“An Echolls Family Christmas” (Season 1, Episode 10; originally aired 12/14/2004)
Now this is what it's all about! A few of you had mentioned that this was one of the best, if not the very best episode of Veronica Mars. And I'm not about to disagree – this episode works at every level: it's tense, it's funny, it's light, it's dark, it stands alone, it builds up the plot, it's plausible, and it's surprising.
I think there are three main reasons why “An Echolls Family Christmas” is such a success. First, its structure plays to the Mars characters' strengths. Keith and Veronica each have their own case to deal with. Keith is hired by Logan's mother, Lynn (introduced in a very femme fatale-esque fashion), because she thinks that her husband Aaron is being stalked. Meanwhile, Veronica starts to investigate what happened to the money at a poker game at Logan's.
Keith having his own story frees him from the confines of Mean Dad/Tightass Chief that he's fallen into a few times recently (“Veronica, you can help me solve this but only if you don't wear red.” “Dammit, Veronica, I told you not to wear red! You're off the case!” “Okay, Veronica, I'm glad your red dress helped solve the case, but you still shouldn't have disobeyed me.”). I like the character a lot, and he gets his chance to shine as a character here. It also lets Veronica have a limited mystery, focused on her classmates, instead of guest stars, and lets us get to know them, and her, a little better.
It also allows for some wonderful bits of dramatic irony. Keith sends Veronica into the Echolls house to drop off some papers, but he doesn't know she's also doing an investigation there. Veronica is inside the house at the Christmas party as Keith struggles to get in. And in the most anxious scene, Veronica confronts Jake Kane at the party as Keith watches – but can't hear.
The poker game is also a marvelous way for Veronica Mars to tell its story. Lots of TV shows and movies use poker to try to tell us something about the characters, but Veronica Mars actually succeeds here, in large part, because it keeps the poker to a minimum (the one hand that's shown seems to be a plausible poker hand). Instead, it works because it throws the three most masculine boys, Duncan, Weevil, and Logan, together in a room with two guest stars and lets the sparks fly. Logan and Weevil are still fantastic together, but I actually think Duncan came out the best out of everyone. Seeing Logan act like a total asshole to Weevil actually makes Duncan call Logan out. The sensitivity that was only partially explored in the election episode becomes something that actually seems to guide his character.
I also liked Sean, the poker thief and someone who'd been living a double life, pretending to be rich while actually being the butler's son. He presents an interesting mirror to Veronica – he seems to have examined the way that Neptune works, and presents a carefully developed persona in order to deal with Neptune's class issues. Veronica knows how it works and shoves it away (after it shoved her away), where Sean's sneering-but-friendly sarcasm makes him seem like a slightly less aggressive Logan. Who would question whether he actually had the money to be a rich asshole? He acted like one, that's good enough.
Finally, the Christmas setting ties it all together. Todd has written quite persuasively about how Christmas requires sadness to work, and while I don't disagree, I think there's also another way to make Christmas stories work. What Christmas entails, and some really good and interesting stories acknowledge, are a certain level of necessary social conventions can exacerbate both tensions and joys. The latter makes for diamond commercials, but as The Ice Storm or “An Echolls Family Christmas” attest, the former can create great tension about little more than a Christmas party between people who know each other a little bit too well. And sometimes, well, sometimes someone with a little bit too much of a gap between his public and his private persona ends up stabbed during a Christmas carol.
“The Silence of the Lamb” (Season 1, Episode 11; originally aired 1/4/2005)
Veronica Mars deals in subverting expectations. It has to. It's a mystery show. If it was too obvious, it wouldn't be a mystery, it would be, at best, a thriller. And if it's too far-fetched, then it just looks random or unplanned. So, with that in mind, predicting the culprit or twist can threaten to become as more interesting than story itself. I guess in one sense the gamer in me likes to see TV become a little bit interactive, but on the other hand, waiting for the other shoe to drop and thinking you know what's going to happen makes the experience more about you than it does about the show itself.
This was how I felt about “The Silence of the Lamb” through most of its running time. It, like the previous episode, has two only partially-intersecting plots involving Keith and Veronica. Keith is hunting a budding serial killer with the police, while Veronica's new service of digging up dirt on people's parents for $50 is far too popular, and takes her down some far more interesting paths when she does so (gratis) for her friend Mac.
Keith's story is the more conventional of the two, playing out like a bare-bones episode of CSI to some extent (but not so that it wears out its welcome). He looks up leads, interrogates suspects, follows hunches, gets pissed off at his partner, and solves the case in the nick of time. The most obvious suspect, of course, isn't the culprit, but if you thought it might be one of the skeezy people Keith spoke to beforehand, you're right! And this isn't a bad thing, not at all. It's perfectly serviceable as a plot, and succeeds as a vehicle for bringing Keith back to his old digs and creating tension with his replacement, the somewhat underused Sheriff Lamb.
Veronica's plot, on the other hand, is the one that zigs where it should zag. Or to be more accurate, it neither zigs nor zags when it could have done either. Veronica discovers that Mac and the still-annoying Madison were switched at birth. Mac, upon discovering, goes to investigate and meet her family. The show hits the marks a little bit too hard – Mac's family is blonde, Madison's is brunette, Mac's family likes NASCAR, but her little sister Lauren loves books. The same books Mac did! And for most of the episode I was expecting that the twist was that Veronica misread the switched-at-birth story, and it was the younger children who'd been accidentally traded. But no twist. Expectations subveted. Mac really was switched (Veronica Mars comes down pretty heavily on the side of nature over nurture here, but that's not really the point). By subverting the expectations, it means that the story isn't a game. It stays a story, with its own strengths and weaknesses.
What Mac's story does is create a fulfilling emotional arc for Mac. She learns the truth, but instead of using it to become bitter or angsty, she incorporates it into her life and becomes more satisfied about her life. It's a mirror of what Veronica did with her paternity test – Veronica used not knowing the ambiguity to become closer to her father (while not quite succeeding). Mac used knowing the truth to become closer to her family. Mac's coping mechanism may seem wiser for now, but then, the series is called Veronica Mars not Cindy Mac. We see and hear Veronica's doubts.
- “I'd be the best rich person.” You probably would, Veronica.
- “I hear about a five thousand dollar card game played by idiots?”
- I think this is my favorite Veronica Mars line yet: “You're concerned? I'm the one who's gotta go up into the hills. All by myself. What if I run into a pack of you white boys, huh? On some clean, well-lit street? I could be bored to death!”
- “Dude, she got you a purse!”
- Logan can't be all bad, he's playing X-Men Legends.
- “Annoy, tiny blonde one. Annoy like the wind!” Logan makes his own claim for the crown.
- “I'm sure she's lovely.” Keith's fuck-up, that he didn't suspect the caterer who got fired, seems a little too obvious. Perhaps he's simply bought into the classism of Neptune at a certain level, ignoring the help?
- “You've got a bit of a shoplifting problem. You get caught.”
- “I prefer the biker bar down by the train tracks. I get more attention there.”
- “…and…bi-curious roommate.”
- “Does strapping on a gun?”
- “I came to celebrate your birthday. These two came to hook up.”
- Weevil's great again in his lone scene with Leo, a young cop at the station. I liked Leo, and was happy to discover that he's a recurring character.
- Very ominous and effective way to introduce Clarence Wiedman as something other than a name and voice at the end of the episode 1-11. Likewise, the revelation that Celeste Kane was likely behind the stalker-ish pictures of Veronica in 1-10 was a neat twist. The pieces are being set up, but the endgame is still unclear.