Once upon a time in the late ’00s, HBO provided a home for an unusual small-screen experiment called In Treatment. An Americanization of an Israeli series called BeTipul, the program ran in half-hour installments five days a week, with Monday through Thursday chronicling a therapist’s appointments with four of his patients, and Friday joining him as he checks in with his therapist. More novel than the unorthodox broadcast schedule was the format of each episode, which excised just about everything outside of the session, save a minute or two of setup. It was an ingenious gambit that played up the uniformly superb writing and acting (the cast included a pre-fame Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, and Alex Wolff, to name only a few), enabling the show to dig deeper and deeper into pure characterization with minimal intrusions from the outside world. Two people, two chairs and some dialogue — as in Dr. Melfi’s symbolic circular office on The Sopranos, there’s nowhere to hide in psychoanalysis.
Tessa Leigh Williams, the credited writer of this week’s Riverdale as well as the standout Carrie and Heathers musical highlights, clearly shares my abiding love for In Treatment and its innovative approach to dramaturgy. First cluing us in via the episode’s title, she adopts the earlier show’s structure in miniature with five brief visits to the guidance counselor Ms. Burble (guest star Gina Torres) packed into forty-one minutes. Mimicking a quiet, slow, minimalist drama may seem out of character for a show usually enamored of all things campy and over-the-top, but HBO’s boundary-busting cult classic proves to be a surprisingly productive point of reference. Working within those specific parameters results in the high point of the fourth season, an hour that augments the usual hilarity with clarity and maturity, two virtues largely alien to our beloved Hot Archie Who Fucks.
On the most basic foundational level, Williams’ choice to adopt this premise tends to the issue of disjointedness that’s been the primary bugaboo for the season thus far. Plotlines with no intersection — Veronica’s family troubles, Jughead’s sojourn off at Stonewall Prep — often leave individual episodes lacking in the ensemble feeling that initially made this show’s cast not just stars, but personalities that viewers would want to hang out with week in and week out. Williams knows better than to try to restore that much in the course of a single script, so she instead repurposes the isolation as a deliberate stylistic choice. For the first time, the self-contained plotlines feel like fully-formed short films instead of wisps seeking to link up with one another. She lays bare the divisions between the main cast, cycling through the entirety of one strand of story after the other instead of cross-cutting between them, and the episode’s a richer, more cohesive work for it.
More impressive still, these five vignettes set up Ms. Burble as a deconstructive force in the tradition of Frank Grimes, a sober-minded person inserted into an insane universe to put everyone’s behavior in perspective. The show often endeavors to take seriously the ridiculous circumstances that befall our teen pals, but it never sits quite right when it’s coming from these characters themselves. They’re all bound up in the internal illogic that keeps this show fueled and running, so it rings somewhat phony when they go from happily attuned to the madness to bearing its emotional weight. Coming from an outside agent like Ms. Burble, however, the response becomes that of our embedded surrogate. Characters keep stating the litanies of berserk nonsense visited upon them in plain, matter-of-fact terms, and she reacts with the same stunned, overwhelmed disbelief that we would. She’s just enough of a professional to couch it in a clinical back-and-forth, and Williams is enough of a professional to write her dialogue with plausible authority.
It’s pop-psych 101 buzzwords all the way down, from Veronica’s combo Oedipal/Elektra complex to the read of Archie’s dependency on patterns of dangerous thrill-seeking. Some diagnoses turn out to be more eyebrow-raising than others, welcome proof that even in an atypically grounded episode, there’s still room for the HAWF we cherish for its crazybones flights of fancy. Cheryl Blossom gets tested for chimerism — a negative result, phew! — while Betty and Alice go toe-to-toe after the mother discovers her daughter’s birth control and Yale rejection letter and rashly links the two. Their confrontation (the first segment, making the episode’s inability to really top it the lone flaw in an otherwise sterling outing) allows us to savor the line, “So you joining a cult, that was in my best interest? Not mentioning to me that you weren’t actually brainwashed the whole time, you were just undercover with the FBI working with my long-lost half-brother who I thought was dead, that was in my best interest?” Exquisite stuff, an expert execution of the reliable joke that is trying to explain Riverdale to someone else, but also a girl cracking under the comically outsized pressures heaped upon her.
Pressure — to achieve scholastically, to live up to the examples set for us by our parents, to attain an arbitrary standard of normalcy — emerges as the guiding theme for Williams’ larger creative enterprise. It’s the biggest stressor facing Gen Z, the presumptive audience for this show (the word “presumptive” doing a lot of work here) and the group of young people expected to pick up the mess created by the boomers, shrugged off by Gen X, and currently crushing the life out of the millennials. Veronica and Betty consider themselves top students, and both of them accept Ms. Burble’s advice as they chart new paths into higher academia for themselves. Likewise, Cheryl Blossom comes to grips with the fact that being the HBIC of the River Vixens may not be as important as keeping both of her feet planted firmly in the realm of the mentally well. Albeit a bit clumsily under the time constraints, this episode does in one night what the actual In Treatment spread out over its dense seasons, guiding someone in need of help to a better version of themselves.
The interlocking ideas about trauma and processing, the unhurried clip and plausibly penned speech of the therapy scenes, it’s all of a piece with an episode that excels on every front. We get some of K.J. Apa’s most committed acting yet, we get a flash-forward morsel that finally sheds some real light on what’s afoot, and credited director Michael Goi brings his A-game with crafty Hitchcock zooms and camera tricks aping the effect of a split diopter. It’s hard to imagine the rest of this season unseating this week’s installment as the high-water mark, but I’d love nothing more than to be proven wrong.
- Cheryl Blossom was on fire this week, busting out her best verbal lashings to cow Ms. Burble like they’re fine china for visiting guests. First prize: “I don’t eat nougat, I don’t take bribes, and I don’t talk to trade-school flunkies about my feelings.” (Who doesn’t eat nougat? It’s just sugar and eggs!) Runner-up: retorting to the suggestion that Julian may be trying to drive her insane with “Of course! He’s a Blossom!” Honorary mention: clarifying that she’s being gaslit by asking “Like Ingrid Bergman?” No, Cheryl Blossom, like the other Golden Age Hollywood idol famous for starring in the movie Gaslight. Good on Torres for the muted note of exasperation there, the faculty member’s default response to a kid trying to nonchalantly show off how much she knows.
- This week brought a windfall of fake brand-name stand-ins, with the sweet-toothed Ms. Burble stocking such candies as Skit-Skat, Three Buccaneers, and Butterflinger.
- Sorry, Veronica, but when you run around all “daddy” this and “daddy” that, you don’t get to act indignant when a shrink pegs you for a classic case of daddy issues within five minutes.