On Riverdale as in life, our time feels both impossibly long and impossibly brief. It is nothing short of mind-boggling to me that each episode of this show lasts only forty-two minutes, swollen as they are with minimum four hours’ worth of plot developments. The volume and mass of this show simply do not square up.
Every week, there’s a part of me that sincerely believes I could fill a complete word count with a beat-by-beat list of all the things that happen within the space of one installment. Even actual soap operas, the kind with the motion interpolation and gauzy lighting and bad acting, don’t move at a pace this breakneck. All My Children and all of its children thrived by withholding, by drawing out each plot arc for as long as possible in the knowledge that their captive audience would undoubtedly tune in, day in and day out. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has assumed the opposite doctrine in his unhinged parody of the soap form, doing the absolute most in the hopes of holding our attentions between check-ups on Instagram.
For anyone other than him, this would be a recipe for disaster. But Aguirre-Sacasa and his writers excel at building the rope bridge as they run across it, frantically throwing down planks split-seconds before they must be stepped on. Consider this hour’s plot thread following power couple Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz. In the course of a single episode, we learn that Cheryl Blossom has her heart set on the family alma mater of Highsmith College, that her mother Penelope has thrown her weight around on the board to prevent her daughter’s acceptance, and that a rift has begun to widen between the two young lovers. And that’s just table-setting for the real action! Other shows would spend an episode or two readying all of this; on Riverdale, it happens offscreen to maximize productivity.
Their slice of the narrative pie, easily the most delicious in an episode full of the sweet-and-savory absurdity on which this series made its name, starts like any other day for Cheryl Blossom: in a silk-sheeted bed, wearing her most telegenic lingerie while cuddling with her girlfriend. Though they look like their only care in the world would be getting through check-in at the section of LAX they don’t let unwashed commoners into, they’re all a-titter about the SAT scores that have just come in. Much like Desert Hearts, Cheryl Blossom’s score isn’t perfect, but it’s close. (Let the record show that this line precipitated the episode’s longest pause break, so that I could catch my breath and scrape together what’s left of my mental facilities.)
The mind reels when attempting to square up the math of minutes against plot progression. Let’s say Cheryl Blossom occupies one-half of the screen time in “Bizarrodale,” already a generous estimate for an episode that spends a scene or two with the Jones family, the assembled adults, Veronica and Reggie, Archie and Josie, and Kevin. That’s twenty-one minutes, and presuming that five of them while away setting up Cheryl Blossom’s conflict with her mother, that leaves only sixteen. Across sixteen rationality-obliterating minutes, Cheryl Blossom formulates a plot to take revenge on her mother later dubbed “Operation: Fifty Shades of Blackmail,” visits the town bordello to gather incriminating materials, inadvertently outs the still-closeted Moose over the school intercom, has her First Fight™ with Toni Topaz, runs ahead of police to a crime scene in progress so that she may save the day with archery, makes good by scoring Toni Topaz an interview at a college we aren’t sure she even applied to, and then seals the deal by starting a new rockabilly girl gang called the Pretty Poisons to fill the vacuum in their lives left by their dismissal from the Serpents. All of this takes place in an estimated sixteen minutes. I consider it a personal accomplishment that I have lived to tell the tale.
Incredibly, that still leaves a lot. Veronica and Reggie have to deal with the fallout of their choice to set a lot of very expensive drugs on fire, and figure the smartest way to recoup the money they owe would be to rob Reggie’s dad’s car dealership. They also figure that the security details won’t be too rigorous. They do not figure that the duffel of cash may contain a couple dye packs. (For the love of god, never stare directly into a bag full of money you’ve stolen when first opening it!) As of late, Veronica and Reggie have done much more figuring than thinking, though maybe that’s the intoxicating influence of new-love pheromones. Now that Archie’s reforming himself, Reggie’s the odds-on favorite to succeed him as the resident Beautiful Idiot.
Archie’s getting his act together in a more literal sense as well, sober and making music with Josie. Though she’s been largely absent this season aside from the occasional Bonne Nuit production number, Josie claims more of the focus in an episode that stumbles while pushing her to the fore. She’s got a big audition with Juilliard coming up, and the same week as her mother’s surprise wedding to Kevin’s dad! (The two of them have been sitting around all season like unused toys, and this episode’s primary function is to find ways of keeping them busy.) Her game of “what is this?” with Sweet Pea seems intended to lend her some emotional depth, but when he cries that he’s “gotta get off this merry-go-round” with her, the viewer can only wonder — what merry-go-round? Even if they’ve been on it, we sure haven’t.
Like so much on Riverdale as of late, we’re not around for the good stuff. Whether due to financial constraints, filmmaking cowardice, or a combination of the two, the viewer had to miss out on Archie’s bear attack in the exact same manner that “Bizarrodale” elides Josie’s make-or-break audition to make room for a sugary rendition of The Wild Party’s “The Lights of Broadway.” Earlier, a conveniently placed Baby Driver reference gives the crew an out on staging a stickup set piece, but who among us didn’t want to watch thick-skulled Reggie try to successfully execute a robbery? We’re constantly taunted with the knowledge that such events have indeed transpired, as if thinking about a spectacle could produce the same effect as witnessing one.
That being said, the Eisensteinian montage cutting across four simultaneous instances of coitus interruptus is probably the greatest sequence in this show’s brief history, rivaling Betty’s legendary Tears for Fears striptease. It’s like watching Michael Corleone’s baptism of blood at the end of The Godfather, except with parents cock-blocking (or, uh, vagina-blocking?) their kids one after the other. A lot of people have had sex in that bunker, as it goes deep in this episode’s script, but Kevin and Moose will not be two of them. In this rare exception to the rule of omission, the sheer comedy value of not-showing trumps any un-delivered-on anticipation.
At least Gina Gershon is back, live and in the flesh, and she’s gonna be sticking around awhile. She and Jellybean have some sinister machinations in the works, duping Jughead and F.P. with little more than a friendly word and a hug, all the while running game on the Lodges. A likely antagonist in this season’s remaining episodes, she’s a volatile variable in the unstable climate of the town.
She’s the last clown jammed into the cramped car that is this episode’s rudimentary plot synopsis, which must surely look like the ravings of a foamy-mouthed madman to someone with no knowledge of this show’s anarchic universe. That’s about how I feel. Episodes of Riverdale do not so much end as they do spit their thoroughly masticated audience out. This clocks in as my lengthiest review yet by a significant margin, and still I believe I’ve forgotten something. (Oh! Did Kevin bring, like, a hundred candles to the Sex Bunker?) No one knows what each new chapter will bring, but to play the numbers, the best guess would be “damn near everything.”
- In past coverage, I’ve referred to Cheryl Blossom as bisexual, but in this episode, she refers to herself as a lesbian. I apologize for the mistake, and regret any unintended erasure of her sexual identity.
- In what may be the show’s most obscure allusion yet, Veronica’s reading pulp novelist Valerie Taylor’s The Girls in 3B while waiting for Reggie to wrap up the heist. With its themes of sexual experimentation, youth in revolt, and nostalgia for the ‘50s, it’s a fitting reference point.
- Come now, HAWF writers. Naming your fake university after Patricia Highsmith in the same episode as the line about “looking like a community theater production of The Talented Mr. Ripley” counts as double-dipping in the pool of references.
- Cheryl Blossom makes a crack about being on an episode of Ozark, a joke that flies directly in the face of my belief that no human being on Earth has actually watched Ozark and that the series exists primarily as a money-laundering operation in service of Netflix.
- Other key Cheryl Blossom soundbites: “Looks like someone could use an epaulette to cry on. I’m not trying to carb-shame you, Kevin, but whatever’s on your mind, it’s not worth it.” (The guy’s eating pretzel sticks! Cut him a break!) And the pièce de résistance, “It burns me that there are people in this town who still believe that being gay is anything less than rapturous.”
- Unsure about what came as a bigger shock during Toni Topaz’s college interview, that her actual name is Antoinette (did we know that already?!) or that she wore a tie-and-vest combo with no shirt to a sit-down with an admissions officer. It’s called maintaining a professional appearance, Antoinette, and old people still care about it!
- Hey, small-town kids living on the down-low, Bumble is great for covert hookups! Feeling lost in your suburb, like you’ve got no dating prospects and your sheriff dad just doesn’t understand? Thank goodness for Bumble! Bumble Bumble Bumble! Can they have their money now?
- Goodbye, Moose. You died (or just moved to a different town, whatever) as you lived: serving as a homoerotic desire object with zero interiority outside of your tortured life of secrecy that verges in this hour on American Beauty LARPing, which, interesting memories to invoke at this particular cultural moment.