This week’s episode begins more auspiciously than any that’s come before, a hyperbolic claim I nonetheless feel comfortable making because this is the only one that begins with David Foster Wallace’s record-straightening definition of the Lynchian touch: “incredibly macabre and incredibly mundane.” Though a radical oversimplification, that’s a far better read of the master filmmaker’s sui generis style than most can come up with, which generally amounts to “weird for the sake of being weird.” Any hope that an episode actually titled “Lynchian” would evince his filmmaking techniques or thematic preoccupations would be misplaced, however. The Lynch influence, proudly touted since the early season that aped Twin Peaks only on the most superficial level, fails to penetrate any deeper this time around. Though we do get a shady video store with a proprietor doing a winningly crappy Gordon Cole impression. That’s plenty for me.
The real theme of this hour ends up being territory disputes on multiple fronts. Everyone’s stepping where they shouldn’t and landing on someone else’s toes, whether that’s an above-board business dispute, similar tensions percolating on the local black market, or more metaphorical property squabbles about boyfriends and girlfriends. This is nothing new for the show, which relies on shifting allegiances and rivalries slightly less than the likes of Game of Thrones, but it’s still jarring to see it done in so many parallel channel at once. Schematic as it might be, each power struggle works on its own, and yields a fair number of the gonzo moments that act as currency in the universe of Riverdale. Any episode with a teen tickle-porn orgy out of credited writers Ariana Jackson and Brian E. Paterson’s more creative Google searches can’t be that bad.
The most pedestrian tug-of-war concerns Veronica, facing the umpteenth threat to her rum business. This particular stumbling block, a rival family of hillbilly liquor moguls called the Molloys, seems awfully similar to the family of meth freaks that brought chaos to Archie’s gym not so long ago. Cheryl Blossom takes advantage of the opportunity to refer to them as “the cast of Swamp Thing,” which is apparently a streaming television show on the obviously nonexistent platform DC Universe. But overall, it’s a worn way to accomplish two things, neither of them particularly moving. First, to acknowledge that Hiram’s denial about his declining health cannot continue forever, and second, to free Cheryl Blossom from her partnership in the rum enterprise.
The real good shit in the mix here pertains to Kevin, Fangs, and Reggie. Teens be camming, as is their wont, and the area’s DIY tickle-porn biz keeps growing like a— you know what, best to leave that simile unresolved. Reggie’s been a little short on money lately, and he’s notices Kevin and Fangs raking it in. Whatever they’re doing, he wants a piece, and he’s surprisingly undeterred when he learns they’re giggling their way into a hefty payday. He’s got his eyes set on a bigger cashout, which entails first ditching their quasi-pimp Terry and then expanding into a group scenario. The pairing-off that sets up what one can only imagine will be a scalding-hot group tickle situation smacks of keyword-sourced tube site browsing more strongly than most things from the show. Which I mean as a compliment of the highest order.
Of course this sows discord, first with Terry, who’s dealt with easily enough, and then Principal Honey, who isn’t. He puts the clampdown on their operation with a litigious checkmate, pointing out that they’re in infringement of the school’s copyright by wearing their athletic apparel in the videos. (Bonehead move! College logos always show up as blurred out on those submission videos that I’ve, uh, read about. Think, kids!) This sets the place for what the next-week-on teaser suggests will be the murder of Honey, long the thorn in our favorites’ respective sides. His will not be a difficult loss, and everyone who has fair reason to hate this guy will surely want to get their blows in before he eats it. The tickle porn show must go on.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa hyped this episode as potentially “polarizing” on social media earlier this week, which we can safely assume refers to the smoldering attraction between Archie and Betty. But things that smolder only do so because they’re on their way to being fully extinguished, and the flare-up of heat between the two of them never amounts to much of anything. They both decide to do the righteous thing and refrain from absolutely going to town on each other, which should feel just and correct with Betty/Jughead being the most endearing couple-up of the series. And yet it feels like the show shied away from exploring all the melodrama that a Archie/Betty run could have generated, leaving us to wonder what the point of these past few episodes really was. Apart from those lovely publicity stills of Lili Reinhart and KJ Apa exchanging longing stares.
With Betty unaware that her sex tape, the coyly titled “Ponytail Playmate,” continues to circulate, she sorts through some turpitude about her idealized boy next door. It takes Cheryl Blossom to wake her up to the fact that that’s the basis of her infatuation, and having arrived at this epiphany, Betty shapes up and shuts it down. Archie accepts this, and sets an eye toward the Naval Academy. Everyone appears to be getting ready to go their own way, including Fangs and Kevin, heading to different schools in the up-and-coming city of Pittsburgh. If the fifth season hadn’t already received the green light, I’d think they were wrapping things up. If we can’t get back to making TV as usual again soon, that might happen against everyone’s will.
One of the key qualities of Lynch’s work, one previously unexamined but moreso as of late, is a deep sentimental woundedness. Laura Palmer, Diane Selwyn, Henry Spencer — they all have a gnawing sadness at the center of their being, the trait that this episode stumbles into replicating. A soul-sickness pervades this episode, from Archie to Betty and then to Jughead as he looks into the string of murders cropping up around town like dandelions. That appears to be the final thrust of the season, a phrase now mostly figurative with only one more episode on the schedule. We’ll be back next week, but everything beyond that, for the kids in Riverdale and for us out in the real world, remains undetermined.
- Most important thing first: the phrase “A.V. Club” is uttered not once, not twice, but thrice in this episode. In my book, that more than qualifies as an acknowledgement that someone on set has been reading these reviews. Riverdale writers, hit your boy up. Once this whole coronavirus quagmire blows over, invite me to Vancouver so I can witness your show’s magnificent phoenix-rebirth as production starts back up.
- I love whenever we get to see Veronica’s reading glasses in the morning. She likes to peruse the paper over coffee with her readers, which makes Veronica — a character that is seventeen, but usually behaves like a late twentysomething — seem like she’s in her fifties.
- Speaking of breakfast time at the Lodge household, Hermione has now completely vanished from the daily bacon and eggs, as Marisol Nichols confirmed she would at the end of this season in a recent report. She didn’t really get a proper send-off, and I hope Nichols gets a chance to give her character a proper resolution.
- In the heady days of my youth, I recall the town’s West Coast Video rental shack and the beckoning, forbidden room full of pornos hidden around a corner in the back. When I could be sure that my attendant parent was moseying around the drama section on the opposite side of the floor, I would tentatively sneak a glance at the faded VHS covers. This was my El Dorado, and I feel that Jughead does not register the proper expression of astonishment at having finally plumbed its borders.
- Trendy as ever, Cheryl Blossom plans to target a younger market by packaging mixed drinks with their proprietary rum and calling it “Maple Claw.” Like White Claw, drink of choice for people I avoid at rooftop parties! (I live in Brooklyn.) (Also, this joke comes to us from a pre-virus world.)
- Archie’s music is so, so astonishingly bad. When Betty tells him “stop” because she can’t withstand the emotional strain of his music, I blurted out “because that sucks” at my television. I’m on day 51 of quarantine and not doing super great. Wishing only the best to all of you, friends.
- The winking Paramecium Records mention hits hard, with Amoeba Music having announced the closure of its legendary Hollywood location just this week. They couldn’t have possibly known, but still.