What’s back to school season without someone being duct-taped to a flag pole or an elaborate fire drill hoax? As the song goes, “A long time ago, we used to be friends…” but it’s hard to believe how long it’s really been. Can you believe Veronica Mars started 15 years ago this month, Marshmallows? Lucky for us, our sarcastic Nancy Drew has stuck around, finding new life time and time again, and currently streaming all seasons of the cult hit show on Hulu.
For the uninitiated, this is the perfect time to get to know the detective you’ve been hearing about for the last decade, the role that made Kristen Bell a star long before people wouldn’t stop putting “forking shirt” or “let it go” puns in every headline about her.
There were just three original seasons in the original run of Veronica Mars on UPN and the CW (after UPN and the WB merged). Too few, in our opinion, though we’re sure you heard some rumors about the third season not being so hot. Since then, there’s been the Kickstarted movie and now the fourth season on Hulu, shocking ending and all. We don’t yet know what the future holds for our heroine, but for now, let’s celebrate her critically acclaimed (and much beloved!) history.
So here’s our guide to the best episodes of our favorite noir detective from Neptune, with plenty of mysteries, one-liners, and class consciousness along the way.
Season 1, Episode 1 — “Pilot”
Pilots are notoriously bad – they’re essentially sales pitches for the network, they need to churn through a ton of exposition, sometimes the cast is still in flux, and the writers rarely know yet what makes it good, even in what will eventually become great shows. But the Veronica Mars pilot flies in the face of all logic or odds. In just over forty minutes, it sets up the massive class disparity of the fictional town of Neptune California, explains Veronica’s former social echelon and the fall from grace that lead to her current outsider stats, and sets up the season-long mystery of finding out who murdered her best friend, Lilly.
The episode opens by kicking off a tight episode mystery that introduces a ton of well-developed characters that quickly make sure you know they’re not the racial stereotypes you expect to see on network television. So much of the winning formula is already in place, and if you miss this one, you’ll be pretty confused by what an ’09er is and why people seem to all know but also fear/hate Veronica so much.
Season 1, Episode 5 — “You think You Know Somebody”
A major theme of Veronica’s life is her inability to trust anyone. Since we’re trying to keep this list spoiler-free I won’t go into details, but the title of the episode makes it clear that somebody is unworthy of her trust. Veronica learns something upsetting about each of her parents – while her father is a major focus, her mother shapes her in major ways as well. Meanwhile her ex Duncan, Logan, and new boyfriend Troy went to Tijuana and got into some trouble. Solving the various mysteries of this episode comes at a cost, which sets the tone for how Veronica treats people who want to gain her trust.
Season 1, Episode 10 — “An Echolls’ Family Christmas”
This is one of the few Veronica Mars episodes that centers around a relatively self-contained plot: Weevil wins big at an 09er poker game with Logan, Duncan, and some other guys, but the money goes missing. Everyone points the finger at somebody else, so they call in Veronica to find the money, who agrees if she can take the thief’s seat in the game, hoping to win the money to get Wallace a pricey Christmas present.
Mars always managed to have that vein of class consciousness running through it. It’s a classic and a fan favorite, full of memorable one-liners (“annoy tiny blonde one, annoy like the wind!) and Sherlock-like deduction from the amateur sleuth who proves (yet again) that she should never be underestimated.
Season 1, Episode 14 — “Mars vs Mars”
Adam Scott plays Mr. Rooks, Neptune High’s favorite teacher, and the episode opens with a bombshell: Blair Waldorf (ok, pre-Gossip Girl Leighton Meister, here playing high school student Carrie Bishop) accuses him of getting her pregnant. Keith works for Carrie Bishop and her family. Veronica volunteers to help Mr. Rooks. There’s no way this one ends well, and in an updated noir move, it teaches one of the Mars family what it feels like to win the battle but lose the war.
Season 1, Episode 15 — “Ruskie Business”
Logan asks Veronica to investigate his mother’s disappearance, putting all of his dwindling hope in her hands. Meanwhile, Veronica has a rare chance to reunite lovers instead of tear them apart. This episode is all about things not being what they seem, the confusing trajectory of Logan and Veronica’s uneasy semblance of a friendship, and a great guest star.
Season 1, Episode 18 — “Weapons of Class Destruction”
Jonathan Taylor Thomas guest stars in an episode that quickly escalates to Veronica attempting to stop a potential school shooting. In typical Mars-ian fashion, some of the best twists in this episode aren’t so much of the whodunnit variety (thought those exist) but of the dagger to the heart that comes from the way Veronica Mars takes a fatalistic noir and adds a dose of heart to create moments in which people step up to be doomed noble heroes. There’s also a major LoVe moment, if that combination of letters means anything to you…
Season 1, Episode 21 — “A Trip to the Dentist”
Veronica’s rape is a foundational tragedy that she never stops investigating and, even moreso than Lilly’s murder, she never seems to process. In the intriguingly named “A Trip to the Dentist,” the deeply personal case that has been thrumming along at the back of Veronica’s mind all season comes to the fore when new information comes to light.
This episode is an exercise in perspective, as Veronica collects the conflicting eyewitness accounts from her various classmates from the night she was raped, recreated in hazy flashbacks, and finally pieces together the truth. Of course, this being Veronica Mars, there is never just one truth, so this story has more than just one coda later on in the series, for good and for ill.
Season 1, Episode 22 — “Leave it to Beaver”
Veronica finally solves the mystery that has been driving her all season, the murder of her best friend, Lilly Kane. This being Veronica Mars, Lilly’s killer has no intention of going quietly, and V doesn’t exactly wait around for anyone else’s help.
Somehow, even though Veronica and Keith Mars have already (credibly) accused half the town of murdering Lilly, the reveal of the actual killer is still both a shock and emotionally devastating. Meanwhile, Keith and Duncan separately learn the answer to questions that have been plaguing them throughout the season, adding up to make the episode one that is not only thrilling, but also life-altering for quite a few of the show’s major players.
Season 2, Episode 11 — “Donut Run”
Duncan disappears with Meg’s baby and the entire town of Neptune is looking for him, including Sherriff Lamb and the FBI. What follows is one of the greatest single-episode mysteries in the show’s history. Wallace has his own secrets to spill (or not), and Logan and Weevil continue their unlikely team-up.
Season 2, Episode 13 — “Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enough”
Some of the best episodes are just Veronica doing regular high school-based mysteries, and this school fundraiser gone wrong is one of the best. A great vehicle for Tess Thompson’s sadly short-lived Jackie, the carnival episode shows Jackie and Veronica finally getting along, some of the show’s more obvious awareness of racial injustice (“oh, you mean standing while black?”), and the usual class consciousness. It’s also a glimpse into Logan’s psyche: is he into this girl, or manipulating her?
Season 2, Episode 22 — “Not Pictured”
There are so many revelations in this season finale that one of them will literally never be acknowledged again for the rest of the show’s history. With the Aaron Echolls case wrapped up in the previous episode, Keith pursues Woody Goodman while Veronica solves the bus crash and tries to get to the killer before they can harm anyone else.
With seemingly the entirety of Neptune High partying at the Neptune Grand, there’s a high potential for collateral damage as Veronica goes in without backup and the killer feels cornered and becomes violent.
Season 3, Episode 9 — “Spit and Eggs”
Season 3 was broken down into shorter mini-arcs rather than having one season-long mystery. The first of those (and arguably the most successful), the case of the Hearst rapist, is resolved here. The seeds of this mystery were planted back when Veronica first visited Hearst College in Season 2, and there’s plenty to criticize about how this story was handled, but, as an episode of television, it’s a good one, and likely the only Season 3 resolution that conjures up the blood-pumping stress of the Season 1 and 2 finales.
Season 3, Episode 19 — “Weevils Wobble But They Don’t Go Down”
Veronica’s sex tape hits the air waves, Weevil is in a tight spot in spite of trying to go straight, Dick has a rare glimpse at emotional depth and maturity, and Keith is trying to reclaim his spot as sheriff of Neptune.
One of the strengths of this show has been its ability to tie seemingly unrelated plots together and keep the audience guessing about everyone’s true intentions, even obviously “good” or “bad” guys. It’s easy to knock on Season 3, but this episode makes it feel like the good old days.
Season 3, Episode 20 — “The Bitch is Back”
For a long time, this was our final glimpse of our heroine. Veronica faces multiple tough decisions like a champ before heading off down a dark, rainy street.
There’s a lot about this episode that leaves the audience unsatisfied, much of it intentionally so, but it feels authentically in line with who Veronica is and doesn’t rush her choices simply for the sake of having a smiley, happy finale – they didn’t know for sure whether the show was cancelled when they filmed it – and there’s not much more fans can ask for than an episode of television that stays true to what the show and its central figure were all about.
Season 4, Episode 3 — “Keep Calm and Party On”
Season 4 is highly divisive among the fandom for obvious reasons. But devastating twist ending aside, it gave us a more in-depth, realistic look at adult Veronica than we’d ever had before. This episode captured much of the nostalgia and humor of the original series, as well as balancing the emotionally stunted darkness with Veronica having a genuinely good time with her friends, something seaosn 4 is light on, with Mac out of town, V being awful to Weevil, and Wallace mostly tied up in a life that Veronica is actively disinterested in joining.
If you’re wondering why many of us love season 4 in spite of the ending, this episode is a great demonstration. Quips-a-plenty, red herrings, blackmail, the Veronica/Matty dynamic (on a stake-out no less!), and of course Dick Casablancas as the King of Neptune Spring Break. The Murder Heads meeting is a completely meta look at the original series. Finally, there’s that feeling of incestuous interconnectedness as Keith feels tempted by Clyde’s offer for free luxury medical care and Weevil connects the dots between the guys from the Mexican cartel and the bomb. And it all comes to a close with an explosion that confirms Veronica’s gut instinct: this thing is far from over. Neptune may look a little different, but it’s still the same stinking claustrophobic nest of vipers as always, and that’s why we love it.
Veronica Mars Season 4 premieres on July 26th. Read more about that here. Season 1 through 4 are now available to watch on Hulu.