Free Solo

On the return of ‘Veronica Mars’ and the power of the solitary woman.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | July 2019 |  8 minutes (2,101 words)


The original cut of the
Veronica Mars pilot had a cold open set to “La Femme d’Argent,” the first track from AIR’s 1998 debut album, Moon Safari. A neon take on noir, the scene has the 17-year-old titular blond (Kristen Bell) alone in her car in the middle of the night outside Camelot, one of her local “cheap motels on the wrong side of town.” Her camera — along with a calculus textbook — sits on the passenger side and her lips are glossed as she watches through the rain-streaked window of her convertible. The silhouette of a couple can be seen having sex in one of the motel rooms.“I’m never getting married,” she says.

Instead of this kick-ass intro — which accompanies the DVD version at least — the series, whenever it airs on television, opens on a brightly lit trio of cheerleaders tearing through a school parking lot to the pop-rock strums of the Wayouts’ “What You Want” (Bite, 1993), also under Veronica’s voice-over: “This is my school. If you go here your parents are either millionaires or your parents work for millionaires.” It’s simple exposition, with none of the mood or the bite of the original, and it sets Veronica Mars up as a teen show with a babe at the center, not the contemporary noir revolving around a precocious P.I. that it actually was. Rob Thomas’s series, which first aired on UPN in 2004, takes a typical sun-kissed California girl, murders her best friend, turns her sheriff dad  — and eventually Veronica herself — into an outcast, has her mom abandon them both, and, as if that weren’t enough, has her raped at a class party (the network tried to get rid of that part), then the new sheriff laugh down her report. All of this happens in the pilot, by the way. The whole ordeal turns Veronica into a cynic and ultimately her dad’s sidekick at his newly launched private eye agency.

Every time Thomas sees the actual opening, it breaks his heart, he recently admitted to Vanity Fair. He was proud of his version, but Les Moonves, the chairman and CEO of CBS (owner of UPN), was not into a prologue in which the hottie appears as a hardboiled antihero. “It’s a high school show,” he said, according to Thomas. “It should start in a high school.” But it’s 15 years later and Moonves is out, having resigned in disgrace amidst a series of sexual misconduct allegations, and there’s a new season of Veronica Mars, this time on Hulu, at the top of which Veronica is back outside a seedy motel, alone. The image of the lone woman is as strong as it ever was. And perhaps it is even more poignant these days as a symbol of transgression in the wake of our collective awareness around men’s control of the world. In this moment, the singular femme represents the possibility of a future without the trappings of the past. She’s less marshmallow than s’more.

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Veronica Mars was never really about the cases. It was about the super-smart pop culture–savvy young outsider solving the mysteries obscuring her world almost to the exclusion of everything else, including, you know, falling in love, or anything else that scans more traditionally girly. But it’s also about the milieu in which she lives, part-fluorescent-and-black-fantasy-set, part-reality in all its intersectional complexity. Before the premiere of its fourth season on July 19 — a surprise drop a week early by Hulu — Thomas wondered if the qualities that made Veronica a prodigious P.I., including her fearlessness and ire, would read as remarkable on a grown woman. But aren’t they even more so? Particularly when those qualities, on a woman, are often considered immature. In the new season, Veronica, now in her mid-30s, picks up where she left off in the 2014 film that fans Kickstarted into existence after the show’s premature cancellation in 2007. A lucrative law career left behind, Veronica is back in her hometown of Neptune, California, working with her dad (Enrico Colantoni) at Mars Investigations and living with high school sweetheart Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), a military officer who is frequently out of town. Veronica is hired to investigate a series of spring break bombings, a case she prioritizes over Skype calls with Logan and even — spoiler alert! — a proposal. While her best friend has a wife and a kid and a bunch of bougie acquaintances, her limit is Netflix (or in this clunky meta-case Hulu) and chill. As always, working on her own is what she likes best.

“Traditionally there are a lot of stories about men coming to this crossroads in their life where the idea of okay commitment, family, mortgage, kids is one direction and freedom, irresponsibility, ‘do whatever I want’ is the other direction,” Thomas told Entertainment Weekly. “I was interested in putting Veronica at that crossroads. A big part of the story has to do with what kind of life Veronica wants to live.” That he originally conceived of the character as a boy — at one point he decided it felt “righter” as a girl — is perhaps why it wasn’t such a stretch for him to give Veronica a traditionally male crisis. Whatever it was, the teen girl trope out of which Veronica grew, did not tend to develop into a lone woman. From My So-Called Life to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Freaks and Geeks (Thomas says he’s an “enormous fan”), these strong adolescent protagonists may have been searching for their identities, but they all did so within the context of friendship and family, the worlds in which women are expected to live. Veronica never quite seemed at home there, despite the annual ads showing her flanked by an entourage — dad, friends, boyfriends. The promo for the latest season — Veronica, alone, smirking at the camera — seems infinitely more apt than its predecessors. She always made more sense on her own, a solitary force in the midst of a shifting parade of acquaintances. That she was a girl seemed less important than the fact that she was a whole person, something even her dad, the person closest to her, respected by providing her with more space than daddy’s girls usually get.

While in the past the solitary hero was swallowed up by the move toward collective action, there seems to be a strange timeliness to the present-day solitary heroine, beyond even fiction. Take E. Jean Carroll, alone, all in black on the cover of New York magazine, with only her own words to accompany her, as she alleges for the first time that Donald Trump attacked her. Take Greta Thunberg, alone, outside the Swedish parliament, a then-15-year-old striking from school to combat climate change (her first book, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, came out in June). Take Emerald Garner, alone, outside of a New York court, yelling for Daniel Pantaleo’s firing after the Justice Department declined to bring federal civil rights charges in the death of her father, Eric Garner. “I’m coming for you,” she told him through the reporters. In the collective haze of change, these women appear like individual spotlights, willing to stand out in order to make the world a better place.

Other women have rebelled in smaller, more quotidian ways. “They expect you to get married,” Whoopi Goldberg said in a recent interview in The New York Times Magazine. “Then one day I thought: I don’t have to do this.” Goldberg is an EGOT winner, remember. No woman should feel pressured to adhere to conservative standards, but it is a testament to the intractability of these gendered expectations that a woman as accomplished as Goldberg, someone who in theory has earned the power to do what she wants, would still feel beholden to them. It reminds me of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Brigid Schulte publishing an op-ed for The Guardian entitled, “A woman’s greatest enemy? A lack of time to herself.” These are extraordinarily accomplished women who still have to fight for the right to solitude, a state which men in the same position no doubt take for granted. Of course it was a man who authored a recent book that went viral for stating that the happiest demographic was unmarried and childless women, as though the record low number of marriages levels somehow required explanation. In fact, the data this behavioral scientist cited indicated that marriage benefited men more than it benefited women. Another survey found that one of the top reasons women cited for not having children was wanting more time for themselves. In other words, choice, not just to reject what they don’t want, but to choose what they do — now and in the future. As Rebecca Traister wrote, “Wherever you find increasing numbers of single women in history, you find change.”

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Veronica Mars does eventually get married. And don’t shoot the messenger, but the day of her wedding to Logan, right before their honeymoon — spoiler alert! — he blows up in a car bomb right outside her window. The last scene of the series is Veronica alone again, this time driving her car straight out of Neptune. The sun streams through her windows as does British country soul singer Yola’s soaring retro ballad “Faraway Look,” the first track from her 2019 debut album Walk Through Fire (“In a world that questions a woman’s every objection as well as every ambition, the faraway look is king,” Yola has said of the song). Then we hear Logan’s voice. It’s an old recording from his therapist’s answering machine, which she has sent Veronica in the wake of his death. He left it on his wedding day, an explanation for why he married Veronica: “Is it weird to want to marry someone because you respect her? Because you want to be like her?” he inquires. “I want to marry Veronica ‘cause she’s the toughest human being I’ve ever met.”

Not the kind of love letter you hear every day. You hear it from women, that they respect their husbands, maybe even that they want to be like them. But how often do you hear a man saying that about a woman? When do you even hear a man describing a woman as a “human being” first and foremost? A tough one at that? Both Thomas and Bell have explained Logan’s death as a way to stave off the perfection that would keep Veronica from remaining compelling. “I feel like for this show to work as a detective show, it has to be with Veronica as a single woman,” Thomas told Rolling Stone. It sucks marshmallows that even in a fictional world, the freedom of a female character is limited by her attachment to a man. And even though I’m glad that she did, it’s troubling as well that the reason Bell wanted to return to Veronica was that she felt the world didn’t contain enough women like this for her daughters to look up to. The series was and continues to be an outlet for this 39-year-old woman’s anger about inequality and her belief in individuals. “Just knowing Veronica exists has allowed me to pull strength in certain situations,” Bell told the Times.

Because let’s be honest, we continue to live in a world where marriage improves men’s careers and does the opposite to women’s. (Children have the same effect.) This is a world in which a celibate E. Jean Carroll asks why we need men at all, while Whoopi Goldberg is just relieved she’s finally figured out she doesn’t. In this era, a young girl sitting on the steps of parliament can start a climate change revolution, while women in parliament can’t even get the men beside them to listen. It is clear that in a world run by men, the woman who wants to change it often has to be apart from it. In response to Brigid Schulte’s op-ed about women’s paucity of time, author Kaitlyn Greenidge pointed out that the ultimate barriers to women are the social expectations of them. She suggested as a solution, “multiplicities” of individual options, instead of the current binary — the solitary woman who can do what she wants and fuck everyone else, versus the attached woman who can’t. Until that time, we have to take what we can get: Veronica Mars, alone, on a California highway, driving toward another case she will solve all by her herself, as a black woman sings, “That faraway look in your eyes / It’s getting harder to disguise.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.