"‘Veronica Mars’ Television Club: National Black Velvet And Urkel"
This post discusses episodes 13 and 14 of the first season of Veronica Mars.
“I thought being a private eye was about shooting dudes and making out with sexy widows,” Wallace teases Veronica in “Lord of the Bling,” the thirteenth episode of the first season of Veronica Mars. “The widows come later,” Veronica promises him, but these two episodes of the show are about what happens when people refuse to conform to the tropes that they’ve been assigned to. First, there’s Bryce Hamilton, the son of Percy “Bone” Hamilton, a hip-hop producer, who sets up an elaborate scheme to prove to his father that being good at science doesn’t mean he’s “soft.” And in the second, there’s Carrie, “the gossip queen of Neptune High,” who uses her acute understanding of the high school rumor mill to take the brunt of a student-teacher relationship scandal for the girl who really got pregnant, an act of courage that demonstrates how Veronica, who normally keeps her detective’s toolkit sharp and clean, succumbs to bias when her own social milieu is the subject of an investigation that rubs up against her own sore spots.
“Lord of the Bling” traffics fairly heavily in stereotypes, but it gets away with its cliches with some deft attention to the extent to which stereotypes are useful to the people that embody them and to code-switching, and by making those stereotypes the subjects of the case itself. “You know that boy could stand to get hit in the head with a dodge ball or two. Toughen him up,” sighs Percy when we first meet him, signing a waiver that will let Bryce get out of physical education so he can pursue an independent study in science. “How did a man like me end up with National Black Velvet and Urkel?” Percy’s identity, as we’ll learn throughout the episode, is a creation rather than a natural outgrowth of his personality. “He didn’t advertise the fact that much of his success was due to his comfortably upper-middle-class Jewish attorney,” Mr. Bloom tells Keith Mars. Later, Yolanda, Percy’s daughter, whose disappearance is what prompts Percy to seek Keith out to look for her, explains that she’s disgusted by the way her father treated the drive-by shooting that left Mr. Bloom using a wheelchair. “You let everyone believe you ordered it because it gave you cred,” she tells him, after running off with Mr. Bloom’s son. His wife even teases him in the opening about his insistence that Bryce isn’t tough enough. “And the street was tough and you lost a lot of homies. But this is Neptune,” she tells her husband, suggesting that Percy is clinging to a trope that may have outlived its usefulness for his family.
But clearly, Percy’s attachment to that stereotype has done real damage to Percy’s family. Bryce—though he turns out to be the architect of the ransom demand for Yolanda—is bitter that his father is resorting to a private detective, rather than calling the police, a gesture he believes is meant to protect Percy’s reputation as not cooperating with the cops, rather than to expedite the search for Yolanda. “He’s been in jail a third of my life, but I’m the embarrassment? State science fair winner three years in a row but I’m the one that’s soft,” he tells Veronica, in what turns out to be the motivation for his hoax. When Veronica and Keith catch Bryce and march him back to his father to explain, Bryce tells Percy, “You can be mad, Dad. But you can’t call me soft.”
And Bryce and Percy aren’t the only characters who are concerned with racial performance and code-switching. In the flashbacks of the Hamiltons’ move to town, Lilly teases Duncan and Logan “Glad to see you guys are equal opportunity oglers,” when they catch their first sight of Yolanda. “I judge not by the color of their skin but the content of their sweaters,” Logan declares portentously. When Yolanda meets Lilly, Duncan, Logan and Veronica, she tells them her father, “He’s one of the Dixie Chicks. And yeah, he makes more money than your dad,” reminding them that African-American doesn’t automatically mean poor. Later, Logan will plant a kiss on Yolanda at his party while he and Lilly are having a fight. It turns out that both halves of that famously tempestuous couple were leveraging social position against each other, Lilly by dating Weevil across race and class lines, Logan by making the moves on Yolanda. Back in the present day, Veronica is intrigued by Wallace’s new hairstyle, telling him she’s “Resisting the urge to touch.” “Keep on resisting,” Wallace tells her, not unkindly. And code-switching isn’t always a trans-racial experience. “How’s your sorority-speak?” Keith asks Veronica. “Like, awesome!” she tells him in perky Valley Girl.
And assumptions aren’t always about race, class, or social circle: sometimes, as Veronica finds in her next case, personal animus can be as blinding as bigotry. When Carrie, one of Veronica’s history classmates, accuses their teacher of having an affair with her that left her pregnant, Veronica spends a long time refusing to believe her. “Don’t look to me for sympathy,” she tells her father, thinking back to rumors Carrie spread about Duncan’s mental health, and about why he was dating Veronica in the first place. “Carrie has had a long and storied reign as the gossip queen of Neptune High.” Veronica dislikes the other girl so much that she’s even willing to set aside her own experiences as a victim of sexual misconduct who was ignored by authorities to try to get her father to drop the case. “The girl deserves to be heard,” Keith tells Veronica. “No, she doesn’t,” Veronica tells him with uncharacteristic conviction. “She’s a liar and a gossip and a manipulator.” And she’s all too willing to invoke Keith’s own experience, while forgetting her own. “She’s lying. I know it. I can feel it with every fiber of my being,” she insists of Carrie. “The Bishops are going to use your credit card research and that diary to prove the two of them were together…Do you want to be responsible for taking a good man down? Destroying his reputation? Can you possibly relate?”
Veronica Mars is often a better show when Veronica is wrong—or at least, is allowed to be genuinely teenaged—and that’s true in this episode when she’s forced to confront not just the fact that she’s wrong, but the fact that she isn’t the only martyr at Neptune high. “I’m the bitch that everyone hates,” Carrie tells her, laying out the evidence that later will help Veronica realize that she was telling the truth about their teacher’s actions—just not about her own experiences. “He says baby a lot when he touches you. His sheets are black, silk…He’ll tear up as he tells you the story of his ex-wife leaving him. You’ll turn to jelly.” After recognizing that her teacher’s first move is to turn Veronica’s defense of him into an opportunity to get her into bed, Veronica muses of Carrie’s decision “People have put her through hell and she just took it.” It turns out the real tragedy of Veronica’s experience isn’t that it’s singular, but that it’s shared.