What do kids know? In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, that phrase lends a general-knowledge game show pitting youngsters against adults its title, a leering taunt that throws precocious intelligence back in the faces of those possessing it. Riverdale shares that film’s preoccupation with children’s terrible awareness of the adult world, and in this week’s episode, it also uses the format of a televised quiz program to remind some kids growing up too fast of just how little (and how much) they know. Betty may know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell and that the limit does not exist and some other third meme-derived factoid, but she’s coming to realize that she has much to learn about her boyfriend and herself.
“Chapter Sixty-Eight: Quiz Show” traces the straining of relations between Betty and Jughead, as omissions and misunderstandings pile up and chip away at their mutual trust. Director Chell Stephen’s camera joins the couple in postcoital bliss, and yet before long, Jughead’s come-on of “I love getting you all wound up” sounds more like a harbinger of unfriendlier hot emotions. Jughead sits for too long on the information that he got into Yale, then again when he starts to model his Baxter Brothers novel after the Black Hood saga at the behest of the editorial cabal. The combination of her central support system’s faltering and the news that her father’s long shadow has kept her from getting admitted to Yale proves too much for Betty. She erupts in violence that it’s easy to imagine spilling over to Jughead. And in the episode’s final seconds, in which she seems to work through her grief by fondling Archie’s hand, don’t cast her in a particularly flattering light. Point A is about to meet Point B.
The quiz show itself is secondary to how it stretches the bonds between Betty and Jughead, and because everyone else also has plenty going on, it occupies precious little space in the episode ostensibly devoted to it. Apparently Veronica and Cheryl Blossom found time to bone up on their buzzer methodology between advancing their “female-empowerment startup,” a chilling phrase casting them both as a couple of #girlbosses striking back against the patriarchy by making money. The less this is interrogated, the better off we’ll all be. Oh, look — Veronica and Cheryl Blossom are dancing to electronic music! Another week, another hurdle cleared, and visits to the defunct family brothel and sex-bunker have been paid. The wheels continue a-spinning.
Archie also feels the cold sting of capitalism this week, hard up for cash to pay the guys on his construction crew. Archie continues his uphill battle to reconcile his urge to do good with his knee-jerk conservatism, a friction last seen with his plan to clean up the streets of Riverdale by forming a crypto-fascist gang called the Red Circle. This time around, Archie wants to be a business owner but doesn’t want to negotiate with any unsavory characters, and the difficulty of enforcing his moral standard catches up with him quickly. Uncle Frank thinks he has the solution, and once again, his poor judgement bears much-needed fruit. Frank skims two hundred bucks out of the petty cash drawer and brings it to the race track for a “sure thing” that doesn’t go as awry as the episode leads us to believe. He transforms the two benjamins into ten grand, and despite a brief dustup with the morally upstanding former-sheriff Keller, all’s well appears to end well.
On that side of the Keller clan, anyway. The main course in the veritable feast that is this episode has been served on top of Kevin’s presumably bound body. Fangs runs into Kevin at Pop’s, and his overtures to a proper flirtation hit a brick wall as Kevin notifies him that he’s waiting for a date from not-Grindr. Things are surprisingly casual, as the strapping stranger invites Kevin directly back to his hotel suite, and Kevin is surprisingly amenable to the suggestion. That’s not the real surprise, however.
No, the real shock comes when Kevin’s date reveals that he’s an avid producer of tickle-porn videos, the term “porn” here being used loosely due to the lack of sexual activity or even nudity. And yet Kevin recognizes something unsavory in a clearcut way about the production’s methods: that he’s one of “hundreds” to have participated, that his inability to stop the tickle-torture is very much part of the appeal, that consumers will pay top dollar for pairings of “opposites” such as the muscular black man who goes to work on Kevin.
At first, the real gobsmacking aspect is that this show would suddenly veer into something so mature in its fearsomeness, having usually gone for a more pedestrian realm of the sensationalistic. There’s something comfortingly fake about serial killers and death cults replaced by something chillingly matter-of-fact about the smut operation Kevin’s stumbled into. (If you dare, look up James Urbaniak’s section of Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn’s frightfully uneven miniseries from last year.) But that feeling soon gets subsumed by the brand of Riverdale delirium like none other, when Kevin sees his new tickle-prisoner gig as a possible way to restoke the flame of romance with Fangs. Nothing quite like teenage flirtation, where an offer to appear in clandestine fetish videos qualifies as courtship. For whatever criticisms we may have of this show, no one can claim to have seen a Tickled parody coming.
“Quiz Show” strikes a tactful balance between the obligation to keep the plot moving and the compulsion to do so in the most outrageous way possible; both the wonderfully silly quiz sequence and the detour into the tickling underbelly of Riverdale advance the relationships between the involved characters, and in Betty and Jughead’s case, the season as a whole. This hour puts the “fun” in “functional,” and it does so while plumbing the deviant erotic fringes of smalltown America. What do you know!
- Toni Topaz: good at math? Who knew!
- Big week for sledgehammer usage, between Betty going Davis Mitchell (that’s the name of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character from Demolition, no one should be expected to know that) on her own father’s grave and Hiram Lodge smashing his own daughter’s stores of specialty rum to shattered smithereens. Sledgehammer stocks are up!
- As shouted-in-unison game show catchphrases go, “Let’s! Get! Quizzy!” could be a lot worse.
- I’m fascinated by the episode’s concept of what would or would not be asked at a quiz bowl tournament. Pursuing the topic at all would give one the impression that credited writer Ted Sullivan has some past with it, but answers range from knowing where the Frank Lloyd Wright house is (perfectly plausible) the four cardinal directions on a ship (less so). But I have fallen into the oldest trap lain by those wily Riverdale writers, and started giving a shit about plausibility — a fool’s errand.
- As Sullivan’s Twitter confirms, the mask worn by Penelope Blossom when she’s on duty pays homage to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, in which Édith Scob’s character wears one such disguise to cover her facial disfigurement. Decades later, Scob herself would also nod to that film by donning a similar facemask in Leos Carax’s masterpiece Holy Motors.