On a show like Riverdale where a booming maple syrup business is secretly a heroin cartel and a bunch of high school jocks threaten a Black Hood serial killer by releasing a shirtless video online, it can sometimes be hard to take things seriously. In fact, Riverdale is at its most fun when all disbelief is suspended, and it leans into the bubblegum pop campiness and neon-colored noir thrills. But The CW's Archie Comics drama completely flipped the script with tonight's episode, "When a Stranger Calls," and tackled a real world, serious issue that's all too timely in pop culture right now. And the biggest surprise was how responsible and empowering the scene ended up being.
When Veronica's (Camila Mendes) old NYC friend Nick St. Clair (Graham Phillips) came to town for a visit, both Hiram (Mark Consuelos) and Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols) asked their daughter to keep him happy while they courted his parents for a business deal. Unfortunately for Veronica, Nick took that way too seriously and used his position of power to try and coerce her into sleeping with him.
Veronica slapped him before he could take things too far, but she couldn't stop him from drugging Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) at a party later. While Veronica was performing with Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and the Pussycats onstage, they saw Nick drag an out-of-it Cheryl away to his hotel room. The girls ran after them and burst into Nick's room before he could rape her, pulling him away from the unconscious and half-dressed Cheryl and beating the absolute crap out of him.
It was complete wish fulfillment on Riverdale's part, playing out everyone's dream ending to that kind of attempted sexual assualt situation. Watching all of Cheryl's friends team up and stop Nick before he could date rape her, and then seeing all the strong and confident women get their furious and vicious revenge on the repeat offender was so incredible and deserved, especially since none of her friends doubted her after the fact. It's something you wish would happen to any and all sexual assaulters and harassers, attempted or guilty. And with what's going on in Hollywood right now with sexual predators finally getting pushed into the spotlight and some even facing the consequences of their actions, the timing couldn't be more perfect.
"It is such a topical issue right now unfortunately," Lili Reinhart says, sitting under the red-tinged neon lights of the Pop's Diner set in Vancouver. "I think it is weirdly strange timing but I guess it goes to show [this problem] exists. It is good that it is out in the open and people are talking about it."
All of the cast members were proud of the fact that Riverdale decided to tackle this all-too-important conversation in such a big, positive way, but it "meant a lot" to the female stars especially. Petsch even did a PSA on the topic after the episode aired.
"We all know what’s going on right now currently, and our society tends to preach politeness and staying quiet," Murray says. "That coupled with that fact that girls are often pitted against one another, and we don’t stand up for each other, it spoke volumes for all us to get together and go save Cheryl the way she needed to be saved."
Murray knows that most of the time, that kind of justice doesn't happen in real life. "To show that and to show that strength … " she trails off for a second. "I’d never advocate violence whatsoever, but sometimes when you’re in a situation you have to make a choice, and sometimes that choice is forceable, so I think that the way that we handled it was good."
The heavy and dark subject matter took a "beautiful" turn, according to Casey Cott, who says "watching all of the characters come together and help someone who is in a pretty intense situation."
"There are some really strong girls on our show, and I think they're beautiful and I'm really proud of them for they played that," he says. KJ Apa agrees about that "meaningful" twist, adding, "It's a really cool storyline to show that all these characters are there for each other. It's cool to see them back each other up."
Murray loved the girl power that scene showed, with all the Pussycats in their performance outfits and heels, kicking and punching Nick to a bloody pulp.
"We’re like f*cking this guy up, it was great," she says with a laugh. "Because he deserved it, he deserved to get that ass-whooping." The empowerment comes from all the "camaraderie" between the girls, because it showed "a togetherness that women don’t often have, especially young women," Murray says.
She's especially enthusiastic that, save a few problematic parental reactions to the attempted assault in the next episode, no one blames Cheryl for the situation. "We’re told to look pretty and make sure your hair looks nice and your makeup looks good and it’s all about how you look," Murray says. "And then when unfortunate things find us we are often blamed and no one is there to protect us. I’m glad that I got to stomp him out."
Because most cases of sexual assault happen by someone the victim knows, Nichols was impressed that Riverdale went that route with the story.
"I can’t speak for everything inside of Hollywood because those are special cases, but I know in the majority of cases in these situations, it’s someone that you know," Nichols says. "I’m really glad that we’re tackling that as a subject; it couldn’t be more timely."
Both Cheryl and Veronica's parents will find out about Nick's actions in the next episode, and Nichols knows there's no telling how parents react to that kind of situation.
"I can just tell you as a parent, if someone tries to do that to my kid, I don’t know how I would handle it within the bounds of the law, to be completely honest," she says. "It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, and the Lodges are no exception to that — however, the Blossoms may be."
Murray laughs at how some parents handle the whole situation poorly. "They make decisions that are going to affect not only them but the kids," she says. "Being a parent is really hard, and if you’re a crazy parent, it makes it even harder. That’s all I can say."
And this isn't a one-and-done kind of storyline either. Riverdale will continue to discuss the attempted rape later on throughout this season, according to Apa. "There's definitely conversations about it between the core four about Nick St. Clair's appearance in Riverdale and what had happened," he says. And while Archie certainly has more than enough personal experience with sexual assault, as he was one of Miss Grundy's (Sarah Habel) many underage victims before she was killed by the Black Hood, he won't be bringing up his past in those talks.
"I don't remember it coming up. But I could fully see how it could have," Apa says of that missed opportunity. "I think that could also be another reason why Archie, when he finds out about what happened in the episode, [becomes] so immediately protective, because he just went through that whole thing."
He pauses and laughs a little while adding, "To see that happening to his girlfriend, you never know what someone like Archie would do after someone could hurt his girlfriend. He's the last person's girlfriend you'd want to hurt, honestly."
Considering the fact that Archie bought a gun and tried to hunt down and kill the Black Hood on his own, that's the understatement of the year. But thankfully the conversation about sexual assault doesn't fall just on his varsity jacket-clad shoulders.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.