Veronica Mars is a short-lived TV show that is somehow too badass to ever quite completely die.
Technically, Veronica Mars only aired for three seasons (two on the UPN, one on The CW). It premiered in 2004, introducing the world to teen private eye Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) and her film noir-inflected adventures in the seedy and corrupt town of Neptune, California. It was so smart and so stylish that it became a cult hit, but it never quite managed to pull in solid ratings. In 2007, it was unceremoniously canceled.
But that didn’t hold Veronica down for long. In 2013, showrunner Rob Thomas (not the Matchbox 20 guy) started a crowdfunding campaign for a fan-funded, full-length movie. The Veronica Mars Kickstarter had a fundraising goal of $2 million. It hit that goal within 12 hours, and by the end of the month, it had pulled in more than $5 million. At the time, the largest Kickstarter project ever funded was $900,000, so Veronica Mars’s success was historic — but the fan base that had sustained itself on LiveJournal and Tumblr and Television Without Pity for six years was ready and willing to put together the money. The movie hit theaters in 2014 (full disclosure: I kicked in 10 bucks), and while it didn’t make much money, that didn’t hold Veronica back either.
This summer, Veronica Mars lives again for the third time. She has just premiered an eight-episode fourth season on Hulu, available as of July 19.
That makes now the perfect time to delve into the full Veronica Mars canon and look at what work and what doesn’t. To that end, I’ve gone through all 64 episodes of the original run of the show, plus the movie and fourth season, and ranked them all from worst to best. (Yes, I know the movie is not technically an episode, but we’re going for thoroughness here, not pedantry.)
Ranking a show episode by episode can help you deconstruct the conventional wisdom about it. Season three is always held to be the weakest part of Veronica Mars, and that mostly holds true, but there are a couple of gems in there that can stand up with the best of seasons one and two. And season one is the fan favorite for its remarkable consistency and elegant story structure, but even it has some clunkers that are better set aside.
More importantly, an episodic ranking illustrates what a show is good at and what it never quite figured out. It makes it clear which themes matter, which can be tossed aside, and which weren’t tossed aside but really should have been.
Here are all 72 episodes (plus that movie!) of Veronica Mars, ranked.
The worst (73–71)
73. “Lord of the Pi’s” (season 3, episode 8)
In retrospect, Veronica Mars was disconcertingly obsessed with rape. Every major female character on the show got sexually humiliated onscreen at some point or other! Every last one! And while sometimes the show told its sexual assault stories well (season one remains a high-water mark), other times (most of season three) it seemed to be leaning on sexual assault for the titillating shock value. “Lord of the Pi’s,” in which a group of radical feminists rape a frat boy with a plastic Easter egg and Veronica makes smug jokes about “keister eggs,” is probably the worst offender. Plus, it suffers from the season three syndrome of being sour and glib without ever quite managing to be interesting.
72. “Un-American Graffiti” (season 3, episode 16)
While the first two seasons of Veronica Mars worked by balancing a standalone mystery of the week with more complex season-long mysteries, the third season gave Veronica two big mysteries to solve over the first two-thirds of the season, and then capped it off with five standalone episodes. It was reportedly a ploy by The CW to see if the show could attract more casual viewers if it got less serialized, and it was not successful.
Without a big mystery to provide forward momentum, these episodes lived or died by the mystery of the week. That’s a trick the show might have been able to pull off in the glory days of season one and two, but by season three, the mysteries of the week were rarely compelling enough to carry the weight of the show. This one, an achingly well-intentioned story about Islamophobic harassment, was one of the clumsier attempts. It also sees the introduction of Keith Mars being a real hardass about underage drinking, which is one of his more pointless plots.
71. “I Know What You’ll Do Next Summer” (season 3, episode 18)
Here’s another standalone season three episode, and boy, is it rough. This one is a serviceable-enough PSA for the advocacy group Invisible Children (pre-Kony 2012 scandal), but it’s mostly dominated by the love quadrangle between Veronica, her central love interest Logan, and Piz and Parker, their respective season three love interests. This love quadrangle is — and I say this as someone who enjoys romantic angst — monumentally, astonishingly, face-meltingly boring.
The big issue here is an imbalance between the way the show was writing Piz and Parker as characters and how it’s using them on a structural level. Veronica Mars seems to have decided at this point that Veronica and Logan need some romantic rivals, but it also wants to tip its hand heavily that they were made for each other and no one else is really a threat to their connection. That means that it spent a long stretch of time characterizing Piz and Parker as placeholder love interests whom the audience has no reason to root for and who aren’t particularly interesting in their own right (okay, Parker was fun; Piz, not so much), while still insisting on spending enormous amounts of screen time on them. The whole thing just feels like a frustrating waste of time.
The slightly less worse (70–61)
70. “One Angry Veronica” (season 2, episode 10)
“One Angry Veronica,” in which Veronica goes on jury duty and brings in extra evidence to convince her fellow jurors to convict a bunch of rich white boys, is infamous for being the episode that even Rob Thomas admitted was kinda bad. “I read the boards every week, but I didn’t read the boards after episode 10,” he said at a fan panel in 2006. He knows exactly what the problem was, he added: “I went with a story that contains too much exposition to be dealt with effectively in the space that we have provided for it. What you get is line after line of explanation about the case, rather than the things that we love about the show, which is interpersonal dynamics, our characters dealing with our characters.”
That’s a pretty solid analysis, Rob! I will add that it’s extremely insulting that Veronica’s former ally, poor, much-abused Meg Manning, dies offscreen. However, the B-plot, which culminates in Logan buying and destroying the sex tapes that show his father sleeping with murdered Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), is poignant enough to keep this episode out of the very bottom slots.
69. “Debasement Tapes” (season 3, episode 17)
This is another one of those super rough late-season-three standalone episodes focused on the love quadrangle. It does have Paul Rudd in it as a depressed, washed-up rock star, though.
68. “The Girl Next Door” (season 1, episode 7)
And here we have a pre-fame Jessica Chastain, guest-starring as Veronica’s hapless neighbor who is maybe being abused by her boyfriend, played by Adam Kaufman (Parker from Buffy). It’s this low on the list mostly because of the hacky in medias res structure, which heavily implies in the cold open that somebody dies, only to reveal at the end that — surprise! — no one does.
67. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” (season 1, episode 9)
This cult-centric episode sees one of the rich “09er” kids from the prestigious 90909 zip code (this one’s played by Jonathan Bennett, the love interest from Mean Girls) joining a compound only to find true happiness there away from his materialistic parents. It’s one of season one’s weakest standalone mysteries. Plus, it doesn’t advance the larger mystery of who killed Lilly Kane enough to be truly memorable. (They missed out on such a Mean Girls reunion opportunity here!)
66. “Wichita Linebacker” (season 3, episode 3)
Many season three episodes can be fairly summarized as “Veronica and Logan have uninteresting relationship troubles.” It’s as though Thomas and co. are overcorrecting from the issues with “One Angry Veronica” — which spent too much time on the mystery and not enough on the interpersonal dynamics — by spending hardly any time building interesting mysteries and way, way too much time on the relationship stuff. This episode, in which Logan wants to go to Mexico and act shady and Veronica is furiously suspicious, is the first and arguably the most boring offender of the season.
65. “Of Vice and Men” (season 3, episode 7)
And this one, in which Logan is being shady about something mysterious that happened in Mexico with his shady friend Mercer and Veronica in response spends a while overidentifying with the abandoned girlfriend who is her case of the week, is maybe the second most boring.
To be fair, that closing sequence — in which the Hearst College serial rapist drugs Veronica and starts to shave off part of her hair in the parking lot — is genuinely tense and terrifying. I’d give this episode a lot more credit for that if not for the fact that by this time, the show’s obsession with continually menacing Veronica with sexual predators was starting to get a little disconcerting.
64. “Postgame Mortem” (season 3, episode 13)
For some reason, this extremely standard mystery about Wallace’s dead basketball coach extends into a two-part episode without ever quite developing the heft to justify its length. Of the two just-okay halves, the second part is stronger. The B-plot of this first half, in which Logan makes friends with an 11-year-old girl, is beloved among some fans; personally, my aversion to cringe comedy is so strong that I have never managed to keep myself from fast-forwarding in horror during the scene in which the girl tells Veronica that Logan is still in love with Veronica, and as a result, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this episode in its entirety.
63. “Hi, Infidelity” (season 3, episode 6)
The love quadrangle actually more or less works in this early establishing episode, mostly courtesy of Parker, who really is fun. (That shot of her screaming, “THAT’S TWO-THIRDS OF A TURKEY, BITCHES!” during the bowling accidental double date is incredibly charming.) And the mystery of the week, in which Veronica is framed for plagiarism in her criminology class and must find the culprit, is a solid way to use Veronica’s college-girl cockiness against her and make her a bit of an underdog again, a part of her characterization that took a real hit once she left Neptune High. Points docked, however, for the plot where Veronica’s best friend Wallace’s motivation hinges entirely on his declaration that mechanical engineering is his “dream major.” Since when?
62. “Driver Ed” (season 2, episode 2)
Here we have the first suggestion that season two’s big mystery — who caused the bus crash? — won’t be able to drive story the way the mystery of who killed Lilly Kane did in season one. Mostly that’s because the bus crash mystery is really about the perpetrator, not the victim, but since we don’t know who the perpetrator is until the end of the season, the bus crash mystery gets all its juice from hindsight. And that’s a major problem in “Driver Ed,” because this episode’s case of the week — Veronica trying to prove that the crash wasn’t an intentional murder-suicide by the bus driver — depends entirely on our emotional attachment to the mystery of the bus crash to work.
On the plus side, it’s also the first episode featuring a very young Tessa Thompson as Wallace’s love interest, Jackie. When this episode aired, Thompson hadn’t yet matured into the movie star she’d become, and Jackie got a fair amount of fan hate back in 2005. But from the vantage point of 2019, it’s fun to look back at Thompson’s work here and see the development of a superstar in real time.
61. “My Mother, the Fiend” (season 2, episode 9)
Veronica Mars never entirely figured out what it wanted to do with Alyson Hannigan’s Trina, who in season one was Logan’s half-sister and in season two became his adopted sister (okay, yes, this discrepancy can be resolved if Aaron adopted Trina with some never-mentioned ex-wife and then kept custody after he got married to Lynn, but that’s never explained, is my point). Any episode centered on her is a little out of focus and confused as a result. That includes this one, which reveals that Trina’s biological mother went to high school with Veronica’s mom Lianne, and that Lianne may have been a bitchy mean girl back then. Plus, this episode introduces that whole thing with Meg’s coma baby, which is a real copout of a plot.
Getting better, but still not great (60–51)
60. “Silence of the Lamb” (season 1, episode 11)
“Silence of the Lamb,” which sees Veronica’s dad Keith teaming up with Sheriff Lamb to track down a serial killer while Veronica works information out of Deputy Leo in the B-plot, is an example of early season one Veronica Mars still figuring out its tone. At this point, it hasn’t yet learned that a serial killer is too high-stakes an idea for the mystery of the week: Those mysteries work best when they’re small-scale and petty, the better to show off the brutal and seedy cynicism of this noir-inflected world.
59. “Donut Run” (season 2, episode 11)
Here, Veronica’s first love Duncan makes his triumphant farewell from the show, riding into the sunset with his and Meg’s baby, whom he has kidnapped from her abusive grandparents. On the one hand, his departure comes just in time: Duncan’s arc of carving out an identity for himself against the competing influences of his epilepsy-induced mood swings/amnesia and his parent’s wealth essentially ended in season one, and there was little story left for him in season two. He had also always been a passive character who was never quite as compelling a figure as the show wanted him to be, and the writing was on the wall by this point that Logan had taken over Duncan’s original role as Veronica’s foil and homme fatal.
On the other hand, Duncan was always at his most interesting when he was a little creepy, and the show’s insistence on giving him a blameless hero’s exit means that he’s leaving as the blandest version of himself. Also, and I cannot stress this too much: coma baby. Why?
Anyway, shoutout to Teddy Dunn, who is a lawyer now and seems very happy to be done with acting.
58. “There’s Got to Be a Morning After Pill” (season 3, episode 12)
Listen, I honestly like Veronica and Logan as a couple and have read fanfic and everything, but when they break up here, it’s their second breakup within four episodes, and who could possibly maintain interest? It’s too much! They have used up all of my shipper goodwill by this point.
Plus, this second breakup highlights how incredibly bizarre it is that Veronica is willing to hang out with Logan’s pal Dick all the time, funny as actor Ryan Hansen might be. She blames mean girl Madison for her rape, but Dick — who was actively trying to drug Madison that night! — she gives a free pass to? It boggles the mind!
57. “Poughkeepsie, Tramps, and Thieves” (season 3, episode 11)
The great Rowan Kaiser described this episode’s mystery of the week as an example of Veronica Mars being “extremely (perhaps excessively) confident” in its ability to talk about feminism. It’s the one where Veronica reunites Mac’s eventual love interest Max with his long-lost girlfriend only to learn that the girlfriend is a sex worker, and then she gets super judgmental about prostitution. Veronica’s a judgy person by nature, and her disdain toward Max’s girlfriend Wendy gets nicely questioned by the framing here, so I think part of the episode works — but Wendy herself is a cardboard cutout of a character and her story is verging on a cliché, and Max is the kind of character who would 100 percent be portrayed as an incel if this episode were written in 2019. It’s all much flatter and much less carefully done than the show seems to want to think.
The B-plot of this episode is all just setting up Logan and Veronica’s second of their season three breakups, and I think we’ve already said everything we need to say about that.
56. “President Evil” (season 3, episode 5)
The mystery of the week here elevates itself out of the season three blahs by turning to some emotional wells that were established back when the show was stronger and that haven’t yet been overused: Veronica’s love for Lilly, her fraught alliance with PCH motorcycle gang leader Weevil, and the ghostly triangle between all three of them. In this one, the necklace Lilly gave Veronica is stolen after a house party is robbed, Veronica blames Weevil for taking it (with some justification), and Weevil is outraged and betrayed by her suspicion. It’s the kind of rich, conflicted character dynamic that this show can do really well when it cares to.
On the other hand, this is also the episode in which Veronica proves that the radical feminists staged a fake rape for the attention, and honestly, who needs that?
55. “Mars, Bars” (season 3, episode 14)
This episode concludes the mini arc begun by “Postgame Mortem,” in which Veronica investigates the murder of Wallace’s basketball coach. The mystery of the week is still too slight to sustain the two-parter, but this half has the stone-cold classic scenes of Veronica stuck in jail and bantering with Keith about drawing unicorn Sharpie tattoos on her arm, so it gets an upgrade. I’ve also bumped it up a bit out of respect for Sheriff Lamb, who comes to his untimely end in this episode. RIP to Veronica’s pettiest and therefore arguably best antagonist.
54. “Papa’s Cabin” (season 3, episode 15)
This episode concludes the second big mystery arc of season three — namely, who shot Dean O’Dell. It’s also the lowest-ranked of any Veronica Mars episode that solves a major mystery, mostly because the show never succeeded in making this case emotionally involving.
Sure, the dean was nice to Veronica in the few episodes we saw him in at the beginning of the season, but that’s not enough to sustain a full-scale mystery arc. And Tim the TA is a fun antagonist, but he’s not a compelling villain on the level of season one’s Aaron Echolls or season two’s Beaver. Even the rape mystery — which, as I’ve discussed extensively above and will again below, is incredibly clumsy — gets a stylish and effective big reveal when Veronica solves the case. This one just kind of sits there.
53. “The Rapes of Graff” (season 2, episode 16)
This episode lays the groundwork for season three’s rape mystery. It suffers a bit for being so clearly a setup rather than an episode that can stand fully on its own — the resolution, in which Veronica clears the name of an accused Troy without coming anywhere near catching the culprit, isn’t particularly satisfying — but it gets some bonus fun from the guest stars. The presence of Arrested Development’s Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat adds an intriguingly surreal layer to the new world of Hearst College, and bringing back Veronica’s season one boyfriend Troy is a neat way of creating quick emotional investment in a story so far away from our familiar territory of Neptune High.
52. “Welcome Wagon” (season 3, episode 1)
Speaking of leaving Neptune High! “Welcome Wagon” is our first college episode, and boy, is it jarring. Everything has changed: The 09er centric social dynamics we’ve gotten used to at Neptune High have been wiped away, the credits are revamped (the moody graphics are great, the remix of the song not so much), Veronica’s styling is glammed way up, and even the noir lighting seems brighter and flatter than it used to.
It’s a major, major shift, but I give “Welcome Wagon” credit for handling the transition with a fair amount of grace. Veronica’s narrow-eyed skepticism as she makes her way through Heart’s campus speaks for the audience, and her satisfied smile as she solves the case of Who Stole Piz’s Stuff — “You wanna know why I do it? Here it comes,” she tells Piz — offers as good a statement of purpose for the show as any.
51. “Green-Eyed Monster” (season 2, episode 4)
Early season two suffers a bit from all the focus on Veronica’s relationship with Duncan, which we can all see is just marking time until Veronica and Logan find their way back to each other. This episode, in which Veronica is racked with jealousy over Duncan’s season one relationship with Meg, is a chief offender. And the mystery of the week (a client is sure her boyfriend is cheating on her, but he isn’t) ties so closely into their romantic semi-drama that there’s little escape from it.
Still, even here the romantic angst is better balanced with the mystery of the week than it would be with the equivalent plot with Logan in season three. And there’s style in the execution: I’m a fan of Veronica’s horrified, “Are you crazy, Duncan? Leaving this out here in the open? Do you leave heroin out when Iggy Pop spends the night?” when she finds his secret Meg flash drive sitting on the coffee table.
Middle of the road (50–41)
50. “Entering a World of Pain” (season 4, episode 6)
Veronica Mars’s fourth season is tricky to rank episode-by-episode, because it was so clearly designed to be watched in a single binge session instead of week by week. There’s not a distinct case of the week to distinguish episodes, just new developments in the ongoing case of the serial bomber and new ways of thinking through the central theme, which is whether or not Veronica can ever truly change. This episode suffers the most from that sameness, because it’s the victim of that dreaded mid-season lag that tends to hit streaming shows, even those whose seasons clock in at a lean eight episodes long.
There are high spots. Clarence Weidman makes his cameo. Weevil and Veronica get into a tense, nicely played argument over Weevil’s return to gang life. But overall, it feels as though the show is spinning its wheels a bit before it can move into the endgame in episode seven.
49. “Versatile Toppings” (season 2, episode 14)
You may recall this episode for featuring The Hills’ Kristin Cavallari. She plays a closeted cheerleader who’s being blackmailed by a homophobic bully, only — twist! — the blackmailer turns out to be her, trying to find an excuse to leave the closet with her girlfriend. It is in this capacity that she delivers the classic line, “Sorry to blow your mind, Veronica, but I’m a lesbian.”
This is perfectly solid, perfectly middle-of-the-road Veronica Mars. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it besides some mildly ridiculous celebrity stunt casting, but it’s not particularly special either.
48. “Rashard and Wallace Go to White Castle” (season 2, episode 12)
Wallace is a fantastically lovable supporting character who really struggles when he’s given his own plot. Here, he’s trying to clear his name after his big-shot basketball buddy Rashard claims he’s responsible for a hit-and-run, and it’s … fine, mostly. It doesn’t have the sparkle of Veronica Mars at its best, but it’s fine.
What’s stronger is the B-plot, which sees Veronica, Weevil, and Logan finally making some progress on the “who killed Felix” mystery when Veronica bugs a confessional. Bonus points for Veronica’s deadpan “I’m going straight to hell” as she plants the bug.
47. Veronica Mars (movie)
The ideal way to experience the Veronica Mars movie is in a theater, packed with fans who are ready to applaud like they just saw Nathan Chen pull off a flawless quadruple axel at the Olympics every time a familiar face pops up. In that setting, the movie is a fantastically enjoyable exercise in nostalgia: Look, there’s Wallace and Mac, and Mac has a fab new haircut! Look, there’s Weevil! After all these years!
On its own merits, the movie spends a little too much time servicing those nostalgic fans to really set up and execute a mystery the way the show could at its highest levels. And the central arc, in which Veronica tries to live a normal life only to realize that she can’t escape her mystery-solving ways, is a bit of a retread of early season two. Still, the nostalgia is fun, the arc is mostly satisfying, and the movie uses Krysten Ritter’s distinctively spiky screen presence way more effectively than the show did back in 2005, when it mostly asked her just to play a ditz.
(No, the movie never did explain why Logan is just suddenly in the Navy now. I have developed an extensive headcanon backstory about how it would ever occur to him to enlist; please feel free to @ me on Twitter if you want it.)
46. “Spring Break Forever” (season 4, episode 1)
Turning from the movie, we head into the season four premiere. Although season four would ultimately prove itself to have the exact opposite ideas about nostalgia as the movie does, in the premiere, you can’t quite know that for sure yet. “Spring Break Forever” is mostly just sharp, stylish setup that establishes our big conflicts, our victims, and our red herrings for the season. But it does so with a cinematic flair that’s new to this show’s vocabulary: Check out the big dramatic pans over Neptune’s new-to-us boardwalk, or the instant classic reintroduction to Cliff as he ambulance-chases his cheery way through the hospital to “Mr. Finish Line.”
45. “My Big Fat Greek Rush Week” (season 3, episode 2)
The big structural advantage Hearst theoretically has over Neptune High is that it offers a space to push back against Veronica’s assumptions about the world. After her experience getting bullied by the 09ers of her high school, Veronica generally expects people — especially rich and beautiful and popular people — to be monsters, and she takes a certain amount of glee in hurting them before they can hurt her. The rich and popular of college, though, aren’t the same people who tortured Veronica all through high school, and theoretically, watching her grapple with that disconnect could be fascinating.
In practice, the disconnect didn’t always come off well. But this episode, in which Veronica infiltrates a sorority to expose their nefarious deeds, only to discover that they’re growing pot purely to help the house mother manage her cancer, is a solid execution of the theory. And the B-plot, in which Wallace and Logan reenact the Stanford prison experiment, is a great way to play with an underused character dynamic — and while it can stand on its own, it also beautifully sets up the big reveal to come seven episodes later, in “Spit and Eggs.”
44. “Lord of the Bling” (season 1, episode 13)
This mystery of the week — concerning Veronica’s erstwhile friend Yolanda, who kissed Logan at a party back when Lilly was alive and who is now missing — is most interesting for the insights it gives us into Lilly and Veronica’s friendship dynamic. Episode 1.04, “The Wrath of Con,” established that Lilly was the charismatic leader and Veronica the adoring follower. Here, we see Veronica following Lilly to a place where she’s not entirely comfortable, ostracizing Yolanda the way she herself would be ostracized a few months later.
The B-plot here is essentially Logan’s promotion from background antagonist to head of the supporting cast. He’s at his mother’s funeral, slowly convincing himself that she’s still alive, and his manic, frenetic energy here is so compelling that it’s clear he earned his upgrade.
43. “Chino and the Man” (season 4, episode 2)
Here we get to dig a little into the thematic meat of season four, with Logan and Veronica arguing over whether change is healthy (Logan) or unsexy and boring (Veronica) in one of the most charged and interesting scenes they’ve ever had. It makes explicit what has always been part of the subtext of their relationship, which is that Veronica is drawn to Logan not despite the fact that he’s violent and has anger issues, but because of that fact. And now that he doesn’t any more, she doesn’t quite know what to do with him.
We also meet J.K. Simmons as the sinister yet affable Clyde, in a sequence that is not quite as good as it could be. Simmons fits seamlessly into Neptune’s noir world, but the flashbacks to his life in prison with Big Dick feel a little like cheating; traditionally, we don’t get flashbacks that aren’t something Veronica hasn’t seen or been told about, but in this new version of the show, we have access to all kinds of information that she doesn’t.
42. “Credit Where Credit’s Due” (season 1, episode 2)
The second episode of the show is a little bit infamous for featuring Paris Hilton as Logan’s cheating girlfriend, but when you put aside the stunt casting, it’s a solid introduction to the question of what a mystery of the week would look like on this show. The pilot’s mystery of the week was too slight to really establish the show’s format, but this episode, which features Weevil’s grandmother being blamed after someone opens a credit card in Logan’s mother’s name, has all the elements of what would make later Veronica Mars mysteries so fun.
There are compelling red herrings and misdirection (Weevil did it! No, Logan did it! No, Caitlin did it! No, Weevil’s cousin did it!). There’s class and race commentary. There’s light romantic angst. And, most compellingly, there’s a razor-sharp sense of exactly how traumatizing petty high school bullshit can be, even when you know, like Veronica does, exactly how petty it is.
41. “The Quick and the Wed” (season 2, episode 15)
This week is a fun use of Wallace’s mostly ignored, not-Jackie girlfriend Jane. Here, Jane’s soon-to-be-wed sister Heidi vanishes mysteriously just before her wedding, sending Jane straight to Veronica to investigate. It’s a simple mystery largely elevated by the guest star: Virginia Williams isn’t a hugely well-known actress (apparently she’s currently on the new Charmed, and good for her), but she’s clearly having a blast playing wild child Heidi, and she brings enormous and vibrant energy to her scenes.
This episode also sees Beaver’s real estate plot with Kendall heating up, leading Kendall to form her mysterious alliance with Aaron Echolls. It’s nice background seeding of a problem that will turn out to be key to solving this season’s big mystery. Aaron seems like he’s clearly the bigger threat here, but Beaver’s getting all his ducks in a row in plain sight.
Pretty solid (40–31)
40. “Heads You Lose” (season 4, episode 4)
Veronica’s visit to Chino to interrogate the ghosts of villains past is one of the smartest ways season four brings home just how much Veronica has stagnated: now in her 30s, she’s still doing the job, as Tim the murderous TA points out with a sneer, that she was doing in high school. This episode also sees the return of Deputy Leo at his most endearingly twinkle-eyed — plus the return of Weevil, now just as tragic and static as Veronica is.
39. “Meet John Smith” (season 1, episode 3) `
For an early-2000s episode of television about trans issues, this episode didn’t age too terribly! Yes, there’s a cis woman playing a trans woman here (Melissa Leo, turning in a lovely performance otherwise), but the show doesn’t treat her as a freak the way, for instance, Friends did with Chandler’s dad. The only person it condemns is her son, for rejecting the father he thought was dead when he finally meets her.
The rest of this episode is mostly given over to developing Duncan, and while very little of this development will ever pay off, his nightmare of Lilly with her skull caved in is beautifully eerie. And the final sequence, with Veronica’s brooding voiceover about “chasing the storm” playing in the background as she drives off in search of her own missing mother, is a gorgeous piece of noir moodiness.
38. “Nevermind the Buttocks” (season 2, episode 19)
The Fitzpatricks aren’t the most interesting villains in the season two pantheon (quick! name a Fitzpatrick!), but it’s satisfying to see their part of the plot get tied away here after the death of Weevil’s rival, as Weevil teams up with Veronica to get enough blackmail material to retake control of the PCHers. Plus, an episode full of solid Veronica/Weevil banter is always a good thing.
37. “Blast From the Past” (season 2, episode 5)
In which Jackie manages to outmaneuver Veronica and Wallace has a very bad week. Jackie’s an interesting foil to Veronica because she’s essentially the only person in Neptune who is on Veronica’s level when it comes to screwing with her opponents’ heads — and she shows this week, when she sics a fake psychic on Veronica to talk some trash about Lilly Kane, that she’s not above playing dirty. Jackie never got quite developed enough to carry this storyline herself, but she raises Veronica’s game just by being there. Plus, her presence creates some fascinating tension in Wallace and Veronica’s normally cuddly best friendship.
36. “Show Me the Monkey” (season 3, episode 10)
I have a soft spot for “Show Me the Monkey” because it’s one of the only episodes in which Veronica gets to have more than one female friend. For a show with a great female lead, Veronica Mars doesn’t pass the Bechdel test that often, but this episode, which sees Veronica, Parker, and Mac teaming up to solve the Case of the Missing Monkey, is a welcome exception.
35. “Gods of War” (season 4, episode 7)
Season four’s penultimate episode sees the show move into the thriller mode it traditionally saves for finales, one episode early. I have some quibbles with the shootout at the cabin (personally, I don’t love that Veronica has a gun now! It makes her less of an underdog), but it’s still a phenomenally tense and exciting sequence. And the fact that Veronica lands on Patton Oswalt’s Penn as the bomber an episode earlier than expected is a terrific bit of misdirection.
34. “Normal Is the Watchword” (season 2, episode 1)
The season two premiere has a tough job to do, but it performs it admirably: It clears away the baggage of season one, establishes the new status quo — Veronica wants to live a normal life but of course cannot; she’s now in with the 09ers but alienated from the PCHers — and lays the groundwork for the big mysteries that will drive the season, the bus crash and Felix’s death. Those mysteries won’t be executed with quite as much elegance as the season one mysteries, but in this early introduction, they’re thrilling.
33. “Rat Saw God” (season 2, episode 6)
This episode sees the return of Clarence Wiedman and Abel Koontz from season one, and it is a straight-up joy to watch Clarence and Veronica develop their good cop/bad cop double act. We also get to see Aaron for the first time since season one, and he’s clearly having a blast messing with a freaked-out Logan when they’re locked up in the same cell together.
Fun fact: This episode is named after Rob Thomas’s YA novel, which has nothing to do with this episode but does have a twisty plot structure heavily reminiscent of Veronica Mars season one. Would recommend!
32. “Cheatty Cheatty Bang Bang” (season 2, episode 3)
Season two consistently struggles to make its larger mysteries matter to Veronica. But here, when Beaver hires her to investigate just who Kendall is having an affair with, while a dead body washes up on the beach with Veronica’s name on its hand, Veronica gets sucked in almost against her will. It goes a long way toward making the mysteries feel worth following.
31. “Keep Calm and Party On” (season 4, episode 3)
Otherwise known as the episode where Veronica does E and then demands the DJ at Nicole’s club play “No Scrubs” so she can dance. But as charming as that montage is, what really makes the episode land is the final scene, in which a bomb goes off at a beach volleyball game just hours after the supposed bomber has been arrested. Everyone else runs away from the explosion, but Veronica whips her head around and immediately shoves her way closer, saying in uplifted voiceover, “Holy shit, I was right. Why do I always have to be right?” It’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates her character.
Getting good here (30–21)
30. “Mars vs. Mars” (season 1, episode 14)
Featuring Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl as Neptune High’s queen bee Carrie Bishop, and Parks and Rec’s Adam Scott as Mr. Rooks, the history teacher she says she had an affair with. This episode was made before either Meester or Scott was really famous, but it still manages to be a fantastic use of what makes both of them so good. At first, Scott’s affable charm makes Mr. Rooks easy to believe and root for, while Meester’s brittle mean girl iciness makes her seem like a clear liar. But as Veronica uncovers the truth — that Mr. Rooks really did have an affair with a student, and that Carrie is lying only to protect her friend — Meester’s iciness melts away to reveal the vulnerability that made Blair a scene stealer on Gossip Girl, and Scott lets the sliminess he’s so good at playing creep into Mr. Rooks.
29. “Happy Go Lucky” (season 2, episode 21)
And here we see the Aaron Echolls case from season one wrapped up: After everything Veronica and Keith went through to get the evidence they needed to put Aaron behind bars, he’s found not guilty. It’s heartbreaking, all too easy to believe, and pure noir.
28. “Betty and Veronica” (season 1, episode 16)
“Betty and Veronica” is just fun. This episode sees Veronica going undercover at a neighboring high school as wide-eyed good girl Betty, and there’s an almost palpable glee in the way Kristen Bell plays those scenes. Check out how she pitches her voice just slightly too high and makes her smile just slightly too fixed when she does that smarmy fake wave at the kid she’s scamming: she’s having so much fun that it radiates off the screen. Plus, the fact that she’s mostly doing it all for Wallace is a great way to deepen their friendship.
27. “Charlie Don’t Surf” (season 3, episode 4)
For an episode that clearly exists in large part because someone at The CW looked at Veronica Mars and looked at Gilmore Girls and then said, “Hey! Both of these shows have rich jerks named Logan in them!”, “Charlie Don’t Surf” is a lot of fun. Matt Czuchry, the Logan from Gilmore Girls, guest-stars as an undercover reporter posing as our Logan’s long-lost half-brother, and there’s a quality to his presence I can best describe as extremely earnest smarm. (That’s what made him so good on The Good Wife!) Here, that earnest smarm plays beautifully against Jason Dohring’s brand of extremely theatrical, extremely mannered smarm — especially early on, when Logan is working hard to keep the smarm under control and just present as a normal guy so he can make a good impression on his new brother.
26. “Losing Streak” (season 4, episode 5)
Nicole, Captain Quack owner and new BFF to Veronica, is one of season four’s best new characters. Actress Kirby Howell-Baptiste has a fantastic, easy, lived-in chemistry with Kristen Bell (they worked together before on both House of Lies and The Good Place), and as soon as she breaks out her sap glove, you know immediately why Veronica gets hearts in her eyes whenever she looks at Nicole.
But Nicole is also such a perfect fit for Veronica’s best friendship that it’s hard not to suspect that she’s up to something nefarious. This is Neptune, after all. When does Veronica ever get to have nice things? So when Veronica bugs Nicole’s office at the end of the episode, it’s a moment that feels both tragic and perfectly right: Veronica’s an asshole for invading her new friend’s privacy, for sure, but well, also … obviously she should suspect Nicole.
25. “Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner” (season 2, episode 7)
What a weirdo episode of television this is! Veronica’s on a quest to find out which of Meg’s old babysitting clients has been abusing their kids, so she babysits her way through a field of Neptune’s most neurotic parents and also does some light breaking and entering while Duncan dresses like a beatnik. It’s all incredibly surreal and creepy, and it ends as one of Veronica’s rare failures.
This is also the point in season two where the new dynamics that the premiere put into place really start to sparkle and get fun: Duncan and Logan are living together while Logan and Veronica solve crimes in secret; Krysten Ritter’s Gia is being a sweet airhead with something fundamentally off going on in the background; Woody’s being mildly ominous in some undefined way. It’s all gelling in a way that makes for really compelling TV.
24. “Like a Virgin” (season 1, episode 8)
And this is one of those early season one episodes where you can just feel the show settling into its groove. The mystery, involving a purity quiz that becomes the latest campus fad, is exactly the kind of petty high school nonsense that best shows off the casual cruelty of Veronica’s classmates. Meg and Mac both make their debuts here, each with instantly rock-solid characterization. And the concluding sequence, in which Veronica goes to visit Lilly Kane murder suspect Abel Koontz in jail and he drops a giant bombshell on her, is a genuinely creepy and heartbreaking moment: As far as Veronica knows, there’s a really good chance that Keith is not her biological father.
23. “Return of the Kane” (season 1, episode 6)
In which we meet Aaron Echolls and find out exactly why Logan is such an asshole. The poor little rich boy with daddy issues wasn’t quite the teen drama cliché it is now back when this episode first aired in 2004, and at the time, “Return of the Kane” was considered shocking enough in the fandom that it laid the groundwork for Logan becoming one of the most popular characters on the show.
Even 15 years later, I think the big reveal that Aaron is abusing Logan works. It’s so underplayed that the shock still lands, and crucially, the show never suggests that Logan shouldn’t be held responsible for the terrible things he’s done because he’s been abused. It just gives you the bare minimum of information you need to start to understand the kid.
22. “Kanes and Abel’s” (season 1, episode 17)
This episode is chock-full of fan favorite characters — Vinnie Van Lowe! Clarence Wiedman! — but for my money, what sets it over the top is the haunting set of dream sequences in which we see Lilly get killed by each of the Kanes in turn. And here at the end of the season, Veronica is even considering Duncan a possible killer, in the setup of the last and best red herrings in the Lilly Kane mystery.
21. “You Think You Know Somebody” (season 1, episode 5)
Troy’s sendoff here is done incredibly elegantly. When he makes his speech to Veronica about how she’s misjudging him out of her need to be right, he so clearly has her number that it’s easy to believe him — but the thing is, while Veronica might be self-righteous and judgy, she also usually is right. And the show proves that when she turns out to be absolutely correct about Troy, even after we thought she was wrong.
Plus, the scene where Veronica finally confronts Keith about why he won’t look for Lianne is a stunning little heartbreaker of a moment. “You can find anybody!”
Some pretty excellent TV (20–11)
20. “Hot Dogs” (season 1, episode 19)
There are three fantastic things about this episode. First, Aaron’s violent beatdown of Trina’s abusive boyfriend is a smart and stylish sequence on its own merits that also lays the groundwork beautifully for the big reveal at the end of the season. Second, this episode features one of Veronica’s most badass speeches in defense of her poor bullied classmate Mandy: “Congratulations! You’ve been named the world’s biggest cockroach. This award is given in recognition of your unparalleled lack of decency and humanity. Bravo! You’re gonna die friendless and alone.” And third, Logan and Veronica make out. Look, I’m not going to pretend like I don’t recognize great TV kissing when I see it.
19. “Ruskie Business” (season 1, episode 15)
The ’80s dance at the end of this episode is a fun and classic teen soap set piece, especially the romantic musical chairs: Veronica and Meg are firming up their friendship, but Duncan’s pining for Meg, but Veronica’s pining for Duncan, but Veronica’s with Leo. (Deputy Leo!) But what really elevates this one is the big reveal that Logan’s mom really is dead, leaving Logan sobbing in Veronica’s arms. It’s the first genuine emotional connection we see between them, and it underlies everything that comes after.
18. “Look Who’s Stalking” (season 2, episode 20)
In all honesty, I barely remember the mystery of the week here (it involves Lucky stalking Gia, which sets up the eventual reveal that Woody molested him), but this episode has the Alterna-Prom! It has the epic speech! Just watch it:
Side note: This scene might be iconic, but the callback in the movie was terrible. What makes the speech work in its original context is that Logan’s a desperate drunk teenager and while Veronica is very moved by the speech, she’s also lowkey judging him for it. It makes no sense for them both to treat it as romantic with straight faces when they are fully sober adults.
17. “Spit & Eggs” (season 3, episode 9)
The Hearst rapist plot is messy, to say the least, but the big payoff here has style and flair. The in media res opening actually works to build tension without feeling cheap (they learned after “Girl Next Door!”), and the reveal that Moe and Mercer have been collaborating to commit the rapes is an effectively creepy plot twist.
16. “Years, Continents, Bloodshed” (season 4, episode 8)
I’m on the record as having wildly mixed feelings about this finale, and in all honesty, at various points I have considered putting it in the top 10, the bottom 10, or directly in the middle of the pack. In the end, I decided that it was too flawed to quite make the top 10: the final twist comes so completely out of nowhere as to feel a little cheap, as though it’s drafting on the emotional investment I built up during the original run of the show to make me feel sad rather than the season giving me an organic reason for my reaction.
But I also couldn’t bear to downgrade this episode too hard, either. That’s mostly on the strength of that final scene, with Veronica driving down the highway with her face as set as a plasticine mask. She’s bathed in all the vibrant colors of the Veronica Mars high school era, the colors that season four by and large eschewed in favor of cool grays and blues, and that single moment felt as close as anything ever has to the experience of watching the pilot for the first time and being fully immersed in this colorful noir world. For that reason if nothing else, I can’t discount the quality of this episode.
15. “M.A.D.” (season 1, episode 20)
“M.A.D.” is technically a mystery-of-the-week episode, and it’s a solid one at that, but the reason I’m ranking it so high is because of how beautifully it sets up the season’s endgame. In a reversal of the beginning of the season, Duncan is looking more and more volatile and Logan more and more sympathetic — but because we all know we’re living in a noir universe, in the audience, we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop and for Logan to reveal that he’s secretly been a monster the whole time, and so is Duncan.
The show’s playing us so expertly here that it’s hard to avoid the sinking feeling that both of those boys were deeply and terribly involved with Lilly’s death and/or Veronica’s rape. And when we get the big reveal at the end of the episode that Logan was selling GHB the night Veronica was drugged and raped, it feels like it’s nailing the coffin shut.
14. “Weevils Wobble but They Don’t Go Down” (season 3, episode 19)
The series’s penultimate episode sets up what was probably the most intriguing mystery of season three: the Castle, the mysterious group of rich people scamming their way across Hearst, of whom Jake Kane is a member and who Veronica (of course) ends up pissing off. The storyline only has two episodes to work itself out, but it holds so much potential that it makes the show’s early end that much more bittersweet.
13. “I Am God” (season 2, episode 18)
“I Am God” has a bit of a “catching up” vibe to it: We’re approaching season two’s endgame now, but heretofore Veronica hasn’t seemed to feel any particular urgency about solving the bus crash mystery. The idea that she’s suddenly invested because she’s having nightmares about the crash and its victims is a bit of a narrative cheat, but it provides some much-needed urgency as we head into the final episodes of the season. And the dreams themselves are so stylish and smartly constructed that the cheating feels less egregious than it would otherwise. The climactic dream, which weirdly implicates Weevil and ends with dead Cervando whispering “I am God,” is downright haunting.
12. “Plan B” (season 2, episode 177)
And just before we start to take the bus crash mystery seriously, we close the door on the “who killed Felix” mystery. This is where Weevil asks Veronica to find proof that it was Thumper who killed Felix and, when her proof doesn’t come fast enough, takes matters into his own hands. There’s a fantastic sense of momentum and fatalism to the editing of the final sequence: We cut from Thumper getting tied up in Shark Stadium to an unwitting Logan starting the demolition to Weevil in confession, and at once you know exactly what happened and why.
11. “Weapons of Class Destruction” (season 1, episode 18)
Logan and Veronica’s relationship would end up devouring the show a little bit in season three, but damn if their first kiss in this episode isn’t still a perfect moment of television. It feels at once shocking and completely inevitable. The first time I saw that episode, I was as surprised as the characters were when they kissed, but in retrospect, of course this is where they were heading all along.
The best of the best (10–1)
10. “The Bitch Is Back” (season 3, episode 20)
After all the sourness and flatness of season three — especially in those arc-free episodes that come in the end — “The Bitch Is Back” is a fantastic return to form for the show, an episode that manages to at once hold the seeds of a compelling story for a potential (and never realized) season four and to be a compelling farewell hour. Thematically, what’s most effective is the way this episode showcases the fraught, slightly codependent, always loving relationship between Keith and Veronica: When Keith throws his election chances to cover up Veronica’s crime, it’s the perfect noir slant on the relationship that formed the beating heart of the show.
9. “The Wrath of Con” (season 1, episode 4)
This is the episode that makes the death of Lilly Kane matter. Before this, yeah, it was sad that Veronica was sad about Lilly, but otherwise who cared? But after this episode — after you see Lilly grinning at the camera with her hair blowing behind her, crowing, “You love me, don’t you?” — it’s impossible not to feel exactly how tragic her death was. It’s a scene-stealing episode for Amanda Seyfried, who is so charismatic here that every time I watch it, I’m prepared to storm the gates of Hollywood and demand better work for her.
8. “Ahoy, Mateys!” (season 2, episode 8)
This is one of those season two episodes that just does everything exactly right. The big season-long mysteries get served: Veronica and Logan face down the Fitzpatricks as the episode opens in what is the single most effective use of the characters in the whole show, and Veronica spends the mystery of the week learning about Marcos, one of the kids who died in the bus crash. The characters’ interpersonal relationships get served: Mac cements her status as one of Veronica’s chief allies and the pair get to play off each other in an adorable buddy cop sequence, while Veronica and Logan trade charged, angst-ridden barbs in between holding the Fitzpatricks at gunpoint. It’s all working, and it’s all pitched perfectly.
7. “Not Pictured” (season 2, episode 22)
The season two finale is tasked with the formidable two-headed feat of a) making the bus crash reveal matter, and b) wrapping up the high school era of the show, and it accomplishes them both with aplomb. Sure, there are some issues here and there — Beaver’s monologue has some Bond villain overtones, and the reveal that he actually did rape Veronica marks the show’s growing tendency to turn to sexual assault for cheap shocks — but for the most part, the emotions of the episode work, and that’s what counts. From Veronica’s immensely touching, bittersweet dream of the world where Lilly never died to Beaver’s wrenching last words (“My name is Cassidy!”), it all comes together beautifully.
6. “Leave It to Beaver” (season 1, episode 22)
The case of who killed Lilly Kane is the most elegantly structured mystery in the entire run of this show, and you can see its elegance most clearly in this final reveal. Aaron’s violence has been running a particularly disturbing undercurrent through the whole season, but he was so neatly siloed away from Lilly for so long that the first time I watched the show, it never occurred to me that he could have killed her. But as soon as you see him leering down at Lilly from the tape, you know, just like Veronica does, that no one else could have done it.
5. “Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enough” (season 2, episode 13)
“Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enough” is mostly just a mystery-of-the-week episode, but it’s a rock-solid one. The case of who stole the senior class trip fund is so carefully constructed, and the suspects so well chosen, that it has the claustrophobic intimacy of a locked-door mystery or a bottle episode, even though the bulk of the action takes place on a busy, sprawling school carnival ground.
4. “Clash of the Tritons” (season 1, episode 12)
“Clash of the Tritons” hits all the notes that make Veronica Mars at the top of its game work so well. There are the joyous caper scenes of Veronica facing off against the Tritons, the 09ers’ Skull and Bones-like secret society. There are the quips (this is the episode that gave us “Veronica Mars is smarter than me”). There’s the vivid melancholy of everyone connected to Lilly talking to the counselor about her, combined with the eerie voyeurism of Veronica listening in. And there’s the class commentary: The Tritons might have done some messed-up things, but they didn’t do the crime that Veronica’s currently investigating because, well … they don’t have to. They’re the kind of powerful people who can work around the law, so they don’t need to break it to get what they want.
3. “Pilot” (season 1, episode 1)
What a fantastic introduction to Neptune this pilot is. It establishes our major mysteries: Lilly’s murder, Veronica’s rape, Veronica’s mother’s disappearance. It introduces the distinctive look of the show, both color-saturated and moodily noir at the same time (the producers called it “color noir”). We see how petty and cruel the world that Veronica’s living in is. And Veronica herself is just instantly there: Immediately, you can see that she’s sarcastic and way too smart for her own good and that underneath all the badassery, Wallace is right. She really is a marshmallow.
2. “A Trip to the Dentist” (season 1, episode 21)
The mystery of who raped Veronica is arguably the most personal one of the first season, and to the show’s enormous credit, never once does that mystery feel as though it’s supposed to be sensational or titillating. (You know, until season two.) Mostly, it’s just really sad. And when we finally delve through the Rashomon-style flashbacks in this episode to piece together what happened to her, the incredible ordinariness of it all is even more heartbreaking.
Veronica was at a house party with drugs running rampant and a pack of sadistic rich kids who have never once in their lives been told no, and no one protected her. That’s all that happened, and that’s all it took to get her to one of the worst nights of her life. It’s a horribly familiar story. The casual ease of the whole thing is what makes it so awful, and it’s the best indictment the show ever came up with against the entire corrupt and sordid culture of the 09ers.
To be honest, I thought hard about putting “A Trip to the Dentist” at No. 1 in this ranking. But at the end of the day, it had to be …
1. “An Echolls Family Christmas” (season 1, episode 10)
“An Echolls Family Christmas” is a pitch-perfect blend of Veronica Mars at its most fun and its darkest. On the light end of the spectrum, there’s the poker plot, with all its quips and banter and the big Poirot-esque reveal. This is the episode that gave us, “Annoy, tiny blonde one! Annoy like the wind!” And how perfect is that moment where Veronica takes her seat at the table and the guys realize she’s about to completely smoke them?
And on the dark end, there’s Aaron Echolls making his quietly sociopathic way through the world, accompanied by all the glitz and glamour he could want. And there’s Jake Kane, being ambiguously sinister in a way that Veronica can never quite fully parse.
This episode is a sort of showcase for the show. Every character gets a moment to show off their best and most interesting selves. Every note in the show’s emotional register gets a solo. It’s all perfectly balanced and perfectly noir, and that’s why I have to name it the best episode of Veronica Mars.
Update: This ranking has been updated to include the eight episodes of Veronica Mars season four.