This is a wonderful little episode that pretty much functions as that wonderful television staple; the bottle episode. Except, instead of being entirely set in one location, the majority of the episode is set within several locations but never moves the characters from them for the majority of the episode.
The bulk of this week’s mystery is entirely localised within the confines of the Neptune High Winter Carnival, meaning that instead of being a bottle episode set within one enclosed interior, we are in fact spending most of it outside. Despite that, there is a wonderful claustrophobic feel to the carnival, as if escape is truly impossible given the mystery to be solved.
As always with Veronica Mars, there is a typical teen mystery quality to the set-up; a cash box full of money that is set to be used for the senior school trip has gone missing. As is the case with this series, the execution is delightfully complex compared to what it could have been in lesser hands and subsequently turns into a delightful “whodunnit” that goes off in several directions before the culprit is revealed.
The episode, another ace in the hole delivered by Diane Ruggiero, paints the school and many of the people in it in an unsympathetic light throughout. We never see enough of Madison Sinclair on the series, and this week we get a welcome return appearance from Amanda Noret as the resident school mean girl who pretty much epitomises and represents all that is morally abhorrent about the 09-er way of life, but Ruggiero’s script doesn’t just stop there and isn’t afraid to show how hostile an environment this world is if we need any reminding.
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Even the teaching staff aren’t above being portrayed as mean or corrupt, with Mrs Hauser (Kari Coleman) being a particularly vile gangster of a teacher who thankfully gets some justice doled out at her by the episode’s end.
While Veronica herself has always been the victim of much of the verbal abuse, the series’ lead avenging angel has always let those comments bounce of her like bullets bouncing of a superhero; with this week’s B-plot, and second slice of bottle episode being Terrence Cook trying to convince Keith to prove his innocence now that he’s been accused of the bus crash, it’s Jackie’s turn to take much of the abuse and accusations doled out by the school. Guilt by association.
Tessa Thompson has become a wonderful addition to the season as it has continued and now that the series has decided not to make her a weekly resident mean girl and someone a little bit more conflicted and three-dimensional, the character of Jackie is fitting in extremely well and by this point in the season has become somewhat more of a sympathetic figure.
The moment she decides to allow herself to be dunked into a pool of water via throwing a ball at the release mechanism of the diving board she is sitting on may sound silly on paper, but the episode turns it into a slice of harrowing character drama that is difficult to watch and even more difficult to turn away from.
It all adds to the wonderfully busy nature of the episode. Bottle episodes by design are a chance to slow down, focus the majority of its runtime on one or two plot lines and maybe three or four characters at most. Of course, this is probably by the loosest definition a bottle episode because the one set we’re spending time on is an elaborately put together winter carnival set, but it’s still taking place in one set for the majority, but brilliantly having about four or five plot lines going on at once.
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Even Logan’s part of the episode, which looks like it’s the beginning of some random romance being shoehorned into the series turns out not to be the case and links back somewhat disturbingly to his murder accusation. The first appearance on the series of Jessy Schram as Hannah, we watch throughout the episode as she and Logan basically have a meet-cute, spend the majority of the episode doing a Before Sunrise as they walk around the carnival, getting to know each other before the ending reveals the twist that she is, in fact, the daughter of Dr. Griffth, the “witness” who accused Logan of killing Felix, which makes for a wonderful reveal.
It all connects brilliantly, and even the reveal of Thumper being the one who stole the cash has a twist in itself as we learn that it was Weevil who set him up, a wonderful bit of revenge for last week’s final moments.
Like the season as a whole, there are so many plates spinning here that it’s brilliant to watch the series go back and forward with confidence and bravado. It’s an episode that represents why the series is so good. Unfortunately, it so story-arc dependent that it’s practically impossible to use it as an example to newbies as to why they should watch the series, but at this stage, that doesn’t matter.
For any long time viewers at this stage, Veronica Mars is once again on fire delivering the goods, from intense character drama, to superbly constructed mysteries, to wonderful character revelations that make the jaw drop and leave you clamouring for more.
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As a twenty-two episode run of television, it also has the distinct brilliance of never losing sight of its goals, never slowing down and never feeling like it’s stalling for time with every episode driving the story and the season forward to its next step. In this day and age, as will be the case with the forthcoming revival, you have to do these things quicker and in less time, the implication always being that twenty-two episodes is too much and never works as well as those with shorter runs.
Rewatching the series and an episode like this indicates that if done right, you could take that level of time and care as well as length to tell brilliantly constructed serialized television. Veronica Mars is from a time when writers had to make that longer run work, it’s something that allowed Buffy and Angel to work so well, it allowed The X-Files to deliver great mini-horror movies every week, and 24 to tell a sustained long-form action movie.
One could even make the argument that Veronica Mars is the one series that did it better than most. It’s hardly put a foot wrong this year, with so far only one misjudged episode to its name, and like last season, it’s managing to mix the mystery of the week format with a long-form arc to a devastatingly brilliant level of confidence.
Just a shame that hardly anyone outside of its devoted fan base was watching it at this stage.