The final montage of the fourth (the last?) season of Veronica Mars is a perfect summation of this show in such a way that it almost makes me think that this would be the perfect way to end the series for good and never come back. It ends with our heroine leaving Neptune, possibly forever, her car, her character and her television series driving off into the distance, to a destiny unknown.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s start at the beginning.
That beginning was in 2004, and it involved killing off a then unknown Amanda Seyfried. Right from that moment, Veronica Mars has made no apologies for not being the show you wanted it to be. It might have been centred around a teen detective, but Nancy Drew it was not. This was a series that opened with a reveal, delivered though a hardened voiceover, that our lead character had been date raped, and say what you want about how sexual violence is dealt with in this show (it’s…complicated), it was a reveal that said a lot about what this show was going to be in a nutshell; unapologetically dark, adult, and combining elements of mystery and teen soap.
Veronica Mars is no longer a teen soap. These characters are now adults and while 2014’s Kickstarter-funded movie gave us a lovely little high school reunion story, being a fan backed movie the narrative played as fan service, brilliantly so. Now, with the might of Hulu behind it (and taking nearly a long year to reach UK shores), Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright are now fully invested in playing in a world of complex adult decisions.
Not that complex adult stories were ever held at arm’s length on those original three seasons; many of those scripts dealt with some of the darkest material imaginable on a network teen television series, not to mention having a body count that might have made a season of 24 blush (this was after all a series that closed its second season premiere with a bus crash that killed several high school students).
The whole revival culture going on in television right now might even have its basis on the return of Veronica Mars. Backed by a Kickstarter campaign and premiering a year after the return of Arrested Development, the last few years have also seen the return of Gilmore Girls, The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Will and Grace, most of them managing to find ways to get themselves back to their original paradigms, even though they indicated in their finales that there was possibly no going back to what it was they originally offered. They delivered what seemed to be final chapters, so it seemed only appropriate to deliver stories that indicated that whatever format the shows offered, they were concluding in such a way that those characters would never be able to return to.
Each of those revivals spent their revival premieres getting back to the old status quo so they could get their shows back to the formulas of old; Rory Gilmore returns to Stars Hollow, while Mulder and Scully are back at the FBI despite having been declared fugitives the last time we saw them, while Will and Grace went one step further and basically retconned its finale because nobody liked it and passed it off as Karen’s dream. Only Twin Peaks dared to do something different to what the original was, effectively turning itself into David Lynch’s latest fever dream.
Because of the Veronica Mars’ status as a cult show, it’s never really had to deliver a concrete finale; the movie was the closest it got and even then it basically spent its running time getting back to its original paradigm, it was basically the whole point of the story.
Cue season four and Veronica is now a fully-fledged PI with her own office right next to her dad’s, and how lovely to see the old set from the original series back, with an extension that kind of messed with my head because I was trying to remember if they ever had that amount of room during those first three seasons.
We’re in for a lean eight episodes, all around the fifty-minute mark, with an ongoing plot line involving a serial bomber, class divide, a long way away from high school and college. It’s good. It’s really, REALLY good.
The theme music is back, this time slower and more intense and delivered by Chrissie Hynde, complete with neon drenched title sequence, the voiceover is there, hard boiled and delivered to perfection, and being written by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, the plot pulls in so many directions that you almost need a chart to follow the links, with plot strands being established without any source of backstory and expecting you to stick around to see where it all lands, which is usually does in a satisfying way. If there’s any writer who is a master of putting in a random scene into show that makes you wonder that it has to do with everything before making everything satisfyingly clear, it’s Rob Thomas.
What is most gratifying and somewhat brave about Veronica Mars’ fourth season is how it commits fully to not wanting to give a damn about your nostalgia. There are moments of fan service here, but the writing is never depending on them for audience pleasing moments or to fuel its storytelling; there’s Wallace, there’s Weevil, there’s that trip to Chino and a few villains from the past saying hello, there’s Liam Fitzpatrick, there’s Jake Kane and Principal Clemmons, but they are there organically, never expanded upon too much to the point that they become a distraction. There is no eye rolling ‘Palpatine is back’-style twist here. This is not a season that is building up to some revelation that Aaron Echolls was alive this whole-time plotting revenge.
That would have been too easy and too obvious and if Veronica Mars has taught us anything it’s that it’s never been a series that has went for the obvious and the easy.
Those years of being exposed to investigations of infidelity and the worst in humanity have clearly made their mark on Veronica as a teenager because here she is an adult and her relationship with Logan, the happy ending we all wanted, is complex and possibly a little toxic. That boy she described as the school psycho in the pilot episode has been going to therapy, trying to rein in those more angry elements of his character, and all he gets from Veronica is a rejected marriage proposal (itself the cornerstone of many finales or revivals) and criticism that he has diluted those edges, the very edges a teenage Veronica regarded as psychotic.
It’s a shocking moment that the second episode offers and confirms that this is not high school anymore. The angst isn’t fun anymore, it’s damaging. Those hard-boiled elements in Veronica that were there from the pilot episode have turned her into someone capable of emotional damage, and her oblivious nature the morning after almost makes it worse.
There could almost be a separate thread in how this is really all Keith’s fault in that he allowed her to work for him from such a young age, but that’s something the series never resorts to although you can’t help but just feel it’s there, somewhat out of earshot.
In terms of the story arc, it’s all wonderfully compulsive in a way that draws you in so irrevocably; a serial offender whose identity is kept secret until the finale (although you kind of sense where’s it going, although the eventual reveal has its own cleverness baked into it), class warfare, Ryan Hansen playing Dick as a dick and having way too much fun with the role, while characters from the past come and go, but do so in a way that unfortunately happens when we’re older; we make time for friends, but sometimes we never have enough of it, so it makes sense that Veronica doesn’t get to spend enough time with Wallace, while Mac is absent, sadly with no appearance from Tina Marjorino this time, despite that lovely tease at the end of the movie that Mac was going to have a somewhat permanent home at Mars Investigations.
Sometimes friendships can sour. Her on again and off again friendship with Weevil has now deteriorated to a more bitter degree due to events in between seasons, a lovely notion that tells us that life has continued in Neptune even though we haven’t been there to see it. One key moment between Weevil (Francis Capra is wonderful here) and Veronica even dares to pull on a thread that suggests that even Veronica isn’t above indulging in a bit of class injustice herself.
She may feel persecuted by the upper classes of her hometown, but as Weevil points out, she effectively does the same to him. Her criticisms of him taking a deal to get out of the charges levelled against him due to the events of the movie don’t take into consideration that the system in the town is built against someone like Weevil and the moment he calls her out on that is a brave moment for the show, pointing out that Veronica herself as a pretty, white middle class girl can also be privileged to the point of ignorance.
Many of the arguments between them in the original series touched on this, but here it feels different, as if the show is pointing out that its lead character may in fact be part of the problem that she has been critical off this entire time.
Then there’s Keith. Veronica’s relationship with her father is arguably the most important of the show, but even her witty father is being ravaged by the passage of time. His injuries from the end of the movie are possibly taking a larger toll on him with his memory fluctuating, a devastating development that hangs over the entire season, even if it does turn out to be nowhere near as serious as we’ve been led to believe by the end of the season. Even if the dialogue between himself and Veronica is more wittier and funnier than ever, his medical condition hangs over proceedings like a grim reaper waiting to strike, and by the end of the season it does, just not for the character you think it’s coming for.
Weddings make for great finales. So do deaths. Veronica Mars delivers both and that’s before its devastating epilogue that tells us, in no uncertain terms, that this is a season of television playing out before our very eyes in an era of President Trump, toxic fandoms, and the rich and powerful never being punished.
The killing of Logan is a shocking move, but it’s a move that very rarely happens on television and long form narrative anymore. We’ve become so accustomed to our movie franchises and televisions series comforting us when characters die by almost instantly bringing them back.
Even Rob Thomas himself isn’t as immune to this as you’d think. The finale to iZombie, wonderful and brilliant as it was, turned characters dying and then coming back into a recurring thing that happened to nearly the entire cast through that last forty-five minutes.
With regards to Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas bravely doesn’t care if he hurts you with the decisions being made here. So many stories are built on the idea of a crusading male character whose journey is fuelled by the death of a female loved one that its almost refreshing that any potential fifth season will be driven by a female character driven by the death of a male character for a change, and while it might hurt after what has now been sixteen years on and off of this story coming in and out of our lives, it’s indicative of a time when television was unafraid to commit to having high body counts.
An entire generation of TV, from The X-Files to Buffy, from Angel to Alias, 24 to Lost, Prison Break to Heroes, The Sopranos to Six Feet Under, had the grim reaper living about its characters’ heads for a lot of the time, but not wanting to ‘anger the fans’ has meant that the television’s grim reaper has been in retirement for the last few years, but then the last few moments of ‘Years, Continents and Bloodshed’ decided to go full On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and kills of our hero’s new husband mere minutes after saying ‘I do’.
What’s worse is that Patton Oswalt done it.
Oswalt’s character, Penn, spends the season almost like a fan of the series coming in and out of the characters’ orbit; a prominent member of an unsolved murders club, one key moment has him talking at length about the ‘unsolved’ murder of Lilly Kane as if he’s a fan of the first season of the show. The fact that he’s talks about that particular case feels like it setting up the eventual piece of information that a large part of America doesn’t believe that he’s eventually guilty of being the bomber that repeatedly strikes Neptune after that first bomb was set off in a larger conspiracy involving the elder Dick Casablancas and his attempt at trying to take control of the beaches of the town for their own nefarious money making purposes (as always with Veronica Mars, there is a lot of brilliant complications to what’s going on).
That it all takes place in Spring Break makes watching the series during at time when spring breakers have been in the news recently all the more funnier and prophetic and strange to know that a year before the recent events involving a virus, self-isolation and spring break being a bone of contention that Rob Thomas delivered two seasons of television for two different shows that were playing with themes that were going to dominate the news cycle only a year later.
What is less prophetic and more of a deliberate comment of the times is that ending. Killing Logan is one thing, but the series goes even further for the kill by revealing that Neptune has been fully gentrified, the rich winning, and the lower classes suffering again. It’s a truly bitter ending that basically plays true with the atmosphere and rules that Veronica Mars has dabbled in on and off during its run.
It sets up a new style of show for the future should it be renewed (the jury is still out), one far away from Neptune. If we saw little of our favourite characters this season, then it appears they’re going to be gone completely should a fifth season be produced, turning Veronica in an avenging angel of sorts travelling the roads of America.
The final image of her car leaving Neptune, its injustices behind her does feel as if it could be the best way to leave the show for good. The movie gave us the happy ending, yes, but this feels truer to what the show has always been. Were fans pissed? Yes, but feeling pissed is maybe what we’re meant to feel here.
Noir is frequently never a happy genre; think of the downbeat ending of Chinatown and its notorious twist and famous final line of dialogue, and similarly to stories of private detectives watching the unfairness of the world take it toll on the souls of those around them, Veronica Mars commits wholeheartedly to the idea that the rich get richer, the poorer get poorer and people die.
It is a feel-good ending? Not a chance in hell, but why should stories have to have happy endings all the time. Hell, movies had downbeat endings all the time back in the 70s. Veronica Mars may have begun as a show with teen soap tropes back in 2004 on UPN and finished its initial run on The CW back in 2007, but that doesn’t mean it has to finish that way and Thomas knows it.
Season four is pure, undiluted Veronica Mars. Those elements are still there but growing up and being older means realising the world never works the way you want it to, that injustice is everywhere. Airing in an era of Trump politics and when the GOP is pushing political policy that is harsh and cruel to many, Thomas and the writers have delivered an unapologetic mirror to the world, and if Neptune isn’t going to escape unscathed, then why should Veronica.
It’s a fascinating and brilliant eight episodes of television that gets down into the muck and explores its titular character in a way that the original series never did, as brilliant as it was. Make no mistakes, those first three seasons have their own sets of complexities, and the first two seasons are amongst the finest network television of its era, but in taking the character into the realm of adulthood, the writing lays bare just how prone to flaws Veronica herself is, flawed like the world she is a part of. She may hate what she sees and might be prone to moments if indifferent cruelty herself, but she remains one of television’s very best characters.
She’s not an anti-hero by any stretch, but she is deeply flawed, and these eight episodes explore that, with fully committed writing from Thomas, Ruggiero-Wright and the writer’s room, and a fantastic central performance from Bell who goes from light and fun, to dark and gritty naturally and brilliantly, sometimes in the space of a single scene.
We have watched this character grow up, we see her flaws, her moments of lovability. Where she goes next would be fascinating to see. That ending is a literal open road of possibilities, but if this should be it, the final full stop in the story, then it’s honestly as brilliant a dark place to leave it.
I know I might in the minority of some who thinks this, and it’s been worse having to wait nearly a year to watch it, but Veronica Mars season four may very well be the best of the recent revivals that have graced television screens recently. Twin Peaks might have gone all out to do something completely different, and it’s as daring and experimental a piece of television that has ever been produced, but there’s something brilliantly honest about what Veronica Mars has done with its fourth season.
It’s taken the show we loved but almost commented on what it means to be a teen character who’s now a little older, maybe not wiser, but also having to deal with life as a thirty something in a world where when being a teen you were confronted with those complexities, but are now having to deal with the notion that life is basically just a confluences of injustices and unfair problems that you yourself might be a part of.
All there is left to do is get the hell out of town.