Last week on Veronica Mars we said a pre-stardom hello to Krysten Ritter, and this week it’s the turn of Tessa Thompson, making her first appearance on the series as Jackie Cook, a good twelve years before her massive mainstream success in Thor: Ragnarök and Westworld.
She arrives on the show with such attitude that your first inclination is to maybe not like her, but this is Neptune, and Veronica Mars never does things at face value, or easily. This is going to be a lot more complicated than you think, and complication is the keyword when going into “Driver Ed”.
The key difference between this season and last is obviously that Lilly Kane’s murder was something that had already happened and the events of the first season of the show were dealing with the aftermath of that seminal event for the town and the characters, with flashbacks keying in to fill the gaps.
There is a lovely difference here to be had in that we’re witnessing the developmental beginnings of the school bus crash along with Veronica, as the season goes on. Yes, there are aspects that are being kept away from us, this is a mystery after all, but we were there with her when the crash happened and we’re going to be there as it develops immediately after the fact.
Where “Normal is the Watchword” took its time to allow us to catch up with our favourite characters at a lovely pace and then hit us with its massive reveal of this season’s mystery, “Driver Ed” feels like it really hits the ground running in the most brilliant way imaginable. Not only are we being confronted head-on with the question of what happened to the bus, but the ramifications of it happening are quietly devastating too.
It appeared as if Meg and Veronica were never going to get their chance to make peace, but Meg has survived, but only doing so by being in a coma, while this week’s central mystery to be solved by Veronica is centred around the motivations of the bus driver, with everyone’s first thoughts being that the driver took his own life, with little care or thought to those whose lives he held in his hands. While these so-called motivations need to be disproven if his family are to be given his insurance benefit, an investigation is spurred on by his daughter (Ari Graynor) asking Veronica for help.
It’s an incredibly engaging and emotive mystery, and almost makes the episode feel a little different to much of season one. Where Lilly’s murder never went away during the duration of the first year, the ‘mystery of the week’ angle seldom linked back to Lilly’s story, so to do so here gives “Driver Ed” such a wonderfully different feel to many of Veronica’s mysteries.
In fact, the series as a whole feels so much busier than before. Being a series with teen protagonists, Veronica Mars has always straddled a brilliant line between being a mystery drama and a teen soap. It goes without saying that many television shows do feel like soaps anyway, even genre ones when they turn away from genre for a moment to deal with character and incident. And while one might want to complain about Veronica Mars turning away from such finely tuned mysteries to explore what its characters are up to, one finds it very hard to do so when the character development and life outside of the bus crash mystery is so damn entertaining. It does make the writing feel as if it’s threatening to turn into a mess, and it’s a line that the series will straddle all season, but let’s just say it now, it never becomes a mess, and does its balancing act superbly.
In the light of all the excitement over the events of the episode and the season, it’s sometimes easy to forget a lot of the other elements going on. There’s a continuation of last season’s explorations of how lazy and borderline corrupt the Neptune Police Department is, and we should also take the time while we can to say hello to 80’s movie star Steve Guttenberg, who made his debut on the series last week as Woody: one of the most powerful residents of Neptune and whose arc will be one of the most key of the season (no spoilers obviously, but it will give us a lot to digest when we get there).
The collision of stories that are about to unfold involving Woody, Keith, the Sheriff’s department and, shall we say, other revelations, are enough to cover several reviews and analyses, but for now it indicates a further opening up of Veronica Mars and its explorations, not only with what one might lazily call teen soap tropes (the Logan and Kendall Casablancas relationship is very much the type of thing one can expect to see in the genre, particularly those with a ‘rich kids and even richer adults’ story thread), but there’s also more of an opening up of Neptune politically here than we saw last year.
There’s a real feeling of world building that is constantly going on with this series that is wonderful. Best of all, and somewhat uniquely, Veronica Mars has seldom (or at least going by how it looks on screen) set foot on a studio lot, instead opting to create Neptune on the actual streets of San Diego in order to make it look like a real Californian town as opposed to one created on a movie or television set.
With a more expansive mystery that feels even bigger and grander than what we got last year, and with Keith about to enter into a political race, with a key business figure in town helping to pull the strings, two episodes into its second season, Veronica Mars already feels legitimately bigger and with larger scales than its propulsive and already perfect first season.