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Modern Marriage and Veronica Mars (spoiler alert)

Admit it, you're a fan.

Teenage girl detective. Complicated storylines. Smart writing. Proof positive that, as Mike Hale once wrote, "TV for a younger audience could be smart, sophisticated in its storytelling and emotionally complex." What's not to love?

We have to confess: We were completely unaware of Veronica Mars during its original run on the CW from 2004-07. We missed the Kickstarter movie revival in 2014. We had no idea how Kristen Bell originally got so famous. But now we understand, and we've taken steps to remedy our egregious oversight from the aughts.

Plus, the 15-years-later Season 4 just dropped on Hulu. (If you haven't seen it, and plan to watch it, please stop reading right now. This is your official spoiler alert.)

If you have seen it, what gives with the ending? Seriously. What gives? Why have the main character wrestle with her relationship to marriage, come to the conclusion that it does have a place in her life and that she wants to marry her live-in partner, only to kill off her husband almost immediately after the vows have left their lips?

In addition to the fact that we love television, especially television with smart writing and strong female characters, we're fascinated by this: What does the ending of Season 4 of Veronica Mars say about marriage? What does the showrunner's belief that an interesting woman won't remain interesting after getting married say about the tropes about women and marriage that are still kicking around? What does this plot point and the reasoning for making it illuminate about the collision between the reality of marriage at the end of the second decade of the 21st century and antiquated ideas of marriage?

Much has been written about the precipitous decline in marriage rates in the United States. (You can read more on that here, here, and here.) There has been much wringing of hands and rending of garments lamenting the shift away from "traditional" marriage (read into that what you will).

Scholar Stephanie Coontz points out that people haven't given up on marriage entirely but explains that they are waiting longer to tie the knot. She puts it this way, "Marriage is no longer the central institution that organizes people’s lives. Marriage is no longer the only place where people make major life transitions and decisions, enter into commitments or incur obligations." She goes on to say, "When people do marry, they have different expectations and goals. In consequence, many of the 'rules' we used to take for granted — about who marries, who doesn’t, what makes for a satisfactory marriage and what raises the risk of divorce — are changing."

So what of marriage when seen through the lens of the latest season of Veronica Mars?

A review in Vulture by Kathryn VanArendonk (see? we're not the only ones parsing Season 4) describes the tragic ending this way, "Detective Veronica pulls away from Domestic Bliss Veronica; the two versions of her cannot co-exist."

Or, as Thomas put it, “The happy pairing off of the leads of the show usually mark[s] the end of the show. Badass private eye and her husband back in Neptune didn’t feel like the show that could sustain itself moving forward.”

And, yet, it seems to us that Thomas' construction and conception — that the happy pairing off of leads marks the demise of a show — misunderstands what it might mean to be a complicated woman (or man) in a complicated relationship whose life and ambitions don't center marriage. To be a person who comes to a conscious and deliberate decision that making space for the institution is worthwhile. The notion that a cynical, underdog heroine would be flattened out into a different person by virtue of getting married reflects what seems to be an anachronistic and romanticized — dare we say Victorian? — view of marriage.

First, to stay focused on the Veronica Mars example, there is nothing remotely "perfect" about the relationship. The relationship is complex. Occasionally inconsistent. Often maddening. Which makes said relationship entirely relatable.

Second, for a character who lost her best friend and mother and was drugged and raped within the first season of the show, all before she turned 18, to agree to marry a similarly complicated man with his own history of tragedy, will not magically transfigure her into a complacent and chirpy and endlessly happy bore.

There aren't a lot of examples in pop culture plumbing the depths of the shifting context of committed relationships and marriage. (We think that Season 4 of Schitt's Creek does an exceptional job with David and Patrick's relationship. And Johnny and Moira's marriage, for that matter. But we digress.) There are even fewer depictions of women who are married that aren't operative on outdated assumptions about what marriage does to and for women.

In fact, the characters in question seemed to be using marriage as an opportunity to stretch themselves to be better while occasionally ricocheting back to their former posture (as rubber bands and human beings are wont to do). Again, it is Coontz who sums it up best: "It’s not that we’re doing a worse job at marriage than our ancestors did. It’s that we demand different things from marriage than in the past. And marriage demands different things from us."

We'll happily tune into a show that makes space for those new and different demands.


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