Mars Investigations 2: On Finding Things
17 min read

Mars Investigations 2: On Finding Things

Screengrab from Veronica Mars. Veronica is in a computer lab looking at a piece of paper she is holding in her hand. She has a look of concentration on her face.
Veronica examining a clue.

Thank you so much to every single darn one of you who signed up for this newsletter! I'm really glad you're reading and maybe even doing a rewatch of your own. If there are any things you’d like me to address or cover, or observations of your own you'd like to share, no matter how big or small, please let me know by emailing me at! I’m very interested in hearing what other VM heads are thinking about as they rewatch.

Also, I am still getting the hang of Tinyletter so you might have noticed that the formatting in the first issue was all goddamn over the place. I apologize for that and am hoping that starting now the formatting looks good and consistent. If anything shows up wonky or broken for you, let me know!

By the way, I think from now on I will have a one-episode-per-newsletter-issue policy because this issue ended up being very, very long and I think it would be easier for me to write and more enjoyable for you to read if I wasn't cramming so ding dang much in.

OK, let's get into it!

In this issue you’ll find:

🔎 Housekeeping (above, already happened)
🔎 Synopses of S1E1 and S1E2 from
🔎 Some observations on mysteries and clues
🔎 Stray thoughts and notes on music, tech, and cultural references in these two episodes
🔎 Next time in

🔎 Synopses

"Credit Where Credit’s Due” originally aired September 28, 2004
"When Weevil's grandmother is accused of credit card fraud, Veronica sets out to prove her innocence. Also, Veronica enrolls in journalism class, taught by Ms. Dent, leading to an uncomfortable car ride with Duncan. Veronica and Keith find a major clue in the Lilly Kane Murder Case." (source)

“Meet John Smith” originally aired October 12, 2004
"In this episode, Veronica helps a boy, Justin Smith track down his long-lost father. In addition, Veronica starts a relationship with Troy, and Duncan Kane starts experiencing severe mental difficulties after he stops taking his antidepressants." (source)

🔎 On Finding Things

In the first issue of this newsletter, I talked about how the Veronica Mars pilot was able to cram in a ton of information about the world and its characters without ever seeming like we were getting big exposition-y infodumps. In this issue, I’m going to continue that train of thought by looking at how the show uses mysteries—specifically the solving of mysteries through the finding and understanding of clues—to build a world, advance storylines, and develop characters.

Since Veronica Mars offers us a veritable nesting doll of mysteries—small mysteries that get solved over the course of an episode, packed inside a larger mystery that unfolds across a season, stuffed inside a still grander mystery than spans multiple seasons—it’s worth asking what makes these mysteries work, both as mysteries but also as hooks for story and character development. In particular, I want to focus on clues, since characters finding and making meaning of clues are quite literally the building blocks of any story that focuses on solving a mystery. In this show, the finding and interpreting of clues not only gets us closer to understanding its mysteries, but also to understanding Veronica's world.

I recently read an essay aimed at people who play tabletop roleplaying games about how to write mysteries that players will enjoy solving. The main piece of advice was to make clues abundant and easy to find. The reason is simple: So that players can move the story forward by finding clues. But the advice surprised me. As someone whose biggest fictional detective influences are Sherlock Holmes and Encyclopedia Brown, I assumed that mysteries were only compelling when clues are a) rare and/or really tricky to find and b) require highly specialized skills to understand and interpret.

Let’s start with Sherlock Holmes. This technique of mystery-solving requires the solver (in this case, Sherlock Holmes) to be preternaturally gifted at (1) noticing the minute details of daily life and human behavior and (2) drawing relevant conclusions from what he notices. Each observation Holmes makes is a stunner—the reader or viewer is meant to gasp at his powers of both observation and deduction. The average person couldn’t find those clues, and even if they did, would they be able to make sense of them? (No.)

Encyclopedia Brown is a kid detective whose ability to solve mysteries derives from a shockingly vast and deep knowledge of trivia, from the mundane to the esoteric. I grew up voraciously reading Encyclopedia Brown books and never–not once–solving one of the mysteries. Why? Because, as a nine-year-old, I didn’t know the vagaries of how jewelers use Roman numerals, or how to tell the difference between meat that comes from chicken, and meat that comes from geese, for example. These are real examples of things you'd have to know to solve the mysteries Encyclopedia solves.

Crime procedurals like CSI are similar—just swap out extremely specific intellect, and swap in specialized forensics and criminology and very expensive and cool tech. Despite their differences, Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, and shows like CSI all offer us mysteries where clues are neither abundant nor easy to find. But they don't really need to. After all, the thrill of the story in those cases comes from watching how detectives use rare and astounding skills to solve complex puzzles.

Veronica Mars isn’t a show about a detective renowned for their gifts, even though Veronica is a talented PI. It’s not a show that hangs on the thrill of the solve to draw in viewers and keep us interested, even though Veronica's solves are satisfying as hell. It’s a show about a character and the world she inhabits, and it’s about getting to know Veronica and the people in her orbit. It’s a show about relationships, memories, betrayal, love, secrets, and loss. And it’s a show about understanding that Neptune is one fucked up place. The mysteries and how Veronica solves them bring us even deeper into this world.

Now that we’re three episodes into the season, watching how Veronica gathers clues and how the show uses the mysteries to anchor stories and characters, I keep thinking of a short scene from one of my favorite detective movies, Zero Effect (1998). This clip is super short and features Bill Pullman as private detective Daryl Zero. He explains his technique:

Now, a few words on looking for things. When you look for something specific...your chances of finding it are very bad, because of all things in the world, you only want one of them. When you look for anything at all…your chances of finding it are very good, because of all the things in the world, you're sure to find some of them.

In S1E2 and E3 of Veronica Mars, and as the show moves forward, we’ll see Veronica solve mysteries because—thanks to her techniques—clues are abundant and easy to find. As Daryl Zero would say, of all the things in the world, she’s sure to find some of them. In both episodes, Veronica prioritizes breadth over depth in her clue-gathering. She hangs around Logan and Caitlin, shoots the shit with them, and gets them talking. As a result, we get to know Logan and Caitlin better. She goes to look at Weevil’s bike and chats him up. Veronica gets some information she needs while we, the viewers, get a piece of dialogue that tells us more about Veronica and how she is perceived when Weevil says, “You think you're this big outsider but, push comes to shove, you're still one of them. You still think like one of them.” Veronica gathers phone and credit card bills, goes over each charge, and calls every phone number she sees. Through this investigation, we learn about Logan and the kind of person and boyfriend he is.

In S1E3 Veronica looks at school records—Justin’s and her own—not even sure what she’s looking for. Through her examination of those school records, we learn not only that Justin’s parent (supposedly) died—a very important plot point in this episode—but also that as a little kid, Veronica was an affable teacher’s pet, which is important to understanding Veronica and the changes she’s undergone in the last year.

It’s also in this episode that Veronica drives to Arizona in the hopes of finding her mother. What leads her to Lianne’s last known address? A license plate she snapped a photo of while staking out Jake Kane in the pilot episode. And as a reminder, it’s her clue gathering on behalf of Justin that gets her thinking about parents who leave their kids and what it would be like to be Justin, a kid whose parent drives 90 miles every week just to see him for a few seconds. In the next scene, she’s hitting the road in search of her mom, saying “She was not going to find me. I was gonna have to find her.”

In all of these circumstances, her approach is reminiscent of Daryl Zero’s. Of course, she also has juicy moments of noticing something no one else would, or using her unique personality traits or skills to make a Holmesian observation. But the ease and abundance of clues in Veronica Mars make it a more enjoyable ride for the viewer, because everything Veronica finds either brings us closer to solving the mystery in question, or pushes the story forward by deepening our understanding of Neptune and the people who live there. Veronica’s (false) accusation that Logan stole the credit cards prompts him to reply, “Well that's great. Prove it.” When we first hear this line, it’s an exciting, provocative challenge. When we find out Logan wasn’t at all involved in the credit card foofaraw, the line becomes puzzlingly provocative in a different way.

I’m excited to get further into season one and notice the ways Veronica’s clue-gathering opens up the world to her and to us. And it’s been so long since I’ve watched the show that I’m also curious about how her style as a solver may change and evolve and, if it does, how the show will have to change and evolve, too.

A screenshot from Veronica Mars. Veronica holds a pink piece of paper that reads BLOWOUT and is surrounded by symbols: crescent moons, eggs, "K9"
An 09er party invite.

🔎 Stray Thoughts and Observations: "Credit Where Credit's Due"

  • From the very first scene (Veronica explaining the code on the 09er party flyer to Wallace) to the last (Veronica, Wallace, and Troy watching as Caitlin is shunned from her spot at the lunch table) this episode is about being allowed in and the factions that comprise Neptune, a place that, as I mentioned in the first issue, is carved up along socio-economic and race lines. Get into a group and you inherit its allies as well as its enemies. Break your group's rules—maybe because your dad is going after a local billionaire or because you cheated on your boyfriend with a PCHer—and you're out and on your own, maybe with a farewell beatdown as a sendoff.
  • On the blackboard in Ms. Dent's journalism classroom, a reference to the Norris 5 (principles of journalism): informative, accurate and truthful, objective, pluralistic, balanced. I just like thoughtful set dressing. Also, Ms. Dent is a great character who I thought and hoped would have a much bigger role in the show. She is played by Sydney Tamiia Poitier, who is the daughter of Sidney Poitier and Canadian actor Joanna Shimkus. She has only a handful of lines and a handful of scenes but is memorably great each and every time she's on screen.
  • Keith and Sheriff Lamb verbally sparring at the diner gives us a bunch of context and clues about Lilly's murder, the investigation that followed, and its aftermath. Another skillfully done infodump.
  • Neptune has a tattoo/piercing parlor called Puddy Tatt's. Five stars, no notes.
  • Paris Hilton! Absolutely wild piece of stunt casting. I think it's accurate to say that this was around the height of her popularity. The Simple Life premiered about a year earlier in December 2003.
  • I really like when Cliff says, "Look, I'm sure he's a real mensch..." Cliff + Yiddish = a great line reading.
  • Veronica is wearing so much pink and green in this episode. I don't know what else to tell you.
  • Troy sucks, right? In the early 2000s, I guess he seemed clever and cool. His wit sets him apart from the other Neptune High boys we've met so far and as a new kid, he doesn't have the stank of the 09ers on him yet, which, along with his elf-y good looks and rakish charm, makes him a real romantic possibility for Veronica. But that doesn't mean I have to like it!
  • About 14 minutes into the episode Veronica and Wallace are sitting at a lunch table together and Veronica is drinking a soda called Diet Max. That's it. It's just fun to see what made-up names shows use for beverages, cereals, etc.
  • Just some nice hint dropping about Celeste Kane that makes us wonder what her deal is. In a flashback, Lilly tells Veronica referring to Celeste, "Friendly advice. Watch her. She'll break the two of you up if she can." When we saw Celeste at Mars Investigations in the pilot, she seemed to have nothing but contempt for Veronica and Keith. But then again, Keith had accused her husband of murder. But it seems like Celeste really hated Veronica while Lilly was still alive. Huh. Just some nice groundwork being laid!
  • The intro of the Neptune Grand! This fancy hotel will show up a bunch throughout the series. If I'm remembering correctly the Neptune Grand set changes after its intro in this episode.
  • Neptune High's newspaper is called The Navigator. Love a consistent seafaring theme.
  • What is the negotiation between Weevil and Logan that results in Logan handing over Chardo to the PCHers? I can't tell if it's obvious and not very important—something like Weevil saying, "Don't worry we're going to beat him down way worse than you ever could. Let us do it and take any potential repercussions off your hands," or if there's something interesting and important in here that will become clear later in the season.
  • This episode marks our first sighting of Dick Casablancas!
  • A couple of big moments for Veronica's investigation of Lilly's murder: Veronica is starting to think Keith is withholding information about why he went after Jake Kane so hard. And then, a big clue: Lilly got a ticket for a moving violation on October 3 at 6:02 p.m., two hours later than her supposed time of death. With the time of death changed, none of the Kanes have alibis.
Screengrab from Veronica Mars. Weevil is on his motorcycle with PCHers behind him on their motorcycles. He is wearing a black hoodie and black leather jacket as well as a cross on a chain around his neck. He has a look of intensity on his face.
Weevil on his bike staring at Logan.


I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings but I think the show used their soundtrack budget for the pilot episode. There's nothing much here worth writing home about, unless you want to write home about "Word Up!" by Korn, which is playing during the 09er beach party, or "Troubled Times" by Fountains of Wayne, which is the song that's on in the car when Duncan and Veronica are driving to the Gold Coast. According to Duncan, "Lilly loved this song." All in all, this episode's music (besides the original scoring that I quite like) is all stuff that sounds like, well, music that you'd hear in a UPN show about teenagers.


  • The original Xbox (wired controllers!)
  • Madden NFL 2003 (I think)
  • Credit card fraud via offers in the trash that you can call to activate. Was this really a thing? It sounds plausible but also would make credit card offers via mail prohibitively unsafe so I'm a little torn about whether one could've actually committed fraud this way.
  • Digital SLR camera
  • jpgs and raw image files
  • Internet access is not ubiquitous. A clue that makes Veronica begin to think Weevil is not guilty is that many of the fraudulent orders were made online during times of day that Weevil didn't have internet access ("It's impossible. There's no internet connection in auto shop.")
  • Movieline, an automated number you call to hear movies times
  • Golden Tee arcade game

Cultural References

  • Nelly
  • Torrey Pines Golf Course (which is real and is in San Diego)
  • Cape Crescent (which does not seem to be a real place?)
  • Magic Mountain (aka Six Flags Magic Mountain)
  • Alyssa Milano. Logan's browser history shows that he may not be guilty of using the credit cards, but he certainly is guilty of "wanting desperately to see pictures of Alyssa Milano naked." He was either a fan of Charmed or 1-800-COLLECT, Milano's two big roles in that era
  • "Up jump the boogie" from "Rapper's Delight" (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang
  • "Raise the roof"
  • "Get jiggy wit it"
  • Kodak moment! This phrase had such a specific cultural cachet. It's nice to be reminded of it.
  • Sassy Magazine (RIP)
  • "King Kong ain't nothin' on you" is a reference to a line Denzel Washington says in Training Day (2001). Veronica saying it to Wallace...remember what I said in the first issue about Veronica being overly familiar with nonwhite characters? It's one of this show's most annoying tics.
  • James Bond
  • Charlie's Angels
  • "Doing you was like doing the Dew...," another fun, dated little tagline. This is what Veronica says to Chardo about Caitlin dating him

🔎 Stray Thoughts and Observations: "Meet John Smith"

Screenshot from Veronica Mars. Justin and Veronica are talking in the girls' bathroom at Neptune High.
Justin Smith and Veronica chat in the bathroom.

When it comes to its portrayal of a transgender woman, this episode has some things going for it and some things going very much against it. By 2004 standards, the show was ahead of its time by casting a cis woman to play a trans woman but by 2022 standards (and just general common sense), it's very much behind the times. The best practice here would have been to cast a trans woman to play a trans woman. This 2018 article by Nina Metz in the Chicago Tribune is about the exclusion and erasure of trans actors generally and is an informative read. On the one hand, Julia’s transition is used as a twist in a mystery. On the other hand, Julia is living a full life with a partner. On the one hand, Justin calls Julia a “circus freak” but on the other hand, that doesn’t so much seem to be the show’s POV, but rather an uninspired, very 2004 attempt to portray a teen boy’s reaction to learning that his parent, who is actually alive, has transitioned. So, you know, strikes and gutters. By the way, here's a great thread on why cis men should not be cast as trans women.

  • It just makes sense to me that Jake Kane is a tech guy who wears a fleece vest. Once you know he's a fleece vest guy, you just get his whole deal.
  • Ditto seeing Duncan drink whole milk straight from the jug.
  • For a standard weeknight family dinner, the Kane dinner table features lit candles and three bouquets of fresh flowers—roses one night, birds of paradise the next. Also, their housekeeper wears an actual old-timey maid's uniform.
  • I'm not sure what to say about the representation of Duncan's mental health journey in this episode. The symptoms of quitting anti-depressants cold turkey as described by Dr. Levine (very glad Jake and Celeste have the good sense to send Duncan to a Jewish doctor) to Duncan seem more or less accurate from my own cursory research but the rest of his experiences, I'm not so sure.
  • This is the second time Veronica uses the girls' bathroom at Neptune High as her office. It's fun and I like it.
  • We're starting to see Wallace get aggravated at how often Veronica asks for favors that require him to take risks (like use his position as an office aid to steal school records). Veronica doesn't really seem to notice his frustration. It's an interesting dynamic that I'm keeping an eye on during this rewatch. When I first watched the show, I, like, Veronica, wasn't really picking up on it.
  • Big moment for minor Jewish characters—Veronica's second-grade teacher was Mrs. Applebaum. Duncan's doctor is, of course, Dr. Levine.
  • Troy continues to suck. His "jokes" about being entitled to romantic physical affection from Veronica and his pouting when he doesn't get it are very annoying!!
  • Also: Troy wore linen pants and flip-flops on their date. ??????
  • I looked up 304 Paraket Lane, Phoenix, AZ 85207, which is Veronica's mom's last known address. I really wanted it to be a real place. Alas, it's not! What even is "Paraket?" It is a word that looks like it wants to be "parakeet" but is not. Google agrees with me: The first result you get when you google that address is a Zillow listing for 6449 W Yellow Bird Ln, Phoenix, AZ 85083.
  • This is the second time Duncan has interrupted Troy getting somewhere (romantically) with Veronica. Between that and Duncan's longing looks in her direction, he seems to be harboring some regret or at least ambivalence about their breakup.
  • When Veronica is driving Duncan to the doctor, the green screen makes it look like they're driving through Who Framed Roger Rabbit's Toontown. Budget limitations, I guess? It couldn't have been an intentional aesthetic decision...right?
  • When Jake encounters Veronica, he seems taken aback and a little cool but does not seem to harbor Celeste's disgust. Interesting. More subtle hint drops!
  • If anyone was able to catch the name of the coffee shop that Keith shows up at in the hopes of running into Veronica's guidance counselor, please let me know! I did so much pausing and trying to enhance-enhance-enhance on Rebecca James' coffee cup but couldn't make it out.
  • Veronica and Justin track a potential John Smith to Hi-Lite Bookstore and Adult Arcade. I am curious about what an adult arcade is but, on a very real level, never want to find out.
  • We learn via one of Duncan's dreams that Lilly's nickname for him is "doughnut," and that's cute.
Screenshot of Veronica Mars. Troy and Veronica are walking down the hallway of Neptune High smiling and chatting.
Troy and Veronica walking the halls of Neptune High.


  • "No Blue Sky" by the Thorns is the song Duncan is listening to while floating in his pool. I dig it.
  • "Art" by Louque which plays at the end of Veronica and Troy's date is kinda catchy?
  • I am grasping at musical straws here because so far nothing on the soundtrack has come close to what we heard on the pilot.


  • Troy's dad's Sabre 386 is a now-retired luxury sailboat that was launched in January 2004. This one is for sale for $200k in case you're in the market.
  • Looks like Duncan is listening to a 3rd generation iPod, the first one with an all-touch (no raised buttons) interface
  • DVDs
  • Tracing calls
  • Flared jeans and flared yoga pants
  • Mixtapes on burned CDs
  • Printed photos
  • Chrysler Sebring Convertible which was sold from 1995 to 2010
  • A taser

Cultural references

  • Hilary Duff
  • Teen People
  • The Strokes, which is the music that Troy says will be playing when he takes his dad's luxury sailboat out for a spin
  • Jake Kane's friend Ron Curtis, "an advisor for Senator Rake in Washington" doesn't seem to be a real person. Neither does Senator Rake.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger on the other hand is a very real bodybuilder and actor, and also was the governor of California from 2003 to 2011
  • The Padres
  • So many movies in the video store Justin works at. I caught references to: Matrix Reloaded (on a poster), Consenting Adults, the 1992 thriller, Body Heat, the 1991 "neo-noir erotic thriller film," Slap Shot, the 1977 sports comedy, The Cowboys, the 1972 western, and The Adventures of Pluto Nash, the 2002 sci-fi comedy (we see a poster of this movie in the video store)
  • When Logan pokes at Duncan about Troy being "all over" Veronica, Duncan replies, "Let it be, Logan." Logan replies, "Ok, nowhere man. You be the fool on the hill." "Let it Be" is a song by the Beatles as is "Nowhere Man." And "Fool on the Hill is yet another Beatles song, this one "about a man who is considered a fool by others, but whose foolish demeanor is actually an indication of wisdom."
  • Pilates
  • Halle Berry
  • "The new 311" on the mixtape Justin makes for Veronica. Maybe something from "Evolver" which came out in 2003?
  • America's Funniest Home Videos
  • The Fonz. When Troy and Veronica are at a restaurant on their date, Troy hits the jukebox on their table to change the song a la the Fonz in Happy Days
  • "Is it gonna self-destruct in five seconds?" Veronica to Wallace about the records he just handed her and told her to read
  • Kung Fu was a TV show from 1972 to 1975 starring David Carradine, and the origin of many grasshopper/kung fu master references you might've heard. In this episode, Duncan references the show while doing an obnoxious "Asian accent." That's an example of "wasn't funny then, isn't funny now."
  • "Summer Nights" from Grease
  • "Brown-eyed Handsome Man" by Buddy Holly

🔎 Next time in Mars Investigations

We're going to dive into S1E4 "The Wrath of Con," which gives us more Wallace (always a great thing) and also a deeper look, via flashbacks, at a friendship between two happy couples (Veronica and Duncan and Lilly and Logan) before everything went sideways. I remember this being one of my favorite episodes of season 1 so let's see what it looks like on rewatch!

Mars Investigations logo by Amber Seger.

Special thanks to Andrea Lynch for the incredible editing and to Jen DeMarco for the tech support.