The worst thing about the pandemic/quagmire that has engulfed the past year, on top of the worldwide mass death now numbering in the millions, was how the problem itself also robbed us all of the outlets we would normally use to make ourselves feel better about it. In addition to the mental stress of dystopian news reports and the constant fear of infection, there was no soothing respite of a night out at the movies, a good dinner at a restaurant, or a hug from a loved one. Even the safe living-room haven of TV took a hiatus, as currently running shows scrambled to get production back on track under new protocols preventing transmission. Riverdale left us when we needed it most, delaying the usual October premiere a few months to January, but that’s over now. Hot Archie Who Fucks is back. Trump is out of the White House. Could one swell of hope have precipitated the other? It’s not my place to say, but, yes.
The series’ inimitable flavor of lurid silliness returns as a tonic this week, the pure hit of escapism we’ve been waiting for. There’s no virus in Riverdale, no need to bump elbows instead of locking lips, no social distancing. In fact, the chiefest pleasure comes from the lack of space between bodies; we’re here in part to watch these professionally good-looking people mash their faces together and share in each other’s beauty. To be close shouldn’t be so much to cherish, but simple closeness has grown scarce. “Chapter Seventy-Seven” doles out challenges to the main romantic relationships rather than basking in the heat they radiate, and still, there’s plenty of warmth to defrost the loyal viewership after making it through the frostbitten wasteland of 2020.
As Betty and Jughead’s relationship hangs in a limbo only one of them is aware of — Betts and Archie wrestled tongues at the tail end of the last season — their continued search for the homicidal filmmaker dubbed “the Auteur” is pushing the show into a more colorful sector of the depraved. A serial killer on the loose hasn’t always been all that gripping on its own terms in past seasons, but a serial killer infiltrating a prom and a “a little film festival-slash-rave” thrown at the local equivalent of Berghain? Now we’re talking! Bringing Jughead’s stories to life in bloody fashion and restaging unsettlingly recent events as murders are both good bits, but the Auteur has a flair for execution (pun!) past antagonists have lacked. The brief prom takeover, complete with stroboscopic effects adventurous relative to the show’s usual formal standard, is one of the most memorably lethal set pieces in the show’s run.
Their investigation compels them to take measures as eccentric as their target’s, and so before we know it, Jughead’s being addressed as “Mr. De Palma” by a be-wigged Cheryl Blossom (she doesn’t want anyone to recognize her by her “signature red mane”) while she and a leather-masked Fangs get ready to record an ersatz snuff film. Sending the generally wholesome Jughead and Betty and sweet li’l Jellybean into the seedy “underground, immersive, red-band screenings” announces season five with a risqué element of real danger dispelling any worries that the show may be getting soft in its advanced age.
Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz, meanwhile, have encountered some trouble in sapphic paradise. Tedious as their relationship squabbles may be, they still occasion some of the episode’s most amusing dialogue. Cheryl Blossom wants to “host a din-din,” but Toni Topaz fears her family — to whom she has not yet come out — can’t handle “some big gay prom dinner party.” Once enough damage to the fabric of their bond has been done, she nails her courage to the lesbian sticking post, and our favorite gals reconcile in time to be named co-queens of the prom. Breaking boundaries and shattering heterosexual glass ceilings at Riverdale High, Toni Topaz and Cheryl Blossom remain the most watchable couple on the show, though the former’s impending pregnancy will undoubtedly complicate that much.
Archie and Veronica don’t have nearly as good a go at the prom, which he chooses as just the right time to divulge that he macked with Betty not so long ago. They’ve been wrapped up in their individual lives, as he tries to box his way into the naval academy through one last crossover with the canceled Katy Keene and she processes the news that daddy Hiram might not be dying after all. (His miracle cure? Vigilantism!) She wants to take a shower with her “teenage Thor” like in the good ol’ days after she finds his inevitably shitty song “Carry the Torch,” but the only thing he’s carrying, folks, is guilt. He evades her by busying himself with a match against Katy Keene export K.O. Kelly, with whom he shares a totally platonic bro-to-bro steam room sesh in which no one is implied to have given anyone a hand job. Veronica’s so-called “burly boys” go head to head in a match thrillingly cross-cut with equally dramatic events elsewhere, and yet it all feels like lead-up to the division that cracks open between them in the episode’s final act.
The beginning of this season feels like it’s building to the end of last season because it is, plotting having been backshifted weeks due to COVID-related delays. The rhythms of this season may feel slightly out of joint, and though that will most likely be righted by the time we hit the already-confirmed season six, everything prior to the much-touted time jump later this season will feel like taking care of unfinished business. But everyone in cast and crew is making the best of a lopsidedness that can’t be helped, fitting as much outré material into these kids’ teen years as possible before they slip away.
- The “Nicolas Cage movie” that Jughead alludes to when Betty says she believed snuff films to be a thing of myth is Joel Schumacher’s superlative 8mm, in which the Cage portrays a P.I. tromping into the most fetid depths of Los Angeles’ fetish porn underbelly. Reviled by many for its extreme content upon its release in 1999, it splits the difference between exploitation and the arthouse in the precise way the writing staff has been aiming for with this newest arc.
- Veronica suggests that Archie fulfill his dreams of military service by joining the USO, another instance of the show teasing a wondrous fantasy that will never be. Picture it: Archie in immaculate sailor whites, twirling two flaming batons while “Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue” blares in the background. Patriotism in America would hit an all-time high.
- I’m pretty sure I’ve pointed out Cole Sprouse’s odd pronunciations before, but he’s at it again this week, gnawing on the word “auteur” until it sounds like aw-TORE. Come on, man, you went to NYU! You must have heard the word said out loud no fewer than two hundred times, even in Gallatin.
- Re: the late movie store clerk David (who talks with the idiosyncratic lilt of his namesake, David Lynch), we’re told, “He’s not talking, unless you count movie quotes.” Sobering to realize that many of us here, myself surely included, would be David if we were in this show, and would be dead.
- Strong musical choices this week, though totally baffling for a dance full of teenagers in the modern day: Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” for a slow dance, Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” for a screamingly literal accompaniment to a night of violence, and the powerfully dated yet timeless “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer.
- Does Cheryl Blossom want to be prom queen? “Does Elizabeth want to be the Queen of England?” Touché, and ah, how we’ve missed you.