First things first: is the tickle-porn stuff merely the best subplot in the storied history of bananas Riverdale subplots, or the greatest thing to have ever happened to the show in a more general sense? No matter! We should all just be content to bask along with Cheryl Blossom, Toni Topaz, Fangs, and Kevin as they lounge in bed and share a chuckle while watching the non-consensual tickle vid they made with Nick St. Clair. Which, yeah, to review: Toni Topaz decides to avenge her dear girlfriend’s assault by dosing her would-be rapist’s glass of maple rum with roofies, tying him to the four posters of her California king-sized bed, and getting her two jacked dude pals to tickle him until he cries uncle. You know, normal Wednesday stuff. The shot of a shirtless Fangs hoisting up his undone blue jeans with a smirk is the most gay-porn this show has ever gay-porned. (Though the bit when Jughead says “I’m a better writer, I’m a better competitor, and I’m a better man” comes close.) Surely, erotic “Toni Topaz tapes Kevin and Fangs going to town on each other” fan-fiction has already been penned.
This is a classic Cheryl Blossom misadventure on several fronts: it treats something extremely fucked-up as something fun and fine, it gives her the opportunity to refer to someone she hates as a “Patrick Bateman type,” and it ends with noticeably upscale silk pajamas. The writing and staging convey no awareness whatsoever that our heroes have essentially responded to attempted rape (unspeakably horrible crime) with revenge porn (not quite as bad, yet also a crime, and one also rooted in violation). Cheryl Blossom has enough of a theatrical streak that she probably admires the just-desserts symmetry of it, but from where this morally upstanding-ish viewer sits, it really just seems like Toni Topaz has sunk to a lower level.
The tickling business occupies just the right amount of space in an episode that’s eventful without feeling overstuffed. Much transpires in this sixty-ninth chapter, truly the nicest of all, though little of what happens onscreen could be described as such. This is an installment of wonderful wickedness, of so many malevolent developments that not even the shameless cross-promotional synergy of Veronica drifting into Katy Keene’s world can drag the episode down. Jughead and Betty’s whole sordid saga approaches a fever pitch this week, Archie wanders into some kind of Gemini Man-esque mercenary tontine, Veronica gets a trying-on-clothes montage, and for once the final twist genuinely took this critic off guard. And I’d be remiss not to mention one last time: the tickling.
Betty and Jughead don’t have much to laugh about, however, what with their fear that Bret may have surreptitiously taped them in flagrante delicto. As Betty continues to dig deeper, her path leads through Moose, who clues her in on Bret’s unsavory habit of blackmailing by leveraging his peeping-tom videos. Sending Betty to do her investigative work while Jughead remains locked in fierce, deeply dumb competition with Bret amounts to a cracking back-and-forth, where neither half of the cross-cutting sequence gets outflanked by the other in terms of excitement. It’s well-balanced mayhem.
Jughead’s honor duel with Bret pits the two against one another in tests of fencing, bare-knuckle brawling, and chess, the outcomes of the first two matches being all but pre-decided. (Even though Bret’s clearly bigger than Jughead, our boy is “scrappier” and “from the streets” and “has to win to advance the plot.”) Their chess duel turns out to be pointless when Jughead takes the high road and decides the real winning move is not to play, leaving the good stuff to Betty and her uneasy partner Alice. They bond as they snoop, finally happening upon a treasure trove of secret videotapes fashioned from the VHS collection of a commenter on last week’s review. The revelation that Donna could be the author of all their suffering, to crib a phrase, puts them in promising standing for next week’s reckoning. I’ve always enjoyed the “secret true villain emerges from the shadows” move.
Speaking of kookoo tropes eagerly embraced in this episode, how about “stranger from one character’s past returns to wreak havoc”? Archie’s in for a doozy, with Uncle Frank acting as a magnet for an old Army buddy (“I did things... I followed orders,” he says, pushing all the right camp buttons) named Ted Bishop. Of course Ted is a “private paramilitary contractor” turned mercenary turned loose end up-tier. Archie gets caught in their crossfire, which yields a few agreeably crunchy fight sequences and K.J. Apa doing his damnedest to deliver the cold-open button of “I forgot my phone” with gravitas. He does his best, and more importantly, he later gets rescued by Kevin, who gets to muse, “This school is insane!”
Veronica has the most (to the network) and least (to us) important job — familiarizing the viewers with Katy Keene and ensuring that we’ll tune in. It’s a dirty trick, as all crossover episodes are deep down, but at least the two of them share a bubbly chemistry. Veronica warns her parents “New York is my town, not yours” before paying a visit to the City That Never Sleeps to hang out with her old pal Katy (Lucy Hale). She needs to “ooze collegiate cuteness” for her big Barnard interview, and an afternoon of shopping and heart-to-hearts about their ailing parents is just what she needed. Veronica doesn’t realize it, but consoling Katy about her sick mother has indirectly prepared her for the news that her father has a “neuromuscular disorder” and that his health is rapidly deteriorating. She re-adopts the Lodge name as a sign that she’s softened on him, especially now that he’s in decline. It’s a wise movie — the Veronica/Hiram feud had gotten so played out that the only way to shake it up again was to end it.
Veronica’s scenes stick out from the rest, in part because they’re all cordoned off in New York while everybody else holds down the fort at home. But also in part because everyone’s dealing with peril or some form of the macabre while Veronica goes through a personal moment. It leaves a sense of balance, even if the episode suffers from the disjointedness that so often takes root on this show. But all the pieces work on their own terms, in such a way that the clear superiority of the tickling subplot doesn’t even obscure the rest of the hour with its shine. Every piece succeeds on its own terms, and for the type of episode this is (functional, rather than the conceptually grabby “In Treatment”), that’s the most we can ask for. If they’re having fun onscreen, then so are we.
- Veronica’s offhanded remark about Archie, that “I don’t think Riverdale could survive without him,” sounds a bit like she’s saying “I don’t think Riverdale could survive without him.” The show’s about to run into the same problem encountered by Gossip Girl and The O.C. and every other high school soap that doesn’t try to pull the fast one of keeping its dramatis personae sixteen forever: age. Archie and the gang can feel graduation day fast approaching, and the show needs to contrive some way to keep everyone together. Apparently, Veronica’s headed for New York. We’ll see.
- The teacher “Mr. Kotter,” to whom Donna refers on the tape? Yeah, I think I know where she got that name.
- Molly’s Crisis, the neat underground drag bar that Katy Keene tells Veronica she simply must check out, is a clear stand-in for cabaret institution Marie’s Crisis. The plush lounge they visit is definitely not Marie’s Crisis.
- When Betty showed her mother the latest cobweb of evidence and hunches she’s assembled on the wall, I could think of only one thing: MURDER BOARD! MURDER BOARD! MURDER BOARD! Where my Trial and Error heads at?
- Donna makes the snippy comment that “Bret is decidedly mediocre with his sword,” a seeming dig at his sexual skill. As much as I’d like to join episode writer Ariana Jackson in her evident belief that rich jerks are all lousy in the sack, the aggravating truth is that many of them started having sex at a relatively young age and have been doing it with regularity since then, and are as a consequence pretty good. Only makes a person hate them that much more!