Riverdale Recaps: When a Stranger Calls
Hey, now this is more like it!
After last week’s Veronica-heavy, slightly dismal outing, Riverdale is storming back with a brilliant, spooky, slippery episode that might as well have been made for me. On to the review!
Alright, so first and foremost, When A Stranger Calls features one of the best performances this show has yet drawn from Lili Reinhart as Betty; she’s head and shoulders above the rest of the teen cast but here, as she is forced to push away everyone in her life and isolate herself on the orders of an apparent serial killer on the other end of the line, she’s bloody excellent. With Riverdale dealing so much in high camp sometimes I can forget that there is a lot of pretty shifty acting going on (Cole Sprouse and Camila Mendes being the worst culprits) but this was just some solid, devastating work from Reinhart and I can’t wait to see what she’ll use her fame from Riverdale to springboard off into, career-wise.
It’s her story, too, that allows the show to explore the notion of true within lies, which is perhaps one of the more interesting episode themes they’ve pounced on since the start of their run – Betty is made to drive away those around her, and starts with Veronica. Now, there were any number of ways Betty could have chosen to drive a wedge between her and her apparent best friend, but she goes right for the jugular, accusing Veronica of being a vapid, narcissistic party girl who treats Riverdale and it’s inhabitants as a convenience rather than as real friends; we might know that Betty’s motivations for this savage monologue aren’t entirely malicious, but it’s obvious that she believes a lot of what she’s saying.
Later, Betty gets Archie to break up with Jughead for her – she specifies that he shouldn’t be cruel and should leave room for them to get back together, but instead Archie tears the shit out of him, pointing out the social gaps between him and Betty and implying they should never have gotten together in the first place, reflecting a deep-seated cynicism Archie clearly holds over their relationship. For a show that’s normally this broad, using these sequences to explore the unspoken resentments that always bubble between teens in a small town like Riverdale is a surprisingly incisive, and lends some edge to plots that were getting a little too soft. It’s good, well-written TV, and it gives KJ Apa maybe his best bit of acting of the show to date. Which isn’t saying a lot considering Skeet Ulrich acted him of the screen last season, but you know.
This episode also takes on a rape plotline, which feels prescient given all that’s going on in the world right now: I have to admit, I was filled with dread when I realized that’s what they were doing because I just wasn’t sure Riverdale could carry a plot with this much real-world weight, but they managed to hold it together. Cheryl is drugged by an old friend of Veronica’s, who proceeds to whisk her away to a bedroom with the intention of raping her; luckily, before he can get down to it, Veronica and the rest of the Pussycats (who are, yes, still part of this show, despite what the last few episodes might imply) appear to pull him off and kick the bollocks off of him which I have to admit is wildly satisfying. Riverdale is unrealistic, sure, but at least this episode it was unrealistic in the “a probable serial rapist finally gets his violent comeuppance” kind of way.
I’m kind of annoyed they’re dropping another ton of trauma on Cheryl’s head when they’ve done so little to explore the effects of last season’s horrors on her, but I get that balancing her “super fun messy bitch” persona with “young woman recovers from various violent traumas” is probably a tough act for a show like Riverdale, so I’ll let it slide for now. The rape storyline feels timely and yes, it might be cheesy, but I find something comforting deep in my soul to see a group of women supporting one of their midst who has been assaulted, especially when one of those women puts the would-be rapist up as a candidate for violent murder. Call me a softy.
Elsewhere, Jughead has finally decided to join the Serpents in a plot that is struggling to keep itself upright; even Cole Sprouse getting the crap knocked out of him to the strains of Out Tonight from Rent (yes, I know Rent is extremely problematic, but damn if I don’t still know all the words to all the songs and love each and every one like it’s my child) can’t save it, and Jughead and Topaz getting together mere hours after he was second-hand chucked by Betty feels thin. Maybe this plot just needs more Skeet Ulrich. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type in anything but jest.
There’s plenty more Peak Riverdale in this episode; Madchen Amick sweeping into an event she wasn’t invited to in a ridiculous becaped mini-jumpsuit, the killer drawing direct paralells between themselves and Betty, lots of straight-faced references to jingle-jangles. Like all great Riverdale outings, When a Stranger Calls was overstuffed, brimming with so much good that you just don’t have time to notice the faultier subplots. The best Riverdale can do is to overwhelm you with the good and hope you forget about the bad – and right now, I’m more than happy to sit back and let them take the lead.
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