*Please note that this article contains spoilers for the 4th season of Veronica Mars*
After a five year hiatus, the long beloved mystery series Veronica Mars returned this summer with one of the only TV comebacks to be actually worth a damn (yes, we’re looking at you The X-Files.) While the Hulu revival has been widely acclaimed by both fans and critics alike, one of the key elements of the 4th season that hasn’t seen much coverage is its stellar exploration, and at times skewering, of true crime culture.
Even these modern marvels, Veronica Mars included, are only really scratching the surface of an obsession that has hid beneath the shiny veneer of modern Americana for hundreds of years.
Over the last decade, there has been a wild resurgence of true crime. While movies like Zodiac and TV shows like The People vs. O.J. Simpson have achieved great success in their respective mediums, it has been the true crime podcasts which have been most responsible for this boom. Wildly popular shows like Last Podcast on the Left, Criminal and My Favorite Murder have blown up to be some of the biggest podcasts in the world, and with so many people listening, fans don’t feel so ashamed or morbid talking about the gruesome details and awful circumstances behind some of humanity’s most horrendous crimes.
Of course, even these modern marvels, Veronica Mars included, are only really scratching the surface of an obsession that has hid beneath the shiny veneer of modern Americana for hundreds of years. If the murder ballad folk songs of the early 20th century or the detective novels of the late 19th century weren’t an indication of this fact, surely the hundreds (or thousands) who might gather to watch criminals being publicly executed in the middle ages (often stealing a possession or lock of hair after the execution) surely is.
However, there is an even darker side to true crime and the public’s obsession with it than a simple morbid souvenir or two. Killers like Ed Kemper (recently made famous by Netflix’s Mindhunter) or BTK have sometimes been known to ingratiate themselves into the investigative process, misleading those searching for them or gathering information on how much the police actually know.
This is the most interesting element that Veronica Mars taps into in its latest season. After a string of grisly bomb attacks rocks Neptune, there’s no shortage of suspects who might be responsible. There’s Big Dick, a real estate maven who stands to profit from the plummeting market values the attacks create, and his Chino cellmate Clyde, a former bank robber. There’s a violent bar matron with a vendetta against sex offenders (who make up some of the victims) and some squirrely frat brothers who definitely seem to be hiding something. Hell even the cartel and a scandalized senator avail themselves as possible perpetrators before long.
With that laundry list of usual suspects, though, comes a lowly pizza delivery man. Penn Epner seems to have little going on in his life, and while he comes across as charming and affable, his true crime leanings hide a much darker secret. As he consistently makes himself the center of the investigation, standing up to accuse people at town meetings, talking to any journalist who will listen, and constantly visiting the police and Mars Investigations, he attempts to direct the focus of the investigation toward his enemies and away from himself.
Meanwhile, Penn is responsible for nearly all of the criminal carnage being perpetrated around Neptune. Though the first bombing is indeed revealed to be part of a real estate scam, the remaining copycat crimes, committed by Epner, are a part of his sick manifesto: to punish the unruly spring breakers who rudely accost him and strike fear in the hearts of the political and financial elite he despises. A brilliant man who was kicked out of college for his part in a sick game that mutilated a classmate, Epner takes a sort of ironic outrage at being teased and berated by today’s students. He also feels unable to utilize his strong intellect for anything truly worthwhile, which causes him considerable frustration in his true crime group, a group which is filled with otherwise very successful people.
Of course, he is only revealed as the perpetrator of the bombings in the final episode of Veronica Mars’ fourth season. Up until that point, he’s the last person you would expect to be responsible for so much death and destruction. Portrayed by the amusing and likeable comedian, Patton Oswalt, Penn is usually the comic relief or the wacky side character to the proceedings, giving viewers little reason to suspect he might be the one behind the crimes he seems so intent on helping to solve.
There’s actually an interesting real-life correlation there as well. Oswalt’s wife, Michelle McNamara, was a very serious true crime enthusiast before she passed away in late 2016. She was instrumental in the final stages of the Golden State Killer investigation, and her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, explores her rich, dark obsession with the vicious killer that she never lived to see unmasked as former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018. This additional kernel of knowledge leads one to wonder if his role in the 4th season of Veronica Mars is meant as a loving tribute to his late wife, as the background knowledge seems to close for coincidence.
In any case, Veronica Mars‘s exploration of true crime isn’t all doom and gloom. The rest of Epner’s true crime obsessive group, dubbed The Murderheads, are more or less well-adjusted and useful members of society. Ranging from a librarian to a political consultant, the other Murderheads seem to be intelligent and analytical thinkers who genuinely want to help law enforcement find the person responsible for the Neptune bombings. Like in real life, the majority of true crime aficionados in Veronica Mars are people who are just as fascinated by the dark underbelly of society as they are troubled by it.
Epner, though, remains a vivid portrayal of the real-life criminals who return to their crime scenes, taunt law enforcement, or purposely direct the flow of an investigation. While they may not always be as nefarious or calculating as their fictional counterparts, these people do exist, and the latest season of Veronica Mars serves as a welcome reminder to keep our eyes open for them.