Erinn Westbrook on Tabitha’s Trip Through ‘Riverdale’ History
[Warning: The below contains spoilers for Season 6, Episode 11 of Riverdale, “Chapter One Hundred and Six: Angels in America.” If you don’t want to be spoiled, maybe go Google “transtemporal” and come back later.]
Like Bill & Ted with a social conscience, Riverdale revisited key moments in Black history tonight, through the eyes of Tabitha Tate (Erinn Westbrook). As the supernatural season has unfolded, it’s been revealed that various residents of the town with pep are developing powers and it turns out, Tab is now one of them. Her gift: Time travel.
Brought on by an attempt on her life by a goon working for Percival Pickens (Chris O’Shea), the possibly Evil-with-a-capital-E land developer who wants to tear down Pop’s, Tabitha found herself leaping from 1944 to 1968 to 1999. In each era, she witnesses racial injustice, hate and oppression, while receiving guidance from a series of angelic advisors. Yes, it was bonkers, but it was also a beautifully handled exploration of how, even in a fictional place, hate has caused real tragedy.
Here, Westbrook walks us through the episode’s production and its potential to open some eyes.
OK, so I first need to know: Did they train you at Harvard to react to lines like “Your brain will split in two and your eyes will start to bleed”?
Erinn Westbrook: [Laughs] Unfortunately not! That is such a funny question. Those lines, they just catch you off-guard sometimes.
Yeah, that was not what I was expecting at all. And this was after hearing Jughead (Cole Sprouse) say “Oh, I’m an angel.” Like of course you are, Jug!
Because why wouldn’t you be, right? [Laughs]
The show has gotten so crazy and it seems like you came on just as it was embracing that.
Yes. And I was game. Yeah. And I’m still game for this ride. It’s an adventure for sure. And they threw me right in. Right in! It feels like Tabitha has been here for the whole time.
You have secured one of the easiest costume situations…it’s just a Pop’s waitress uniform for so many scenes.
I know. I am going to ask Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa [the showrunner] if I can take one of the waitress outfits when we wrap. I have several, because of course, you know, you need multiple different outfits in case something happens to one of them. So I am certainly going to take one of them at the end of this journey, because it’s, that is what Tabitha lives in.
Nice. Now, this is a big episode, and talking about costuming… who kept track of all the looks you had to get into for this episode?
That was hair and makeup, the assistant directors and myself. I feel like it was a true collaboration because there were a lot of moving pieces. We tried really hard to have days where I would just be in the ’40s look or just be in the ’60s. But you know, it didn’t always work out like that so there were moments when I had to switch between, say the ’40s and the ’90s. And that required like braiding my hair, it was a whole thing. But it was a lot of fun and it turned out really well. I watched it and we didn’t miss a look.
We’re gonna run this after the episode, so I want we can talk about what people have just seen. First of all, making Pop’s an entry in the Green Book (a segregation-era travel guide that listed businesses that accepted African American customers) is such a smart idea because race in Riverdale is very rarely addressed.
Right, right. And you know, that was one of the things that I so loved about this episode. Throughout the episode, we see that Tabitha is a time traveler, see her jumping through time, we see her fighting Percival. But then we also see her and we see the story confront the very real issues of racism and racial tension throughout the times. I was really excited and proud of the fact that we didn’t ignore those issues, because when you have a character like Tabitha Tate, who was an African American woman traveling back in time, you can’t just ignore that those things were happening. Something like the Green Book would have existed and Pop’s would have been included, given its legacy. Obviously we didn’t have enough time in a one-hour episode to do a true historical deep-dive but you do hear of the green book, you hear mention of sundown towns [all-white communities that either formally or informally kept out African Americans or other minorities].
And you know, we talk about Martin Luther King and we witness the moment when people find out he’s been assassinated. So there are moments, major moments, that we hope will start conversations or at least at the very least force people to just think.
It’s interesting because, while yes, these things are in the history books, they may not be events or experiences some of the Riverdale viewership would be aware of. Like sundown towns.
I think that’s such a good point, I really do. My hope is that they hear the phrase “sundown town” and think, “What is that?” And you know, we all have our phones and everybody’s very connected, so I would hope that they would look it up and realize, “Wow, that was horrible.” And to look at Tabitha or a character on one of your favorite shows and see that it’s something that she is dealing with, this issue, I think it’s impactful.
It’s very impactful because you realize it wasn’t that long ago.
Right. It wasn’t. I think that this will start some conversations, that is my hope. And and again, I’m grateful. I think the writer of the episode, Evan Kyle, who’s an African American, and Roberto and the rest of the team did a really wonderful job of including these references and conveying the importance of these moments in time.
In the middle of these very real historical events, we have the fantastical…as you mentioned, Tabitha is a time traveler! When did you find out that you were getting powers?
[Laughs] I found that I was getting powers when I received the script for this episode, “Angels in America.” I literally found out at the moment when everybody else did, at least amongst cast and crew. But that’s kind of how things work on this show, you know? You find out last minute and you roll up your sleeves and you get excited to do it. And I was really thrilled…I think Tabitha has one of the cooler gifts. I mean, who wouldn’t want to time jump? It’s very convenient and you’ll see it play out actually a little bit throughout the season.
Good, because I want to know if she can like, go back to Season 2 and witness something that she wasn’t there for, you know?
That’s a great question! You would think that she could, she’s definitely able to do that. But you’ll have to see. In terms of all of the gifts that we all have, they definitely are gonna play a part. The hope is that we sort of combine these gifts and powers to protect not only Pop’s — which is Tabitha’s main concern — but also Riverdale, which is obviously another huge priority. And that’s the thing, we’re protecting our town from this evil force and this antagonist Percival Pickens, so there’s a reason for all of our powers.
At what point do we find out what his endgame is? Or is that the hint at the end of this episode? Like, does he plan on bringing the apocalypse?
In this episode, you do see Tabitha say that she saw the future and it was apocalyptic. And so that is one reality. She does not know, none of them know if it’s for certain, but they’re gonna do everything in their power to make sure it doesn’t happen. We’re still filming, so guess what? I really don’t even know. [Laughs] I’m like, “OK, what is gonna happen?” We all get our scripts the week before we film them and so everything, all the twists and turns, we’re finding out, right before we shoot them. We still have a few episodes to film and I’m excited to see how this all plays out as well.
Riverdale, Sundays, 8/7c, The CW