(Spoilers ahead for the Nov. 8 episode of “Riverdale,” “When a Stranger Calls.”)
When I try to convince my friends to watch “Riverdale” I have a tendency to refer to it as “trash TV” — it’s my way of trying to ease folks into a show that nobody takes seriously until they watch it. And while, yeah, “Riverdale” is definitely trashy, that label does a disservice to a show full of great, layered characters and really effective storytelling that really just cuts right through the heart sometimes.
This week felt like a peak in that regard — the show’s 18th episode, “When a Stranger Calls,” is the best of the series so far. It’s full of pain and misery, all earned rather than just being cheap, thanks to a pair of plotlines that feel all too familiar as Hollywood continues to come to grips with its problem of men using their power to hand out sexual abuse at seemingly every opportunity.
The first of these, which most cleanly fits in with the main thread of this season in which a man wearing a black hood terrorizes the town, involves a man alleging to be the Black Hood himself attempting to blackmail Betty (Lili Reinhardt) into a more puritanical lifestyle (I say “alleging” because the policed deemed that the letter Betty received was not written by the same person who sent the initial Black Hood letter to Betty’s mom Alice (Madchen Amick). He tells her that he’ll kill her sister Polly if she doesn’t do what he says — and what he wants is to cut her off from those who are closest to her.
It starts by having her publish an old report about her self-righteous mother being arrested in high school. It continues with having her end her friendship with Veronica, who he claims is complicit in her father’s crimes. And it concludes, at least for this week, by having her break up with Jughead (Cole Sprause), who the Black Hood says doesn’t deserve Betty’s love.
He’s also stalking her, of course — he calls her on telling Archie (KJ Apa) about their conversations, something it would be really tough for him to know about even if he was following her constantly (which he seemed to be). This guy wants total control over Betty’s existence, and he’s seizing it through the most horrible means. And Betty has become a total wreck because of it, having no idea how to get out of this mess that he has put her into.
Near the end of the episode he tells her that in order to get some insight into who he is, she has to go to an abandoned house. There she finds a black hood that he left her, and he tells her to look in the mirror. We’re the same, Betty’s terrifying stalker says as she trembles through the whole thing.
But while Betty’s new nemesis is an obvious and active evil, “Riverdale” this week pulls a masterful contrast by introducing a villain whose face is uncovered: Nick St. Clair (Graham Phillips), an old friend of Veronica (Camila Mendes) from the Big City who visits Riverdale because Hiram Lodge (Mark Consuelos) wants his rich family to invest in the SoDale project. Hiram charges Veronica with showing Nick a good time so he’ll encourage his parents to throw their money around.
So they have a party at Nick’s hotel room, with Betty, Archie, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), Kevin (Casey Cott) and the Pussycats, and they all do jingle jangle and have a great time — until Betty kills the vibe by staging a public falling out with Veronica per her stalker’s orders. Eventually only Veronica and Nick are left, and Nick — who had been flirting hard in her direction all episode — made his move. Veronica wasn’t having it, of course. She’s loyal to Archie. Then Nick brought up what he believed was the power he had over her: his ability to kill Hiram’s attempt to make a deal with Nick’s parents. Nick tries to blackmail Veronica for sex, and even attempts to force himself on her, but Veronica calls him a pig and leaves. This whole thing was an intense betrayal of trust for Veronica — they’d been friends for a long time and they had never crossed the line into romance. Nick decided that was a bad thing and tried to unilaterally change that dynamic whether Veronica agreed or not.
The next day, Nick apologizes, and Veronica accepts – but Nick isn’t done. He moves on to Cheryl, who has clearly indicated she has a thing for Nick, and drops a roofie in her drink, then takes her back to his room to rape her. Fortunately, Veronica and the Pussycats break in and kick his ass before he actually does it, but good lord.
What a pair of arcs that was, mirroring so many stories told by women the world over from time immemorial about men taking advantage of whatever power they think they have. Men who use leverage and coercion instead of letting their victims make their own choices. That Nick didn’t even give Cheryl a chance to consent even though she seemed to be giving him all the right vibes drives the point home — to these men, the woman’s consent or lack thereof is immaterial and irrelevant. Just like real life, as we see new versions of these stories in headlines every day. This episode very effectively illustrates that fact about very prevalent sort of man.
“When a Stranger Calls” would have been an excellent, hard-hitting episode in a vacuum, sure, but the coincidentally topical nature of those arcs makes it all the more powerful and its emotional turmoil all the more devastating. It’s this sort of thing that highlights why “Riverdale” is a truly good show — while it certainly tends to please the crowd with its trashier elements, the real hook is in how often its conflicts hit so close to home. And this episode is the very definition of close to home.