Well, everything’s gone to shit.

Sure, there’s a bizarre form of goodness in FP Jones’ complete inability to not be screw-up, no matter what. There’s also intense joy in Alice Cooper’s return to her roots and even in Archie/Veronica playing Jughead/Betty for the week. And there might be some good in the Cheryl/Josie plot, depending on what that actually is. But “Chapter Twenty-One: House Of The Devil” hits the melodrama button hard for Riverdale. While there can be some fun in that, this episode isn’t concerned with fun. Frustration, awkwardness, and a lot of heartbreak, yes. But fun? Eh.

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The biggest character takeaway from this episode is that it’s the one where Archie/Veronica and Jughead/Betty break up. However, both breakups require the most contrived circumstances, especially when you look at how the episode ends. In a show as weird as Riverdale, it’s often the more “grounded” aspects that get the biggest scrutiny. Kids making jokes about the Black Hood is obviously more absurd than the idea of the town getting a zombie virus, after all. Kids breaking up because they’re dumb kids is also more absurd than the idea of half the Southern part of a town being a gang (and half that gang being teenagers).

The Archie/Veronica storyline features both characters’ parents giving good advice. Then it throws season two Archie under the bus to supposedly reignite the love triangle the show was praised for subverting back in season one.

Veronica’s realization that her inability to say “I love you” to Archie stems from the fact she’s never heard her beautiful but cold parents say it to each other is a sobering one, and it turns Veronica’s comical attempts at avoiding the topic with Archie into something deeper than just a symptom of her rich girl past. Meanwhile, Archie spends the episode getting good advice from Fred about love and giving Veronica more time, pretends to understand the point, then snaps once Veronica “thanks him for understanding.” Basically proving he’s not mature enough to be saying those three small words in the first place. We know Archie can be cruel, but the expectation is for him to grow from that, especially as he becomes more of a hero. But that final shot of him noticing Betty, “as if for the very first time?” That isn’t an example of him growing. It’s him moving on to someone he knows will say “I love you” back. Assuming the final scene is where this is going, that would mean both Archie and Betty going for the easier (and cruel) choice.

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As for Jughead/Betty, Jughead goes with the classic “I’m doing this to protect you,” blaming himself for the Penny Peabody stuff (understandably) while also ignoring that he should have told both his dad and Betty (and even Toni, as she gives him the opportunity) the truth before things got this bad. FP’s return to the Serpents suggests that he can do what needs to be done to get Jughead out of debt with the Snake Charmer. But he also claims that him being in means Jughead’s out, while Jughead informs Betty that he’s not out at all.

On the other side of this, part of the appeal of Betty Cooper in Riverdale is that she’s an actual badass. She’s more of a badass than any of the Serpents, really. She is the hero of this story. So to watch her attempt to play the Sandy to Jughead’s Danny is to witness a betrayal of that badassery. Her desperation to be part of Jughead’s Serpent world is so short-sighted that it’s an upsetting reminder that she’s a teenager who does really dumb teenager things. But even then, does that explain her decision to do the Serpent Dance? Just stepping outside of how awkward it is—and we even have Toni make sure to explain how misogynistic it is, despite Betty going through with it—I’m going to say stripper Betty was a bad decision on the show’s part. This isn’t a matter of a double standard on a show where teen boys shirtlessly threaten a serial killer from some unknown reason: This is a matter of a teenage girl turning a retirement party for her boyfriend’s dad (one that her mother is attending) into a peep show for a bunch of middle-aged men. If you want to get closer to an actual double standard though, Leighton Meester was also 21 (like Reinhart now) when Blair Waldorf had a comparable scene, but Gossip Girl portrayed Upper East Side teens notably older and more mature than Riverdale does. And even that scene wasn’t as uncomfortable as this one, just based on the way it was filmed. Betty doing a striptease to become “Serpent adjacent?” I’m struggling to understand how she could possibly think Jughead would appreciate it in any form. (Archie would. No offense to Archie. But he would.) Even if they spoke—which they don’t, ever—about her desire to be part of his world, he wouldn’t be on board with this.

Funnily enough, this episode belongs to the parents and Archie/Veronica when they’re playing Jughead/Betty. Fred and Hermione both return to their roles as the best Riverdale parents, though their lessons only stick in one case. But it’s Alice and FP who are the MVPs of parents, surprisingly. Not just because of the unresolved sexual tension between the two—somehow, Skeet Ulrich pulls off telling a woman to leave her husband while in the Pop’s uniform—but because of how much they want their kids end up alright and lose it upon realizing they’ve failed. As fun as it is to watch Alice slither back into the Serpent world, it’s heartbreaking to watch her see Betty do the Serpent Dance, after she made perfectly clear to FP she never wants to see her daughter in a Serpent jacket. Of course, FP saves the day after that performance by covering Betty with his Serpent jacket, so the failure is there on both fronts… only for more disappointment to come from FP going back on his promise of going straight. He gets his life together in prison, he has a heart-to-heart with Jughead about making sure he keeps writing and doesn’t let the Serpents take over his life… then he gets pulled back in to protect that son and clean up his messes. If Hiram Lodge is the Scarface of Riverdale, FP is the Michael Corleone. Riverdale is weird.

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I’ve written before about how Alice must be the ultimate turncoat to the Serpents, but strangely, she’s accepted with open arms here. It’s worth it for her return to the past at the Whyte Wyrm, but as serious as the Serpent rules are, it doesn’t quite work. While it’s great to see Madchen Amick let loose and give all 10 of us who watched Witches Of East End pleasant flashbacks, this acceptance is either a missed opportunity from the series or evidence of more missing pieces in the timeline between Alice leaving the Serpents and becoming the Alice Cooper we know. This same episode suggests the Serpents would’ve been cool with their king leaving their ranks. Yet in the same breath, it suggests FP retiring would mean he couldn’t come back to the Whyte Wyrm or hang out with his friends, while Alice obviously doesn’t have the same problem. Then again, the Snake Charmer is a current member of the Serpents who is actively betraying them, and that means enough that FP stick around to protect his son from her. Riverdale has done a lot with Jughead to explain what and who the Serpents are, but somehow, it hasn’t been enough. This is the same episode where Jughead tries to say the Serpents aren’t “hoodlums” (they are, because they’re a gang), only to break up with Betty because he wants to protect her from this world.

Even before the break-up, Archie/Veronica do a surprisingly good job as Betty/Jughead. The core four don’t get a lot of humor in this episode, but they do when it comes to Betty and Jughead passing off the Riverdale Reaper case for a week and Betty and Jughead completely forgetting to fill Archie and Veronica in on the event of the week. Archie and Veronica work the case well, with Veronica solidly filling the lead role as the Betty proxy (realizing the third child, finding Svenson the janitor in the yearbook, going full The Closer on him) and Archie contextualizing how the murder must’ve went down and finding the missing case files. The connection between the Riverdale Reaper and the Black Hood is still unknown, and the Svenson aspect appears to be a dead end. But they do get something out of his story that’s fascinating, specifically the “group of men” who took the Riverdale Reaper away and murdered him in the name of “justice.”

“Chapter Twenty-One” is an upsetting episode of Riverdale and not just because the Riverdale prison is called “Shankshaw.” It’s as though after the highs of “Chapter Twenty,” the narrative rollercoaster needed to plummet, no matter how little sense it makes or how much deconstruction it takes. Especially going into next week’s midseason finale. Now to hope it’s all worth it.

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Stray observations

  • Riverdale Roulette: The “I love you” plot is an interesting one, because usually there’s some comedy to come out of that. See: The O.C. “The Countdown.” Instead, Riverdale makes it the center of a relationship ticking time bomb.
  • Jughead (V.O.): “Like the Red Death showing up in an Edgar Allan Poe story, the Black Hood had come to Riverdale.” Now might be the time to pull the plug on these voiceovers.
  • What is more disgusting: Archie and Veronica having sex in front of a “roaring fire” or Veronica saying “make it” to describe sex?
  • Veronica dancing to Archie playing guitar in the beginning montage is cute. But it’s smart the show doesn’t play an Archie song while it happens, because we know that’s nothing to dance to.
  • “He’s brawny and devoted to you.” This is Hermione’s way of saying Veronica’s idiot boyfriend would get killed by the Black Hood for her. Also, the Lodges and a dozen other families got letters from the Black Hood this week, and nobody cares.
  • Cheryl Blossom has a habit of making non-sexual things seem sexual. Which is why I question her current—and desired—relationship with Josie. They have two scenes together, one of them is Cheryl trying to stop Josie from making $5,000 (while treating FP like Chet Hunter). The other is: Cheryl massaging Josie’s back, shouting down the male gaze and male privilege at Svenson, then getting shut down from continuing the massage because the moment has passed. Is it too much to ask Riverdale not to do a crazy lesbian/bisexual angle?
  • I’m half joking about Hal being the Black Hood at this point, but I’m fairly certain about one thing: The person we’ve seen as the Black Hood, that’s not the actor who plays the Black Hood. He’s a stand-in, so using the physical attributes of the person under the hood to try to deduce who he is is futile. Also how hilarious would it be if it turns out that Archie’s super clear memory of the Black Hood’s eyes is wrong? Especially since Midge’s description of the Black Hood’s eyes was that they were “blank.”
  • Veronica and Archie find Sheriff Howard’s missing files in The Devil’s House. But when they call Howard’s daughter, she sounds like someone who gets called about this a lot. By the kind of people who are obsessed with haunted houses and would’ve hung out at the house before. These “missing” files would’ve been found a long time ago, right?
  • Veronica should’ve bailed once Archie made the “love”/“like” comment about the “Donnie Darko song.” Yes, singing after it was the appropriate amount of Riverdale awkward, but neither KJ Apa’s nor Camila Mendes’ voices were right for Gary Jules’ version of “Mad World.” It was an awful cover until it got to Lili’s vocals and that came with the most ill-advised scene of the series. The song was just a bad choice for a party.
  • Lili Reinhart tweeted about the strip tease being a return to “Dark Betty,” which makes me think we should retire the phrase “Dark Betty.” Especially since it was created from an interesting dissociative state that has unfortunately never been addressed since.

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