What is the essence of a  Veronica Mars episode? Kristen Bell’s winning sarcasm? An enthralling mystery of the week? A shocking new ingredient to the ever-thickening main plot?

Obviously, it’s all three. Plus Keith Mars being a surprising badass, Logan being a surprising boyfriend/soulmate, and Wallace and Mac being unsurprisingly staunch allies. It was these and a host of other elements that contributed to the show’s singular magic. A tough, funny, underloved ragamuffin of a show that won our hearts from our first welcome to Neptune High. Here are the essential episodes.

1. “Pilot”

Season one, episode one

Veronica catches us up on her friend’s murder and all the events that led to where we dive in; she rescues her new friend Wallace from a flag pole, and punks the dopey town sheriff.Pilots are usually terrible. You’ve got to give most shows at least through the second episode to truly judge because the opener has the burden of introducing every character and lifting a ton of exposition up the flagpole, but Veronica Mars has one of the few pilots that hooks you from the jump with charm, melancholy, and a hell of a mystery in who killed Lilly Kane.

Beyond Bell’s lovably snarky embodiment of the main character, there’s an impressive amount of world building to skate through to replace our assumptions about high school life with the specifics of Veronica’s experience: her disgraced former-sheriff private investigator father, her murdered friend, her sexual assault, her ouster from the cool kids club, and the intricacies of the Neptune caste system. It’s an even larger info-dump than most shows have to deal with, and it’s still twice as entertaining as most shows. And it manages a mystery of the week with Weevil, Wallace, and the Sac-n-Pac! This episode achieves a crazy amount, wins our heart, and sets up expectations about how dense and complicated it will become.

2. “The Wrath of Con”

Season one, episode four

Veronica solves a Silicon Mafia con job, and Logan crafts a video remembering Lilly for her memorial fountain dedication.There are maybe more entertaining episodes, more memorable ones, but I’d argue that “The Wrath of Con” is quietly the most important of the series because it makes us care about Lilly (played with big-eyed dynamism by the Amanda Seyfried we now know to be excellent) in a way that pushes far beyond the Women in Refrigerators trope. Without Logan’s memorial video, and without the flashbacks to Lilly’s young life, we might have never cared about Veronica’s underlying drive as deeply as we did.

3. “Mars vs Mars”

Season one, episode 14

Veronica’s history teacher Mr. Rooks (guest star Adam Scott) is accused of sexual assault, which pits her against her own father in the investigation, and she helps Logan track down his mother who is presumed to be dead.Relevant to our time and culture, it’s impressive how this episode dealt with the messiness of sexual assault allegations. Veronica initially calls Mr. Rooks’ accuser, Carrie (Leighton Meester), a liar because Mr. Rooks is such a nice, engaging, interesting teacher.

She can’t believe he’d ever do something to hurt a child, but by the end of the episode (after a dramatic acquittal thanks to Veronica and the ease of faking text messages), the story has a lot to say about the difficulty of coming forward after an assault, the way we protect “good guys’ reputations,” and the way problems are kicked to the next community instead of finding justice. At 90% charmer/10% skeevy, Scott was the perfect casting for the role.

That would be enough to place it on the top, but the episode all reinvented Logan and Veronica’s adversarial relationship and gave us a reason to feel sorry for the poor little rich boy (with a cliff hanger to boot!). Veronica Mars stays busy, people.

4. “Ruskie Business”

Season one, episode 15

Veronica helps a Russian mail-order bride track down a lost lover, helps Meg (Alona Tai) find her secret admirer, and helps Logan look for his mom.After puzzling over whether his mother was died or alive, Logan and Veronica get a ping on her credit card, providing a glimmer of hope which Logan clings too desperately while waiting in a fancy hotel lobby to see if his mom is staying there. The show’s reversal on his bratty, combative character is one of its major achievements, and this is where all of it starts coming together.

He and Veronica share a missing mother, we learn that his dad is physically abusive, and with Veronica’s ex-boyfriend Duncan being Meg’s secret admirer, it frees up that emotional space for something, ahem, epic to develop with Logan.The mystery of the week also turns from sweet to thrilling on a dime as Veronica’s Miss Lonely Hearts case collides with her father’s investigation into Russian criminals. As we rounded the corner to the season one finale, this episode cemented the concept that we shouldn’t assume anything about, foreshadowed the ultimate solution to Lilly’s murder, and proved that Wallace was the perfect teen Dr. Watson.

5. “Weapons of Class Destruction”

Season one, episode 15

The school gets a bunch of bomb threats, but nothing else matters because Veronica and Logan kiss. The kiss. Two damaged people finding each other in the wilderness (sorry, Leo). A rocky, potentially unhealthy, deeply satisfying collision that settles a Will They Won’t They question we weren’t sure we had. With hindsight we know how consequential that kiss was, but at the time we had no idea whether this would be a one-time mistake or a much lengthier series of them.Twisting in over its own twists, the mystery of the week involved Jonathan Taylor Thomas playing a student hiding a dark secret hiding another secret behind another secret in an homage to Christian Slater’s character in Heathers.

6. “A Trip to the Dentist”

Season one, episode 21

Veronica solves and confronts the mystery of her rape at Shelly Pomroy’s party the year before.Veronica Mars closed out its first season with two barn-burning episodes. The first sparked debate about how Veronica’s sexual attack and trauma were depicted because the show wasn’t content to offer a clear, single bad guy to slap a Guilty sign on (at least until later). In a way, the solution mirrored her investigation, placing blame on an uncaring and (in Dick’s case) malicious social circle that created an environment for her date rape to happen. Far from tying loose ends, it further complicated her already-weird relationship with ex-boyfriend and potential half-brother Duncan.

7. “Leave It to Beaver”

Season one, episode 22

Veronica solves Lilly’s murder.The relentless pace of the episode, set up brilliantly by dozens of clues throughout the season (along with an aggravating amount of red herrings), clipped along so quickly that it should have come with blood pressure medication. The conclusion was satisfying, violent, and profoundly cathartic.But the real magic trick of it all was how amped we were for a second season. The two big mysteries of the show were solved! Nothing more to dig into. Except we couldn’t wait to spend more time with Veronica, proving that it was always the characters, and not the puzzle, that really mattered. The poolside dream send off for Lilly was the teary cherry on top.

8. “Donut Run”

Season two, episode 11

Duncan kidnaps his baby daughter, Veronica gets arrested, and Weevil and Logan team up to solve Felix Toombs’s killing. If the first season gave us the promise of what depths the show could reach, “Donut Run” fulfilled it. It’s a little ironic, though, that Duncan—the boyfriend who couldn’t be enough for Veronica in our eyes because he was too boring—got an emotional send off that was anything but. Soap opera explosive.It changed the way we saw Wallace (who wasn’t in Neptune just for basketball), it just about shattered Veronica’s relationship with her father, and it achieved all of its surprise revelations with a caper so clever Danny Ocean would be impressed.

9. “Look Who’s Stalking”

Season two, episode 20

Veronica hunts down a classmate’s stalker, and there’s an alterna-prom! The second season slammed shut with three stellar episodes, but this gets the edge because of Logan’s epic speech. Maybe his most memorable set of words, maybe his most important of the series. And it all happens at their best, worst moment. An incredible, heart-twisting moment for two characters we had such high hopes for.It was also a showcase for Krysten Ritter who earned her moment in the spotlight as Mia and an equal but opposite showcase for Steve Guttenberg as season two big bad Woody Goodman. After the agony of Lilly’s murder, the straightforwardness of Goodman’s villainy became a welcome bludgeon, and this was the episode that tipped us off to his horrors.

10. “Not Pictured”

Season two, episode 22

Veronica graduates, solves who blew up the school bus, uncovers her rapist, and says goodbye to a lot of main characters. The season two finale felt like a series finale in its absolute completeness. It closes the files on every big case: Woody’s crimes (and punishment), Aaron Echolls’s violent end orchestrated by Duncan from the other side of the planet, Veronica’s class graduation with the specter of Lilly hanging over them, Beaver’s demise, and Logan and Veronica’s romantic reconnection.

A total whirlwind. An echo of the dangerous chase of season one’s finale using devastating conversations instead of the kinetic threat of a murderous man trying to get his mitts on Veronica. It’s about truth ripping the heart out of you. It’s also about how justice is rarely served and how people do not magically get fixed just because the storm has passed. The past resurfaces, our context changes, old wounds crack and split open again.But that isn’t the whole story, because there’s always hope and a promise for a new future. Veronica, plucky as ever, emerges from the wreckage to build something worthy of her potential.

11. “Spit & Eggs”

Season three, episode nine

Veronica uncovers the serial rapists at Hearst, and Dean O’Dell mysteriously in his office. Veronica’s twin superpowers were her intelligence and her willingness to put herself into danger to solve the mysteries threatening her friends and neighbors. This episode, besides pulling together several plot lines into a deeply satisfying pile of twists and turns, connects those superpowers to make campus a lot safer.

Once again, the mystery was never solely about capturing Moe and Mercer, but about indicting the environment that made their preying possible. The reveal was never going to be as powerful as learning who killed Lilly or who raped Veronica, but their threat, its personal stakes, and the trauma Veronica had to endure to risk her physical and mental well-being to stop them showed the show’s essence. Plus, it gave us a new big mystery to sprint toward as the season continued.

12. “The Bitch Is Back”

Season three, episode 20

Veronica uncovers a secret society behind a sex tape, and Keith runs into problems in his run for sheriff. Veronica Mars was one of many shows that never got a true finale. It never got a nice bow around it. But the series finale is still an excellent example of everything the show was so good at. The deep personal connections between the characters in spite of tragic, unsettling trials of loyalty, the lighting wit, the engaging mysteries, and the suggestion that a genuinely happy ending is just out of reach for all of them despite all the quirky one-liners.

This episode cut to Veronica’s core, offering her a big puzzle to contemplate that involved her own painful exposure (via a sex tape of her and Stosh), and she had to fix it all on the heels of a final breakup with Logan. It’s an angry episode and a sorrowful end note for the whole series that, for better or worse, left all of us completely clueless about where Keith, Logan, and Veronica went from there. The last scene of Veronica walking away in the rain after casting a futile vote for her father is almost unbearable, but maybe it says something really important about the show: that all the sarcasm was a band-aid, that it was always about the loss and pain underneath.

Images: CW