Mars Investigations 5: The pleasure of the medium-stakes mystery
13 min read

Mars Investigations 5: The pleasure of the medium-stakes mystery

A screenshot from S1E6 of Veroncia Mars. Wanda Varna is standing with one hand on her yellow locker. The word "NARC" has been scrawled in black paint across her locker.
Wanda, narc.

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🔍  Intro and housekeeping (above, already happened)
🔍  Synopsis of S1E6 "Return of the Kane" from
🔍  Some thoughts on the pleasure of the medium-stakes mystery
🔍  Stray thoughts and observations on cultural references (📝) music (🎼), and tech (🚀)
🔍  Next time in Mars Investigations

🔍 Synopsis of "Return of the Kane"

Originally aired November 2, 2004

"In this episode, Veronica investigates a potentially rigged student election after her ex-boyfriend Duncan Kane wins over more popular candidate Wanda Varner. Meanwhile, Logan faces the consequences of running an illegal boxing ring which brutally pits homeless people against each other, and Veronica investigates Lilly Kane's murder further." (source)

🔍 The pleasure of the medium-stakes mystery

Screenshot of S1E6 of Veronica Mars. Ms. Dent, facing away from the viewer, is writing on a blackboard in chalk. The blackboard says "A) Duncan Kane" and on the next line "B) Wanda Varner."
Voter fraud in action 

Anyone who knows me knows that I pretty much just don’t watch prestige dramas that are all about murder (or murder along with abduction and sexual violence or psychological torture). This isn't really a moral stance. It’s more that I feel scared, dark, and bad when I’m watching an extremely well-acted drama about very horrific and very plausible kinds of violence taking place in a setting that approximates The Real World. On the other hand, I am a huge fan of Game of Thrones, famously a very murder-y show with MANY depictions of sexual violence. What makes it difficult for me to endure a show like, for example, Mare of Easttown but love Game of Thrones or Veronica Mars? I have some guesses—the biggest one of course is that the overall tone and style of these two shows (medieval fantasy and teen drama noir) put some distance between me and the subject matter. But only my therapist knows for sure!

What can I say? I prefer a lower-stakes mystery. Give me a puzzler about forged art, stolen fossils, or the breach of an unbreakable bank vault. I’ll take those over a kidnapping, serial killer, or home invasion with brutal murder any day. Of course, there is one obstacle to a compelling lower-stakes TV mystery, which is…who cares? There has to be some reason for the characters to want to invest time in solving it and for viewers to invest time in watching it all unfold.

The good news for me, the wimpy TV viewer, is that Veronica Mars does lower-stakes mysteries very well, and because of the way the episodes and season-long arcs are structured, we get plenty of them, especially in the first season.

In “Return of the Kane,” the stakes were high enough to matter pretty much from the get-go. After all, this isn’t just a little student council foofaraw, it’s election fraud rooted in the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. As we’ve learned from every episode this season starting with the pilot, socio-economic stratification in Neptune and the (related) ingroup/outgroup tribalism at Neptune High is the soundtrack to the lives of the people of this community. So, as a viewer invested in the world of the show, I’m similarly invested in Veronica figuring out how Duncan won the first election and whether Wanda really is a snitch.

But I didn’t have to worry, for example, that if the mystery isn’t solved in time, a killer will strike again or a bomb will go off. With stakes this medium, I simply got to enjoy the unraveling of the mystery, the banter between Veronica and Wallace, the B and C plots (Duncan and Logan’s storylines respectively), and the show diving deeper into the “class warfare” aspects of life in Neptune.

I’m thinking about how much I enjoy medium stakes because, in a rare departure from my policy of never watching prestige dramas about murder, I just finished Mare of Easttown, the (absolutely excellent) seven-episode series that aired on HBO in the spring of 2021. The psychological discomfort I experienced as the show progressed was almost too much for me to bear, in part because every minute a brutal murder remained unsolved was another minute Mare and other characters lived in emotional and physical peril. I imagine I will never rewatch Mare of Easttown because even though I loved it, once was enough. On the other hand, there are plenty of episodes of Veronica Mars that I have watched (and will continue to) time and time again. This is the pleasure of the lower-stakes mystery.

🔍 Stray Thoughts and Observations

  • We're starting to get a better sense of who Duncan is now, in part because Jake and Veronica each say things to him that help shake him out of the fugue state it seems like he's been in since Lilly's death. Between Veronica remembering how he intervened when Dick was bullying some kid, and his populist Pirate Points turn, he's getting set up to be, as Aaron Echolls says in the campaign ad, "an all-around righteous dude."
  • Today is the day Logan finally became a multi-dimensional character. Now that we have a glimpse of what things are like in the Echolls' household, it's making a little more sense that Logan can be both a cruel, anti-social bully and a sensitive lad whose eyes well up when he thinks about Lilly. The way I read this is that Logan has always been a bad boy, but until Lilly's murder, he was mostly the wiseass-high-school-student kind of bad boy—the one that gets booze for the limo, plays risqué games of Truth or Dare, and breaks curfew. But Lilly's murder (occurring alongside his abusive-dad backstory) constituted his Joker moment, and now his rebellious streak has curdled into psychotic jackassery (to paraphrase how Veronica describes him in the pilot).  🤐 Either way, big "I can fix him vibes" here, ladies. 🤐  
Screenshot of S1E6 of Veronica Mars. Aaron and Logan Echolls are standing side by side. Aaron has his hand on Logan's shoulderand is looking at this. Logan stars ahead looking uncomfortable.
Just two dudes earnestly doing a nice thing for charity
  • There should be an Emmy for stuntcasting and Veronica Mars should've won it. Who do we see standing at the front door of the Echolls manor in her silken nightgown and matching robe, but Lisa Rinna as Logan's mom Lynn. Mere moments later, Logan's father pulls up in a chauffeured town car. Stepping out of the car is none other than Rinna's real-life husband Harry Hamlin. At the time, Rinna was best known for her roles on Days of Our Lives (which she was on from 1992 to 1995 and again from 2002-2003) and Melrose Place (1996 to 1998) while Harry Hamlin was best known for being a former Sexiest Man Alive and also starring in the hit TV show L.A. Law (1986 to 1991). Nowadays plenty of people know of Rinna and Hamlin because in 2014 Rinna joined the cast of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But in 2004 they were already famous as a celeb couple—a soap star and the favorite TV hunk of moms across the country—which makes them a very fun choice to play a couple in the show.
The cover of People magazine for March 30, 1987. A square-jawed Harry Hamlin with light stubble and a brown leather jacket stares directly into the camera. Blocky yellow text reads "The sexiest man alive (1987). LA Law's Harry Hamlin."
No notes
  • Aaron Echolls has starred in the following movies, per the framed posters hanging in his home: Hair-Trigger, Death Fist, and Fierce Instinct. I'm getting Chuck Norris vibes from those movies but Aaron seems way more successful and A-list than that. Maybe a Bruce Willis type?
  • Content note: The following bullet point has a mention of child abuse. When Lynn is sitting on the couch listening to the sounds of Aaron whipping Logan, she takes a sip of her drink and then looks directly at the camera. For, like, a while. What are we supposed to make of this in a show where the actors never, ever break the fourth wall? No, seriously, I am asking you. What the hell is the deal?
  • Fashion-wise, this episode is a rich early 2000's tapestry. We're in the heyday of the bootcut jean, for starters. And because of this episode's focus on the Wanda Varner demo, we see some alt style choices, like Wanda's double-wide grommet belt, one of those ball chain necklaces, and plenty of gelled, spiked hair. I think I also spied Aaron wearing Diesel jeans early in the episode. Remember how Cool and Stylish Diesel jeans were?
  • Lilly's full name is Lillian, something we see when we catch a glimpse of a folder pertaining to the murder investigation.
  • Jane Lynch's Mrs. Donaldson really has shades of Lynch's Glee character Sue Sylvester, right?. (I have never seen Glee but I feel this is accurate.)
Screenshot from S1E6 of Veronica Mars. Ms. Dent and Ms. Donaldson are standing in the hallway of Neptune High. Ms. Dent has her head turned, smiling at an off-screen Veronica. Mrs. Donaldson looks perturbed.
The high school teacher you stay in touch with for years to come and the high school teacher whose yearbook picture you draw on
  • Veronica did a tidy little recap of where her investigation of Lilly's murder stands. First of all, Lilly was spotted by a traffic camera hours before the coroner's time of death, which means that none of the Kanes have an alibi for the time of her murder. Next, Abel Koontz confessed on the spot to Lilly's murder. Yet the shoes that the cops found on Koontz's houseboat were actually photographed in Lilly's room at the time of the murder, which doesn't add up. This supports Keith's long-held belief that Koontz gave a false confession. We also learn in this episode that Koontz has fired his court-appointed counsel and could die by lethal injection as early as next year.  
  • 🤐 We now have a second clue that Weevil and Lilly had some kind of connection. Wanda has heard rumors about the two of them together, Veronica denies that possibility.  🤐  
Screenshot from S1E6 of Veronica Mars. Lisa Rinna as Lynn Echolls is sitting on a white couch. Beside her are colorful pillows. She has one arm across her stomach and in her other hand she's holding a glass of brown liquor up to her mouth and staring directly into the camera.
Lynn Echolls looking right at us for some reason

📝 Cultural references

  • I guess the title of this episode is a reference to The Return of the King, the third and final book in of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
  • The San Diego Zoo is, of course, a real place. I highly recommend the live PenguinCam. Wallace, as a big cat man, would probably like the live TigerCam, which also rules.
  • "Go. Shoo. Return to Xanadu." Xanadu, a 1980 musical fantasy movie starring Olivia Newton-John was, famously, a serious flop. But its soundtrack was hugely popular and the movie has since become a cult classic. I've never seen it but even reading Wikipedia's intro paragraph about the plot transported me to another place and time (1980's Los Angeles): "Sonny Malone is a struggling artist in Los Angeles attempting to make a living by freelancing. He rips up one of his failed sketches and throws it into the wind. It hits a mural of nine sisters and brings them to life. The sisters fly across Earth, but one of them roller skates through town and collides with Sonny. She kisses him before skating away, leaving him confused." [ed note: emphasis mine]
  • Philip Marlowe. This is the guy you think of when you picture a hardboiled detective wearing a fedora, saying things like "I was as empty of life as a scarecrow's pockets" and "She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” (Btw, those lines are from The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, respectively.) Marlowe first appeared in 1939 in Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep and then showed up in pulp mag short stories, novels, and countless film adaptations of Chandler's work.
  • The website The Smoking Gun. I was so happy to be reminded of The Smoking Gun. Before celebs' indiscretions went mega vi on social media and before TMZ broke huge celeb news, there was The Smoking Gun. Founded in 1997, TSG used Freedom of Information Act requests and access to public records to find and share mug shots and legal documents related to the criminal activity of famous people. They also did some investigative work. You may remember that in 2006, Oprah publicly recanted her praise for James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces. That's because TSG had discovered the fact Frey had made a lot of it up.
Screenshot from S1E6 of Veronica Mars. A screenshot of a computer showing the website The Smoking Gun with Aaron Echolls' photo and text reading "Featured Document."
The Smoking Gun, in all its glory
  • Ecstasy. Not being much of a drug person myself, I didn't realize that "ecstasy" was simply the 2004 word for what we now call Molly. Huh!
  • College guidebooks. Remember how when you were trying to figure out what college you wanted to apply to you'd buy a massive tome that listed every college in the U.S., along with a bunch of stats and information about what the school was like, its campus life, the proportion of students who belong to Greek organizations, etc. Do youths of today use those things? Why would you when you have the internet, right? Youths or guardians of youths sound off, let us know!
  • "W-w-w-wanda." Again, Logan loves to reference pop culture in everyday conversation. I think that here he is referencing the 1988 comedy A Fish Called Wanda in which Michael Palin's character speaks with a stutter and Kevin Kline's character makes fun of him for it. Turns out that in 1990, after receiving complaints from the National Stuttering Project, ABC-TV agreed to edit out some instances of Kevin Kline's character mocking the stuttering. As I have already mentioned, the pool of pop culture knowledge that Logan pulls from is very surprising to me, and AFCW is no exception. Also, kinda shitty that anyone involved with Veronica Mars felt that a joke that had already been deemed offensive some 14 years earlier should show up again. Or maybe it's to underscore that Logan is a jerk? As I asked in the last issue, are we laughing along with this kind of thing or cringing at it?
  • "You stand idly by." I've always liked this line delivery and have always been curious about the origin of the phrase "stand idly by." I figured Shakespeare invented it since he invented most turns of phrase and seems like the kind of guy that would've smushed an adverb into a three-word phrase. I wasn't able to find the origin of the phrase but in my searches, I learned that the most famous instance of its use was when the prime minister of Ireland, speaking about the beginning of "The Troubles" in 1969 was very widely misquoted by the press. You can read about how he said "the Irish Government can no longer stand by" but was reported to have said "can no longer stand idly by," which sounded a lot like a threat of military action. A very consequential misquoting!
  • "Fair and balanced, that's me." You might recall that Fox News' original slogan was "Fair and Balanced news." It's been phased out and replaced with "Most Watched, Most Trusted."
Screenshot of S1E6 of Veronica Mars. Duncan is standing at a lectern in a blue sweater giving a speech. Veronica is standing next to him with a camera watching the speech.
A man of the Pirate people

🎼 Music

Content note: In the next paragraph, I will describe how the domestic violence scene in S1E6 unfolds.

The real musical standout of this episode is "Ventura Highway" by America (from their 1972 album Homecoming), which starts playing around 35:49. The guitar starts to twang as Logan opens a closet, chooses a belt, removes it from the rack, and studies it in his hands. It continues to play as Logan walks into a room where Aaron is waiting. Logan hands Aaron the belt. Then Aaron closes the door and as he does we see Logan lifting up his shirt. We hear the sounds of whipping as the camera moves away from the closed door to a couch nearby where Lynn Echolls sits, desultorily sipping a glass of brown liquor and making direct eye contact with the camera. "Ventura Highway" has notes of melancholy and of hoping for a better place, combined with the sweetness and breeziness of the melody, that all make for a poignant score for this moment.

🚀 Tech

  • Logan is riding some kind of electric scooter down his driveway??
  • There's a brief shot of Felix sitting with Wanda and listening to music on, I believe, a 4th generation iPod. He also has white Apple earphones, those round ones that didn't even have an official name. They came out in 2001 and were shipped with the original iPod. Those were the official Apple headphone offering until EarPods came out in 2012.
Screenshot from S1E6 of Veronica Mars. Wanda and Felix are seated at a lunch table with Chinese food takeout containers in front of them. Wanda has her head thrown back in laughter. Felix is looking at her smiling, a headphone in his ear.
Wanda and Felix having (illegal!!!!!1!) takeout
  • Logan drives a bright yellow Nissan Xterra SUV. It has some additional bells and whistles on it, like extra headlights and what looks like a special grill. Plus, it has what's called a snorkel, which is used by off-roading enthusiasts to keep their cars' engines from getting waterlogged when the car is wading through water. Logan is one of those Barbra-quoting, Brigadoon-loving offroading-enthusiast teens you hear so much about!
A screenshot from S1E6 of Veronica Mars. Logan has pulled his yellow SUV into a gas station. He's standing on the inside of the car, his hand on the open driver's side door, looking at his friends who are walking into the gas station.
Logan's bright yellow be-snorkeled SUV
  • Duncan is playing solitaire on the PC in Ms. Dent's classroom. I like this detail because it's a very small but thoroughly Duncan moment. After all, playing solitaire is the "standing idly by" of "I've got nothing else to do" activities. Play Minesweeper at least, dude.
  • The software that the show invented for Veronica to keep track of her investigation reminds me of kids' toys that are meant to replicate real-world objects—like telephones but they're huge and made of plastic, with giant colorful buttons that ding when you press them. This app has those vibes; big folder icons with multicolored tabs, bulleted lists of clues in huge bold type, and little animations when the folders are opened.
  • Ye olde Scantron 888p. These machines have been scoring multiple-choice tests since the Scantron company was founded in 1972. The references in this episode to standardized testing and college applications raised my blood pressure a little bit. I've been actively blocking out all that stuff for a smooth 25 years, when will I know peace!
  • VHS tape and VCR
  • Photoshop version 8, the first one with Adobe Creative Suite branding
  • Mac OS X Panther
  • Photocopier
  • Scanner

🔍 Next time in Mars Investigations

For the next issue, we'll be watching S1E7, "The Girl Next Door." This one is going to be a biggie because the viewer gets a clue or two about Lilly and Veronica gets some clues of her own 🤐 about her mom and Jake Kane. 🤐