There are a lot of characters on this show. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it definitely demands a level of attention to detail that isn’t quite there. For proof, look no further than “The Chalk Machine,” which centers on Ryan’s testimony. We haven’t really checked in with Ryan all season, and unlike episodes for characters like Courtney, who’s basically been a non-presence after her testimony, dropping a relatively “new” character almost halfway into the season is a bit jarring.
To that end, Tommy Dorfman is this episode’s saving grace. Though he’s saddled with clunky dialogue – and again, has to carry the hour despite popping up out of nowhere – he pulls it off.
This isn’t to say that I’m a Ryan fan. As the frustrated Tyler points out, nobody who’s given testimony after him has told the truth, and Ryan is no exception. When the defense present a series of Hannah’s poems, Ryan says that he doesn’t know who they’re about, despite having been present while they were written and having discussed their subject with Hannah. He only fesses up later in the trial, when there’s no other way of getting around it.
Still, he afterwards to balance karma in his favor by visiting Olivia and expressing his sympathy as to how thoroughly the defense is twisting the case. He’s got his share of bad karma coming down the pike, anyway, as Tyler takes revenge by catfishing Ryan through a gay dating app. (The scene in which this plan comes together is a bit strange: It’s set up by one of Cyrus’s friend, who tears into Ryan with homophobic language that Cyrus justifies by noting that his friend is also gay, and therefore “allowed” to say those things.)
Justin, the guy mentioned in Hannah’s poems, is still sweating out his heroin addiction, and it feels an awful lot like his time is starting to run out. He’s nearly caught by Clay’s dad, and is caught by the local students when Tony lets him go out for a walk against his better judgment. News travels fast, to the point that even Mr. Porter knows that Justin is back in town by the time the episode’s over. Really leaning into the whole “you can’t fire me, I quit” aesthetic (especially after discovering his car window smashed in by a brick bearing the message “know your place”), Porter goes to Justin’s mother’s house in an attempt to find him. He ends up getting into a fight with her douchebag boyfriend instead, and ends up arrested.
Clay’s investigative work is going a little better. After spotting a chalk machine on the school field, he pieces together that the second Polaroid was taken at school, since there’s a chalk machine in the background of the picture. As much as I wish it weren’t the case, it’s not a revelation that’s exactly surprising, especially after we’ve seen the baseball coach basically tell Porter to mind his own business, and implicitly approving the use of doping among his athletes when he says he’ll “help” anyone worried about the upcoming drug screenings.
Unfortunately, Clay’s preoccupation with figuring out the Polaroid mystery means that he’s not as attentive as he ought to be about Justin, who figures out that Jess doesn’t actually want him back in town after all and runs away. Jess also reaches a breaking point in this episode, finally telling Chloe that her repeated attempts at setting her up are unwanted (and suggest either willful ignorance or idiocy), and so she’s quitting cheerleading entirely. It seems to be a cathartic break, though, as she finally decides to sleep in her own room as opposed to next to her parents’ bed. We also finally get at answer as to what Nina’s deal is: When Jess goes to a group therapy session, Nina is part of the circle.
Alex isn’t faring quite as well. He’s discovered that, following his attempted suicide, he can no longer get an erection. As he confides to Zach, he’s tried porn, and he tries talking to a camgirl (while pretending to be Zach), though that doesn’t work, either. His “it’s not you, it’s me” moment when she asks what’s wrong is strangely sweet, all things considered.
Meanwhile, it’s nice to see Olivia and Andy getting along. In the wake of their argument, Andy decides that he’s been making a mistake and shows up in court to support Olivia and follow the case in person. Jackie, being Jackie, warns Olivia not to rely on him, but Olivia already knows better. Despite being my favorite TV dad (yes, I am aware of Riverdale; no, that does not change my ranking; yes, I am saying “favorite” as a way to try to smokescreen thirst), Andy’s a little duplicitous. In the last episode, he told Olivia that he wasn’t living with the woman he cheated with, but when Olivia follows him home, she discovers that’s patently not true.
To round out the “meanwhiles,” the Walkers are solidifying their base. When Bryce brings Chloe around for dinner, his dad asks if she’s “loyal.” His mom, who seems a little less inclined to give a pass to her son, notices Chloe sporting some mysterious bruises, which she explains away as a result of cheerleading practice. Come on, Mrs. Walker! You know better!
The old fogey who spotted Tyler and Cyrus shooting guns in the middle of the woods did indeed tell on them, though Tyler lies to his mother and says they were just shooting Cyrus’s BB gun. He also makes matching T-shirts with Cyrus that say “ASSHOLES” on them, as an act of “reclamation,” which, fine.
Zach gets more and more mysterious by the episode. When his mother notes that Hannah had quite a reputation, Zach doesn’t look happy about it.