Til Happiness Do Us Part: Healthy Relationships and Dramatic Tension


This post contains minor spoilers for Jessica Jones S3 and Stranger Things S3 along with huge, misery-making spoilers for Veronica Mars S4. The stuff I want to talk about in JJ or ST happen in the first episode, but with VM I’m going to talk about the Big Important Ending.

Spoiler space.

A little more spoiler space.

And a jump:

When I did my recent post running odds on the possible plot twists in the third season of Stranger Things, I got one thing wrong. No, wait. I got everything wrong. But I got one thing really really wrong. I thought there was no way the Duffers would split up Mike and El after keeping them apart for so long. I thought their relationship would hold throughout the season.

And, yeah. That didn’t happen. At all. They start off as a couple but are broken up by the end of the first episode. It’s a smart choice, not just because they use the split as a source of conflict, but because it puts the characters (especially El) in new situations that let them grow. Splitting the Big Couple on the show: wise decision.

With Jessica Jones, the choice is less interesting. She ends S2 with Oscar, the hot single dad upstairs, enjoying a dinner and “connecting with people”, which is a thing she’s had trouble doing. It’s what you call “character growth”. At the start of S3, hot single dad’s adorable kid is still around, but in the first episode (or is it the second?) Oscar puts their relationship out of its misery.

Why? Oscar breaks up with Jessica because the show needs to reset her to her default. She needs to be alone, unhappy, occasionally hooking up with guys in bars, and basically alienated from the world around her. That’s the Jessica the show is about, and while Stranger Things is letting its characters grow and change (not that they could hold those kids back), Jessica Jones is like its comic book inspiration. It wants to reset the character for each season.

Which means, naturally, that all the trauma she went through during the 13 episodes of season two–and all of the change she earned–had to be wiped away.

And then you get to the end of the fourth season of Veronica Mars, where Veronica and Logan finally get married. Rob Thomas gives them a small but happy wedding, then he takes it away by straight up killing Logan with a bomb before the honeymoon.

Why is Logan, one of the most interesting characters on the show, killed off? According to Rob Thomas, it’s to transition from… well, I’ll let him explain.

“And if we kept doing a show that was half teenage soap and half mystery show, the fear is it would start feeling like nostalgia.” — Rob Thomas

So, in order to move away from soap opera aspects of the show, he… murdered the star’s husband on their honeymoon?

Yeah. Okay.

Look, I’m not what you’d call a huge fan of the Veronica/Logan relationship. Logan was introduced as a villain in the first couple of episodes. After he smashed Veronica’s headlights in the second episode, he was supposed to be written out. But Jason Dohring was so good–and there was so much energy between him and Kristin Bell–that they kept bring him back. He beat people up. He said racist shit. He was a complete asshole.

But as I’ve said before, it’s the job of a TV show, long term, to change the characters. The sweet and virtuous make dark choices. The evil pricks get a tragic backstory and a shot at redemption. Logan was one of those pricks, and I thought his character needed a lot more time to rehabilitate himself before he became the romantic lead. Their first kiss gave me a Buffy and Spike vibe, because it felt like a self-destructive mistake. And the third season was absolutely a headache of soap opera love triangles, with way too much angst given to the relationship.

Boyfriends are conflict machines, right? Well, maybe.

“The happy pairing off of the leads of the show usually marks the end of the show” — Rob Thomas

I think Thomas has over-learned the lesson of shows like Moonlighting. If the central question of a show is “Will they or won’t they?” as it was in Moonlighting and Cheers, then the writers know there’s a limited time that you can sustain the tension in that. Eventually, fans tire of it, so it has to be answered. And usually, it’s answered in the positive because that’s what the fans want. After that, you need a new question to sustain the show.

Apparently, there are lots of Stranger Things fans who have hoped that Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper will get together, and the Duffers played with that expectation all through season three, sometimes in ways that made me really uncomfortable. Those two have a “Will they/Won’t they” dynamic, but it’s a small subplot on a very busy show.

But “Will they or won’t they?” has never been the question behind the Veronica/Logan relationship. Their conflict has always been about trust. Veronica could never trust anyone because she’d seen so much betrayal in her personal and professional life. Logan was a “TV Bad Boy”(tm) who did shit he shouldn’t, like skipping class to go lift, or bagging out on a date to hit a casino. That was their drama. That evaporated by the time we got to the movie, which ended with the “happy” circumstance of 1) Veronica back to work at Mars Investigations and 2) Veronica back together with an older, more mature version of Logan. If there’d never been any more Veronica Mars after that, (not counting the inevitable failed remakes) we would have gotten a fitting end for the character.

Now that Hulu ordered season four and might go for more:

“I think there’s a reason that shows are over once the two romantic leads get together happily. That’s because there’s very little to mine there. Fans don’t like it if I break apart a marriage, but where’s the stuff of drama?” [Rob] Thomas says. “And if I’m going to send out Veronica on these cases, what am I doing with Logan in these episodes? Unless you’re playing a soap, what do I have to do with the husband or boyfriend of my detective? Even in these eight episodes, I had to work pretty hard to get Logan even tangentially involved in the case. I think if I keep trying to do that in future installments, it would feel phony.”

First of all, I’m not tremendously sympathetic to “It was hard” arguments. Yes, it is. It always is.

Here’s a quick list of all the things that Jason Dohring does that’s great fun in the show and that I would have been happy to see for several more seasons:
* beating up assholes
* obscure quotes
* hiding his pain
* appearing in uniform (my wife suggested that one)
* being onscreen with Kristin Bell, b/c chemistry
* questioning the risks Veronica takes
* convincing a white nationalist to confess to a crime

Oh wait, that last one establishes that Logan has some investigative skills. Naval Intelligence, you say? Maybe they shouldn’t have to work so hard to involve him in cases after all.

Second, Veronica manages to have plenty of relationships that are “happy” but also produce some (or a lot of) drama. She gets along with her dad, doesn’t she? She gets along with Wallace and Mac. All of those relationships create conflict, but nobody thinks they should cut those characters because the relationship is healthy. It’s only the romance that is supposed to be a misery-factory. Because reasons.

I guess you could make an argument that Conflict-Logan is one of the engines that drive the drama in the show, but Supportive-Logan is redundant with Keith, Wallace, and (hopefully) Mac around. But I’m not buying it.

Look, if you want Logan to be part of the show, be in a happy relationship, and still provide conflict, then why don’t you make the main mystery in season five (assuming there is one) involve the military in some way. Logan can access information that Veronica needs, but he risks a court martial if he does it. Boom. You have conflict and drama, and you have a stable loving relationship, too.

Anyway, it’s sort of weird to talk about this, especially since I thought the romantic relationship between the two characters felt wrong until the film. But the idea that the main character becomes boring (or the show is over) once they enter a happy, stable relationship seems fundamentally wrong.

In novels, for example, the expectation is completely different. Readers want the main drama to be full of conflict and tension and whatever, but you need scenes where the protagonist gets to have quiet, comforting moments the people that care about them.

There’s no reason a marriage can’t be that. Shows like this live and die based on the relationships between the characters. There was no good reason to throw one away.

I liked that the show makes Veronica the one with the problems in this season. She’s self-destructive and repressed and she loves Logan but she’s driving him away with her bullshit. At the end, she moves past that, got over her hangups, and made a way forward that would have let her be a new character.

Except that the show, in trying to shed the “teen soap” elements, changed the format of the show but forced the main character back to what she was before. Like Jessica Jones, they hit reset.

Seems like a weird choice.

Also, people should cast Jason Dohring in things. Percy Daggs III, too, and the rest of the supporting cast. Put them in stuff. They’re great.