Veronica Mars Final Season Deserves Another Chance

Why is the Season 3 finale of Veronica Mars so underrated? And what was the show's scrapped final mystery arc about? Read on, marshmallows.

Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars Season 3

This article contains spoilers for all three classic seasons of Veronica Mars.

To say that Veronica Mars‘s final year on network television was divisive is an understatement.

Due to the lack of a major mystery arc to finish things up, some fans didn’t think the third season was as good as the first two. The new college campus setting suited the mystery-of-the-week format well enough, but with the backdrop of Neptune High gone, so was the ongoing class war, a thematic conflict that defined the series from day one. To survive on the then-newly launched CW Network, which skewed for a younger demographic, Veronica Mars seemed to strip away its former identity as each episode went by. 

Rather than stand up for the underdogs during season three, our unicorn-loving marshmallow zinged them with one-liners instead — when she wasn’t giving them the cold shoulder. Her defensive, stand-offish attitude made sense in a high school full of spiteful, privileged ‘09ers, but on a free-spirited liberal arts campus? It came across as a bit severe.

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Admittedly, the writers weren’t afraid to acknowledge this fact head-on when they needed to. Most of season three’s drama centered around Veronica pushing the people who cared about her the most away, oftentimes irrationally, during bouts of self-righteousness fueled by her deep-seated abandonment issues. 

Meanwhile, the big mysteries of season three didn’t feel quite that big at all.

Neither the Hearst rapist arc (masterfully set up during the season two episode “Rapes of Graff”) nor the Agatha-Christie intrigue of the “Who Shot Dean O’Dell?” mini-saga (inspired by Steven Soderberg’s 2005 independent mystery film Bubble) carried much emotional resonance for Veronica herself. On top of that, the clumsy handling of sensitive, trigger warning topics like sexual assault made the writing staff seem more insensitive than they actually were.

Veronica Mars ended its classic run with a forgettable stretch of episodes that are as close to filler as the show ever got. The only ongoing major story arc threaded throughout these five installments, besides the sheriff’s election showdown between Keith Mars and Vinnie Van Lowe, focused on Veronica’s love life. No mind-bending mystery to get sucked into this time, kids; just good, old-fashioned, marketable boy drama.

Nevertheless, Veronica finally did obtain her private investigator’s license. This gave her free reign to tackle cases that didn’t originate on a school campus, setting the stage for a more mature fourth season.

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Perhaps the third year’s biggest offense came in the form of two new additions to the main cast: Piz and Parker — the Nikki and Paulo of Veronica Mars. Most fans could smell that these thiny-developed characters were being introduced as romantic interests/rivals for Logan and Veronica from a mile away, but they hoped and prayed the writers wouldn’t actually go there. 

Guess what, folks? By the end of the season, they did. After surviving Logan and Veronica’s long, drawn-out breakup which made viewers question their mental health and emotional maturity, fans cried out when both halves of their favorite power couple started dating who appeared to be customer service reps from American Eagle. (Okay, fine. So a lot of teenagers in Neptune looked that way during the mid-2000s. But still.) 

Combined with that whole “lack of a third mystery arc” thing, this long-delayed, much-dreaded plot twist was the final straw for most fans. The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed enthusiasm they had while watching the season three premiere was replaced with a “let’s get this over with already” attitude and a peculiar sense of impending doom.

Yet even the most jaded fan can agree that Veronica Mars‘ first and only season playing private eye at Hearst College on television ended on a damn good cliffhanger — one that still haunts the franchise to this day, despite the Kickstarted film, novel series, and revival on Hulu. 

The episode singlehandedly revitalized Veronica Mars the series while bringing Veronica Mars the character’s adventures in the Neptune noir zone to an end — of sorts.

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Season three’s finale, “The Bitch is Back”, is so great because it promised more exciting times ahead for a show that had run out of steam due to executive meddling. 

But Rob Thomas didn’t intend for it to be the final word on his pioneering mystery show when he wrote it, per se — but he did have an inkling that the CW network was planning to pull the plug on the sleeper hit it had adopted during the UPN/WB merger in 2006. When watching the episode, it shows. “The Bitch is Back” functions as a teaser for what’s to come and a tribute to what came before it, and excels at both without even trying, because the Thomas and his writers’ skills were sharper than ever.

“I didn’t want to give them the easy way out,” Rob Thomas said about the finale in the special features on the season three DVD set released in 2007. “I didn’t want to wrap everything up in a neat bow to tempt them to say, oh, well they’ve run they’re course.”

There’s no way to accurately re-assess “The Bitch is Back” without examining “Weevils Wobble But They Don’t Go Down”, the episode that preceded it, first. Aired back-to-back as a two-hour “season finale” event on a lonely Tuesday eveing in May of 2007, this two-parter is jam packed with everything that made the series great in the first place, even if it does seem wearier than usual in certain places. (That the series ended on a movie length send-off is ironic in retrospect, as it foreshadowed a major milestone for the franchise.)

“Weevils Wobble” resets Veronica Mars back to its factory settings. Rather than fritter her time away being Paul Rudd’s bodyguard or investigating socially aware cases-of-the-week in very special episodes, Veronica works on bailing Weevil out of yet another jam, something she did every other Tuesday when they were in high school, pretty much.

This plotline wasn’t being recycled just for recycling’s sake, though: throwing Weevil back into the mix this late in the game was a carefully planned move by Thomas and his crew, and a smart one at that. This is exactly why an episode like “Weevils Wobble” was necessary to roll out at the eleventh hour. Fans needed to know that the show still had a an ace or two up its sleeve. 

Weevil’s reintroduction provided an opportunity to view Hearst College, the show’s main setting, through the eyes of an outsider, someone who works there but doesn’t attend classes — in other words, someone who isn’t privileged. As most of the third season is spent seeing life through the eyes of liberal arts students who lead fast paced, glamorous lives, this was a refreshing, if not grounding, direction to take the series during its last hurrah. Veronica taking on Weevil’s case (who had been absent for most of the season) signaled a return to her roots, punishing the rich and standing up for the poor. It was also the first time she’d been emotionally invested in a case-of-the-week for what felt like ages.

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“Weevils Wobble” wears the guise of a stand-alone mystery-of the-week throwback, yet it’s anything but. It contains far too much set up for the plotlines that come to a boil in the following episode. Without witnessing the opening and closing moments of “Weevil” — and Wallace’s stalker subplot in between — “The Bitch is Back” wouldn’t feel as climactic or as urgent.

The fake student ID scam is one of the more talky mysteries of the season. All clues are given through dialogue, which means that you have to pay closer-than-usual attention to what is being said at all times. It often feels like the characters are a few steps ahead of you. (Then again, it wouldn’t be Veronica Mars if they weren’t, would it?) With that in mind, Weevil’s predicament isn’t the most thrilling case-of-the-week material ever. But seeing as it’s all one big misdirection to keep us from noticing that the rug is about to be pulled out from underneath us in a big way, it doesn’t have to be.

“Weevils Wobble” also completes a loose character arc for Wallace Fennel. It shows how far he’s come since the beginning of the year, when he cheated on his final exams due to his lack of time management skills. We get an update on his progress in school and find that him accellerating in Hearst’s aeronautics program, which is a much-deserved victory for the former Sack-and-Pack cashier who was duct-taped to a flagpole the first time we met him.

The purpose of bringing Wallace’s academic career to the forefront in “Weevils Wobble” is twofold. First, it establishes a way for Veronica to get some quick and easy exposition about the ID Card production machine from Dr. Winkler, giving her a direct pathway to one of the Aspen ski bums responsible for programming the machine to create forgeries. Secondly, it sets up a nice a trapdoor introduction for The Castle, a topic we’ll get to in a bit. 

Veronica and Piz’s sex tape is the narrative equivalent of a hand grenade. Rob Thomas and his writing team tossed it into the room under the guise of a nauseatingly cute romcom moment and waited for it to go off at the perfect time, right when “The Bitch is Back” begins. That’s after Logan beats the crap out of Piz “by mistake”. Notice the quotes? Good. They’re there for a reason.

The sex tape scandal goes viral through an email chain across Hearst campus just minutes after the ID scam wraps up, changing our perception of an innocuous, manic pixie dream girl moment that any first-time viewer could have easily zoned out during. I mean, of course, the Piz and Veronica love/sex scene aka “The Perfect Cheer”. The dialogue for it was well-written, undoubtedly, but at this point in the season, any scenes with Piz and Veronica alone together were more than slightly nauseating.

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The sex tape scandal seems like a punishment for Veronica. A punishment for what, though? Sleeping with a boy that isn’t the offspring of some evil rich celebrity? On first viewing, I couldn’t help but link Veronica’s sex tape leak to the circle of Aspen ski bums, the real culprits who framed Weevil for making fake student IDs. One of these rich kid students had to be a member of The Castle, surely. Leaking the sex tape seemed linke a punishment for turning down the option the ski bums gave her to cash in on their student ID scam (and, by extension, privilege.)

The Castle, Hearst college’s homegrown secret society, feels like the kind of villain we’d been waiting for ever since the rapist arc had come to its thrilling conclusion halfway through the season. They pose the biggest threat to Veronica, as they could legitimately destroy her reputation and future. 

Indeed, the sex tape seen ‘round the campus sparked enough drama that could fuel half a season. Instead, the entirety of its fallout had to be crammed into one seriously busy hour of television. This is not season one Veronica anymore; the new and improved season three Veronica can leap mysteries in a single bound. Her years of freelance amateur detecting sharpened her senses and honed her skills. That’s precisely what makes her such a threat to the patriarchy of The Castle and why she is often at her most powerful when being painted into a corner.

One of Veronica Mars’ biggest attributes is its experimental pacing. This is a show that would average 70 scenes per script and could fit in an episode’s worth of plot beats into an opening teaser. Our marshmallow blazes her way through red herrings faster than ever. 

Strangely enough, the show doesn’t collapse under the sheer weight of its plot as it did while juggling the season two’s overstuffed mystery arcs. Instead, it races towards the finish line with a newfound confidence and snarkier attitude, resetting all characters back to their original factory settings too. As a result, we see just how far they’ve come since we first met them in the pilot.

Using Wallace Fennel as a springboard to introduce this new threat to Mars’ expanding universe was a fantastic idea, and a clever way to set-up the plot of the finale in “Weevils Wobble.”

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But why did I get the feeling that the show was sending me subtle cues that he was a main suspect in the sex tape mystery himself? The way Percy Daggs III was framed in certain shots, the tone of the takes that were used, and how he reacted to what was happening made it seem like there was more going on under the surface than we were being told.

What if it wasn’t just in my head? What if Thomas and company were layering in big reveals right under our noses. Imagine a turn of character for Wallace that they planned on followed up with during a fourth season that wasn’t set in the FBI? My theory is that’s what they really were up to, and that the Castle/sex tape storyline was salvaged from Thomas’ original plans for the final mystery arc and crammed into the space of one episode.

What makes me think this? Check out Exhibit A. Here’s how Thomas described this scrapped plotline in an interview with Entertainment Weekly published shortly before his grand plans for season three were changed. Here’s what he said:

“It’ll be a mystery unlike any of the others we’ve done before. I’ve wanted to get a mystery in which our nice characters like Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino) could be fully involved. You know, Wallace has always been sort of absent from the big mystery because no one’s going to believe him as a suspect…” Thomas said. “I can tie up Logan and Weevil into a mystery, because they have that moral ambiguity. But no one’s going to believe in Wallace as a suspect. No one will believe if, like, the big clue was in Wallace’s locker. And so, in choosing a third mystery, I wanted a mystery in which Wallace and Mac could be key players, where they have really interesting stuff to do. So that’s all I’ll say about that.”

Sounds like he was planning on doing more with Wallace’s character than what we actually saw in “The Bitch is Back”, does it not? Perhaps he made a secret deal with The Castle offscreen during his initiation? They did catch him with Veronica’s camera pen, after all. 

When Veronica’s private crusade against The Castle leads her back into Jake Kane’s clutches, it’s the perfect “oh shit” moment. Why? Because nobody saw it coming. It was the perfect curveball to throw at the audience at the time, one that hit us right in the face.

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Veronica facing the portrait of Lily Kane is one big wake up call, a reminder that, yes, this is still the same show that once revolved around her death (and life), even if that seemed like a distant memory. This moment happens during a very season one looking scene in which Veronica unknowingly breaks into a Kane mansion in the middle of the night wearing her iconic army cap, something we hadn’t seen her wear in very long time. (I guess it would have been hard to shove all those curls in there.) Veronica stumbles across the portrait of dead best friend hanging above her — and, later, another of Duncan — and stares at it like she’s looking at ghost of her older, harder life.

Then Clarence Wiedman shows up and it’s really a party.

When it began, everything revolved around the Kane family vs. Mars family conflict. By the time it ended, it had moved on to Logan and Veronica’s on again/off again relationship as a lightning rod for trite teen drama. Bringing the show back to its starting position meant familiar faces would return and make our sore eyes sing. Even so, Jake Kane and Clarence Wiedman feel strangely out of place here, in what was essentially Veronica Mars at the time. For warring families who still lived in the same city limits, they now had little to no bearing on each other’s fates anymore. Until this episode, of course.

The last half of “The Bitch is Back” is genius because it focuses on characters that have been around since day one only. The first act disposes of Parker as quickly as possible while sidelining Piz in a neutral way. Anyone who wasn’t around during the Neptune High days, besides Nish Sweeny, are kept out of the action. That was another testament to Thomas’s writing chops, as he knew the show’s final moments should focus on the characters fans really cared about.

As he was quoted as saying earlier, Thomas also wanted Mac to play a more active role in his proposed third mystery arc. “The Bitch is Back” makes that loud and clear, as she’s ultimately the one who saves the day by decrypting the information on The Castle’s stolen hard drive in record time.

But can revealing The Castle’s secrets truly be considered a victory? No; it’s a declaration of war, one Veronica isn’t fully prepared to fight. She took her personal vendetta (and all of the lingering residual anger from all of her past personal vendettas) and attacked the system head-on with it, consequences be damned, in true Mars style.

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Is it ironic that Veronica’s attempts at salvaging her own reputation end up destroying her father’s instead? Yes. That’s what makes it so, y’know, noir. But putting Keith and Veronica’s relationship in jeopardy was the biggest risk the show could take before taking the long nap. Besides that, there was nothing left for Veronica to lose.

When viewed in the larger context of the series, however, the Veronica/Keith plot point is hard to take too seriously as it echoes several moments from the show’s recent past. For example, most of season three’s story arcs saw Veronica run away from Keith when she needed him the most, often as a way to communicate her disapproval of his personal decisions and her mistrust of male figures in general. And the scene where Keith storms into Veronica’s room and frantically searches through it for the telltale blue sweater that links her to the break-in at the Kane mansion is a doppelganger of the scene from season two’s “Donut Run” where he also storms into her room in search of diapers (it’s a long story.) Then there’s season one’s Mars vs Mars, of course.

I could write a whole essay on the most iconic scene of the episode: the cafe brawl sequence which culminates in Logan and Veronica’s final moments on screen together until the movie was released seven years later. It says so much with so little. We witness Logan’s loyalty to Veronica displayed fully in words, deeds, and actions. In fact, we watch the exact opposite of the final moments they spent together towards the end of the pilot, where he terrorizes her much like psychotic Castle member Gorya Sorokin did here and gets beaten up for it, too. It’s almost as if we’re watching the New Logan beat up the Old Logan, a more satisfying way to bring his arc full circle.

And who comes in at the end of this unorthodox public display of affection? Piz, the poster boy for season three. And guess what? He doesn’t say a damn thing. Before he can even open his emo mouth, we cut to a contemptuous exchange between Veronica and Clarence Wiedman. (Season one forever!) Logan’s brawl is juxtaposed with the scene from the beginning of the episode where Piz goes all Switzerland and remains netural when random students catcall Veronica while they eat lunch in the same cafeteria. This highlights why Veronica is in love with Logan and not Piz: because they have the same sense of conviction and perhaps an identical set of kneejerk reactions.

At last, Veronica faces her true arch-nemesis: Jake Kane himself. She wields power over him in the present moment when she tells him that she cracked his precious hard drive in only a day’s time. She displays her prowess and strength. He laughs defeatedly, but more for her sake. Kane has something she doesn’t: wealth, power, and male privilege. And that media influence thing, too.

Veronica’s power — which is real, personal, and rooted in the present moment — is overshadowed by the illusory power that men like Kane have built around themselves. This is the same power that can destroy her father’s life, which he demonstrates as having used after she hands the hard drive back over, making her victory a bittersweet one (emphasis on the bitter part.)

The final lines of “The Bitch is Back” are the most important. It comforts us by lettings us know that Keith and Veronica’s relationship — the emotional core of the show — still remains intact despite the wedges that are coming into their relationship now, thanks to her actions to try and fix her life. 

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Even if the last shot of Veronica walking away from the voting booth in the pouring rain is a bit portentous, we know that Veronica and Keith will maintain their bond no matter what happens in the fallout from the Sherriff’s election. Without each other, they’d be lost adrift in Neptune’s sea of betrayals and infidelities, and so would we. The Mars family relationship was a big reason why fans fell in love with the show in the first place. Ending Veronica Mars with the knowledge they’d still be a family no matter what was all the closure we needed…at the time.

Stephen Harber lives in San Francisco and writes sentences, such as the one you’re reading right now. He likes to sleep — a lot. Read more of his work here, and follow him on Twitter @onlywriterever.

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