There was a point, while watching this week’s screener, when I felt compelled to double-check and make sure I hadn’t accidentally poured mescaline on my Cheerios.
Riverdale has set a steep standard for itself with regards to the quotient of crazytown-bananapants subject matter to be expected in any given episode. The baseline suspension of disbelief needs to be hoisted flagpole-high in order to establish a universe logically elastic enough to allow for the sort of grown-up-teen shenanigans we’ve come to demand from this show. But in some episodes, the writers take that principle and run with it as far as they possibly can, as if testing the audience to see just how many implausible turns of the plot we will accept. The joke’s on them, however; like so many serpents wrapping their detached jaws around a nest of oversized ostrich eggs, there’s nothing we can’t swallow if only we put our minds to it.
Just last week, this series served up a buffet of narrative devices and harebrained premises that nonetheless adhered to a sense of balance that’s been hammered out over time; forced coexistence between pulp fiction, the overtly supernatural, a grown-up corporate intrigue, and the after-school special genre. When working in tandem with itself and sticking to the assigned genres, this show’s defiant refusal to make sense starts to make a lot of sense. This week’s episode is not like that.
“Dog Day Afternoon” does not take the “throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” approach so much as it takes the “aim a fire hose of spaghetti at the wall in the hopes that the sheer propulsive force of this pasta will break through the plaster.” Everyone’s plotline evolves into the most unhinged version of itself, combining for an hour that hits a hallucinatory high the likes of which earlier seasons could only dream of. A friend with screener access warned me that this hour would be “a beautiful revival of the true ethos of [Hot Archie Who Fucks],” my preferred nickname for the deepest essence of this hormone-fueled program. No offense to her, but I disagree; it was never like this. Season four, to employ the parlance of the age group that’s supposed to be watching this show, be hittin’ different.
It says a lot that approaching the largely discrete plotlines in order of ascending insanity still places Veronica’s mission to reaffirm her innermost identity by asserting her authority over her partially-imprisoned father first in line. She’s trying to find herself, in the abstract sense as a woman embarking upon a newly above-board enterprise and in the literal sense as a woman hoping to scrub herself of her family name. Last week’s episode concluded with her settling on Gomez, but that didn’t really have the symbolic weight she’s looking for. Little did she know, Hiram changed his name to assimilate into a white society, leaving Veronica the surname of Luna to reclaim as a newly virtuous citizen and a proud Latina who knows she doesn’t have to whitewash herself to succeed. I’ve always found self-discovery to be a distinctly un-cinematic and far too tidy process — new name, new me! — but at least this one involves tense visits through jailhouse glass.
Far from the most screwloose and yet far and away the most amusing strand in the episode concerns Jughead’s rocky adjustment at Stonewall Prep, where he must play the mouthpiece for one of the staff writers as they work through the lingering resentments from their MFA seminar. The alpha douche “diplobrat” (named Brett, because of course he is, and possibly because the stink of the name Brett* grew more pungent than ever in the wake of the recent Supreme Court appointment) takes a highbrowier-than-thou stance to Jughead’s paperback sensibility, and the two instantly become enemies. The dialogue in this scene is somehow both absurd and tone-perfect at once, rivaling the legendary writers’ workshop episodes from Girls for its pinprick precision on the tensions between creative writing students. The one line of Brett’s story we get to hear is hysterically pretentious: “My mother has asked me to help her with the turkey and I wonder, vaguely, when she will die.” Jughead calls Brett’s prose “Salinger-derivative”; Brett finds Jughead’s writing to be a “puerile, tawdry waste of time.”
In the classroom, they play out a culture war that occasionally draws the real Riverdale into its crossfire. Many detractors have failed to realize that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa knows exactly what he’s doing when he makes the show campy, or lowbrow, or shameless. Brett’s criticism to Jughead that “your prose reads more like a pre-teen journaling about his abandonment issues than a coherent narrative” could have very well been taken from the mouth of one of the show’s harsher critics. (Or an old professor one of the writers may still hold a grudge against.) Their exchange of “It’s pulp” and “Pulp is not an insult to me” is the closest this series has ever come to making an explicit mission statement.
Meanwhile, Archie continues along on his unending quest to do the stupidest possible thing in each and every given circumstance. Because he’s had a few free days, he decides that he doesn’t have enough going on in his life and needs to start making good on his promise to convert his boxing gym into a proper rec center to benefit the community. This episode truly calls into question whether Archie’s brain lobes are all plugged in to one another, as the sweet handsome idiot acts with a greater recklessness and lack of foresight than he’s demonstrated before. The issue: Mad Dog’s younger sibling has been hanging around the local arcade, and an area drug dealer is keen to recruit the junior hooligan for a dark career path. The solution, via Archie-logic: Run up on the drug dealer and his four backup goons solo, with zero planning, hope that they don’t kill you, and take the guy’s money just for good measure. Of all the “Kids, Don’t Try This At Home!” behavior that Archie’s exhibited over the years, this has to be up there. There’s nothing behind his eyes to suggest that he registers any of what’s happening, that he could have inadvertently ignited a gang war or that he casually wants to get into the money-laundering business.
But this hour belongs in earnest to Betty, who goes through a truly staggering gauntlet of what those of us in the critical profession have termed “hilarious bullshit.” Things start off in an ordinary enough fashion, relatively speaking, with Betty and Agent Charles launching their daring counteroffensive against Edgar Evernever and the Farm. Their undercover operation will inevitably go awry, that much anyone schooled in this show’s internal calculus can see coming, and the news that Edgar’s gotten wise and captures Betty’s mother comes as no surprise.
Everything else, however, does. The rest comes as one big fuckin’ cascade of mounting surprises, a response I’m impressed the show can still muster after all these jam-packed years. It wouldn’t take much to anticipate the return of Polly, but I’ve got a crisp five-dollar bill for anyone not taken off guard by the suicide-bomber vest she brings with her. So okay, so we’ve got a live bomber situation now, rolling with it — why is Betty the one being made to singlehandedly defuse this bomb in a room full of federal agents? All of the highly trained adult men in the room inexplicably turn into marble statues while the random teenage girl takes verbal instructions from a guy perfectly capable of handling the situation himself. But wait, there’s more!
Having received Edgar’s instructions for the safe release of his hostages, Betty goes about stealing a school bus, procuring more than a half-dozen fake passports and amassing a quarter-million dollars — you know, Wednesday stuff. Breezing right by the fact that Betty seems to have assembled an elaborate criminal enterprise over the course of an afternoon, we move along to the action of Alice and Betty’s rescue operation. My mind’s still reeling, so I’m going to stick with the key retentions from my now-shattered memory. Here’s what stuck with me through the blackout fugue state:
1. Evelyn Evernever has taken to rocking a Patty Hearst military jacket and beret combo, now that things have turned standoff.
2. Betty knocks her out and then we get a slow-mo walk worthy of a Michael Bay picture, as she dons the beret herself and gives the barrel a spin.
3. Edgar Evernever’s plan involves leaving this Earthly plane behind by taking off in a rocket.
4. Edgar Evernever is introduced via snap zoom like the villain in a Poverty Row Western.
5. Edgar Evernever is wearing an Evel Knievel getup to go to space/the afterlife.
6. Alice fells him in a quick-draw duel.
Confirmation that all of the above was real, and not the result of a fever dream following a ten-hour bender of midcentury funny books, would be greatly appreciated.
Cheryl Blossom’s in here somewhere, trying in vain to continue concealing her dead brother’s moldering corpse from both Toni Topaz and the nurse she’s hired to help out. But the rat that scurries out of his chest cavity, as well as the mysterious VHS cassette tape that concludes the episode (I love imagining the Gen-Z-ers looking at it in suspense before shrugging, “Hey, does anyone know what this is or how to play it?”), barely register as a blip in this chockablock hour.
I’m not really an EDM guy, but I once saw some footage from the multi-day festival known as the Electric Daisy Carnival. Wherever the camera turned, lights were flashing and beeps were booping and strangers were gyrating and hula-hoopers were hula-hooping. It looked like the most overwhelming place in the world, a place in which something happened everywhere and every second. I was frightened of this place, and yet irresistibly drawn to it. I know that I will never go there and immerse myself in this atmosphere of overstimulation, in part because I don’t have to. We have Riverdale.
- Brett zings Jughead by referring to him as Harold Bloom during their “salon,” a remark that’s really a zing within a zing. Brett’s trying to say that Jughead’s assessment of his story as “good” was inarticulate by facetiously comparing him to one of the most esteemed literary critics to have ever lived. But my guess, knowing the tastes of this writers’ room as well as we have come to over the past few years, is that this comment was also intended to reflect poorly on Brett. Bloom spent his career ardently defending the Western canon from the so-called “School of Resentment,” which is an I-majored-in-English-at-college way of saying that he dedicated no small part of his life to urging people to read fewer women and nonwhite writers. To the sort of progressive-minded fiction buff that tends to fill out the Riverdale staff, Bloom is public enemy No. 1. No wonder Brett admires him. (Weirder still, the guy died literally last week. There’s no way someone in the production could’ve known... right?)
- I like the cut of that Donna’s jib. She’s a modern, liberated prep school girl who won’t be made to feel self-conscious about her hookups! The coeds at Animal House’s fictitious Emily Dickinson College will one day welcome her with open arms.
- “What can I say?” Reggie scoffs. “I have a deep fanbase.” Does he, though? Admittedly, my only impression comes from dead-eyed scrolling on the Instagram Explore tab in the wee small hours of the night, but it seems that Reggie enjoys a much smaller following than Archie or Jughead. Reggie stans, feel free to burn me in effigy in the comments.
- That shirtless car-wash scene was a sobering wake-up call. I think I need to change every aspect of my life? At the very least, I need to take it easy on the onion rings. I’m pretty sure I counted sixteen abs on one guy’s torso. Is that even human?
- To Veronica’s suggestion that her classmates go “the full monty” in an effort to raise money for their community center, I can say only this: I know these kids act like adults, but legally speaking, they are still children, right? They can’t, say, get naked in public?
- We’ve never been closer to actually hearing the heretofore aggressively implied porno wah-wah guitar than in the scene that turns on a dime from Archie and Veronica making plans for the day to... “Do we need to leave right now?” “We’ve got some time.” Bom chicka wah wah!
- Up until he’s outed (as the son of a murderer, that is), the whole bi-roommate presence that Marmaduke/Moose brought to Jughead’s life introduced a very welcome Kaboom-type vibe.
* Deepest apologies to all kind, decent people named Brett, of which there are more than a few.