By Bryce Cross

Spoilers follow for “Riverdale.”

Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse in Riverdale, this hair-raising episode drops, gladly proving us all wrong.

“Chapter 18: When a Stranger Calls” is easily the most frantic and eventful episode of the show thus far, as it juggles blackmail, heartbreak and deception in one fell swoop. It’s easy to feel like there’s too much going on in one episode with this show, yet the writers somehow manage it. Each story is captivating and places a character in a radically new position by the end.

That being said, this episode thrives because it revolves around both Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Jughead (Cole Sprouse), each dealing with their own slew of alarmingly threatening issues. Last week, we discovered that The Black Hood was “cleansing sinners” for Betty and here we see the direct aftermath. The killer calls her in secret throughout the episode, making demands that she cut the people closest to her out of her life by threatening the lives of her sister, parents and friends. Lili Reinhart once again proves how stellar of an actress she is as Betty. Determined to quell the murders of the Hood, Betty agrees to do his bidding. It’s clear as day that she is tiptoeing between hysteria and despair as she tries to keep her loved ones safe by pushing them away.

Jughead finds himself tormented by a similar situation. Following the fight between the north and south sides of town, he finds the Serpents planning their revenge with a pipe bomb. Inspired by Toni’s (Vanessa Morgan) words about Jughead’s father having been the one to keep the peace between both sides of town, Jughead decides to follow in his footsteps. We follow his journey of becoming a full-fledged Serpent, including his dismay as he struggles to hide it from Betty. In a way, there’s a perfect duality to their stories throughout the episode as both must resort to drastic measures to save lives.

There’s a brilliant scene – the only scene the two lovers share – at Pop’s where they talk about what it would be like to run away together, to flee from from the darkness of the town and the madness they’re trying so desperately to keep at bay.  As they dream about nicer possibilities, you can see the torment across both Lili Reinhart and Cole Sprouse’s faces, as Betty and Jughead hold secrets from each other.

The show’s relationships are frayed and maybe impossible to repair after Betty succeeds in cutting her loved ones out of her life. The Black Hood wants Mrs. Cooper (Mädchen Amick) to stop writing about him in the paper, coercing Betty to print an old article. This reveals not only her mother’s arrest as a teen, but that she also holds a deep prejudice for the very place she came from. The Hood also succeeds in convincing Betty to push Jughead away, sending Archie (her only confidant in this Black Hood mess) to do it for her. Upon seeing Jughead undergoing Serpent initiation, tension runs high between the two best friends, as Archie (KJ Apa) heatedly delivers the news of the breakup.

The most biting moment of Betty following through with the Hood’s orders is when she confronts Veronica (Camila Mendes). The two have such a strong friendship that it’s tough to believe Betty can go through with it. But upon attending Veronica’s old friend Nick St. Clair’s (Graham Phillips) party and discovering more about Veronica’s shrouded party girl past, Betty snaps at Veronica. Betty truly sells her disgust and the belief that the rich girl may only be friends with everyone out of circumstance. It’s a very powerful scene as something important has clearly fractured between the two.

I must address one of the final scenes of the show — Nick St. Clair’s attempted rape of Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch). After attempting to charm Veronica into sleeping with him, he turns his attention to Cheryl and drugs her. It’s only due to Veronica and the Pussycats noticing the danger Cheryl is in that they’re able to just narrowly stop the assault. It was definitely cathartic to see these strong female characters kick the crap out of the slimeball, but equally horrific to watch and wonder if they would make it in time to stop him. Afterwards, one has to wonder if Betty telling the Hood that Nick St. Clair should be the next target is the right thing to do, or if Betty is taking one step too far into the darkness.

“Chapter 18: When a Stranger Calls” was an episode crammed full of high stakes, tension and realistic conflict – tearing the characters apart and making us wonder if things will ever be the same. The story balanced each and every plot and character motivation with care, changing the status quo even further in the series’ best episode to date.

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