Before we get into the grand scheme of things with ‘When a Stranger Calls’, without a doubt the best episode of Riverdale’s second season so far, let’s get the obvious out-of-the-way; Alice Cooper makes one of the greatest entrances on television ever when she shows up at Hiram Lodge’s party for the SoDale development.
Even better was the use of a mug shot that looks as if it was taken from when Madchen Amick was in Twin Peaks. The entrance itself is a brilliant middle finger from the character who goes through a well deserved bit of trouble this week in the early part of the episode, especially given her attitude to Betty and her friends, but as always, and entertainingly so, Alice rises from the ashes, reclaims her place as Riverdale’s most high and mighty resident, and carries on regardless, with Amick once again proving herself the show’s most brilliant secret weapon.
It’s a rare moment of light comedy in an episode that is probably the darkest hour of the show yet, and while a lot happens, the pace and storytelling is remarkably a lot more restrained and subtle compared to last week, but makes considerable impact, not to mention being incredibly relevant.
Once again, Riverdale uses some conventional horror/thriller movie trappings to tell its story, but in such a way to futher the drama in a brilliant manner. Betty has a direct line now to The Black Hood, and it’s this element of the episode that gives Lilli Reinhart the chance to show that damn good she is in this show. Practically being manipulated into destroying her friendship with Veronica and relationship with Jughead, Reinhart brings a raw intensity to many of her scenes.
What starts of as a taut “communicating with the killer” type of storyline that we’ve seen in many a serial killer thriller, quickly turns into some incredibly intense television as Betty effectively has to verbally or emotionally destroy her standing with Veronica, and later Jughead, a move that effectively pushes him into the Southside Serpents.
It all comes after a gorgeously written scene in which Betty and Jughead, their last scene in the episode as a couple, talk about how they wish they could be Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending, and just get on Jug’s bike and ride out of Riverdale forever. It’s a lovely moment of quiet, heartrending drama and sees everyone’s favourite couple have one poignant, albeit happy, moment, before The Black Hood effectively destroys them. Forever? Hard to tell. The show did backpedal a little on Kevin’s anger at Betty two weeks go, so who knows, but it does lead to Jughead and Toni making a move on each other.
On his own, Jugead also goes through some intense development, even when not being told by Archie that his relationship with Betty is over, what with the Southside Serpents’ initiations involving dog sitting, grabbing a knife from a snake cage, complete with deadly snake, and a very overly dramatic moment when Jug has to shout the rules of the Serpents while being shouted back at, the latter which is pretty funny in its own, but even some of the humour of this gives way to a last initiation where Jug is practically beaten to a pulp, for the second time in as many weeks, to prove his worth.
If this had been the only things going on, it might have been enough to warrant a five-star rating, but then the episode, via Aaron Allen’s brilliant teleplay, goes and introduces one of the most vile characters the show has given us thus far; Nick St Clair.
It is strange seeing Zach Florrick from The Good Wife show up as someone who is a little suave and confident at first, a reversal of Graham Phillip’s portrayal from the classic law drama where it felt like he was perpetually at the mercy of Dreama Walker’s character in every other episode. Right away though, things feel off, given that he’s got a coat pocket full of Jingle Jangle and isn’t afraid to make moves on Veronica in front of Archie, while also demanding that she sleep with him in return for him helping her father with the SoDale development, not to mention kick-starting a party that includes all our lead characters getting drugged and drunk out of their minds. On its own this already marks him out a pretty terrible character, but it’s where it goes next that “When a Stranger Calls” becomes more disturbing and powerful as a drama.
Spiking Cheryl’s drink, and very much intending to have sex with her in her drunken state, Veronica and Josie and the Pussycats save her and give Nick a beating to within an inch of his life, a moment that might just rank as one of the most satisfying moments in the entire show so far.
Given that Berlanti-produced shows have a knack for using series like this, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tommorow and Supergirl to comment on real world events, this would seem like it’s another case of that, except this episode had to have been planned and written several months before stories about some of the biggest male names in Hollywood came out in relation to similar assaults.
Whilst there have always been stories of this nature, sadly, it does show a fortuitous timing on the show’s behalf that this episode came out now just when our headlines are dominated by stories like it concerning producers, directors and actors who have been getting away with monstrous crimes like this for decades. It may be fiction, but to see someone as terrible as St Clair, who uses his financial well-being as a means to be a sexual predator, get beaten down like this by some of the strongest female characters in the show is punch the air brilliant, and deeply cathartic.
With all this amount of storytelling to chew on, it would be easy to forget how great Madelaine Petsch is in the episode’s final moments. Forever the most confident character in the show, and the earlier parts of the episode really sees her on top of the world, what with her “I’m Cheryl Blossom, Riverdale’s resident it-girl” introduction to Nick, to see her at a very low ebb, crying and demanding St Clair “burn in hell” is heart-wrenching stuff and full credit to Petsch for being so damn good in it. Petsch’s portrayal of confidence and meanness is always a weekly highlight from the show, but this is another world entirely and she truly make the audience feel every inch of Cheryl’s pain and confusion.
Of course, it also potentially sets up The Black Hood’s next victim, with our resident serial killer demanding that Betty choose a next victim in place of Polly who he is intending to kill. The moment Betty says Nick’s name, the words Riverdale appear on the screen and the wait for the next episode instantly becomes unbearable. I am livid that I have to wait a week to see what happens next, but I can’t wait.
Riverdale airs in the UK on Netflix. Let us know what you think of the season.