, people have been telling me how terrific Veronica Mars is as a depiction of a relationship between parents and children. As someone who followed in my father’s footsteps in a general way professionally, I’ve enjoyed watching Keith and Veronica banter about, but what finally made that section of the show work for me was a scenario where Keith had to be more of a parent to Veronica than a partner, and where Veronica was hurt enough to act more like the teenager that she is than an adult in cargo pants and pigtails. What made this pair of episodes particularly powerful is the examples of bad parenting the tension between Keith and Veronica are juxtaposed against, both of which stem out of the kind of privilege that marks Neptune. Wealth may buy nice cars and gated mansions. But it doesn’t seem particularly capable of purchasing values or emotional connection.
Veronica and Keith run into trouble when both of them overestimate her maturity. Veronica, after hearing Rebecca James, her guidance counselor, leave a voicemail for Keith that makes it clear that the two of them are dating, tries to convince herself that she’s cool with what’s happening. “Next time, could you shoot for an actual teacher, because this has no impact on my grade-point average,” Veronica jokes with her dad. But her feelings about her mother, and the possibility of her mother’s return, remain entirely unresolved. Veronica’s still mailing burners to her mother’s friends, trying to figure out why she was drinking so heavily and acting so terrified. And because her father has treated her more like a partner than a parent, Veronica acts on her conflict in a way that reflects her confusion about their respective roles—by investigating Rebecca.
What made the confrontation between Veronica and Keith so painful was that it was a necessary readjustment for them after eight months of seemingly refusing to adapt to a new normal. “This is what we do,” Veronica told him when Keith reacted with fury to the news of her investigation. “This is how we survive. I was trying to protect you…You have let her into our life like it’s no big deal.” Acting like a private eye has made Veronica feel like she has the tools to handle her mother’s disappearance, and ideas like the burner phones certainly come from spending so much time with Keith. But sorting logistics isn’t the same way as resolving your feelings. And in this case, they’ve made Veronica’s confusion worse because of the contradiction between how hard Keith looks for other people, and how little he’s done to drag Veronica’s mother home for her. “You can find anybody. If she was a criminal, you’d make a couple of grand tracking her down, and you’d find her in a week,” Veronica sobs to her father in Kristen Bell’s most convincing bit of teenaged acting on the show.
And just as acting as a partner to her dad has deepened Veronica’s confusion, treating his daughter like an equal has let Keith slide out of acting as a parent. “Oh, it’s a big deal,” Keith tells her of his decision to date Rebecca. But his reason why reflects that he’s still thinking like a solo adult. “A huge deal. It makes me feel wanted in a way I haven’t in a long time.” And the frankness with which he tells Veronica of her mother that “maybe I don’t care to find her” are harsher than perhaps is fair. But he solves the dual problem between them by acting like an adult in two different ways. He breaks up with Rebecca, putting Veronica’s interests first, where they belong. And he gives Veronica the file he’s complied on Troy but lets her decide whether she’s ready to deal with the consequences of their profession for a relationship she cares about. But he also explains to her where he’s coming from, understanding that she can’t see his motivations clearly through her own pain. “I used to think that solving the case was the key to our happiness. Solve the case and my reputation is restored. Solve the case and your mom comes home. Solve the case and you go back to being a normal teenaged girl,” Keith tells her. “What I believe in now is that we make the most out of what we have in the here and now. I believe in going to the zoo with the person I love the most.”
The other two parents who are highlighted in the subsequent episode are still making the mistake of seeing themselves first, albeit in rather different ways. Jake Kane is desperate to see Duncan apply himself to something that will enhance Jake’s own reputation, and Duncan sees through his father’s efforts to get him into politics. But Jake’s failures, even if they’ve been significant, actually inspire Duncan, who’s been wandering around like a zombie since his sister’s death, to find something productive and satisfying to do with his ambitions. When he beats Wanda Varner in a run-off to become school president, a campaign Logan got rolling against Duncan’s will, including an endorsement from Logan’s actor father, Duncan doesn’t act to protect the privileges of the elite students Wanda had vowed to abolish. Instead, he says he’ll make them available to everyone. “I would also like to make sure that students in band, students who make the honor role, students who perform in school plays or write for the school newspaper, even students who excel in vocational trades should be eligible to earn Pirate Points,” he declares in his victory speech, proving that mediocre parents can produce decent kids by accident—particularly if those kids date the right people in high school.
Logan, it turns out, is less lucky. We meet his father when a celebrity tour group swamps there house, and while Logan, who is picking up the morning paper on a motorized scooter in what has to be the best expression of young fogeyism ever, warns them off, telling the tourists “I’m the guy telling you to get back on the bus and get out of my driveway,” his father is only too eager to curry public approval by showing up in the midst of the tour crowd, signing autographs, and telling his son “Don’t forget. These guys pay for all of this.” When Logan gets caught by a celebrity sight staging fights between homeless people—he finds more desperate people than the homeless veteran he initially approaches at a gas station—it seems like his father might be providing a worthy corrective. “Do you have any idea what you’ve just cost this family? Of course you don’t. You’ve never worked for anything in your life,” his dad snaps at him, before laying out an image recovery plan. “This is how this is going to work. They’re going to get a few shots of you interviewing at the soup kitchen, and I’m going to join you for an interview with the TV crews.” But when Logan overhears his father accepting a huge contract to do a movie he knows is mediocre, he can’t risk riling him up, in a similar but more pointed fashion than Duncan did after the election. With the television cameras rolling, and with a pretense of pride, Logan tells the reporters “Dad told me on the way over that he’s donating half a million dollars to the Neptune food bank.” His ploy, while good for the community, earns him a beating with a belt at home in one of the more chilling sequences Veronica Mars has staged so far—when Logan picked out the belt, I actually thought he might be contemplating suicide.
Veronica Mars‘ themes may be heavy-handed: the idea that money can’t buy you values or family isn’t exactly subtle. But the way it tends to gets at those obvious points is so finely-drawn and surprising that I feel the sting in stories and ideas I’ve heard so many times before.
*I about had a heart attack when the election subplot came together in the sixth episode. For folks who haven’t read Rob Thomas’ young adult novels, Wanda Varner is the name of the main character in the best of them, Rats Saw God, and the Pirates are a riff on the Buccanneers, the school mascot of the Texas high school where that novel takes place. At some point I’ll write a longer piece about those novels, which are even more radical than Veronica Mars.