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This year, Riverdale gives thanks for cannibalism hoaxes and controlled explosions

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It may seem like hardcore Christians have exclusive license to the holiday persecution complex, with their annual denouncing of the imaginary War on Christmas, but a surprisingly wide swath of fiction operates from the presumption that our seasonal traditions are in danger. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! being the most notable example, the template of “X holiday is cancelled, area hero saves X holiday” has gotten a lot of mileage over the years. Next October, Adam Sandler will resume his fruitful partnership with Netflix for Hubie Halloween, in which he plays goofy community volunteer Hubie Dubois as he — you guessed it! — saves Halloween. From what, who knows, but the point is more that the holiday needs saving in the first place. It’s a notion wholly alien to real life, but it’s the easiest way to establish stakes if the dramatic thrust of the work hinges on proper observance. Plus, “wholly alien to real life” is pretty much Riverdale’s wheelhouse.

And so in a punitive decision most Grinchlike indeed, overnight mayor Hiram Lodge puts the kibosh on Thanksgiving and it once again falls to Archie to save the day — just that this day happens to be the fourth Thursday in November. As the latest phase of their initiative to clean up the streets, he and Mad Dog open their community center for dinner and the rest of the night, so that the area miscreants might have full bellies and a roof over their head for the duration of a nasty ice storm. Credit’s due to episode writer Arabella Anderson, who organically incorporates this device into each strand of story, forcing the characters to adapt to the inability to move from space to space and letting that inform the turns their plotlines take. With the exception of Alice and F.P.’s miraculous journey from their house to Pop’s, this is essentially four bottle episodes in one. Anderson takes the sense of isolation between the characters and their action, the Achilles heel of this exceptional season, and turns it into a strength.

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Archie’s deep-frying the turkey this year in honor of his late father, but with the arrival of the Winter’s Bone castoffs that the comatose Dodger calls his family, the community center turns into a pressure cooker all its own. Though they look like weirdly attired meth cooks, the only thing they’re fiending for this Thanksgiving is revenge. After Archie skirts Hiram’s bogus order to shut down the gesture of goodwill, he must once again save Thanksgiving from the rednecks appropriating all of their food at gunpoint until the varmint what roughed up their kin comes forward. His foolish decision to deep-fry the turkey indoors, a thing you’re apparently not supposed to do, leads to an explosion that gives him an opportunity to strike gives Anderson another chance to spin a flaw into a feature by making Archie’s bone-deep stupidity inadvertently useful. Though the foreboding closeup of the inner-heat meter getting tapped by Archie gives away the game ahead of time. Chekhov’s poultry.

The high-tension lock-in culminates with Veronica stabbing a man while Archie’s mom clutches a gun and threatens to murder the mongrels roughing up her son, ostensibly the sort of thing Molly Ringwald thought she’d get to do a lot more of when she signed on for a regular presence on this show. But the real purpose of all this, and the most awkwardly handled part of an otherwise stellar episode, is a would-be touching tribute to the dearly departed Luke Perry as Fred Andrews. The season opener succeeded in paying tribute to his memory by letting that dominate the entire hour, with nothing else to seem like a frivolity by contrast (or worse, to trivialize the serious grief for Perry). Anderson has the good sense to use the scenes nodding to Perry as bookends, but the latter plays differently than the first. It’s easier to switch gears from somber to silly than the converse.

Speaking of silly and somber, Betty and Jughead have begun snooping into the possibly coerced suicide of Mr. Chipping while she’s spending the long weekend in his dorm. The second that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa decided to steer Jughead towards an elite prep school, it was all but assured that there would eventually be a Skull and Bones-type secret society, and naming the duplicate Quill and Skull isn’t exactly shy. The good stuff most likely awaits us — hooded robes, subterranean chambers, weird initiation ceremonies — but there’s ample fun to be had on the way there. Betty giggles about her “Charlie Brown fantasy of junk food for Thanksgiving dinner,” a moment of genuine sweetness reestablishing that these are, in fact, children. They try to trap Donna and Brett with a game of Never Have I Ever, their belief in the drinking game’s honor system as an ironclad contract of honesty nothing short of hilarious and quite possibly jacked from this XKCD comic. “Never have I ever been in a secret society,” Jughead says, peering at Brett and Donna expectedly. Got ‘em! Their final scene features a camera surreptitiously recording the couple having sex, and instantly it hits you that “scandalous sex tape” is the one soap device this show has yet to get to, and the future looks bright.

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The parents get together at Pop’s to attempt a cordial dinner in acrimonious times, and though it seems like F.P. and Hiram can put aside their differences and find common ground in missing Fred, the evening dissolves into fisticuffs. Nothing like a good ol’ fashioned Turkey Day slugfest, and F.P.’s instinct to go right for the broken bottle provides a subtle reminder that even if he’s cleaned up his act and turned cop, he still fights like a Serpent. Looks like F.P. has a plan to reconcile those two parts of himself, judging by his final lines, though I’m not sure this season has done much to get us invested in that transformation. F.P.’s been a largely peripheral presence this year, and this character development may be too much, too late.

But never mind that, there are cannibalism hoaxes to discuss. The ambient lunacy in the air of Thistle House only gets thicker this week, strong enough to overtake Toni Topaz. She’s heretofore been the voice of reason countering girlfriend Cheryl Blossom’s slide into full-blown madness, but after being party to a murder last week, she’s succumbing to the crazy. When Cheryl Blossom cheerfully says, “Whilst the rest of Riverdale sits down to give thanks, we’ll be dumping Bedford’s body in Sweetwater River, just before it freezes over! By the time spring thaw comes around, the salmon will have gobbled up his eyes!” the only concern from Toni Topaz is that someone might find them out. She’s made her peace with the nutso-factor. She’s even gotten acclimated to the preserved upright corpse.

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So they hatch a scheme over hot toddies with real cinnamon sticks to get the grabby Blossom relatives off their backs once and for all, a gambit involving meat pies and the checkered Donner Party-esque history of their family. For a third time, Anderson demonstrates an understanding of her characters that enriches everything they do; Cheryl’s trick only works because she, her aunt, and the audience all know that she’s out of her gourd enough to actually go through with baking her own family into a pie, even if it so happens that she didn’t. Plus, she gets to call Aunt Cricket a “nosy old turkey wattle,” so we’re all winners here.

For all this episode’s astute writing, both in conception and execution, there’s a slightly anticipatory edge that tamps down the pleasure. Betty and Jughead’s business makes us hungry for the secret society shenanigans undoubtedly to come; F.P.’s just makes us curious about what he’ll do next. Archie holds down the fort while Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz try to shoot the show into the stratosphere, but in this instance, the disarray works. With ice raining down outside, everyone’s just trying to take shelter. Even when separated, that much unites them.

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Stray observations:

  • Ah, long-distance relationship visitation sex. The rice-paper-thin dorm room walls! The bunked twin beds! The polite request for private time made to your roommate! At least Betty doesn’t have to endure the indignity of getting sideways looks from people who know you don’t go to this school as you pass them in the corridor on your way to the bathroom.
  • Respect to the Riverdale metro area’s restaurants for not making their delivery drivers go out in the inclement weather. When Betty suggested ordering Chinese, I was all like, “You better tip the courier generously!” and then when she discovered that no eateries were putting anyone on the road, I was all like, “Good for them!”
  • Nothing, across the whole of fiction and through its many mediums, nothing is better than when someone pins a bunch of stuff to a cork board and connects them with red yarn. That is just the absolute best shit.
  • Hiram really ran unopposed for the mayor’s office? I feel like that’s a winnable race for pretty much any challenger who doesn’t have a laundry list of crimes against the city and its people. Let Molly Ringwald be mayor!
  • Veronica’s tablecloth pull is the most Dynasty that this show has ever Dynasty’d. The champagne is burned, Veronica!
  • As Skeet Ulrich groans out “of all the burger joints, they had to walk into ours,” Humphrey Bogart completes another 180-degree rotation in his grave.
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