After two episodes that, while strong, didn’t exactly show Riverdale to be the fully formed, smart, sexy, twisty thriller so many seemed ready to praise it as, “Chapter Three: Body Double” really sees the series coming into its own. Those first two episodes get by on the intrigue of Jason Blossom’s murder and the dynamic of the cast, all of which makes up for the exposition-heavy dialogue that otherwise drags down those early offerings. In contrast, “Body Double” is a cleaner, leaner, more focused version of Riverdale, telling a self-contained story while also fleshing out the details of a small town shaken by an unfolding murder investigation.
It’s pretty clear throughout “Body Double” that Riverdale knows exactly where its strengths lie, and that’s in Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes). Their blossoming, rocky friendship has been the highlight of the season so far, and as Riverdale becomes a show with a more political message—not unusual for The CW, mind you—tucked inside its neo-noir murder mystery, leaning into that friendship seems like a smart move.
“Body Double” picks up where “A Touch of Evil” left off, immediately resolving last week’s cliffhanger, which saw Jason’s sister, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), admit her guilt after being arrested in class. She clears up that bit of misdirection right away: She’s not guilty of murdering her brother, but of lying about it all. She last saw him on July 4th, but there was no tragic accident. Instead, Jason wanted to fake his own death in order to escape Riverdale and make sure no one would come after him—or so she says. Riverdale knows how to tease out its mysteries and secrets across numerous episodes, and the effect is never really knowing what’s true. Cheryl’s admission feels like the truth, but Riverdale’s careful planning in the first two episodes means we’ve been trained to be skeptical.
One thing we don’t need to be skeptical about is how badass Betty and Veronica are. After Veronica goes on a date with the school’s star football player, Chuck (Jordan Calloway), whom Betty deems “a bit of a player,” she gets her first taste of the cruelty that lurks underneath the glossy sheen of Riverdale. Chuck posts a photo of Veronica and him, a seemingly harmless selfie, with a crude edit and a caption about giving Veronica a “Sticky Maple.” Kevin (Casey Cott) writes it off as a “Riverdale thing,” but Veronica has no time for the coddling of privileged jocks whose “conversation is not the stuff of Oscar Wilde, or even Diablo Cody.” She tells Kevin that this is a “slut-shaming thing,” and that she won’t hesitate to get her payback and maybe “cut the brakes on his souped-up phallic machine.” It’s a passionate, funny, scathing sequence that establishes Veronica as the power player that she is.
“Body Double” only gets more righteous from there, diving head first into messy conversations about male privilege, slut shaming, double standards and issues of sexual assault on campus. When Veronica and Betty confront Chuck in the locker room—a shot of the nearly-nude Archie just so happens to find its way into the scene—and he shows no remorse, the two friends band together to get revenge. But Riverdale doesn’t just make this a story about our main characters. Instead, the series takes a more impactful, meaningful approach by broadening the scope: As Betty re-launches the student newspaper, a number of women step forward to tell their stories about being publicly shamed by members of the football team, and how the team keeps a “playbook” that rates all the girls in the school based on looks and sexual activity.
It’s a storyline pulled straight from real life, as the Harvard men’s soccer team was recently reprimanded for keeping such a playbook, and it imbues “Body Double” with a sense of urgency and importance, especially when you consider Riverdale’s target demographic. While Betty eventually goes a bit off the rails in her payback, slipping into a wig and maybe acting like her sister, Polly, there’s something to be said about the portrayal of her and Veronica as young women that stand up for themselves, even when the system is working against them.
Veronica shoots down Cheryl’s nastiness about the whole “playbook” situation by telling her how important it is to believe victims. “When they’re done with us they shame us into silence,” she shouts at Cheryl, exposing the toxicity of victim blaming and how it punishes women who speak out. Cheryl comes around once she realizes Jason had his own notes about Polly in the playbook, and with any luck she’ll become another member of this growing group of no-nonsense women—which includes a clever nod to another forgotten woman, as Ethel is played by Shannon Purser, better known as Barb from Stranger Things.
So, while the mystery deepens in “Body Double,” as the gunshot is traced back to scout leader Dilton Doiley, a kid who tells Jughead and Betty that he saw Ms. Grundy’s car down by the river, the episode’s strong suit is its burgeoning voice. The messages that course through it deserve to be treated as more than just checking off the boxes of “hot button” issues related to gender or race. (Josie gets a nice moment speaking about the struggles her mother faced getting elected mayor, and how she has to work harder than Archie to get a foot in the door in the music business.) Inequality isn’t a trending topic, it’s a lived reality; Chuck’s usage of the word “betas” to describe the men Veronica’s dealt with in the past is ripped straight from the blowhard blogs of MRAs and the alt-right. Watching as Betty, Veronica, Josie, Cheryl, and the others deal with and challenge that reality adds some serious thematic weight to Riverdale, and confirms that the series continues to grow and deepen as the season rolls on.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.