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Veronica Mars never fully accepted what it meant to be good—until the movie

Veronica Mars never fully accepted what it meant to be good—until the movie
Screenshot: Veronica Mars (2014) (HBOGo)
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When the Veronica Mars movie was released in 2014, it was almost more important symbolically than anything else. It was proof that fans and creators could bypass network meddling, using social media and crowdfunding to produce another installment of a series canceled long before its time. Alternately, it was seen as demonstration that fandom wouldn’t let a good thing stay dead, that there was danger that everything old had to be resurrected and the potential for new ideas, drowned in fan service. Reviews for the movie itself were likewise torn, forced to spend time deciding if the film was welcoming to newcomers or if it was worth the Kickstarter money and effort. The text of the film, and where it fit into the series as a whole, seemed almost an afterthought.

But I see the movie in a different way. Looking back on the film as another part of the whole, the question is: What does the Veronica Mars movie mean for the Veronica Mars TV show? As a unique installment of Veronica Mars, what does it bring to the table that the show didn’t manage beforehand?

And there is an important answer. Veronica Mars (2014) resolves a core tension that dominates the show for good or for ill: Why does Veronica Mars do what she does? Not only does the movie give a final answer to that question, it answers it in a way that makes it an essential part of the entire text. Without the film, Veronica Mars feels incomplete. With it, the main character’s story arc receives the resolution it was so desperately missing across the original series run.

Veronica Mars, teen detective, never actually wanted the job that served as the premise of Veronica Mars, the series. The instigating event for the entire story, the murder of Lilly Kane, started her off. This made Veronica, previously shown in flashbacks as a largely passive socialite, grab the motivation to become Lilly’s avenger. Her father, already a dogged investigator, had his determination to solve the case lead him down a path that cost him his job as sheriff. He found meaning and employment as a private investigator, Veronica’s unwillingness to be passive, desire to learn the tricks of the trade, and love for her father attached her to him and his job.

But her willingness to act was always situational. In an early first-season episode she tells one of Neptune High’s rich kids that she doesn’t help people, she does “favors for friends.” When he offers her cash, she greets him with a cheerful “hello, friend!” By the second season, money isn’t even a good enough motivator; in “Normal Is The Watchword”, Veronica rejects a rich bully’s fully justified demand for help only to take on the case when her best friend, Wallace Fennel, receives the same false accusation.

She should only wear this.
She should only wear this.
Screenshot: Veronica Mars (2014

Perhaps most importantly, the audience never actually sees the moment Veronica cuts her hair, puts on her leather jacket, and become a badass. There’s hundreds of flashbacks on the show, but that crucial decision isn’t one of them. We only see her fully formed, fully willing to work for her dad, fully willing to investigate Lilly Kane’s murder, but not with a stronger push for justice than those specific drives.

Getting Veronica to act was always a core tension of the show. Its success was always directly tied to the show’s success—if Veronica was motivated by a case, chances are, thanks to Kristen Bell’s monumental reservoirs of charisma, the audience was into a case. Veronica Mars refusing the call to adventure became a core part of each season and each episode, and part of the story was waiting to see how she’d accept, or resign herself to the case.

Indeed, you can trace the show’s quality by how successfully it was able to resolve that tension. In the first season, Lilly’s murder and Veronica’s direct association with her father created a perfect feedback loop, and helped that season become one of the greatest examples of single-season storytelling in its era. The second season, without that simple premise, went bigger, pulpier, messier: a mass murdering bus crash in the premiere leads to an operatic finale involving planes being blown out of the sky. In between, a series of mysteries and characters that twist themselves entertainingly and mostly successfully into narratives get the increasingly cynical Veronica to work on them.

And then there’s the disastrous third season, filled with giant problems, but arguably the single biggest among them: Veronica is mean. The switch from UPN to the CW, with Kristen Bell receiving a glow-up that turned her from the badass girl next door to a slut-shaming supermodel superhero certainly didn’t help matters, for one thing. But throughout the season, Veronica seems to only take on cases begrudgingly and sneeringly—she becomes the kind of mean girl she would have destroyed in the first two seasons.

This all changes in what used to be the series’ accidental finale, “The Bitch Is Back.” As the title implies, it’s a deliberate throwback for Veronica. Instead of being the sneering detective, she goes full avenging angel, targeting first the boys who leaked video of her having sex. Veronica then discovers that her personal case ties into a much larger issue: a secret society dominates Hearst College, which ties everything back to the Kane case of the first season. It’s a glorious return to form in many ways, but most importantly, after an entire season of Veronica only acting when acted upon, it’s like seeing an old friend when she takes command in the way that only Kristen Bell in full flight can.

That idea of vengeance informs the movie and how it shows Veronica’s perceptions of her time in Neptune. Early on, when narrating her sordid past, she says “I’ve grown up, though. That was the old me. Angry me. Vengeful me.” She also goes on to describe how she stopped being a private detective because it cost her so much in terms of relationships and friendships. Even more than that, Veronica consistently uses the language of addiction to describe her relationship with being a private detective. She’s an “adrenaline junkie,” she says, at one point. She even explicitly connects her urge to solve crimes to her mother, one of the show’s most venal villains, and her alcoholism.

But this is sleight of hand. Veronica is deceiving herself, and, to some extent, viewers and critics, by making this a narrative of her individual journey instead of a systemic one. Throughout the entirety of the series—with the possible exception of “The Bitch Is Back” — both Veronica Mars and Veronica Mars treat their cases as individual units of injustice, instead of creating a systemic case for change. Veronica and Keith certainly prefer to help the underdog, and Neptune’s stratification creates a huge number of underdogs. But they do not consistently frame their actions as private detectives as a defense against the class warfare of the rich.

What if Keith Mars had smartphone?
What if Keith Mars had smartphone?
Screenshot: Veronica Mars (2014

Veronica Mars (2014) heightens the contradictions of Neptune, and makes it impossible for Keith and Veronica to see themselves only as individuals, as opposed to activists. The series, premiering in 2004, wasn’t exactly shy about the class divisions of Neptune, depicting the have and have-nots in almost every episode. But the movie escalates this at almost every possible level; after the Great Recession, after Occupy, it depicts Neptune as an almost apocalyptic American town, where the rich has driven the non-rich into desperation. The movie doesn’t play coy, and neither can Mars Investigations, as Keith shows in an early scene where he uses his phone to record and mitigate police brutality in the service of wealthy real-estate developers.

The film isn’t subtle about this. Nor is it subtle about Veronica’s decisions to return to the detective life—half of the monologues are about how happy she theoretically is to get out, even as her actions suggest otherwise. But it’s the combination of the two that make the film special. Veronica Mars was always about class warfare, yes, but it wasn’t always coherent about how to deal with that. Likewise, Veronica Mars was always understood to be a good person—most TV heroes are!—but prior to the movie, this was also largely incoherent. Veronica Mars (2014) succeeds at merging those two concepts—Neptune’s corruption is depicted as a synecdoche for American and worldwide capitalist excesses. Veronica’s options are defending the system that creates this inequality (the law firm that’s supposedly her “way out” defends “Fortune 500 companies from frivolous lawsuits,” i.e. the super-rich, from accountability), or throwing herself into the mud (as she puts it) in Neptune.

This is the grand success of Veronica Mars (2014). It’s not that it’s a superb mystery on its own (it’s fine). Nor is it the (largely effective) fanservice. And although it did, eventually, half a decade later, succeed at rebooting the series, that’s not what makes it special. What makes it special is that finally, after 60-odd episodes of not seeing Veronica Mars make the choice to become a private detective, she finally decides that this is who she is, because it’s the right thing to do.

In the grand scheme of Veronica Mars, the movie establishes that Veronica, who was a good detective, a good friend, a good daughter—good in so many situational ways—is also finally willing to be a good person. The language of addiction is used throughout the movie, and the ending uses it once more, as Veronica accepts that she is who she is, that being a good person means fighting for what’s right, even at great personal cost. “This is where I belong. In the fight. It’s who I am.” After three seasons of watching her struggle to realize this, it’s what made the movie a perfect ending—and potentially, a great beginning for what comes next.