Verdict: Riverdale’s sophomore episode keeps up the momentum by digging deeper into its characters, even if it doesn’t progress the show far beyond its starting point.
Riverdale might have cleared the first hurdle last week with a strong pilot, but that’s only a small piece of the story. An arguably tougher challenge lies with the second episode, where a show has to prove that there’s gas in the tank long-term by setting up stories that will play out far beyond the hour’s confines. Countless shows, after all, have come out of the starting blocks with an experimental and exciting pilot, and then settled into conventionality once the time comes to tell a less self-contained story. Episode two, then, is a genuine make or break moment for any show, regardless of how good the pilot was.
A Touch of Evil is nothing if not consistent. It’s not a great leap forward from the pilot, sticking to roughly the same focus on characters as the pilot, but it never needed to be. All it needed was to prove that the untapped potential on display last week was genuine, and it did that well by expanding upon plenty of ideas and plot points that the pilot contained. It proves confidently that Riverdale is a show that’s built to last, and leaves things on a genuinely tantalising cliffhanger that suggests an intriguing shift in the overarching mystery, and proves that the show isn’t going to take it slow with its central story arc.
This is a consistent episode in the sense that it’s good at the same things the pilot was, and possesses roughly the same weaknesses too. It’s no surprise then, that this is another Betty and Veronica hour as Riverdale explores some more shades of these immediately engaging characters. A Touch of Evil’s main strength, and one that suggests a long-term sense of potential, is the way it doesn’t just tell the same story as episode one with a fresh coat of paint, as so many second episodes do. The central emotional conflict of the episode is directly informed by the mess caused at the end of the pilot, and Riverdale really takes its time to push Betty, Archie and Veronica back together instead of immediately patching up their issues and moving on. It shows an astute understanding of the emotional fragilities of these characters, who act in a realistically flawed way in their awkward, haphazard road back to reconciliation.
Betty, in particular, receives some really strong character deve;op,emt. A Touch of Evil does a great job of illustrating the difficult tension between Betty’s self-created image of ‘the nice girl’ that she presents to the world – the kind of person who buries the hatchet with her friends despite their backstabbing and heads back to normal as soon as possible – and the imperfect, hurting reality that lies beneath. Betty’s arc of self-discovery plays out slowly, but this allows the script, and Lili Reinhart’s eminently sympathetic performance, to explore Betty’s volatile emotional states in detail as she struggles to reconcile these two sides of herself. And there’s a chance for her to illustrate that well of repressed anger that the pilot briefly touched upon in a more substantive way as she clinically sends the insensitive Cheryl packing from her house, a moment that Reinhart plays with a steeliness and quiet fury that brings emotional realism to a scene that could easily have teetered into out-and-out melodrama. Betty’s arc expands upon what worked last week in a pleasing self-awareness of this show’s strengths, further interrogating the ‘nice girl’ archetype and illustrating the impossibility of always conforming to that persona in real life.
As Betty’s arc exposes the disparity in living up to the timeless girl next door image, Veronica’s story dives into the equal difficulties in casting off her own image and finding a new one. If there’s a theme of A Touch of Evil, it’s self-deception and the thin line between reality and imagination, and it’s one that’s equally pertinent to Veronica’s story, as her goal to carve out a new, nicer image for herself in her new life is put to the severe test in the face of her betrayal of Betty. One of the best decisions Riverdale made was to reject the snooty and entitled characterisation that could have been used for Veronica to make her a better foil for Betty, and instead to put that archetype as a symptom of the past Veronica is trying desperately to outrun. It allows for the viewer to sympathise just as much with Veronica as Betty, and that investment in both of their points of view pays off really well when we’re confronted with a conflict between the characters. A Touch of Evil takes pains to show that Veronica is sincere and genuine in her desire to make up to Betty and to prove herself, and therefore her frustration at Betty’s inability to forgive her later on has a legitimate basis. Betty could so easily have become the dominant character we’re supposed to sympathise with, but due to the careful joint focus on both of their sides of the story, that final moment of reconciliation in the diner is just as satisfying as a moment of validation for Veronica as it is a return to normalcy for Betty. Camila Mendes continues to deliver a layered performance that tempers a sarcastic edge with an earnest kindness that she’s evidently trying to project, which offers perhaps a more optimistic message than Betty’s – that it’s possible to recreate yourself and live up to an ideal if that ideal is founded in reality, and if you have the help of others. A Touch of Evil suggests that we can’t always be the best versions of ourselves, but that with a bit of compromise and empathy, we can come close enough, and that’s a message that indicates a heart and warmth that’s surprising for a show promoted on its edgy and dark content.
Archie, as with last week, is substantially less interesting, but there are some signs of progress. While Veronica’s attempts to apologise to Betty explore a full emotional arc that goes from sincerity to frustration and back, showing the dedication she has to preserving this friendship, there’s far less of a sense of the importance of Archie and Betty’s relationship in his own attempts to apologise, which are a background focus for the episode. His conversation with Veronica about Betty is certainly a good start in explaining the emotional importance that they have in one another’s lives, conveying a tangible sense of history that goes far beyond Veronica’s arrival on the scene, but Riverdale can’t just tell us that Archie and Betty’s friendship matters if it wants us to care – it has to show it too. Likewise, the Ms Grundy story improves here, but it can never quite overcome the silliness of the concept. The good news is that A Touch of Evil engages more substantially in the simple fact that their relationship is, well… gross. Part of that is down to Jughead’s expanded involvement in Archie’s life, as we now have an outside voice to chastise Archie for his terrible, awful decision-making. There’s also a genuine attempt to portray Ms Grundy in a darker light too. Her actions towards Archie are transparently manipulative as she desperately tries to stop him from revealing their presence on 4 July, using their intimacy as a bargaining chip for Archie to stay silent, so there’s a greater sense that this relationship is far more problematic and one-sided, even predatory, than the salacious secret it was portrayed as in the pilot. Truth be told, while it’s a much more thoughtful take than last week, the concept is still far shallower than what the rest of the show has to offer. When most other of the plotlines are exploring the complexities of relationships and the tensions between artifice and reality in terms of identity, the student-teacher relationship’s only narrative function is to remind us that Riverdale is a town with dirty secrets. This is something the show is quite eager to remind us at any given point – it’s even on the poster. A plotline whose only purpose seems to be a reiteration of this feels redundant and insubstantial – a reheated trope in a show that seems intent in deconstructing them.
Finally, there’s Jughead, who gets a lot more screen-time than last week, even if his appearances are still relatively sparing. It’s probably worth noting at this point that Jughead is genuinely the best, and that Cole Sprouse’s dry, sardonic performance is easily the most entertaining of the cast. His status as the viewpoint character allows him to express a lot of the criticisms and observations of the viewer, especially in his confrontation with Archie, and while his dialogue lacks subtlety as a result, it adds a sense of genuine self-awareness that’s essential to a show that touts its modernity at every turn even as it adapts a virtually timeless story. His relationship with Archie is turning out to be an intriguing complication to the seemingly simple core of the show, a way to illustrate the damaging consequences of Archie’s actions and the immense difficulty of changing anything, be it relationships or lifestyles, in a town predicated on comforting routine. Riverdale can become so tangled and complicated in its interlinked relationships that having a character who’s distanced from it all is proving to be vital – a way to give the viewer some perspective on the occasional pettiness or bull-headedness that wouldn’t be confronted if we were seeing this story through a more limited lens. It helps that the character in question is such a fun one to watch, too.
A Touch of Evil is the second episode Riverdale needed. It stays faithful to the vision that the pilot set out and naturally progresses the stories that the opening episode began, taking advantage of the lack of need to set everything up to tell its stories at a more measured pace that allows for realistic stories with pay-offs that are genuinely earned. There’s no doubt that there are still problems at this show’s core – Archie remains only mildly interesting at best, and a lot of that is down not to the writing, which is still penning Archie in a story that paints him in a really uncertain light, but to the charismatic performance of KJ Apa. But I came out of this episode more optimistic for the show’s creative future than before. There’s clearly so much potential to Riverdale, and it’s refreshing to see it’s going to tease that potential out instead of burning through the show’s strongest ideas early on. And as we can see from that ambiguous cliffhanger, there’s plenty of excitement still to come…
Odds & Ends
- Archie’s dad is developing into one of the most sensible and wise characters on this show. He is doomed to fail in his attempts to help Archie to make the right choice, but I wish him all of the best.
- Cheryl proclaims at the end that she’s guilty, but from virtually everything we’ve seen such as her shock at his dead body, it’s extremely unlikely that she’s actually the killer. Also, it’s episode 2 of 13. It’s a great tease for further depths for Cheryl, but not, in this particular case, wholly convincing.
- This is not a point of analysis, but it’s worth saying that Pop’s milkshakes look delicious. I’m sad that this diner doesn’t exist.
- What are the odds that Archie’s midnight run was conceived of solely to have KJ Apa perform with his shirt off? Is it even worth debating this?
- And a major clue for Jason’s death: he didn’t die on July 4, but instead a week later. The plot thickens…