It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Veronica Mars. I was intrigued by the tone of the show: an inventive mix of teen drama and murder mystery. It’s a film noir in a high school cafeteria, a thriller that breaks for final exams. It immediately draws viewers into this seedy adolescent world where there is a culture clash between the haves and the have-nots, and it doesn’t hesitate to show the way that money and influence have the power to tear friends, schools, and entire towns apart.
Veronica Mars was a brave show from the beginning. What is truly distinct and striking is how it dealt with the murder of a teenage girl and the rape of another with both honesty and complexity, and as events that always remained in the background of the series (and in Veronica’s mind) even after these cases were ostensibly solved. The pilot will certainly go down as one of the better pilots in history and the handful of well-written episodes that followed helped to form a nearly flawless season of television. But it’s the later episode “Mars vs. Mars” that became a real standout for me.
“Mars vs. Mars” is the the 14th episode of the show, and benefits from the way the aforementioned themes and events have already been established and partially explored. It heavily ties into the upcoming film — that’s one of the reasons I was so eager to revisit it — and you can read more about that here, though I’ll understand if you want to skip it and go in blind. It’s one of my favorite Veronica Mars episodes (though the ultimate title probably goes to Season 2’s “Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enough”).
The case-of-the-week in “Mars vs. Mars” begins in a classroom. When Mr. Rooks (pre-Parks and Recreation Adam Scott) calls on a student to answer a question, Carrie Bishop (pre-Gossip Girl Leighton Meester) coldly answers, “I’m not pregnant so you can quit dodging my calls. And you can keep your money to ‘take care of it.'” She tosses his apartment key back, and it’s a perfect hook to start an episode.
“Mars vs. Mars” is about a teacher-student relationship. Teen dramas love to go “Hot For Teacher” — off the top of my head? Life As We Know It, Dawson’s Creek, Degrassi, Life Unexpected, Skins, Pretty Little Liars — but most are eager to romanticize them instead of dealing with the very real consequences. Veronica Mars isn’t interested in portraying some whirlwind forbidden romance, nor is it interested in painting Mr. Rooks as a guy who fell in love and can’t control his emotions. There is nothing romantic about “Mars vs. Mars.” Carrie wants to punish Mr. Rooks because she recognizes that his actions were wrong; Mr. Rooks maintains his innocence throughout. It’s a conflicting, he said/she said story and a mystery that has twists up until the end.
It’s easy to assume that Carrie asks Veronica for help proving her story, but we get the opposite: Veronica doesn’t give credence to Carrie’s story and instead offers to help Mr. Rooks. It’s an interesting contrast from the Veronica that we know. At first, it seems out of character that she wouldn’t believe the girl’s story — especially since Veronica herself has had trouble with disbelieving and uncaring responses to her own sexual assault. The first two seasons of Veronica Mars had a heavy feminist slant, which is why it’s jarring to see Veronica lob insults at Carrie.
Yet it still makes sense. It shows the hell Veronica has been through with the ’09ers. Carrie is the gossip queen of Neptune High, and naturally Veronica has been the subject of some vicious rumors. Since Lily’s death, Veronica has had an inherent hate and distrust for the ’09ers, so strong that it makes her incapable of believing Carrie. And Veronica likes Mr. Rooks — a lesser show would turn this into a crush, but she just admires the guy for being a good teacher.
“Mars vs. Mars” also pits Veronica against her father when Keith is hired by the Bishops. It’s a nice touch because we’ve grown accustomed to seeing Veronica and Keith always on the same side and endlessly supportive of one another (even while at odds, they have some lovely banter: “You’re patronizing me?” “To be fair, I am your patron”), but there is less conflict than the title suggests. Mostly, Keith taking the case means more information for Veronica and more evidence to prove Carrie is lying — but the fact that Veronica is having such an easy time defending Mr. Rooks certainly means that everything isn’t so simple.
Indeed, there is damning evidence for both sides. It’s an hour of back-and-forth for viewers, switching allegiances whenever there’s a new break in the case. Carrie has intimate details and dates about her encounters that match up with Mr. Rooks’ credit card statements; Veronica immediately finds out that one date conflicts with Carrie’s track meet. It’s a chess game between players — it’s no coincidence that the characters’ last names are Bishop, Knight, and Rooks — and there isn’t a clear winner.
By this point, we’ve seen Veronica crack cases and prove her gut instincts, so it’s fascinating to see her mistakes in “Mars vs. Mars.” She’s not just wrong when it comes to the facts — she’s aggressively wrong in her pursuit to prosecute Carrie and her loyalty to Mr. Rooks, both of which cloud her judgment. Just hours after clearing Mr. Rooks’ name at the hearing, Veronica goes to his house and notes his black silk sheets and the sounds of The Rolling Stones — both details that Carrie wrote about in her diary. There’s still another twist coming. Mr. Rooks didn’t have sex with Carrie but with a different student, Susan Knight, who became pregnant. Carrie took the blame because she wanted to punish Mr. Rooks.
“Mars vs. Mars” takes Veronica’s preconceived ideas of Carrie (and the ’09ers in general) and flips them upside down. Carrie and Veronica aren’t much different. Both are intensely loyal to their friends and want to punish those who deserve to be punished, even at the risk of becoming a victimized outcast. It’s telling that the movie went this far back; not only does”Mars vs. Mars” add depths to its older characters (we get a peek into Duncan’s medical history and some humanizing of Logan), but it also creates fully fleshed-out new faces with strong arcs in a limited amount of time. It’s a spectacularly written hour of television and further proof that Veronica Mars was something special.