“I heard you were kind of hard-boiled,” Toad said slowly, his eyes cool and watchful. “You heard wrong. I’m a very sensitive guy. I go all to pieces over nothing.”
—Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister
I’m sorry, is that mushy? Well, you know what they say. Veronica Mars: she’s a marshmallow.
—Veronica Mars, “Pilot”
A rain-slicked parking lot at night; the darkness is barely lifted by pink neon lights overhanging empty balconies. The Camelot Motel, a name recalling the chessboard observation from the opening chapter of The Big Sleep: “Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.” Inside one of the rooms, a man and a woman do what people come to cheap motels to do. We hear a voice: “I’m never getting married. You want an absolute? Well, there it is.” The voice is wry, cool, with a hint of preemptive defiance that suggests the speaker knows how people react to such a proclamation from someone young and female, and just enough bitterness to show she means it. It belongs to a girl in her car making 40 bucks an hour, a girl with a calc test and a camera and enough memories of scenes like this to have soured long ago on the happy ending. Her face is tired, impassive, watchful but only professionally so. She introduces herself: “Veronica Mars—spinster.”
Veronica Mars is more than a show about a precocious private eye reviewing integrals while waiting for the money shot. And Veronica herself is more than the jaded teenager we meet here. But this is the Veronica I love the most: her competence, her cynicism, her understanding that life’s only guarantee is disappointment. A girl alone, doing what she needs to do to get by.
That precise Veronica never made it to air. Filmed as the opening to the show’s pilot episode, the scene was axed by UPN execs convinced that it would confuse the target demo; it was added back in on the first season’s DVD release. The Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) introduced to viewers fit more comfortably at first glance into the mold of a spunky teen heroine: a high school student, smart and alienated, ever-ready with a quip or a comeback, thrillingly indifferent to the opinion of her peers. But even with the delay in revealing her extracurricular activities, the show wasted little time establishing its noir grounding. The hallmarks of noir, after all, include the rules which govern the world of the text. And in deceptively sunny Neptune, California, Veronica Mars gave us a town to rival Dashiell Hammett’s Poisonville as a portrait of the corruption and violence at capitalism’s dark rotted heart.
In some ways the show’s class politics—eat the rich and trust no cops—are classic noir, a genre which almost can’t help suggesting ideas about the connection between exploitation and wealth (“All films about crime are about capitalism,” explains Abraham Polonsky in the documentary Red Hollywood, “because capitalism is about crime”). But it expresses this attitude in formulations that feel startlingly current for a show which aired the entirety of its original run before the 2008 financial crash. Veronica introduces Neptune as “a town without a middle class,” a description that increasingly fits the country at large; her neat division of the town’s families into millionaires and those who work for them anticipates the discourse about the one percent. Fredric Jameson, in his study of Raymond Chandler, argues that his social content feels ahead of its time because the Los Angeles he lived in already embodied the social fracturing that would soon define the rest of the country. Perhaps, then, Neptune feels startlingly modern because it is no generic beach town, but an example of the type of city in which the new century was being shaped: a tech-boom beneficiary, Silicon Valley with oceanside views.
If many of the films which make up the film noir canon can be read as expressing American anxieties about the growing postwar bureaucracy, Veronica Mars stands now as an early 21st-century glimpse of the techno-fears which have come to dominate our national consciousness. Although Veronica goes to school with the children of movie stars and ambassadors, one figure dominates the rest: software billionaire Jake Kane. He employs many of the town’s families and created much of their wealth; in keeping with the show’s view of economic power, it’s revealed that he cheated his own employee out of the patent that sent Kane Software stratospheric. That invention was streaming video, an incisive choice which felt timely when the show debuted, six months before the creation of YouTube, and still resonates, as streaming video threads through conversations on topics ranging from the changing media ecosystem to the radicalized young men of the far right. While no one in Veronica Mars puts it to use at quite such a scale, the show explores the capacity of Neptune’s golden goose to invade and harm. When Jake Kane’s daughter is murdered, the gruesome crime scene footage leaks, thanks to her own father’s invention.
The murder of Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried)—daughter of power, Veronica’s best friend—is the mystery at the heart of the show’s first season. Her body, beautiful but for the bloodied mess at the edge of her face, is found by the family swimming pool. In a television context, the location most obviously echoes the riverbank discovery of Laura Palmer’s body in Twin Peaks, which Alice Bolin identified as the seminal Dead Girl show from which all others, Veronica Mars included, have spawned. Looking back further, we can tie it to two other violent poolside deaths: Gatsby’s murder in Fitzgerald’s novel and the sinking corpse which bookends Sunset Boulevard. These are texts which share some of the show’s key fascinations: questions of power and access, of the power of the image, of the glamor of luxury and the corruption that underlies it—of, fine, the mirage known as the American Dream. The swimming pool is equal parts artificial and elemental, highlighting both the private riches that enabled its construction and the inescapable physical reality of the blonde corpse no amount of money could protect.
Lilly’s death is the origin story of Veronica herself, the catastrophe which precipitates others: the ouster of her father from his position as sheriff after he publicly accuses the Kane family; his replacement by an incompetent crook; the departure of Veronica’s mother. Lilly’s death turns Veronica into a social pariah after she stands by her father, leaving her isolated and friendless at a party where she is drugged and raped; it forces her to become a crusader for justice, willing to blur ethical lines in search of the truth; it teaches her to expect nothing but betrayal. It changes her. It makes her hard.
The hard-boiled detective is one figure through which Americans have opted repeatedly to explore what it is to live in a world definitionally, even fatalistically steeped in violence and corruption. Veronica’s hometown more than fits the bill. Beyond the broad contours of Neptune’s inequality and shady dealings, Veronica repeatedly faces reminders that she lives a life in which trust is more often than not misplaced, from a cool fellow outsider who turns out to be a literal narc to an unscrupulous federal agent who enlists her help in planting evidence. It’s no coincidence that Wallace (Percy Daggs III), Veronica’s easygoing best friend throughout the series and by far the most pure-hearted person on the show, enters the series as Neptune High’s new kid—untainted by the stench of capitalism and sunscreen.
Veronica inherits more than the hard-boiled detective’s setting; she steps easily into this tradition with her toughness and her taser, her unflappable acid tongue and strong but gray sense of morality, her well-earned hatred of the rich and disdain for law enforcement. Her working-class status, which she identifies as a mark of difference between her and the rich 09er clique who run her school, aligns her with the hard-boiled mold, as do her methods. The hard-boiled detective, Sean McCann writes, is above all a professional, his crime-solving not a calling but a livelihood, whose tools are craft knowledge and skill, not general knowledge and logic puzzles. This fits Veronica, coolly tracking cheating spouses for cash or laying out her payment policy to a classmate in need of her services; while the show emphasizes the degree to which her intelligence is an asset, she succeeds by getting her hands dirty.
Veronica always reminds me of Philip Marlowe, the private investigator created by Raymond Chandler and brought to screen by actors as varied as Humphrey Bogart and Elliott Gould. Partly it’s the California setting, the sense that the truest image of either of them is in their car driving up some highway to scope out a case; partly it’s that they’re equally likely to find themselves in the crosshairs of millionaires or ganglords. There are echoes of Chandler in Veronica’s wry, sardonic tone—unsurprising, given that series creator Rob Thomas has named Chandler as an influence. Certainly Jameson’s description of “the wise-cracking voice-over which, however, leaves us in permanent doubt as to whether this gaze is cynical or compassionate” applies as well to Veronica as it does to Marlowe, although in either case I think it misses the core of what makes the character so compelling. After all, “caring,” says McCann, “was the key ingredient that Chandler brought to the detective story.” Veronica and Marlowe share this: the palpable sense that their cynicism exactly stems from their compassion, that their hardness is the scar tissue of a heart they can’t stop the world from breaking over and over.
Megan Abbott made an interesting observation about the difference between Marlowe as written by Chandler and the cinematic Marlowe of the cultural imagination, imprinted by the force of the Bogart portrayal in The Big Sleep. Bogart’s Marlowe, which set the tone for Marlowes to follow and for the popular understanding of hard-boiled heroes as a whole, is confident and in control, and thus, as Abbott points out, “bears minimal relation to the hero of Chandler’s novels,” who is prone to “feelings of vulnerability and isolation,” as well as the physical vulnerability that leads to his being attacked, beaten, knocked out, and even drugged. Chandler’s readers love him partly for this: the refreshing lack of dignity in his novels, the thin flame of personal honor barely sustaining itself as Marlowe encounters the world’s abuses and emerges worse for the wear.
Veronica inherits elements of both Marlowes. Much of the show’s pleasure is in the wit and competence she brings to cases offered by her peers; the show lets her relish outsmarting people. It’s delicious to watch her prove a point by making the sheriff read aloud a dollar bill on which she’s written, “Veronica Mars is smarter than me.” But outside the security of the small-time mysteries, Veronica repeatedly comes across the limits of her own power. She is drugged, more than once; she collapses into sobs in the shower over the destruction of her family; she withers under the gaze of the man she believes falsely confessed to Lilly’s murder as he describes what it felt like to kill her best friend; she identifies the true murderer only to find herself held at gunpoint, knocked out, locked in an enclosed space doused in gasoline, helpless to do anything but scream.
Veronica’s ability to come out on top is shaped, like that of any classic tough guy, by her whiteness. It undergirds her former ability to blend in with the 09ers despite her family’s income; when Weevil (Francis Capra), the Latino gangleader with whom she forms a prickly alliance of mutual respect, accuses her of posing like an outsider while thinking like an insider, there’s real bite in the understanding that she resents the loss of a former life he could never have had. It informs her detective work, too, as she repeatedly uses the presumption of harmlessness granted to white girls to con or sweet-talk her way into spaces and out of trouble, playing up the ingenue or airhead as only an adorable blonde can. When Abbott notes that Bogart’s Marlowe makes viewers feel safe, whiteness is part of what enables that.
But while Veronica does comfort the viewer with her ability to get one over on a lying classmate, she also repeatedly unmoors us. Her helplessness, her fears, the specific risks she faces, the trauma she carries—these are mediated by what sets her apart from the middle-aged men of the hard-boiled canon. Her age and her gender underly the show’s recurring use (not always elegant) of sexual assault; they explain why, although the women of Neptune betray, connive, and steal, the culprit in the larger mysteries is always one arrogant man. With Veronica at the center, the show’s noir universe expresses not just a broad psychological and economic pessimism, but the specific fatalism of knowing misogyny contaminates the very air we breathe.
The world of the hard-boiled detective is a world fundamentally untrustworthy, speaking to concerns about a disintegrating social contract in which the class historically connoted by the term people—white men—are no longer guaranteed security. In transposing this figure onto someone with the embodied vulnerability of a teenage girl, Veronica Mars taps into the reality of what it is to understand by adolescence that your body is not safe; what it is to know, on an almost cellular level, way beyond analysis or ideology, that your life and your self are forever shaped by the choices of powerful men. That there is no you that exists outside their shadow, that every move you make bears the mark of their abuses or indifference.
Explaining why she never told her father about her rape, she says, “And what does it matter anyway? I’m no longer that girl.” Veronica speaks to the selves we’ll never know or stop mourning. What do you do with the grief of that loss? How do you live with the rage? Early in the series, Veronica presents two options for how to exist after tragedy: “You can live in the wreckage and pretend it’s still the mansion you remember. Or you can crawl from the rubble and slowly rebuild.” Denial or acceptance, shutting down or moving on: we all know the right choice here. Then she gives us her answer: “But if you’re like me, you just keep chasing the storm.” That piece of her that won’t let go, that refuses to be healed, that won’t stop shouting the truth that some things never get unbroken—that’s not all of me, not anymore. But I recognize her, still.
If this is a hard-boiled story from a female perspective, what becomes in this universe of the noir hero’s gendered counterpart, the femme fatale? Lilly, as revealed by flashbacks, shares some of this figure’s classic elements—her sexual freedom, her fickleness, her disregard for societal norms, her violent end. But the Veronica Mars character who most embodies the femme fatale’s potent cocktail of eros and thanatos, desire and death, is Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring): Neptune High’s “obligatory psychotic jackass,” Lilly’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, and, by late in the first season, Veronica’s most enduring and fraught love interest.
Beginning with death: Logan shares the intimacy of Veronica’s connection to the dead girl. While her grief fuels her quest for justice, Logan channels his less productively, getting into fistfights, organizing brawls between homeless people, taunting Veronica about her absent mother’s drinking. The first time she breaks up with him, it’s because he’s spent a summer spiraling through a depressive haze which manifested in acts of mayhem like setting the community pool on fire; he reacts to the news by smashing a lamp. Logan receives violence as much as he causes it; beyond Lilly’s death is his family life, centered around his physically abusive father, shattered by his mother’s suicide. In the rare moments he drops both his glibness and his anger, we get a glimpse of a mentality as gravitationally pulled towards death as death is to him. When a school counselor gently suggests, in response to his regret about being off-again at the time of Lily’s death, that if he’d been with her he might be dead too, he answers: “And what is so great about living?” Perhaps no image captures Logan more than the shot of him drunk, teetering on the same bridge his mother jumped off, facing a gang beatdown, laughing: “Seriously, what do you think you can do to me?”
And yet. Despite his heinous behavior and his damaged moral compass—despite his status as her dead best friend’s first love—despite his terrible choices and questionable will to live—Veronica finds herself drawn to him again and again. Fittingly, it’s his mother’s death that brings them together, as in the absence of a body Logan seeks Veronica’s investigative help in proving she’s alive. Once they’ve thawed toward each other, warmed by the uniting factor of their parental loss, they discover an explosive sexual chemistry, emphasized in passionate bathroom make-out sessions and eventual shots of post-coital panting, indulgences never granted by the show to any of Veronica’s other boyfriends.
The particulars of Logan’s appeal echo the femme fatale’s mix of feminine wiles and traditionally masculine attributes like ambition and independence. Logan is not attractive in the All-American way of a standard leading man; Jason Dohring initially read for Duncan (Teddy Dunn), Veronica’s ex and Lilly’s brother, but was turned down for the part because UPN wanted someone with a more stereotypical Hot Guy Vibe. (That Logan would become the most complex relationship in Veronica’s life, while Duncan would be unceremoniously written off the show halfway through season two, stands itself as a testament to the triumph of Veronica Mars’s noir heart over its teen drama trappings.) There is, in Dohring’s physicality and performance, a softness to him, a perpetual smirking woundedness which plays electrically off Bell’s hard-set steel. For all his violence and rage, Logan is shockingly tender in the throes of love, no alpha male sweeping a leading lady off her feet but a sad boy mumbling confessions of the heart to the one person who makes life feel worth living.
The show’s decision to imbue its male lead with the thematic overtones of the femme fatale charges that archetype with a freshly visceral relevance. While the noir hero’s conflicted attraction to the dangerously alluring woman in front of him reads as misogynist fantasizing and fear about female sexuality and independence, Veronica’s conflicted attraction to Logan speaks to the reality of what it is to desire that which has power over you. It encapsulates the total mindfuck of reconciling your feelings about men as a class with your feelings about individual men, the anxiety that accompanies loving even the sweetest men because of how easily the ego-death which makes love sublime can be confused with the gendered disintegration of female autonomy that so often forms the basis of heterosexual coupling. Her desire for Logan is inextricably entwined not with an imagined threat to a fragile identity but with the knowledge she, like so many of us, carries intimately: knowledge of what men can do and have done, to her and the ones she loves. Or to simplify: A man who fears women is a man who hates women. A woman who fears men is a woman who reads the news.
Nowhere in Veronica Mars is this combination of desire and dread clearer than in the revelation of Logan’s role in the night Veronica was raped. Early into their relationship, Veronica takes on a case involving a girl whose own blacked-out sexual activities from that night have become, thanks to streaming video, what we now call revenge porn. The case leads her to the discovery that Logan brought GHB to the fateful party. Horrified that she may have initiated a relationship with her rapist, Veronica begins to investigate her own past, uncovering a pattern of disregard and violation dealt out with sickening casualness by her peers. But the encounter that has dominated her conception of that night—the moment that left her to wake up alone, searching for her underwear—was with Duncan, himself high enough on GHB he didn’t know he’d taken to forget that he’d dumped her because of the very real chance they might be half-siblings, just as she was far enough gone to forget they’d broken up. It’s a messy resolution in keeping with the show’s articulation of a pervasive and misogynist cruelty: Veronica has everyone to blame for her abuse, and no one culprit on whom to focus her anger over the deepest betrayal.
In this web of guilt, Logan may not occupy the role that so terrified Veronica, but he’s hardly innocent. In addition to bringing the drugs, he gave the hit that made it into Veronica’s drink to a friend of his seeking to assault his own girlfriend; he drugged Duncan’s drink in a misguided attempt to get him to loosen up; and most brutally, he was the ringleader organizing body shots off a nearly unconscious Veronica. Chastened by his new feelings for her, Logan confesses, and in a show that piles heartbreak on heartbreak, few moments devastate me more than Veronica’s response: “I’m gonna choose to think of it as one of those ‘not real’ things.” For Veronica, so defined by her pursuit of the truth at all costs, to act like this one unpalatable reality can be neatly sliced away from the person she has grown to care for—it reveals the depths of the loneliness she’s lived with since Lilly’s death. And it calls to mind the daily acts of forgiveness and forgetting so many women undertake. Every uncertainty about the men in your life that you push to the back of your mind, every doubt about the extent of their understanding or loyalty, everything you choose not to wonder about—that’s what it means for Veronica to take Logan back after this: the paper-cut compromises you make when you’re young and don’t want to be alone, because life has trained you not to expect better from the men you love.
Plots which rely in key moments on accident, coincidence, or error are often read as underscoring the sense of fatedness that surrounds the central events. Marlowe stumbling by chance onto unexpected connections or dead bodies is part of what lends his stories their air of inevitability. After 21 episodes of dogged investigation and ingenious detective work, after bugging high-powered offices and stealing medical files, after taunting both Kane Software’s head of security and the confessed killer, after risking other people’s careers and unraveling the decades-old connections between her absent mother and the Kane family, Veronica triggers the events leading to the reveal by chance: reclining on a bed in the Echolls family poolhouse, she spots a wire that leads her to a secret camera, clearly meant to capture unknowing sexual partners in the act. Following information that contradicts his alibi, Veronica turns Logan into the sheriff’s department. When she searches Lilly’s favorite hiding spot and finds the evidence that identifies the true killer, she isn’t even looking for it—only for letters Logan claims will prove his innocence.
As for the murder itself—well. On the tendency of Chandler’s novels to reveal in the final moments, after the painstaking uncovering of a mind-boggling web of coincidences and connections, that the murder which started the story was a crime without planning or intent, Jameson writes:
Thus the reader’s mind has been used as an element in a very complicated aesthetic deception: he has been made to expect the solution to an intellectual puzzle, his purely intellectual functions are operating emptily, in anticipation of it, and suddenly, in its place, he is given an evocation of death in all its physicality, when there is no longer any time to prepare for it properly, when he is obliged to take the strong sensation on its own terms.
In Lilly’s bedroom, Veronica finds a set of tapes which reveal two things: First, that Lilly was sleeping with Aaron Echolls, Logan’s father; second, that she, like Veronica, found the camera in the poolhouse. Veronica quickly uses her understanding of Lilly’s insouciance and Aaron’s violence to piece together what happened, a scene we witness in flashbacks. Lilly stole the tapes; Aaron demanded their return; a fatal, fitting taunt about leaking them to Access Hollywood sent him over the edge, and he bashed her head in with an ashtray.
Lilly died not because of any deep psychological family drama, but because she tried to reclaim her own nonconsensually filmed sexualized image from a powerful narcissist. Her death had less to do with the tainted roots of Neptune than it did with ordinary violent misogyny in a world that refuses to protect women every day, highlighted in Aaron’s choice of invective as he berates her: you stupid little bitch. The cover-up Veronica and her father spent all season unraveling was put in motion by the Kanes, acting on the mistaken assumption that Duncan had killed her in an epileptic fit; it had nothing to do with the actual murder. The real killer put no effort into covering his tracks beyond tossing the ashtray in the pool; he had good reason to believe he didn’t need to bother.
In July 2019, Hulu released a new season of Veronica Mars. Darker and more complicated than the fan-pleasing 2014 movie, season four finds Veronica back in Neptune, now an adult and equal partner in Mars Investigations. Internally, however, Veronica remains crystallized as the person she needed to become in the wake of Lilly’s death. The season’s emotional core is its exploration of what Veronica’s most defining trait—her refusal to move on or let go—looks like now that it’s been not one year since Lilly’s death but 16. She finds herself at sea among her old friends, unable to relate to the thorough normalcy of a dinner party hosted by Wallace and his wife; she struggles to make new connections, finding a kindred spirit and torching the chance for a new friendship by bugging her desk as part of an investigation. She takes a reluctant protective interest in a bright, brave, angry teenage girl seeking justice for a violent loss, a character who, as a teenager on a show about adults rather than the protagonist in a high school series, is allowed by the narrative to be a kid and therefore draw into sharp relief exactly how harrowing Veronica’s adolescence really was—an echo not lost on Veronica herself, who is explicit about the fact that she cares almost as much about keeping the girl from hardening in ways that will never soften as about making sure she’s safe. “I started to care about the girl,” she tells us, “and if you know anything about what I do, that’s never good.” The open wound around which the rest of her has hardened: the girl she cared for, and lost; the girl she was, and will never again be.
Logan, in the intervening years, has become a therapy-attending, emotionally mature naval intelligence officer; contentedly aligned with the forces of the law, a universe away from the raw grief and constant rage of his youth, he has shed the traits of the femme fatale like an outgrown skin. Instead of soothing Veronica, this transformation unsettles her, marking another way the world has moved on while she remains calcified. She panics at his proposal of marriage; she flirts drunkenly with an ex. In the season’s most thrilling and disturbing scene, she berates Logan for his hard-won peace of mind, goading him until he punches a wall. At this she jumps into his arms; her conception of love is still bound up inextricably with too keen an awareness of its dangers, such that anything healthier hardly feels like love at all. In the morning, while she’s all smirking afterglow, he’s running out the door to his therapist.
In the end, after convincing herself of her love for him, she acquiesces to his proposal; preparing to be let down to the very last, she nonetheless weds him joyfully. The marriage doesn’t last the night. Logan is killed by a bomb placed by its maker days before, another lurking Neptune inevitability waiting to explode. This turn was as much as anything a statement of genre: the world of Veronica Mars is not a world that has room for happy endings. Fans were, to say the least, distraught. On social media, viewers decried the show’s disrespect for Logan’s arc, the abrupt end to his narrative of healing. But Veronica Mars was never a story about a man’s healing; it was a story about a woman’s survival. Most days, I have enough compassion to hold space for both of those ideas in my heart. But I’m not fucking sorry for the days I don’t.
We could leave Veronica the way this last season does: in her car, on a case, still and always chasing the storm. But I want to go back, one more time, to that first story, the one that made her. Lilly’s killer has been identified and apprehended; Veronica has survived another day. She dreams of Lilly one last time, girlhood vision of pink bikinis in a sparkling turquoise pool studded with lilies, reclining on matching inflatable chairs. “This is how it should be, always,” Veronica says: the two of them alive and unscarred, together untouchable, their heads above water. “Don’t forget about me, Veronica,” Lilly says, then vanishes. Veronica, left alone on the surface, tells the air: “I could never.” Could never, can’t ever: a promise of loyalty, an anchor that binds. This is the Veronica I want to leave you with: a girl alone, with all her grief, and all her love, and the bitter knowledge of exactly what she needs to do to stay afloat.