“WHY THE HELL IS GREGG ARAKI HANGING OUT WITH A BUNCH OF GROSS JOCKS ANYWAY?” This might be the natural question to ask after watching the director responsible for evil treats such as The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997)—not to mention the ghoulish Mysterious Skin (2004)—direct an episode of Riverdale, the CW’s 2017 reactivation of the Archie comic-book mythology as supposedly dark teen drama. With Araki’s freakier impulses tamed to meet the demands of network television, his explosive presence can be hard to detect. Nobody is smoking; nobody is a goofy homosexual hot for oblivion played by James Duval (once Araki’s zonked-out alter ego and the thinking dude’s Keanu Reeves). Nobody is blasting Slowdive. Maybe procuring Araki’s talents was simultaneously genius and a total no-brainer. Acid bitchiness, melodrama, teenage boys (one of whom happens to be a “skid-row hottie” shaking his thing on a webcam), and a big dysfunctional cast: He’s not exactly on alien turf. But “The Wrestler,” the eleventh episode of Riverdale’s second season, offers the creepy experience of watching Araki in a world so close to his own and yet eerily not, since its zombified writing and vibe preclude his typical mischief or horror. A “straight” Gregg Araki? Um, not exactly . . . Maybe his ghost?
A wrestling match provides the episode with a big homoerotic heart. When Veronica’s supervillain dad and ex-wrestling champ Hiram Lodge (Mark Consuelos) locks dreamy Archie (KJ Apa) in a chokehold, his muscles flexing like hungry pythons, he’s the monster father from every closeted kid’s anxiety dreams. That which is repressed threatens to burst from their Tom of Finland outfits and transform the scene into a paid rough-and-tumble between wide-eyed trick and experienced customer. Hiram also lays ringside wisdom on the boy that sounds like a hymn to the joys of anonymous fucking: “When it’s two men on the mat, it doesn’t matter who you are.” Archie’s eyes bug. Daddy’s mimicking the dominatrix in Nowhere: “I just love the smell of boy and fear mixed together.” Earlier that morning, when the feds snuck upon on him and encouraged the kid to quit basketball and gain more knowledge of Hiram’s activities, is this what they meant? A bout between Archie and another high schooler soon afterward (no middle-aged dudes allowed) is as strange as it is sexual: That faithful mat is Zoloft blue and shot from overhead like a lonesome moonscape, while the physical stuff happens in a slo-mo trance. This is the most commercial thing Araki’s produced since he gave Heather Graham lines like, “Dogs eating people is cool!” and got her to simulate a blowjob in a convertible, engine revving.
Meanwhile, Jughead (Cole Sprouse) wrestles with problems that aren’t so erotic. No longer the brainy glutton of yore and way into what Rose McGowan called “the world sucks” phase of adolescence, he discovers his hometown’s wealth is soaked in the blood of slaughtered American Indians. The other tragedy of the episode is that Araki doesn’t get to film Jughead’s absentee biker dad, since the once-smoldering dude in question is Skeet Ulrich, aka Billy the killer from Scream (1997).
Ah, Scream . . . Rewind: Araki’s role as longtime chronicler of all the disorientations that come with teen life feels oddly unacknowledged now. The Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy—Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere—is right there for oddball kids when they’re drifting from Tim Burton fairy tales and into hallucinogens. It all makes perfect sense, because Araki is Burton gone candy flipping: a goth who mixes angst with psychedelic and sexy delight, with his zany production design that’s punk in the same way that whatever Burton created between Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1986) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) was punk. He throws rabid pink wolf posters and enormous dinosaurs into The Doom Generation. The colors are always dreamy and the costumes are predictably killer—who doesn’t crave that I BLAME SOCIETY shirt from The Living End (1992)? Being ferociously sad never looked so fun. Araki’s style haunts plenty of art from the past two decades. Roam the spook-house discotheque of Alex Da Corte’s installation Free Roses, 2016, revisit the cartoon anarchy unleashed by Ryan Trecartin throughout the 2000s, or chase the videotaped monologue at the end of Nowhere (“I’m only eighteen years old and I’m totally doomed”) with anything by Sue de Beer.
Cue special-guest star, magical painter, and devil on my shoulder Sam McKinniss, whom I prevailed on to brood on Araki from his studio in Brooklyn:
Gregg Araki is the drinking, drugging, and fucking man’s Todd Haynes, which is to say, Gregg Araki is Gregg Araki.
Gregg Araki is ketamine and poppers.
Todd Haynes grew up, Gregg Araki didn’t need to.
Or I wish he didn’t anyway.
James Duval is the only believable teen heartthrob I’ve ever seen.
This scene is a HEARTBREAKER . . . “I think the, uh, Kamikaze Dildos are playing at the Hellholle.”
All this work offers a way darker and more deranged teen world than the one explored in Riverdale. Araki never follows the night-of-the-living brain-dead belief that innocence means the same thing as “good” or “kind”; innocence in his world leads to scary fun with dead bodies and narcotics. Check the moment where astonishing redhead and local mean girl Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) Eve-ishly twirls a candy apple at the town founder’s day carnival for a PG illustration of this idea; watch Mysterious Skin to see it turn very dark indeed.
But that ending: Jughead and a band of Native protesters storm the festivities, demanding that the statue of the town’s founder, a white general, be overthrown. Yup, folks in Riverdale are going through what Chic, that aforementioned “skid-row hottie,” calls “dark education” in American history, too. This Civil War relic ends up with his head cut off—an Araki trademark. His filmography is littered with a Sleepy Hollow quantity of severed heads, mixing the actual decapitations with all the minds disconnected from bodies by drugs or gloom. “Is it possible to be so sad your brain melts?” asked hot Elvis from the director’s short film for the French fashion house Kenzo in 2015. There’s a cute, vandal touch seen in Riverdale just before the credits roll: The bloody paint splashed on the headless statue is pink.