Everything’s Riverdale: S2E5 When A Stranger Calls
In episode four our young sleuths and lovers discovered that, in a fictional reality that denies them consistency of motivation or action, the only way to take control of their lives is through consistency of affiliation. In episode five that’s taken away from them too. Everything’s in the wind.
This is the first episode in which the Black Hood is interesting. How did they do that?
Having him on the end of Betty’s phone completely changes how he works. He now functions more like ‘A’ from Pretty Little Liars in that he’s something our characters are being told they’re responsible for creating and something that can have a direct effect on any of the other subplots.
Until now then “an ineffective serial killer stalks the night” has integrated poorly with the teen romantic melodrama, remaining an external threat, creeping around the periphery, taking shots at peripheral characters. The Black Hood has been sold as this season’s big deal, but hasn’t ever felt like much of one because of the wall between him and the regulars. The sense of fear that he’s provoked in the community, and the chaotic choices arising from it, have been interesting. He hasn’t, in and of himself, because he could have been anything, from the airborne toxic event in DeLillo’s White Noise to the lone bear that strolled into Springfield in that Simpsons episode.
Look at him now though! Up in everyone’s romantic storylines, in thier peer pressure drug storylines, and their My Parents Just Don’t Understand storylines. The Black Hood has found a way to play nicely with the kids.
Okay… when Betty gets her first phone call from the Black Hood in ‘The Town that Dreaded Sundown’ then her mobile rings with a standard tone. But all through this episode it announces incoming demonic calls with ‘Lolipop’ by the Chordettes.
Has, in the midst of all this, Betty decided that ‘Lolipop’ by the Chordettes is to be her new general ringtone, or has she assigned it specifically to the Black Hood?
We need to know everything surrounding that choice.
Doubles and shadows and mirrors abound. The Black Hood is keen to prove that he and Betty are ‘the same’, but we’ve been reminded recently about ‘Dark Betty’, that she also puts on black headgear to become someone else. The way in which Betty and the Hood are most importantly ‘the same’ is in that neither are always the same as themselves.
Add to that the information that the two letters from the Black Hood have different handwriting and we’ve lost the certainty that the Black Hood is the Black Hood. This situation has at least two Black Hoods, at least two Betty Coopers, and no guarantees that the boundaries between any of them are stable. Alice has already said out loud that, as far as she’s concerned, one of the Black Hoods was Betty. The voice on the phone is telling her the same.
How much does Betty lean into real feelings when going after her friends and family?
She really is angry with her mother for all the reasons she gives when having to explain why she exposed her serpentine past. Watching that scene you have to actively remind yourself that she’s saying this stuff because of the murderous blackmailer telling her to.
She really is revolted by the posh druggy party side of Veronica’s life and deeply uncomfortable that she can fit back into it easier than she’d assumed. Watching her go for Veronica you have to actively remind yourself that it’s because of the murderous blackmailer telling her to.
Then there’s breaking up with Jughead. Up until that point the Hood’s exhortations have been more like permission slips for Betty’s darker desires. But she doesn’t seem to want this, does she? It’s very interesting having Archie do that speech on her behalf as his lies come from an honest place too. Betty doesn’t want to break up with Jughead. But Archie lists all the reasons he thinks she should.
Josie seems to have let go of her previously very clear idea of the Pussycats’ brand. Veronica and Cheryl both seem to drift in and out of the group so regularly that at least one of them keeps her ears within easy reach for whenever the Cat Signal is lit.
Valerie and Melody are consequently back to being undifferentiated by the script, functioning as a single character called ‘the Other Pussycats’, no more individuated than ‘The Bulldogs.’ This is a generally a shame although collective action and unity of purpose are super-enjoyable to watch as they kick the shit out of a rapist.
Archie can not be shown to drink rum but can be shown to take fictional ‘gutter drugs.’ I bet there were Meetings about this. Archie Comic Publications Incorporated surely haven’t adopted as laissez faire an approach to brand protection as Josie has.
Jingle Jangle being a fictional drug probably helped this get to the screen – nobody was ever going to snort what Nick was offering earlier. There’s also an expectation in teen drama that drug use will be shown to have Horrible Consequences, an expectation which, in the context of the story being told here, created the anxiety that Riverdale was about to tell us that drug users carry the responsibility for leaving themselves vulnerable to sexual predators.
Happily the show doesn’t go near that. There’s no suggestion that Veronica or Cheryl’s decision to jingle jangle made them in any way culpable for what happened to them with Nick. A bullet was really dodged here as, out of eagerness to make it clear that Drugs Are Bad, a lot of shows would have failed to make it crystal clear that rapists are responsible for rape.
Betty has avoided Game of Thrones. That has positive and negative consequences, one of which is that she doesn’t know to say “You” when the Black Hood asks for his next sinner to kill.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that Nick St. Clair isn’t an excellent choice, just that it would have been really funny to hear the Black Hood go, “Oh…like on Game of Thrones. Shit.”
And then Betty say, “Well kinda, but it just seemed the obvious answer anyway, really. In the circumstances.”
And then this long and awkwardly hesitant conversation in which the Hood tries to think of a solid reason not to top himself that isn’t just “We can’t resolve our through-arc mid season with another show’s schtick.”
Pop Tate greets customers with “I don’t judge you.” A fun policy. Put it on your badge.
Sweet Pea is keen to do some terrorism.
Jughead has to become a full Serpent so that there’s someone who’s allowed to discourage this. As we see more of the different areas in which the Serpents are active – the school, the biker bars, the law offices – it becomes more and more interesting how independently these work. There seems to be no adult oversight over Sweet Pea’s branch of the Serpents – The Shouty Man from the bar isn’t going to tell Sweet Pea not to do any terrorism. He’s just allowed to get on with it.
Toni is ambivalent about doing some terrorism. She’s still a very mechanical character really, there to guide Jughead around rather than to want or think anything.
Someone Next Episode, on learning what Betty has done, will say, “You couldn’t have just done the thing from Game of Thrones?”
Fred is happy to hear the Red Circle is over. It mildly concerned him.
Kevin nods and smiles while Veronica tells him about her life. Very much back in role after his brief rebellion.
The Black Hood threatens Polly with sharp objects. Has abandoned trying to aim at things. Wise.
Cheryl would have been a better person for Betty to go to than Archie, don’t you think? She’s invested in Polly’s survival. She’s sneaky. She’s someone the Black Hood is less likely to have expected Betty to go to and therefore been watching. So far that’s two ways this episode that Betty could have wrapped this whole thing up.
Hiram gets this week’s super-dramatic Biblical metaphor, promising “A new Eden” in the South Side. No direct talk of the Devil this week, I don’t think, but this at least associates the serpents with the serpent.
Hermione remains a timebomb, as it all goes off when her loyalty to Hiram snaps. She straightened Fred’s tie this week. Intimate.
Alice is such a great character, isn’t she? Her real moment of glory this week is publishing a Lodge-critical article when thus far Hiram’s been treating her as a useful idiot. That and her appearance at the party establish DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE ALICE COOPER as a major theme of the episode. I love her as everything except a parent.
Veronica is a good person.
Hal has got a little moustache.
Hot Dog 3 appears.
Sheriff Keller does not appear, but provokes much of the action with his extraordinary choice to question the motorcycle gang over last week’s fracas while taking no equivalent action against the squad who publicly said they’re out to kill someone.
Harry Styles does not appear but is heard.
Gal Godot does not appear but is heard of.
Hot Dogs 1 to 2 do not appear.
THE TOWN WITH DEMOLITION ORDERS
However much the Black Hood’s sinister commandments might align with Betty Cooper’s darkest desires, the align more perfectly still with the producers’ practical needs. Keeping things moving in a romantic drama, while keeping your audience from rioting, is hard.
The pieces have to stay in motion, the stories cannot be allowed to end. Couples brought together must be brought apart again so more things can happen. Here in real life plenty of interesting things happen to stable couples. Plenty of interesting things also happen to stable couples in detective fiction and SF; Paul and Steve Temple solved loads of mysteries and Valerian and Laureline have been been shot at by loads of political metaphors holding laser guns. But the sort of sensational event that teen romantic drama wants to offer cannot be offered if everyone settles down and gets cats.
Trouble is… teen romantic drama is very good at getting people invested in the couples it throws together. Or people are very good at getting themselves invested. It doesn’t matter which way round it goes. It just means that you get segments of the audience whose attachment to the show is closely linked to that show’s portrayal of particular relationships. That’s certainly happened with Riverdale, where Betty and Jughead’s romance is the draw for many people.
Most relationships end when one or more party notices that it’s not a very good relationship. That’s the basic mechanism by which couples frequently break up, as good relationships, or terrible-but-oblivious ones, tend not to. Yet that basic mechanism is denied you if you’re trying to keep an audience sweet. Bad enough you’re breaking them up, worse yet if you’re breaking them up in a manner that in way implies they had anything less than a miraculous love.
So external agencies will often come in as demolition squads. Heading into Riverdale’s second season, with Archie paired off with Veronica and Betty paired off with Jughead, we all knew to look out for these external agencies. These forces from outside the relationships that’d come along, break them up, set the show in motion again, but leave the concept of the relationships untarnished and ready to be revisited down the line.
This is so familiar that the show has been able to play some sneaky tricks with our expectations. Every press release about Vanesa Morgan’s role in the show promised that Toni Topaz would ‘shake up’ Jughead and Betty. Oh hello, we thought, here comes the girl who understands a side of him that Betty doesn’t to usher in a storyline about jealousy and temptation. Which isn’t really what happened at all. There’s been one scene that gestured at it, but the real way in which she’s shaken them up is just by being his guide into Serpenthood.
Then we get something similar with Nick St. Clair. Before he arrives we’re very much invited to assume that this old flame of Veronica’s is there to ‘shake up’ her and Archie. Turns out that is not his function in the story at all. It now looks like the character will have several functions, but none of them are likely to be as effective as the consolatory pleasure offered by watching his vicious beating.
Meanwhile, as these decoy ‘shake up’ characters play out their roles, there’s the Black Hood, shuffling the deck and rearranging the furniture. His cruel dictates perfectly in accord with what needed to happen anyway.