We continue our Veronica Mars catch-up with "Meet John Smith," an installment predominantly focused on parenthood and the many ways that parents and children misinterpret each other - much to their detriment.
Also worth noting: Veronica Mars Season 1, Episode 3 features Oscar winner Melissa Leo in a surprising guest role (which was seven years before she earned a Best Supporting Actress gong for The Fighter, fact fans).
The episode's main storyline involves Veronica assisting a schoolmate, Justin, in his quest to locate his father.
What initially appears to be a ruse so that Justin can spend more time with Veronica and indulge his crush on her (he believes his father is dead, and simply wants an excuse to interact with Veronica) soon turns out to be altogether more intriguing when it emerges that Justin's father is still alive and living nearby in San Diego -- although his common name (John Smith) doesn't narrow down the list of suspects much.
After a fair amount of stalking, Veronica and Justin discover that John Smith is transgender and now lives as Julia Smith with her parole officer boyfriend, but that she's been coming to visit Justin at the video store where he works every week, just for an opportunity to see him.
Initially, Justin responds as most insecure teenage boys would and calls his father a circus freak, feeling betrayed that his mother lied to him about his father's death and that Julia never revealed her true identity on her multiple trips to the video store.
Luckily, he has Veronica there to be his voice of reason, and after she points out that Julia drives 90 miles every week just to spend a few seconds with her son, Justin realizes how much his father still loves him.
This plot holds a mirror up to two other tumultuous parental relationships in the episode. Early on, Veronica quizzes her father over her mother's whereabouts and her recent motel visit with Duncan Kane, believing that her mom has abandoned her and no longer cares for her, especially given that she's been staying in Arizona - close enough that Veronica wonders why she hasn't reached out to reconnect.
She sees her mom as the villain for leaving, even when her father tells her that Lianne isn't the bad guy Veronica wants to paint her as. Although Keith is reluctant to engage in any discussion about Lianne, Veronica is determined to track her mom down on her own, so heads off to Arizona to confront her. There, she finds her mom's college friend Adrianna but no sign of Lianne, who left a couple of weeks earlier.
Still Adrianna tells our cynical heroine that her mom has been singing her praises, and that Veronica is the only thing Lianne cares about. Veronica remains understandably unconvinced, but given Adrianna's warm reaction to Veronica's appearance, it's obvious her mom hasn't forgotten her.
Meanwhile, Keith struggles to relate to his teenage daughter and her many secrets, feeling insecure about his inability to communicate with her about what she's going through - including her tendency to show up late for school and fall asleep in class.
At first defensive about his shortcomings, he eventually asks Veronica's guidance counselor, Rebecca James, to speak to Veronica about her struggles (and indulges in a little flirting) ... I can't imagine that'll go down well.
On the other end of the parental spectrum are Duncan's parents, Jake and Celeste. Jake is blustering about Duncan's future - the political aspirations he wants his son to have, the colleges he needs to impress, basically everything that Duncan doesn't currently care about - while his mother is advising him to pop anti-depressants even though it's obvious that the pills are dulling him down to the point where he's indistinguishable from cardboard.
It's only when Duncan starts skipping his medication that we see a spark of life from the character for the first time in three episodes, although going cold turkey from the drugs starts giving him erratic mood swings, hallucinations of his dead sister and vivid dreams about sex with Veronica.
(Amusingly, she seems to be sharing those without the aid of medication, but they're hormonal teenagers, so what can you do?)
His bizarre cheerfulness (and newfound desire to jump off the bleachers) concerns both Veronica and Logan, but by the end of the episode - after being visited by a vision of Lilly who tells him he needs to wake up and realize that the circumstances of her murder don't add up - Duncan has chosen to remain in blissful ignorance and pretend that everything's fine.
Apparently feeling nothing is far preferable to feeling the pain of loss and his longing for Veronica, especially now that she's getting closer to his old friend Troy. I'm still not entirely convinced that Teddy Dunn is a great actor, considering the only flavors of Duncan we've experienced thus far are numb and hyperactive, but it was nice to see a little more personality from the character than usual.
Although Leo's appearance was fairly brief, it was refreshing to see the show handling a trans woman's story with empathy and nuance.
Despite Justin's kneejerk reaction to his father's reassignment, "Meet John Smith" was reassuringly judgment free about the exploration of gender identity, illustrating the value of looking beyond the surface of a person or situation before rushing to judgment, while resisting the urge to be preachy or condescending. If only more shows could treat LGBT issues so respectfully.
Thanks for reading and remember to watch Veronica Mars online in order to catch up along with us!