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An uneven Riverdale hits the trope and reset buttons hard

Illustration for article titled An uneven Riverdale hits the trope and reset buttons hard
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As absurd and over-the-top—“campy” tends to be the buzzword—as Riverdale is, part of what makes that works so well is that it’s absolutely aware of it. If it weren’t, no one in the entire Blossom clan would even exist. Within this awareness is Riverdale’s own set of rules and logic, things this show can do (rooftop covers of “Milkshake”; again, see all things Blossom clan) simply because, well, it’s Riverdale. The same goes for Riverdale’s obvious influences, which it wears on its sleeve while still being its own special creation.

Yet “Chapter Fifteen: Nighthawks” is the rare Riverdale episode that seems to forget all of that for a large chunk of the episode. Instead of scandalously turning after-school specials on their head, this episode simply goes straight after-school special with one of its major stories. It’s still very early in the season, but this episode highlights a potential problem moving forward: By making good on the promise to bring Archie deeper into Riverdale’s world of darkness and shadows, it shines a light on all the good reasons as to why it kept Archie away in the first place. Sure, we like to joke about Archie’s out of place “I was born alone” speeches and even his beige music, but the problem is, those things are who Archie is. He’s not as melodramatic as Cheryl Blossom; he’s not a weirdo like Jughead; he’s not as much a force of nature as Betty; he’s not sophisticated like Veronica. He’s just Archie. And “just Archie,” in front of the same backdrop that makes all those other characters work? He’s basically fighting an uphill creative battle from here to eternity. There’s actually a pattern that emerges here, as “Chapter Fifteen” ends up arguably being the weakest episode of the series since “Chapter Four.” In both cases, the way Riverdale handles Archie’s trauma is the key thing that brings these episodes down.

I praised KJ Apa’s performance in the season premiere, and Riverdale continues to do its work with Archie when it comes to the little things like making sure he looks worn down (he looks as close to “absolutely terrible” in this episode as The CW will allow). But when it comes to that Riverdale brand of camp or even just flair, the show has yet to prove it can truly achieve it with the Archie character. This is the same show where Jughead accepts gang life almost immediately and proves so with a dramatic motorcycle reveal. But for Archie, we get story beats that are almost too cliché for words, without any comfort that it’ll all be worth it—because Archie’s characterization hasn’t earned that yet. Remember, this show had to cut the Archie/Grundy relationship short because the writers didn’t expect it to be (and didn’t comprehend how it was) as poorly received as it was by test audiences (and eventually, real audiences). The thing that works now about hero Archie is how good and pure-hearted he is; so gritting it up with troubled teen tropes is the exact opposite. He’s now sleeping and downing energy drinks like his life depends on it. He’s refusing to talk to anyone about his issues. He’s asking for drugs to keep him awake. He’s getting a gun.

Archie’s got a gun. Honestly, we all know how this goes, so I’ll just say it now: Archie, it’s not your fault.

And as Riverdale does this—gives an incredibly standard plot to the one character who’s not designed to transcend it—it also attempts to present it as if it’s not the first nominee for evidence of a potential sophomore slump. Given Riverdale’s style, one could argue that Archie’s behavior is supposed to inspire Hitchcockian comparisons as opposed to Engelian, but the execution isn’t there. That’s the point of Archie’s descent into madness. More specifically, his descent into arguing that he’s not falling into madness. In between flashes of PTSD and hallucinations, Archie makes sure to let everyone know he’s not “crazy.” The thing is, while Archie spends this episode making poorer and poorer choices, the actual episode also spends more time having Archie tell people he’s not crazy than presenting the audience with a reason to believe these characters might even think he is. What we’re presented with on Archie’s front is after-school special (or Saturday morning TNBC) fodder and reasonably rational arguments (re: the man in the black hood and Grundy’s murder). What the characters are presented with is a tired and frustrated and scared Archie. But no one comes off as though they’re truly worried about the “crazy” aspect, even though the episode pushes it.

This is all the result of Riverdale finally putting Archie closer to the actual mystery… but instead focusing more on his reaction to it than his attempt at solving the mystery. That sounds like a weird criticism—that the show is concerned with the emotional and mental ramifications of trauma is possibly a bad thing—but again, it’s taking Archie out of the mystery-solving aspect of the show. Presumably until Betty and Jughead fully tag-in to do the work and Archie can write even more depressing songs to go along with it. Archie’s not stressed out about personally finding the gunman; he’s stressed out about the gunman coming back to “finish the job” and the proper authorities not finding said gunman. So his proactive choices in this matter—staying up all night, taking uppers, getting a gun—are still passive compared to his fellow protagonists.

Because look at Jughead, Betty, and even Veronica in this episode. All three of them have their own things going on, and all three of them are truly proactive while still dealing with their own specific trauma. (Jughead quickly plans a prison break in this episode. It doesn’t come to fruition, but he’s a second away from drawing up schematics until he learns about Penny Peabody.) Look at Polly Cooper, who was stupid enough to drink daily Blossom family milkshakes but at least was smart enough to infiltrate their home to look for answers. She didn’t get any until her dad dropped the incest bomb, but at least she tried. We know Archie isn’t a master detective. He doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t ever be, just as part of his Archie charm. But his story also shouldn’t only be one big teen drama trope after another. As long as Riverdale continues to be unable to fully work with Archie at the level of the rest of its main characters, he’s always going to feel like an anchor. The show has proven it does know how to make his character work on a regular basis, and this shouldn’t be the case.

Outside of the Archie stuff, “Chapter Fifteen” is a strange reset button of an episode, sometimes taking the “new year, new you” approach too literally. That’s something you’d expect from a season premiere, not a second episode, but Riverdale is just full of surprises. Sometimes, this reset button is as great as Cheryl welcoming Jughead (“Hobo”) and Betty (“Wife of Hobo”) to Thistle House, aka Thornhill Jr. Other times, it’s Josie McCoy as Riverdale High School’s newest River Vixen. That whole scene is strange, and it also features another typical teen TV trope in effect for Riverdale. Specifically the Saved By The Bell meets Beverly Hills, 90210 move where the stars of the show are also the stars of the school. Never mind Josie was already a star of the school simply by being the mayor’s daughter and front woman of the hottest band in town. This choice is a fairly transparent way to give Josie more to do on the show, but at the same time, there’s been no indication that being a River Vixen does that at all. (And I believe the major reason for lack of Josie/Ashleigh Murray in the first season was scheduling conflicts, just like with Reggie Prime/Ross Butler.)


In the same breath as this new facet of Josie’s character, we’re also brought back to the status quo with Cheryl returning to her post as the squad’s HBIC. Riverdale at least makes it work in terms of it being a very Cheryl thing to do (questioning if she ever really lost the squad), but at the same time: What was the point? That’s not a question that’s asked much with Riverdale, because the ride is often too fun, but what was the point? What was the point of the embarrassing dance-off between Cheryl and Veronica? Will they just do it again the next time Veronica’s sick of Cheryl’s tyranny? Riverdale sells itself as a show where actions often have deadly consequences, and for the show to just reset things like this—even as truly inconsequential as the River Vixen—early on this season, there’s cause to be concerned.

And then there’s New Reggie (Charles Melton). He’s not simply a reset button example in terms of recasting but instead complete re-characterization. Reggie Prime was far from the most fleshed out character on this show, but it’s still apparent that he and New Reggie are two completely different interpretations of Reggie Mantle. We’ve gone from a jock antagonist to a greaser antagonist; and while both designations fit Riverdale’s world perfectly, there’s quite the disconnect for them to exist as supposedly one character. Think of it this way: While season one scenes featuring Reggie felt like they could result in a dramatic Crossfit competition, this episode’s Reggie scenes feel like they might end up in a race down by the quarry, for pink slips. And we all know Archie would die in the latter.


All things considered, the things that are good about this episode range from solid (for still surprisingly straightforward teen drama beats) to true blue Riverdale. Betty’s plot to save Pop’s—which this hypocritical town turned its back on with the quickness—is just the determined Betty Cooper plot needed to counter such a depressing Archie Andrews plot, though it’s almost all very by-the-numbers. That is, until the actual Retro Night (CW event of the week) goes down and ends up leading to a bunch of chaos Betty doesn’t even realize. That Alice Cooper clocks South Side Serpent integration, multiple drug deals, and Lodge family double dealing all in one night is very impressive, especially as she only even comes to Pop’s to write “Requiem For Pop’s.” This all gets brought up as a way for Alice to dunk on her daughter, but at this point in the series, it’s easier to consider it more tough love than actual emotional abuse. Especially since it keeps in line with how honest and frank the two of them are with each other these days. In fact, it’s healthier at this point that Alice calls Betty out for accidentally facilitating even more crime in Riverdale than it would be for her to shield her daughter from that reality. If Betty will realize any of that moving forward is the question.

This doesn’t even address that Betty’s inadvertent work for Riverdale’s criminal element also includes her very intentional dealings when it comes to helping FP Jones. This is Jughead’s story of course, and he does everything he possibly can—even though that ends up as something he might regret—but once he’s done that, it’s Betty who makes sure that things actually get done. That’s Betty’s thing, even if it ends up the way Pop’s does: Betty is Riverdale’s closer. Its finisher. It’s amazing to say, especially with memories of Archie comics swirling in my head, that Betty Cooper is the one Riverdale goes to in order to get things done. She is her mother’s daughter, after all. You need a rallying cry? Betty’s on it. You need your father out of prison? Betty’s on it. You need to break into a grifter’s car? Betty’s already done it and taken their gun. Reminder: Jughead is the type of person who has a problem with blackmailing or extorting orphans and/or widows. Betty, on the other hand, is not that type of person at all.


On the other hand, Veronica Lodge is the character you’d assume would be that closer. And the more we see of her parents, the more that’s expected as well. But as Riverdale constantly proves, beneath that New York City upperclass teen is just a teen. She tries though, she really does. But every time she tries to go toe-to-toe with her parents—the way Betty makes seem like second nature—she just reminds us how much she’s just a teen. She finally does tone it down this episode, and while doing so, Riverdale shines an even brighter light on Hiram and Hermione Lodge. After a season of Lodge parent shenanigans providing our dear sweet Riverdale with real estate disputes, these first two episodes already feel like an apology of sorts. And honestly: Apology accepted.

Seeing Hiram and Hermione together, out and about, is like having the final piece to a confusing puzzle. In these moments, it’s all clear. Why everyone hates them, why they’re so perfect for each other. Looking at these two people together is like looking directly into the sun. No wonder everyone hated them in high school. They’re the prom king and queen, and they continued to be that in real life… until Hiram screwed it all up and went to prison. Not just because they’re an extremely gorgeous pair but because they quite literally command attention the moment they walk into a room. That ostracization that occurred with single mom Hermione? It’s not around as disgraced Hiram “Daddy” Lodge is part of the package now. Is it sexism? Not necessarily. But it’s arguably fear. “Chapter Fifteen” tones down how terrifying Hiram was in just his one scene in “Chapter Fourteen,” but there’s no denying he’s still a snake (just not from the South Side) here.


Just like you know that Alice Cooper is going to make a snarky quip 99 percent of the time she’s onscreen (the other one percent consists of moments like when she tells Archie about the autopsy), you know that when the Lodges are around, things are getting soapy. If the Blossoms made for the perfect Southern Gothic aesthetic on Riverdale, then the Lodges are Riverdale’s answer to Dynasty or Dallas. Alice compares Hiram to Scarface after the fact, but at the same time, it says a lot that she doesn’t pull her typical Alice Cooper “greeting” when the Lodges arrive at the diner. And when I say “the Lodges,” I mean both of them: After a season of Hermione begrudgingly working to help Hiram, there is perhaps no one more ride or die for their significant other than she is in this episode. The one thing Veronica thinks will stop this and get her old mom back is the threatening letter Hiram wrote in prison, and in a stone cold move, Hermione lies to her daughter and says she wrote it herself to get Veronica to comply. (It’s strange to believe there was ever any real competition between Fred Andrews and Hiram Lodge when you really think about it.) Then there are things like Hermione’s one-percenter pleasure when Hiram tells her they didn’t really donate to Pop Tate and that they bought Pop’s instead. Hard to believe this same woman even worked at Pop’s for a minute, but then again, a box with a snake in it was delivered to her when she worked there. So Veronica gets her wish for “full transparency” in her family… It’s just between her parents.

For as all over-the-place as this episode is, just like last week, the final scene brings it all back to focus. As an extension of the Archie plot—at least on the surface—once that familiar sound of “Season Of The Witch” fires up, Riverdale gives something to get excited about again. Even more interesting is that the music choice comes not with a teenage witch—or anyone we’d consider a witch—but instead the man in the black hood. It’s another brutal murder, but in the case of Moose and his girlfriend Midge, we know (on Moose’s side of things, at least) they’re guilty of nothing more than a little Jingle Jangle and hanky panky in the woods. And as this same episode points out how Grundy’s murder was a crime of passion and hatred, it looks like the same can be said about Moose and Midge’s. Only it’s not cathartic for the audience, because there’s nothing cathartic about a bunch of kids we sort of know and harbor no ill will toward getting gunned down.


Riverdale really knows how to make good on its promise of a darker second season, doesn’t it? For better or worse.

Stray observations

  • Riverdale Roulette: I’d argue that “Save The Max” from Saved By The Bell hits both the “save the teen hangout” aspect of this episode as well as the after school special vibe of it all. If Saved By The Bell’s sad guitar riff had played during this episode, I honestly would not have been surprised. Also, Archie is truly a step away from an “I’m so excited, I’m so scared” freakout. Without any of the fun that entails. Now that he has a gun to go along with it? Well the general consensus has been that Archie should be kept far, far away from guitars. But we never said his axe should be replaced with a gun.
  • I understand that Archie was very specific about it being a custom black hood and not a ski mask… but New Reggie was definitely wearing a ski mask, right? There’s not just going to be a ban on using the words “ski mask” this season, is there?
  • Jughead: “Mayor McCoy, you remember this moment. Because this is the moment you turned your back on both Pop Tate and my father.” Alright, I understand the Pop Tate thing because Pop’s is a Riverdale institution. But FP? Does Mayor McCoy have a past relationship with FP? Because otherwise, I’m sorry but I can’t see Jughead’s orphan hex on her really hitting that hard if not.
  • Speaking of FP, I know he warned Jughead about her, but I’m really excited to see more Brit Morgan as Penny Peabody. Any friend of The Middleman is more than welcome around these parts.
  • I forgot to mention “Jingle Jangle” in last week’s review, but now that it looks like it’s going to be a bigger part of this season, here we go. This is true Riverdale, turning something as innocent as an Archies jam into the type of thing New Reggie makes dick jokes about.
  • By the way, my favorite thing about New Reggie is how it takes me about 30 seconds into any of his scenes to realize it’s New Reggie.
  • When Archie brings up Grundy’s abusive ex-husband as a suspect, Sheriff Keller shuts that possibility down by telling him Greendale police already talked to the guy and he has an “airtight alibi.” Now to unpack this sloppy scene. First of all, we still don’t have official confirmation of Grundy’s abusive ex story even being true. In fact, we don’t even get any story on the guy, as this happens offscreen. This isn’t a matter of not believing a woman—this is a matter of not believing a con artist and established sexual predator. Also, in noting that Greendale PD already talked to the ex, neither Keller nor Archie address the fact that: 1. She’s not even Geraldine Grundy. She’s Jennifer Gibson. Her death should bring up a lot more about her real identity. 2. If this ex she was on the run from was so easy to find (and close enough to be brought in), doesn’t that mean it was all a lie? This show is never truly going to let Archie realize and accept that he was used, is it?
  • Valerie is absent because she has Norovirus. Also, Melody can speak. This is why we need more Pussycats screentime, not more River Vixens.
  • I know Cheryl points out that if Josie can be a cheerleader, she can be a Pussycat, but why exactly is Cheryl the fill-in for Valerie? Veronica is literally in the same frame during this scene, and she’s actually a Pussycat. Sort of. A Valerie replacement Pussycat, even. On the plus side, the cover of “Milkshake”—on top of Pop’s—is appropriately Riverdale (and befitting of Retro Night), as is the playing of the instrumental (and the “la la”s) version when Archie gets his gun.
  • The only moment that suggests Hiram and Hermione might not be on the same page is the reveal that Hiram got rid of Smithers. (Not that he admits it, but you know.) Smithers of course has made his affinity for Hermione over Hiram very clear, though the fact that Hermione doesn’t have a reaction to it (unlike Veronica) might mean it’s fine on her end.
  • This episode’s title comes from the famous (and very much Riverdale appropriate) Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks. Even better, it’s got a true connection in the form of the Archie comics variant cover, which also made its way onto the title page of the script for this episode.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.