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The bared-torso-per-minute ratio hits a new high on a particularly sweaty Riverdale

Photo: The CW
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Every character contained within Riverdale is acting on a different show, and every week, they’re in competition with one another to be the best act on the bill. In this episode, Archie and Veronica are trapped in the first four minutes of a gay porno. (Veronica is the girl at home, watching it on her computer.) Cheryl Blossom, now in the clutches of the Farm, has tumbled into a midcentury B-movie. Jughead and F.P. are doing a buddy-cop thing, but Betty wins the genre lottery. Her efforts to abduct and deprogram her brainwashed mother — god, this show — send her into Lifetime Original Movie heaven, where every line bursts with overwhelmed feeling like a Betty Crocker Fruit Gusher. When Lili Reinhart has to come through with a reaction shot or meaningful nonverbal gesture or the other basic units of acting, she’s lost. But give her a scene with a camp-adjacent premise unencumbered by reality, and she shines.

The actors on this series succeed or fail based primarily on their ability to be in on the joke, and Reinhart’s particularly adept at reading the room from scene to scene. She seamlessly transitions from player in an overcooked melodrama about a daughter’s desperate ploy to save her mother from the brink of insanity, to spectator agog at how surreal everything has gotten. She plays the surrogate for the viewer when she demands her mother cut the shit and give her some answers; who among us doesn’t want to ask, “No, but really, how does my mother see her dead son?”

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Betty’s holding a lot in, and in the two-hander scenes opposite Alice, she lets it all out. Her Hannibal Lecter-ass father wants to finalize the divorce, which is upsetting on no fewer than three levels. She’s still wrestling with the guilt of sending Cheryl Blossom directly into the eager jaws of the Farm, and because Betty does not learn from her emotional responses to things, soon the same fate will befall Toni Topaz. She has chloroformed her own mother, ostensibly with her best interests at heart. A reckoning is a-coming.

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Like a boil in need of lancing, the toxic relationship between Betty and Alice spills over with with pus of resentment. They argue with the mutual self-assuredness of people who have come to occupy two different realities; Betty doesn’t understand how her mother can’t accept the reality of her son’s death, and Alice doesn’t understand why her daughter insists on taking away the one thing that makes her happy. And while Alice may be the more deluded of the two, neither of them inhabit the dimension where someone would bat an eye at Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?-caliber dialogue like, “How can I trust you? You lied to me! You faked a gravestone!” Betty remains on-edge as she reenters the world outside of the hotbox of nuttiness Alice has turned the bunker into, threatening to murder Evelyn in a hallway shakedown capitalizing on Reinhart’s refusal to skip arm day.

Whether through brute force with her mother or subterfuge with Toni Topaz, Betty’s efforts to dissemble the Farm from within seem unlikely to succeed. In just one short week, Cheryl Blossom has gone all-in on the wellness cult, her narcissistic personality making her the perfect fodder for a group emphasizing self-actualization. Toni Topaz thinks she can guide her lover back to the light the old-fashioned way — “I need you mind, body, and soul,” she says, “but mostly body,” triggering the fuck-music — but she’ll need to cut off the snake’s head if she wants her girlfriend back. The only way this ends is with Edgar Evernever going down, a hazardous undercover mission Toni Topaz may not be able to handle.

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The rest of this hour’s libidinous energy is discharged via Veronica and Archie’s adventures in semi-pro fighting, a milieu that gives Veronica the opportunity to visit a steamy steam room and say, “You’d be surprised by what I know about hot, shirtless, muscular bruisers.” Archie’s fuming over Baby Teeth’s death, Mad Dog is back (for some reason) and wants to vaguely “honor” Baby Teeth’s memory (for some other reason), but of course homoeroticism is the main attraction here. The spectacle of the weigh-in invites the gaze that buttoned-up entertainment laboriously tries to shed elsewhere, accepting that this scene’s purpose is the display of specimens in peak physical conditions and going from there. This even shapes the content of the scene, the irresistible draw of Archie’s glistening torso giving Veronica some ideas Josie doesn’t like. The brilliance of Riverdale is that everyone onscreen is as hot for these characters as the people offscreen.

Archie’s big match pits him against a rock of a man hopped up on bad Fizzle Rocks, joining his storyline with Jughead and F.P.’s investigation. While watching Jughead and F.P. do Son ‘n’ Pop detective work may be adorable, and may provide occasion to visit the creep coroner I love so very much, their procedural route comes off as drab in comparison to the more lurid ingredients in this genre stew. A bad batch of Fizzle Rocks has been sent out into Riverdale, and the Jones family’s investigation leads them to Kurtz instead of the one pulling his strings. “You and your drugs are done for good, Kurtz,” the Jones men say, blissfully unaware that the Jones women are the source and (with Jellybean’s abduction) the endpoint of the violence. Besides, this show was a lot more fun when it was about teenagers tentatively experimenting with substances rather than battling to purge them from the city limits.

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They’re clueless, both about the bigger criminal scheme unfolding under their noses as well the overall tone of the episode. What’s fun about scattershot episodes hopping between narrative traditions is that they’re all joined by a common atmosphere of ironic self-referentiality. CSI: Jughead and F.P. doesn’t attain that same rarefied high. Like many of the episodes revolving around the hunt for the Black Hood, they commit to the bit so hard that they forget it’s a bit. From an accented embodiment of the idea of a cop show, it turns into just another cop show.

Stray observations: 

- Cheryl Blossom one-liner of the week: “Do you think these Louboutins are too flashy for kombucha-brewing?” I have a lot of friends who I care about very dearly, but whose every word makes me roll my eyes, and I know in my heart of hearts Cheryl Blossom would be one of these friends.

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- With production on this third season all wrapped up, Reinhart has been off shooting the upcoming crime comedy Hustlers, a.k.a. the movie about the stripper-scammers with Jennifer Lopez and Cardi B. When everybody gets back together to dig in on Season 4, only one cast member will have Cardi’s number in her address book. The balance of power will have shifted, like when Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won the Oscar and then had to go back in be in Nine Inch Nails again (I assume).

- Scant Luke Perry sightings have me wondering when this show will get around to confronting his sudden departure. Camila Mendes posted a photo of herself in a fitting for the towel she wears in this episode on February 7 of this year, suggesting an approximate ten-week delay between shooting and broadcast. Perry’s untimely death took place about six weeks ago, and with only four episodes remaining after tonight’s, a big upheaval in the season finale or penultimate episode seems likely.

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- On the one hand, gotta get Cheryl Blossom out of the death cult, pronto. On the other hand, let us not forget the sagacious words of Ludacris: “All white top / all white belt / all white jeans / body lookin’ like milk.”

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