TV discussion

TV Rewind… Veronica Mars 1×21 – ‘A Trip to the Dentist’

Here’s a question for you: is it right for rape or sexual assault to be made into the driving force of a mystery story? It was a question that came to the forefront of conversations during the final season of Broadchurch, with many questioning whether or not it was right to take such a serious crime and turn it into something with which the audience can have fun and ask the age-old question of “who done it”?

Broadchurch did not in any way turn the crime into something exploitative. In fact, it was praised for its emotional and intelligent – not to mention subtle and tasteful – handling but there is still a moral quandary as to whether or not the most emotionally violent and vindictively horrible of crimes should be turned into mystery fodder.

It’s a question you might find yourself asking when watching “A Trip to the Dentist”, the penultimate episode of Veronica Mars’ superlative first season. It has taken themes of sexual assault, toxic masculinity and abuse against women and turned it into something that has lost none of its potency or power in the 14 years since its debut; and subsequently has become even more powerful and relevant in the light of Time’s Up and Me Too.

For its second-to-last episode of the season, Diane Ruggiero-Wright’s teleplay turns its spotlight on to Veronica’s assault itself, which has been on the periphery of Veronica’s journey throughout the first season and makes her assault the sole focus before resolving Lilly’s murder next week. Rewatching it in this day and age, one finds themselves asking whether or not it’s actually tasteful to take a crime such as date rape and turn into a propulsive mystery to be solved in a who done it fashion.

Then again, one could ask is it even tasteful to take murder and do the same thing? Mysteries are mysteries after all, but it still has the ability to make one wonder morally about such a narrative choice.

The simple fact is “A Trip to the Dentist” is Veronica Mars’ most disturbing episode to date. We have been given glimpses here and there throughout the season of Veronica’s fateful trip to Shelly Pomeroy’s party, but never the whole thing because she was drugged and has no memory of the events. But here we get to see everything and it amounts to one of the most disturbing hours of American network television ever produced.

Nothing graphic is shown, that’s to be said right away, but it’s the most we’ve seen our heroine as helpless all season. We’ve been treated to one of television’s most brilliant avenging angels in forever, propelled to her status as such because of the events depicted here, but to see Kristen Bell portray a drugged out Veronica, basically used as a rag doll for all sorts debauched cruelty and misbehaviour, is as distressing as anything the show has mustered thus far and it leaves one with the feeling of wanting to punch their television in frustration.

There is a superb level of power and discomfort to so much going on here; from the revelation that Duncan had sex with Veronica in a drunken, drugged out state himself even though he knew they might be siblings, to Logan and Veronica’s relationship being outed by an impromptu surprise party thrown by Aaron, to its final cliffhanger which suggests that someone at the Echolls’ house has been filming perverted videos for their own enjoyment, thus setting up the eventual revelations next week.

As well done as this episode is – and it does so much so well in terms of drama and emotional stakes – there are still a number of underlying issues. There is the question of whether or not focusing on date rape as a mystery plot line is going to age well in this day and age; and then there’s the Dick Casablancas problem.

Make no mistake, anyone who has seen all of Veronica Mars before will know that it’s so hard to actively dislike Ryan Hansen or his enjoyable “dude” like persona as Dick, but in rewatching the show and seeing his behaviour here, it sours one’s enjoyment of the character.

His behaviour is beyond repulsive, from his inherent cruelties in how he treats Veronica in her drugged out state to trying to goad his brother Beaver (Kyle Radner) to rape Veronica when she’s passed out. But even if he, in the end, is not the one who raped Veronica, he was still willing to drug Madison. It does make one question whether or not to somewhat turn the character into a fun, comical figure from next season onwards is a wise one given that his choices here are vindictive, cruel and pretty much fall under the remit of assault.

Logan’s behaviour is not much better, but to some extent, this season has been a redemption story of sorts for the character; and the episode is a reminder that he wasn’t always on the side of the angels, reminding one of his psychotic behaviour in the “Pilot” when he smashed the headlights on Veronica’s car and was a generally unlikable douchebag who was originally positioned as an antagonistic figure. Let’s not forget, the GHB was his idea.

I do not mean to beat some moral drum here to bring the episode down because for all intents and purposes, “A Trip to the Dentist” is a well done episode. While one can query as to whether or not it is correct to make rape and sexual assault a mystery driven plot line, the one thing Ruggiero-Wright does not do is trivialise it. This is the purest horror movie the show has ever done; and not a fun horror movie in the way that Ruggiero-Wright and Thomas will do with iZombie.

The stylised flashbacks and the visual of Veronica helpless and drugged out is as horrifying as one can imagine. While the eventual resolution that she wasn’t actually assaulted in her drunken state might lighten the load, it is still disturbing to see the level of cruelty and bullying going on here and reminds the audience that Neptune is as bad and morally corrupt as it comes. Even characters who are the good seeds of the town, like Meg, allowed it to happen. Veronica isn’t just assaulted by a bunch of toxic males, but she’s essentially allowed to be by good people who could have stepped in and stopped it.

Veronica Mars may be up there in the feminist hero stakes with Buffy, possibly even better (that’s an argument for another time), but her town is ten times as bad as Sunnydale. There are no vampires or demons. The humans are all too real and cruel. It’s what makes this show so damn good and brilliant, even if the themes and images are as uncomfortable as those here.

Even if one asks themselves about the moral question of sexual assault as a mystery, the series never once makes light of it and while the resolution takes the show and certain characters of the hook somewhat… well… for anyone who has watched it before, you know what’s next, and for anyone who hasn’t, suffice to say I will not spoil what is coming next.

As for this season, there is one episode left, and with Veronica’s discovery of something perverted and voyeuristic lying within the heart of the Echolls’ house, the stage is set for even more uncomfortable and brilliant drama.

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