Riverdale’s back and doing Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and while the show overlays the original’s music rather smoothly onto its characters’ new post-Jughead-death-conspiracy lives and also delivers a truly immersive display of glam-rock aesthetics that pay tribute to the award-winning musical, it unsurprisingly falls woefully short of the queer magic that is Hedwig. It’s a bold episode, but it doesn’t take any real risks outside of slightly shaking up its two central relationships (while keeping them very hetero).
Is it bad? Not entirely! It’s a pretty good episode of Riverdale, although the first half is better than the second. The episode recalibrates the story a bit, focusing in on interpersonal relationships and some of the bigger emotional beats of the season so far (Fred’s death, Jughead’s near-death, etc.). The Stonies drama is over with, and the new threat on the table is the return of the town voyeur, a weird but creepy little thread through this season that has gone largely unresolved. Jughead’s on the case, naturally.
Even more pressing is the threat of censorship and suppression at the hands of Mr. Honey who absolutely does not want Kevin or any student for that matter to perform any musical numbers from Hedwig and the Angry Inch due to the “explicit” content at the school’s upcoming variety show. Honestly, even though it doesn’t involve murder or faked murder or literary death clubs, this is one of the more thrilling conflicts the show has tackled recently, because it feels simultaneously distinctly grounded in its clash of teens vs. authority but is still dialed up several notches in the camp and drama department in signature Riverdale form. The hair and makeup budget for this episode alone is a breathtaking thing to behold.
Unfortunately, the most urgent themes of Hedwig get a little lost in translation once the musical is mapped onto the narrative of the show. Riverdale’s musical episodes have always been a strange but satisfying manipulation of reality, and the content and stories of the original works don’t always perfectly line up with what’s happening on the show. Riverdale likes to borrow the aesthetics more than anything else but also the emotions.
In its previous tributes to Carrie and Heathers, certain feelings from the songs do translate well to the feelings of Riverdale’s central characters. And in some ways, that happens in “Wicked Little Town,” too. But Hedwig is a striking and radical musical with a genderqueer protagonist, and there’s little by way of contemplation of gender or questioning of gender binaries or constructs outside of Kevin defiantly dressing in drag when Mr. Honey tries to censor him and subsequently convincing the rest of the school to don Hedwig-esque looks.
If Kevin is experiencing any kind of genderfeels during all of this, it goes pretty under-explored. There are no openly genderqueer characters on Riverdale, and the queer characters it has have been largely shafted this season. Hedwig is a pretty direct and wrenching story about identity and sacrifice and a challenging of gender norms in rock and society at large. Seeing this story mapped onto the lives of majority straight and cis characters is, uh, a disorienting experience in a not-so-great way.
In any case, here’s how the episode plays out, broken down by song.
“Wicked Little Town”
We open with the song perhaps most thematically suited for Riverdale, which is indeed about a wicked little town. All the characters chip in for this number, which features more of the stalker footage from the unknown town voyeur and immediately pulls us into the world of this episode, which is in turns goofy and angry but always very glamorous. Riverdale knows how to deliver the spectacle.
“Random Number Generation”
This is Kevin’s response to Mr. Honey telling him he can’t sing Hedwig songs at the variety show. There is DESK CHOREOGRAPHY. The students are MAD. And they are ACTING OUT. I love a good group number—and did I mention DESK CHOREOGRAPHY—and the lyrics here do map pretty well onto Riverdale’s teens, who have had to shoulder some pretty intense inherited trauma and town crisis after town crisis.
“Tear Me Down”
Kevin shows up to school in drag, but first: Archie asks his friends to all be in a band with him called…the Archies. Perhaps because everyone still feels bad for him losing his dad, no one really points out how bonkers this sudden plan is outside of a slight dig from Jughead about the name. So: BACK TO KEVIN. Who does look amazing. His kiss with Archie feels a little too played-for-laughs, but at least it looks like Archie is having fun. Mr. Honey is not having fun, and he bans Kevin from the variety show, because Mr. Honey is the absolute worst.
“Wig In A Box”
Here’s where the cracks in Riverdale’s Hedwig interpretation really start to show. It’s a song all about the power of using makeup, hair, and clothes to confidently be one’s self. And while I love whenever Riverdale does an aesthetics-driven sleepover scene, a lot of the layers of this song are pretty stripped away in this rendition starring Cheryl, Toni, Betty, Veronica, and Kevin. Some of the hard edges of Hedwig’s rock sound are softened by the Riverdale arrangements for more of a strawberry milkshake pop sound, and it just doesn’t entirely do it for me!
What…is happening here. This is Toni and Cheryl’s big number, which they perform with their Pretty Poisons, a gang of mostly queer women. And it’s all rather uncomfortably directed at Mr. Honey. Riverdale has three out queer characters in its main cast—Kevin, Toni, and Cheryl—and while the episode is a radiant showcase for Kevin, Cheryl and Toni are relegated to side roles yet again. They don’t get a real emotional arc in the episode, and THIS IS THEIR BIG NUMBER? DIRECTED AT THEIR STRAIGHT SCHOOL PRINCIPAL? Idk, I’m not really sure how to read this one. Again, I’m living for the aesthetics! But I can’t believe we’re doing a whole ass Hedwig tribute and the only romantic relationships we really focus on are the very vanilla main ships of the show (Veronica and Archie and Jughead and Betty).
This song works better through the lens of Betty and Jughead’s argument than it does through the lens of Veronica and Archie’s argument. Betty and Jughead’s argument, after all, is much more convincing and deep-rooted. The two have been fractured all season, and Jughead doesn’t slot so neatly back into his old life. He and Betty are on different tracks, but they’re also just on different wavelengths. Jughead’s former classmates tried to kill him. He is different than he was before, and the emotions between Jughead and Betty are appropriately heightened to make way for the angry, intense performance of “Exquisite Corpse.” But then Archie and Veronica get awkwardly wedged in, because they’re fighting about the fact that Archie has been letting Hiram work out at the gym without telling Veronica. …BORING.
“The Origin Of Love”
HELLO. This should have been Cheryl and Toni’s song!!!!!! A very wasted opportunity to explore queer love! Instead, it’s the song Archie and Betty sing once they’re the only ones who show up to rehearsal for the Archies. It’s at this point that I became the most frustrated with Riverdale’s very hetero Hedwig tribute. The biggest swing the episode takes is having Betty and Archie kiss—for real this time, not as part of an elaborate murder scheme. This. Should. Have. Been. Cheryl. And. Toni. Anyway, Veronica and Jughead both apologize, making Betty and Archie look like real jerks.
“Wicked Little Town (Reprise)”
Alas, we’re not done with the Archie and Betty stuff. We delve into a fantasy sequence of the two of them together. In reality, they’re gazing longingly at each other through their bedroom windows, as they’ve both done before. But in their MINDS? In their minds, they’re sharing a romantic and intimate dance together. Look, despite my tendency to tune out super straight romances on television, I understand the appeal of Archie and Betty. There’s a base layer of intimacy and understanding between them as long-time friends. There’s always something a little scintillating about a long-brewing romance between best friends (hello, I’m gay). But this is far from the kind of radical romance that Hedwig celebrates, and I really just think the heart of the musical is completely lost.
The closing number is appropriately big and boisterous, performed by the Archies on the roof of Pop’s. Somehow, this is not the first time there has been a group performance on the roof of Pop’s over the course of this series. This final number is a lot like the episode itself: fun but surface-level. The episode is a visually appealing but ultimately safe interpretation of the original’s music. Because there’s no way in hell I’m counting a Barchie kiss as something even remotely revolutionary.