As pandemic stay-at-home orders have forced all of humanity to get real comfortable with a stationary lifestyle real quick, so too must the residents of Riverdale acclimate to a sudden downshift into inactivity. When we last left off, now over a month ago, hard-won resolution had been seized by the gang as they pulled back the veil on the sinister and tangled plot unspooling at Stonewall Prep. They’re now free to go home and take a beat, busying themselves with nothing graver than prepping for the school’s big variety show. But of course episode writer Tessa Leigh Williams recognizes that the drama generated by, say, a principal forbidding a student from performing the song in his heart can land with the same oomph as your standard-issue murder mystery or serial killer. If anything, the stakes feel higher this week than they have in the recent past, because what hangs in the balance means a lot more to us than some school’s legacy. We’re talking about the nuclear romantic formula holding this show together.
The Big Thing That Happens in this hour, ready or not, can be nothing but the lip-lock between Archie and Betty. It’s a shot across the bow following through on their allegedly make-believe hookup executed in the course of their gotcha scheme against the Stonewall Preppers, revealed to be not so make-believe after all. They share a strong natural chemistry because everyone that young and that hot reacts to one another like hormonal nitroglycerine, and they find themselves unable to resist a kiss when the power of song brings them together. The sources of conflict in “Wicked Little Town” don’t have to be life-or-death; the dissolution of a cherished relationship and the angst of musical theatre are plenty
Kevin, so long abused or forgotten by the writing staff, gets a spotlight worthy of the hours he’s logged as a key cast member of this show. Casey Cott throws his entire self into one moral stand taken by Kevin first as knee-jerk opposition to Principal Honey, and little by little, as something he realizes he truly believes in. He has heard the music in his heart and it comes from John Cameron Mitchell’s cult-beloved 1998 musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a politically charged fantasia about a genderqueer rock singer in divided Berlin. About eight words in that preceding sentence set off alarm bells in Principal Honey’s head, and he moves to put the kibosh on Kevin’s act before he can even get onstage.
Kevin’s rationale for why he must slap on a platinum-blonde wig and work that falsetto perfectly strafes the dividing line between ridiculous and inspired. He rhapsodizes that Hedwig “celebrates expressions of all kinds” and that his generation has been “relentlessly slammed with crisis after crisis,” capping it all off with the declaration that “we’re people, not numbers — we’re generation Z!” It’s a perfectly over-the-top appeal, over-the-top appeals being the preferred mode of communication for Gen Z-ers. His stirring words fail to move Ice King Honey, leaving him with no other choice than to “go rogue” and rally his fellow students for a Hedwig-in.
Kevin’s rebellion numbers, subversive and risky and convivially pansexual (Kevin plants one on Archie for shock value!), stand head and shoulders above the other oddly-inserted songs. Some play out diegetically, some don’t. In every case, the score suffers from the same issue plaguing the past two musical episodes — that the songs just aren’t memorable toe-tappers, too conversational to land on first listen in the whipping-right-along TV medium. The good news is that this choice of musical lends itself to more loose fun than Carrie or Heathers, by which I obviously mean the multicolor pillow fight and Cheryl Blossom’s magnificently suggestive routine about the wonders of sugar. The choreography’s nothing to write home about, but flash value and the sheer awe of a ballooning wig budget covers for the dance instructor where they’ve slacked.
For his insolence, Kevin gets the variety show shut down, though that requires nothing more than a relocation to La Bonne Nuit. That provides the joining point for all of the episode’s assorted tensions, as Kevin’s big performance coincides with Betty and Archie tackling their guilt over their mutual attraction. Following rather contrived fights with their respective significant others — Archie neglected to mention that Hiram’s been skipping his doctor’s appointments soon enough for Veronica’s liking, and Jughead’s not trying hard enough at school for Betty’s liking, sweaty sources of discord both — they do what everyone on this show always does and tend to their emotional wounds by jumping on the first person in sight. And then of course the immediate reconciliation fills the both of them with self-loathing that comes to a head at the variety show. It’s the kind of big, fraught setpiece that this show has historically pulled off well, even if they must thoroughly rig the game to set it up.
“When was the last time we had fun?” The characters speak this line aloud in this hour, making the undercurrent of these scenes explicit. It’s refreshing to return to something purely teenage and as frivolous as teenage matters can be, particularly when the show knows better than to treat it as such. The fracturing of the crucial Archie/Veronica, Betty/Jughead dynamic represents an existential threat to the show, as I stated last week, one far more pressing than the newest wave of murderers circling Riverdale and leaving unsettling videotapes.
How many episodes will ultimately be included in this next stretch of post-hiatus episodes remains unknown to the general public, and by my guess, the higher-ups at The CW. As noted below, Riverdale was one of the earliest productions thrown into chaos by the proliferation of coronavirus, leaving us to 1. pray that everyone’s all right, and 2. wonder whether the network would rather air what they have and catch up later or hold the season entirely until it can be completed. No one knows what the future holds, as the boys of Vampire Weekend once sang, and it’s bad enough just getting old. Let the youth-obsession of HAWF be a salve to us during these hectic, frightening, uncertain times.
- Good to see you again, HAWF fans. Much has transpired since we last saw one another, namely the descent of our world into a virus-fueled panic state. I found taking in this evening’s episode a welcome distraction from the state of things outside my apartment, while all the way in Vancouver, the infectious menace has ground production on the remainder of this season to a halt. I hope everyone in the little community we’ve built here has been taking care and remaining well, and that the sudden hardships haven’t been too sudden or too hard. It’s important in times like this to cherish the little things, like Reggie doing drag.
- I am engrossed with the aggressive Broadway politics playing out in the margins of Kevin’s debates with Principal Honey, a veritable referendum on the state of the Great White Way. Square that he is, Honey sees Hedwig as “a niche downtown cabaret show more appropriate for Nazi Berlin,” betraying just how out-of-it he is by implying that he still finds Cabaret threatening. Kevin blanches at the thought of performing a number from something as stale as Oklahoma or Carousel, and in doing so gives away his own close-mindedness; we learned just last year with the big sexy Oklahoma revival that the classical musicals can still bristle with jagged new significance after all these years.
- Jughead refers to his plan to hole up in the Sex Bunker and immerse himself in study, undistracted by the goings-on beyond his walls, as “play[ing] Thomas Pynchon for a while.”
- Somewhat disappointed that the writers would pass up a perfect chance for a brand-name stand-in when Veronica mentions Magnolia Bakery instead of, say, Chrysanthemum Baked Goods. Just spitballing.
- I cannot in good faith greet the return of Archie’s guitar with anything but guarded caution. While he blends well enough in group numbers with the Archies, a band that should really be called Archie and the Archies, his duet with Betty sends him back to the Sheeran territory I thought we’d blessedly left behind.