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For all intents and purposes, Riverdale is a musical. In big Broadway productions, outsized emotion spills over past the limits of reality to the point that it can only be expressed through performance. That also happens a lot on this television show, which won plenty of fans with an early scene in which Veronica and Cheryl Blossom decide to resolve their rivalry with a dance-off. But the writing is also oriented around the spectacle of pleasure in a more general sense, more than willing to break with plausibility for the sake of indulging its teen hormones. (In this respect, as I have said on numerous occasions in the past, Riverdale has more in common with pornography than any other genre.) So when this show actually starts doing showtunes, it doesn’t feel like a departure, but rather like an attainment of its truest self.

The series’ first go at a proper musical episode faltered by resisting its own nature. The writers attempted to plug the high school’s mounting of Carrie into the ongoing thread of the Black Hood, leaving the production itself as an appendage hanging off of the serial killer business. “Chapter Fifty-One” cues itself up for the same issue. It’s another recent stage adaptation of a cult classic film about the carnivorous side of adolescent sociology — and, for this Great White Way purist, likewise hobbled by bland high-polish Pasek-and-Paul-ian songs impossible to recall by the next day. The Broadway purist in me also objects to the choreography that would look more at home on a strip club stage than on 42nd Street.

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But because they’re not original compositions (probably for the best that the show doesn’t even try), and because this episode marries Heathers and the ongoing threat of The Farm more holistically than its predecessor managed its story elements, a viewer’s inclined to let that much slide. This hour just keeps going, from song to song and outburst to outburst. When an episode is so gratuitously fun — big fun, even! — minor sins are easy to move past.

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Most of the sins playing out at Riverdale High, however, are decidedly major. Chief among them is wrath; hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and the now-jilted Cheryl Blossom gives the expression new meaning with the depths of her contempt for ex Toni Topaz. Among this episode’s strengths is its decision to foreground the discord flowering in the show’s richest and most diverting relationship dynamic, a melodrama which has an emotional heft befitting a musical even on a normal week. Cheryl Blossom forcibly claimed the role of “mythic bitch” Heather Chandler for herself at the end of the last installment, and that steamroller-style domineering puts her on a collision course with Kevin and Evelyn’s authority as co-directors when Toni Topaz gets involved as dance instructor. Truly, we are in boom times for pleated miniskirts!

They resolve their differences, as they must to rebalance the delicate erotic equilibrium of the Riverdale atmosphere, but not before working the usual post-breakup beats for all they’re worth. Toni Topaz would like to be the bigger person and cooperate professionally, but that doesn’t gibe with Cheryl Blossom’s absolute scorched-earth-salted-land policy with former lovers. So begins a rampage of rebounding, as each attempts to prove to both the other and themselves that they’re totally over it and not even mad.

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This clears the way for plenty of catty bons mots not out of joint with the Heathers homage, and more importantly, the show’s first feint at a threesome. The ménage à trois always been a glaring absence from the show’s litany of provocations, especially considering that the comic book source material was all but built around the notion of two girls being hot for one guy. But it’s Toni Topaz who spearheads the trio effort, before her conscience gets the better of her and she realizes that sex cannot fill the void in her heart left by her one and only. Though this is the latest in a long series of cop-outs dangling a big set piece under the audience’s nose before snatching it away, Toni Topaz is right that it’s not right. Lest we forget that jointly sleeping with Lizzie McGuire tore apart Dan and Vanessa on Gossip Girl.

Musicals have a way of thickening the pheromones in the air, and everyone’s susceptible to their influence. Veronica doesn’t take the news of her parents’ long-time-coming divorce kindly, and jumps back under the covers with Reggie to comfort herself. Archie’s got the love bug as well, pushing Josie to get serious about going steady despite her correct assessment of their relationship as not destined to last. But she, too, is helpless against the seductive influence of a good toe-tapper and lets herself give in to Archie’s wooing. Jughead and Betty reignite the spark between them by igniting the spark that will set the trailer on fire. (Is Betty turning firebug? Please, yes.) Still, they are all minor celestial objects orbiting the blinding sun that is the Topaz-Blossom union.

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This episode works where Carrie didn’t by joining them all within the greater medium of the Heathers production, which fuses with the running menace of The Farm instead of bumping up against it. A brainwashed Kevin cedes control of the annual musical to Evelyn Evernever, who promptly turns the school show into a feeder system for her surrogate family. Veronica puts the joke here in plain language: “Heathers is being used to indoctrinate students into a cult.” Any actor will tell you that the standard experience of joining a theatre troupe is not radically dissimilar.

It’s a good gag, and its follow-through proves that the bit has legs. Evelyn follows the teachings of Stanislavski and fosters a Method approach to acting, placing special emphasis on instructor Lee Strasberg’s philosophy of psychological analysis. Under the guise of freeing up the emotional machinery that powers a thespian, Evelyn goes about mentally breaking down each member of her cast — a campy play on the “tyrannical director” archetype. “And that is what we in the theatre call a breakthrough,” she purrs, knowing that she’s got her victims right where she wants them. Two arresting images bring her scheme to a head, each a creepy tableau of sterile, calm evil. In the first, an assembly of spotless white gathers and dons old-fashioned blue-and-red 3D glasses to watch what appears to be a mock marriage ceremony between Kevin and Moose. In the second, which closes out the episode, the members of The Farm rise from their seats in a unison slow clap. Standing out from the hivemind, showing his face at last, is Chad Michael Murray as Edgar Evernever.

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“Chapter Fifty-One” seamlessly and cleverly melds the seasonlong arc with the self-contained concerns of this episode, earning the genuine eeriness of its final moments. It’s knowing and cohesive and devilishly enjoyable, and Riverdale usually manages two of the three at once. But going musical brings out the best side of Riverdale; it clears new space at the top for a show that keeps innovating ways to go over it. 


Stray observations

- I knew something was amiss the second that everyone was told to come to the “party” in costume. They don’t even let you eat in those!

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- What’s great about Riverdale’s third season is that enough has transpired to allow for phrases like “especially after the tragedy of last year’s musical.”

- As ever, I wonder to what extent the viewership feels any attachment to the material to which the show alludes. Do today’s teens love Heathers now that it’s been remolded into a Broadway sensation? Are the little theatre nerds logging Spotify plays on the original soundtrack actually watching Daniel Waters’ film? Teens, please, sound off in the comments. Let me be your Margaret Mead. Educate me about your ways.

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- The Choni fans have lots to squeal over this week, but the dialogue is never better than the following exchange: “Did you have a lobotomy for breakfast? You’re wearing my signature color!” “You don’t own the color red, Cheryl.”

- “Just two single straight dudes, doin’ some theater.” God bless us, every one, and Amen.

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