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.