There was no Riverdale last week, the CW opting instead to screen the 7th Annual iHeartRadio Music Festival. I’ve not watched it, but I’m going to imagine that the cast all went and filmed in-character vignettes to be used as whimsical inserts. The two shows already share Harry Styles.
The week before that the CW aired ‘Death Proof,’ Riverdale’s best episode since ‘The Sweet Hereafter.’ An episode so accomplished and assured that I don’t even resent it for breaking the pattern of my favourite Riverdale episodes being named after films I hold in similar regard.
Let’s revisit it now before the series resumes.
Engines warm and ready?
THE TOWN WITH LIARS, DOPE FIENDS AND FORNICATORS
There are two keys to understanding this remarkable piece of television. Betty and Veronica’s crash into the House of the Dead is one of them. Cheryl’s outfits are the other.
We all know by now how character works in Riverdale. We all know by now how storytelling works in Riverdale. The two episodes previous to this one (S2E4 & S2E5) have walked us through both. Now we can just get on with things and enjoy the pleasures this odd show offers. That’s the project of ‘Death Proof.’
Set-ups will not be paid off. Character development will unravel and flap dangerously in the wind. Enmities and affinities will appear and disappear from our characters hearts, blinking in and out as how they feel about each other is set and reset. Escalators will go nowhere. This is not a show that’s trying to present coherent made-up lives in a coherent made-up world. It’s a show that’s trying to capture the feeling of living in a world that lacks that coherency, like teenagers and Americans have to.
Veronica, still a newcomer to this reality, is typically the best at figuring out how to navigate it. When Betty tells her that there are no sane explanations for the previous episode’s events Veronica just fixes her with a look that says “Why would there be?” and demands to hear the insane explanation. She knows how this works.
And how it works is that everything is mobile and adaptable. Since nothing is attached to any commitment to narrative logic then any element of the show can be picked up and put down where it is most effective. Cheryl doesn’t need any plausible reason to be at the drag race to be officiating. She’s got that gig because that’s where she visually belongs at that moment, as surely as she earlier belonged gothically sunbathing in the shadows of a cloudy day. There’s similarly no need for any kind of tonal harmony between Betty and Veronica’s investigations and Archie and Jughead’s negotiations for one plotline to suddenly intrude on the other.
Whenever I’ve talked before about how this show is the true successor to Twin Peaks then it’s been in terms of how Riverdale embraces the camp, the kitsch and the soapy – all the vital elements of Twin Peaks that its lesser imitators skip because they’re mistakenly shooting for clever. But something else is now becoming very apparent.
Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes’ documentary The Art Life has an illuminating and hilarious scene where David Lynch recalls his move to the filmed image. With a slow, deliberate thoughtfulness he tells us how he got to thinking how interesting it would be if his paintings could move. He just couldn’t get the idea out of his head. Paintings…that moved. What a concept! So taken was he with this fancy that he didn’t seem to recollect or exhibit any awareness of the fact that moving pictures had been around for some time prior to the Nineteen Seventies. The existing traditions of television and film were not (in the myth Lynch is selling, anyway) the impetus for him to pick up a camera. He never wanted to tell anyone stories, he just wanted to make paintings move.
That all feeds into Twin Peaks, and flows downriver into the best of Riverdale. Like Racing Queen Version Cheryl Blossom, striding into the exhausted and diminished Gothic murk of Thornhill to demand love from the mother she burned. The story that gets us there is a vacillating, elliptical shambles. But watch that paint writhe.
Watching is very important. Windows too. Painting have frames.
We first met this incarnation of Betty Cooper as she and Kevin perved on shirtless Archie from her bedroom window. It was an effective scene that let Kevin drop that trailer-ready “Archie got hot!” line as if it was an elevator pitch, but as well as explaining to the prospective viewer that this new series will offer the opportunity to letch at teenage characters, it also set up how this voyeurism will be constructed. The hot version of Archie comics is to be the object of female and queer male gazes.
Now, the terrible tides of television have rolled as ever they do and this unlikely promise was not kept. A couple of months later and, in the Sexy Women Beg For Healthcare video, Camilla Mendes and Madelaine Petsch were reading a script that reassured straight men that “giving you erections” was a function of their “soapy teen drama.” However accurate that might be, and wherever the balance lies, the pertinent thing here is that we start with Betty at her window.
Betty at her window is a place where she’s powerful and a bit creepy. In ‘Death Proof’ it’s to her window that she returns to shift the balance of power between her and the Black Hood. We start the scene watching her through it, then she says, “It’s my game now” and directs her own line of sight to the window. For the rest of the scene all her threats against him are matched by her lingering looks out.
Riverdale is a show built around detective stories – Who killed Jason Blossom? Who is the Black Hood? – and the viewer is invited to be a detective. But viewers always need teaching how to be a detective within the bounds of any given show; How you solve a mystery in Jonathan Creek is not how you solve a mystery in Line of Duty. So it falls to a show’s Official Detective to model what it means to solve mysteries round their neck of the woods. Betty Cooper is Riverdale’s Official Detective, and she’s performing that educative role for us here. We have been presented with mysteries. She will teach us what do with them. She will teach us what it means to be a detective in Riverdale.
“I found out who the Sugarman was,” she says in triumph. A claim that may not immediately feel true. Cheryl found out who the Sugarman was after Betty “defiled” her traumas to motivate her. But that’s okay, we learn from Betty at her window, that counts. Being a detective in Riverdale is a kind of passive thing. You don’t really piece together clues, interrogate suspects or rummage through trash. You watch and wait.
“Can you feel me breathing down your neck?” says Betty at her window, imparting her second lesson. The show positions Betty, and the viewer, as a detectives in the same way it positions them as voyeurs. Being a detective in Riverdale is creepy.
Kevin is just providing running commentary again, but on two occasions references his own interests and desires and on one occasion presents a opposed viewpoint to a friend. This earns the episode three full points on the Kevin Keller Agency-o-Metre.
Toni feels much more like a real character this week. Maybe now that her rather artificial function of “shaking up Bughead” and her expository function as Jughead’s guide to Serpenthood are both winding down then she can start to come into her own. Or maybe just confirming on screen that she’s bisexual has been good for the character. They should try that with all the others to check. Well, not Kevin and Jughead, obviously. But everyone else.
Jughead confirms in his first two scenes that he’s always interested in food and that he wasn’t interested in going further sexually than “a PG-13 grope session.” Progress. Other Jughead highlights this episode include him picking up the title “Mighty Serpent Prince” and a wonderful bit of acting from Cole Sprouse in which he’s struggling not to mouth along his own words as Phillips reads them out loud.
Betty is also visited by the spirit of her current comic book incarnation as she does car mechanic stuff ready for a street race. It’s quite disorientating watching a scene where the dialogue is all concerned with immediate Riverdale concerns while the visuals and action are letting you know that the show is starting to look over at recent events in the comics. Collections of the ‘New Riverdale’ Archie comics have been marketed as “the stories which inspired the show”, a lie apparent to anyone who looks at what was written and developed first, but we’ve now arrived at the point where that lie is coming true.
Archie is making plans that’ll “hopefully keep everyone alive.” They are terrible plans. Plans more likely, as the Mighty Serpent Prince notes, to just get a greater number of people killed a month later. This is trying to solve a trolley problem by slowing the tram so more people have time to get on the tracks. Nevertheless, the important thing is that “getting Archie killed” is no longer the intended goal of Archie’s plans. Good for him.
Veronica looks so at home joining in with the Lodge family’s terrible vengeance on Nick St. Clair that, the way the shot is composed, you expect the chess board to distort into a trapezoid ready for her to take her place at the newly created third side.
Sheriff Keller wonders if he should ask Betty what she’s doing in Nick’s room. Decides not to bother. After all, that sort of information would only be of interest to anyone trying to investigate a complex series of interrelated violent incidents involving the Cooper family.
Mayor McCoy is far more proactive, having discovered that she can have people arrested by pointing at them dramatically. There are limits on her power, however, as under Riverdale law you are protected from her custodial powers if a door obstructs you from the line described by her digits. Doesn’t matter if the door’s got a big window on it. That makes no odds. It’s not about visibility. A patio door would be fine. Just get on the other side of one quick when Mayor McCoy’s waving the long finger of the law around.
The Krampus was invented to scare children. Cheryl is right about that.
The Sandman was not invented to scare children. Cheryl is wrong about that.
Jose and Reggie is such a great idea that I find I’ve written “Jose and Reggie is a great idea” three times in my notes.
Cheryl says the word ‘rape.’ For a while it looked very worryingly like the show would be dancing around the word, as it did in the early scenes with Veronica. But no, they were waiting for Cheryl to be the one who says it out loud. As they did with the word ‘abuse’ in the season’s opening episode. In the often mealy-mouthed world of this show this is a power almost unique to Cheryl – to look at the evil and call it by its name.
Penelope looks so genuinely shocked when Cheryl explains that what she wants from her is for her to act like family. That that was still a possible thing that Cheryl could want is something that genuinely hadn’t occurred to her. How beautifully horrifying for everyone involved. “Care about me more” is one of this series’ best moments.
DJ Kahled, Pink and Kesha appeared at the 7th Annual iHeartRadio Music Festival.