“Return of the Kane” (Episode 6, Season 1; originally aired November 2nd, 2004)
In the television world, the past two weeks have given us two different examples of twists in storytelling. Two weeks ago, Game of Thrones pulled off a monumental storytelling bait-and-switch, the kind of the twist that probably could only be done as an adaptation of an existing story. Meanwhile, a week ago, The Killing attempted to pull off a similarly daring move, calling the whole premise of the show into question.
The reactions to both twists were what interested me. Some people were really pissed off (warning: language and spoilers!) at the Game of Thrones twist, but what grabbed me was that their reactions were equally spread between the characters and the producers. In the video link, the angry man berates “them”, but “they” are both the writers and the villains of the show. In short, the storytellers created an compelling series with effective villains, and when those villains did something villainous, it pissed people off. The show worked, in other words. On the other hand, The Killing, which may have started off stronger than Game of Thrones, quickly squandered that start, and when its twist came, reviewers and fans found it contrived and awful. The characters were never blamed, it was all the showrunners.
Which leads to Veronica Mars. If you're going to have twists, an inherently contrived fictional construct, you have to have built a world where they make sense, with the quality to earn goodwill. Game of Thrones built that goodwill. I didn't want what happened to happen when I read the books, and I didn't want it to happen when I watched the episode, because the bad guys won that round. The Killing lost almost all its goodwill, and so when it tried to pull a crazy stunt, it got called out for bullshit.
It's only taken six episodes, but Veronica Mars has already built up that kind of goodwill, at least for me. See, I really liked Wanda in “The Return of the Kane”. She was exactly the kind of person I wanted to hang out with in high school. Sure, she acts like she doesn't give a fuck, but she clearly gives a fuck (and I was shocked to discover that the actress, Rachel Roth, has barely worked since). So the convenient, inevitable twist, that she's a narc who's willing to sell Veronica Mars out for her own good, comes as a disappointment. But, as disappointed as I was, my blame went to the character, not to the writers. I wanted Wanda to be as cool as possible, and she wasn't.
But if I wanted to hate the writers for this, I could. Easily. It's one thing for Wanda to be an occasional narc to clear her record. It's another to instantly sell out an old/new friend and ally. I would imagine that most informants in her situation would do so unwillingly, and only when contacted directly. So unless the cops came to her directly that night and demanded she sell someone out, would she or anyone narc that quickly? I don't necessarily buy it. But in just six episodes, Veronica Mars has earned enough goodwill that I was willing to accept this at face value. I was willing to accept that the point here was to demonstrate that even people Veronica may agree with politically could be problematic personally. Demagoguery you agree with is still demagoguery.
This episode in particular builds goodwill in a few different ways. First, it continues its blunt, but smart, take on class in America. Wanda appeals directly to the kids who feel oppressed by the school's ridiculous “Pirate Points” system. There's no speech here about how it's a fair system, and anyone can run for Student Council and get those Pirate Point – Veronica Mars seems to understand, even treat it as a given, that such things tend to be the domain of the rich (social psychological studies amongst schoolchildren tend to find a strong correlation between popularity and wealth, so, yes).
More importantly, there's a lot of character stuff occurring on the side here. It's a Father's Day special, with Veronica and Keith coming (somewhat) clean to each other about investigating the Lily Kane case, as well as Duncan and Jake seeming to share a legitimate bonding moment. But the bulk of it comes between Logan and his father, Aaron, played by Harry Hamlin. Hamlin brings a similar vibe to his aging movie star portrayal as Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, but with a slight aura of malevolence. These two pretend to bond, but really do quite the opposite, as it becomes apparent why Logan can be such an asshole – or so ingratiating. Aaron Echolls' manipulation, violence, and relationship with his son, Lily Kane's former boyfriend, also makes me wonder if there's not something else going on here as well.
“The Girl Next Door” (Season 1, Episode 7; originally aired November 9th, 2004)
Right off the bat with “The Girl Next Door”, we get the in medias res opening, of Veronica saying that something went wrong, followed by the intro, then the obligatory “Seven Days Earlier...” I'm not normally a fan of this method of storytelling on television, and this episode did nothing but solidify that opinion.
It works like this: the show does everything it possibly can to point us towards a simple story of a relationship gone sour with a bad boy, leading to the death of the girl from next door. Since the show does everything it possibly can to point us in that direction, we know that that can't possibly be the answer, especially since the body being wheeled out didn't have an exposed face. From there, it's pretty simple to fill in the blanks: Sarah runs away after a fight about her parents. When the parents show up, the mother has a balanced, even negative point of view, while her stepdad has a far-too-nice impression of the girl. Once we find out that she left home because she was raped, everything falls into place, specifically Chekov's first-act gun.
The whole thing also had the negative effect of making Veronica seem passive. As a character, this is probably her least interesting episode. I didn't write down any of her quotes for my roundup/Stray Observations, which must be a first. Part of that may be that Wallace isn't involved – his character may encourage Veronica to be more fun. More likely, this just wasn't that great of an episode. Hey, it happens.
I think it's also hurt a little bit by trying to make the situation appear to parallel Veronica's. As a B-story, Veronica works with an alumna from her mother's days as a student at Neptune, and discovers that her mother and Jake Kane were prom royalty. A later note about the Sarah case from her dad, saying “Raising another man's child, that shows you love somebody” makes Veronica think that Keith is not her real dad, which seems to be a rather obvious misdirect.
On the bright side, the C-plot, involving Weevil and Logan in detention together, is simply magical, and makes the whole episode worthwhile – especially since their antagonist is high school English teacher Mr. X. The dynamic here is fantastic, especially for Logan, as he finally gets someone work with: he's too nasty to Veronica, and Duncan is too passive. With Weevil, though, the teenaged boy smartass/overcompensating masculinity has someone who will both work with and against him. It's the most fun I've had with both characters, and I look forward to seeing more like this.
- Wallace is on fire in the first half of “Return of the Kane”: “I'm a big cat man, myself.” as well as “You two seem...less peppy.”
- Jane Lynch also shows up, playing a proto-Sue Sylvester. Between her and Mr. X, I can't help but wonder if Neptune High has worse teachers than Sunnydale High.
- “Brown-nosing resume-packer wins in a landslide!”
- “That's my dad!” Logan's smarmy revenge is, well, marvelously smarmy.
- It seems kind of odd for Veronica, covering the election for the paper, to work directly with Wanda on her campaign. And invite Wanda to count the votes with her.
- “Not the pair made for walking. I love those boots.”
- “Please say high school English teacher...please say high school English teacher....”
- “Would you describe the sound as Hitchcockian?”
- “Ahem...rad dude.”
- I've seen and mostly skimmed (to avoid spoilers) a couple of discussions on Lilly Kane's likeability or not. I haven't exactly liked her, but haven't found her too problematic. At least, until "The Girl Next Door", where her manipulations of Veronica were pretty awful. Normal high school girl awful perhaps, but still unappealing.