Warning: Spoilers ahead for season 4 of Veronica Mars.
Veronica Mars was always ahead of its time. It ran for three seasons, first on UPN from 2004 to 2006, and then one last season in 2007 on The CW. Every renewal felt like a hard-won victory. The show — a sarcastic noir masquerading as a high school drama — featured a nuanced, complicated woman, who didn’t care if people liked her, before that could describe most female characters on screen. At times, she was selfish. She chased trouble romantically and professionally. She would have the vocabulary of a sailor if network TV, or now Hulu, allowed. It wasn’t enough for her to know she was the smartest person in the room, everyone else had to know it, too. She was the exact hero we needed then — and she is the exact hero we need today.
The show reminded viewers both how powerful women could be, and how little that matters in a world set up only for powerful men. We saw exactly how hard it is for a survivor of rape to be heard when the rapist is wealthier and more powerful before #MeToo became a searchable hashtag of similar stories. And it showcased how, in a world of haves and have nots, justice and equality are often mere pipe dreams.
The fourth season of Veronica Mars — brought back by Hulu 12 years after the show originally ended and five years after the follow-up movie — is entertaining. If you were a fan of the original (I count myself among diehard Marshmallows), you will enjoy it. Series creator Rob Thomas returns to steer his brainchild, which is being released on Hulu July 26th.
The new season follows Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), now squarely in her 30s living back in her hometown of Neptune with her longtime love Logan (Jason Dohring), investigating a string of fatal bombings during spring break. The show touches on the inequality between the tourists who see the beaches and bars of Neptune as their personal vacation playthings, and the people who make their living in Neptune full-time. But, it really shines when it’s looking at the social inequality between the residents of Neptune. Richard “Big Dick” Casablancas (David Starzyk) has returned as rich and greedy as ever, after serving time in prison for conning investors. With a new plan to get rich fast, he remains the perfect foil to the people in Veronica’s orbit. This includes old favorites like Veronica’s dad, Keith (Enrico Colantoni) and her not-quite-friend, Dick (Ryan Hansen), as well as new faces like Nicole (Kirby Howell Baptiste), the owner of a popular tourist-attraction bar on the boardwalk.
This new season doesn’t always feel like Veronica Mars. It’s not that it’s fan-handling, like the movie, which I enjoyed and thought had the right amount of levity for a still solidly comfortable in the Obama presidency world. Still, season 4 is missing some of the heart and attention to subtleties that we expect from Neptune (the sexual jokes hit you directly over the head). The increased complexity of the characters and darkness of the show itself are great, but felt cheapened by an overly convoluted mystery. The list of red herrings and possible suspects is only beat by the exhausting tally of people trying to solve this season’s who-done-it: Veronica and Mars Investigations, Neptune’s other private-eye, Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino), the local police, a scrappy true crime fan club led by a local pizza delivery man (Patton Oswalt), a pair of mercenaries from Mexico (Frank Gallegos and Clifton Collins Jr), and the daughter of one of the first victims, Matty (Izabella Vidovic), a light amidst the noise. She’s our young Veronica stand-in — lonely, angry, scrappy, smart, tired of being let down by the world, and searching for a bigger purpose.
“Just knowing Veronica exists has allowed me to pull strength in certain situations."
Kristen Bell to The New York Times
You can’t watch Veronica Mars without realizing the main character was never Veronica — it was inequality. Gender inequality was continually the root of the show’s biggest mysteries and Season 2 particularly examined social inequality. The best storylines of season 4 — like Matty — attempt to connect the girl Veronica was with the woman she is now. The revival of The Phoenix Landtrust, created by the now deceased youngest Casablancas brother and Veronica’s rapist, Cassidy “Beaver” Casablancas (Kyle Gallner) in season 2, was a perfect detail reminding us the Mars family has been fighting wealth inequality for over a decade. The class war at the root of season 4 feels like a grown-up version of earlier seasons’ tension, asking the same questions, but with nuance: What is the price of justice — and why can only the wealthy afford it? The victims that come from money — a politician’s son and a relative of a Mexican warlord — both had extra hired hands looking to solve their murder, while the rest of the victims seemed to be forgotten. Veronica was the sole investigator looking out for everyone, just like she was in season 2 when she was investigating the bus crash.
This season is at it worst when dealing with Veronica’s friendships. Previously, she had been a selfish but loyal friend, and the people who broke through her barriers kept her grounded. This new season somehow makes the friendships feel weak. Lily (Amanda Seyfried) remains buried, where she belongs. Mac (Tina Majorina) is explained away without a cameo. Weevil (Francis Capra) and Veronica, two characters with immense chemistry, are kept multiple body lengths apart. The fallout of Weevil betraying Keith in the movie, and his subsequent return to gang life, leaves their relationship neutered the whole season. Still, it’s Veronica’s relationship with Wallace (Percy Daggs III) that really falls short. We’re expected to believe they’re still best friends, and there are dinner parties and double dates as proof. However, they seem like they’re two worlds apart, with nothing in common anymore. In the years since we last saw Wallace, he got married and started a family. He found the American Dream definition of happiness, and that’s not what Veronica is meant for. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t explore their diverging paths.
Most of the guest stars from previous seasons are primarily obscure fan-service: A delight, but they don’t move the plot along. The one exception is the brief return of Parker (Julie Gonzalo). She’s a good reminder of the many women before Matty who caused Veronica to get emotionally invested in a crime she was solving. And much like Piz (Chris Lowell) in the movie, Parker is a good foil to Veronica and Logan’s relationship. If someone had to return to remind us that Logan and Veronica’s love story is not simple, but one “spanning years and continents...lives ruined, bloodshed...epic,” it should be Parker.
I don’t want to spoil the Veronica and Logan storyline, but they finally get the amount of air time they deserve. Despite being the main love interests in the show, the two were rarely seen together during the first three seasons. Now, we see them in an adult relationship — albeit one fraught with ghosts of their pasts. The first line of the Veronica Mars pilot was “I’m never getting married. You want an absolute? Well, there it is.” Watching Veronica struggle with the absolutes of her childhood created by her mom cheating on her father and then abandoning her, and the realities of her adulthood — when the truth is, her walls and sarcasm have left her a bit immature when it comes to adult relationships — is hard, but true to her character.
I wanted this season to find Veronica truly content: in a healthy relationship with Logan, working as a private eye, enough savings to not be worried about her bills. In the midst of reading about the Jeffrey Epstein case, renewed headlines with allegations against our current president, and necessary but incessant stories about systematic gender inequality, I selfishly wanted the newest season of Veronica Mars to be an escapist fantasy where a singular whip smart woman can topple the patriarchy. But that’s not Veronica Mars. This season isn’t about the Marshmallow Veronica is deep inside, it’s about the fire that gave her the dark exterior. Because the minute Veronica is no longer angry, no longer fighting the inequality around her, is when the show can end. The good and the bad news is: we aren’t there yet.