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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Archie stings like a butterfly, floats like a big beautiful idiot through a punch-drunk Riverdale

Illustration for article titled Archie stings like a butterfly, floats like a big beautiful idiot through a punch-drunk Riverdale
Photo: The CW
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The hazard of squeezing a baker’s dozen of plot developments into a single hour, as Riverdale did when last we met in the appropriately-named “Biazrrodale,” is that an episode merely containing a near-fatal cult ritual and a corrupt boxing match feels slight by comparison.


It would be factually inaccurate to suggest that nothing happens in “Requiem for a Welterweight,” the accusation most frequently lobbed against movies or TV that move more slowly and quietly. There’s nothing slow or quiet about this show, and plenty happens — it’s just that most of what happens this week is talk. We get talk about what characters will do before they do it and talk about what they’ve done after they’ve done it. We get talk about talking. We get more talk about how characters feel than demonstrations of those feelings. The dynamics of power continue shifting in this episode’s most meaningful advancement, albeit all through alternately flattering and menacing talking. It’s enough chatter to give a person cottonmouth.

In theory, this wouldn’t be an issue for a show as generously blessed with the gift of gab as this one. Dialogue is probably Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and his writing staff’s chiefest strength (after the harnessing and controlled redirection of adolescent hormones), and this episode serves up plenty of the scrumptious one-liners the viewers have come to expect. But there’s a big difference between Cheryl Blossom purring “Check out my new nail color, it’s called Vigilante Violet” and the walls of strictly functional text that the actors must deliver. Too much of this week’s gum-flapping serves to move characters into place, following utilitarian imperatives rather than the usual ornateness for its own precious sake.

I’m thinking primarily of Veronica’s mission to paint herself into an increasingly tiny corner, which demands she play both sides of her parentage against the middle. After making a Faustian bargain with Gladys Jones (who, it bears mentioning, is still Gina Gershon), she’s got to manipulate Hiram and Hermione with a convoluted scheme that nonetheless leaves her at a disadvantage. It appears that whenever Veronica feels threatened, her fight-or-flight response is to form an alliance with whoever happens to be in her sightline. She spends so much time behind people’s backs, she might as well be a lumbar pillow.

The constantly changing gang landscape of Riverdale looks like the big idea arcing over this season’s remaining episodes, as Gladys assumes the role of primary baddie in the Gargoyle King’s absence by unifying the Serpents and Gargoyles under her leather-gloved fist. Even so, the real meat of this week has been thoroughly tenderized. I am, of course, referring to Archie’s new career in boxing. Under the keen tutelage of former sheriff Tom Keller, he’s been learning how to work the corners and anticipate a jab. Say goodbye to Archie the Terrible Singer-Songwriter and say hello to Archie the Human Punching Bag!

He’s doing the Pulp Fiction thing — that is to say, he’s doing the Old Hollywood thing more scrupulously parodied in Barton Fink and the recently departed Stanley Donen’s Movie Movie — of examining his own morals after taking a bribe. Slippery weasel Elio moonlights as a boxing promoter, and he wants Archie to throw his first big match. It’ll further glorify the reigning champ, get some valuable exposure for a newbie, and plunk $5,000 in Archie’s own pocket. Seems like a win for everybody, because it is; Archie would be taking part in a more technically precise variant of pro wrestling. But a combination of classically Archian dumbness, a vague sense of honor, and advice from Josie persuade him to instead cheat himself out of five grand and get his face mashed into a jelly, all for a match he ends up losing anyway. You can take the boy out of Ed Sheeran parody, but you can’t take the stupid out of the boy.


“My mom is joining a cult and nobody but me seems to be worried about it.” So goes the plea of Betty as she scrambles to save her mother before Alice drowns herself as a shout-out to God (or something). Though she doesn’t realize it, she’s pinpointed the disjointed feeling of this particular episode, which struggles to juggle four separate plots. Betty’s still stuck in the first half of this season, dealing with the Farm and the mythological side of the Gargoyle nonsense, while everyone else moves on. It’ll be a while until Alice is free once and for all from the sway of Edgar Evernever, as Chad Michael Murray has yet to show his chiseled face onscreen. Until that day, and so long as her delusions continue to monopolize Betty’s time in each episode, they’re both stagnating. If a ritual sacrifice can’t spice up a plotline, it may have run its course.

That only leaves Cheryl Blossom, who’s raising a private army of expert archers like an exceedingly fabulous Yukio Mishima. The Pretty Poisons were conceived as a Band-Aid to make up for getting Toni Topaz booted out of the Serpents, and I was glad to see this episode holding Cheryl Blossom responsible for her hasty, ill-thought-out move. Jughead calls the girl gang a vanity project, and though he’s only trying to sow some dissent in order to unify Riverdale’s inexplicably numerous gangs, he’s not wrong. You can’t just start a gang willy-nilly, and Cheryl Blossom is out of her element.


Despite Toni Topaz’s position as absolute leader, Cheryl Blossom undermines her authority by ordering her troops to beat the crap out of a couple Serpents to show them that the new game in town is to be taken seriously. (Again, the show cues up what should be a great set piece only to cut away; we want to see eight girls in rockabilly getups pummeling a couple of greaser boys!) This cues up their second argument after last week’s dustup, easily enough resolved by Cheryl Blossom pledging her fealty to her girlfriend. Even so, the lingering note of unease between them suggests that this will not be their final fight. Their relationship isn’t built on sound foundation, just screwups and grand gestures to make up for them. They spend most of their time blissfully floating through the honeymoon period, but when things get real, they won’t know how to resolve conflict.

This is a fine example of bricklaying for the future that works within the context of an episode while retaining self-contained entertainment value. I don’t envy the task of negotiating the seasonlong storytelling that defines the TV form with the episode-to-episode mandate to amuse, and it helps that Cheryl Blossom only appears in three or four scenes. Archie’s plotline is just about there, doing itself a big favor by actually depicting the climactic fight scene. That still leaves the lion’s share of the episode, however. Veronica and Betty, the heart and soul of the show, continue to move forward. But more important than the act of motion are the journey and the destination. Unless we have a clearer idea of where we’re going and have our fun getting there, why rush?


Stray observations: 

- From here on out, the only correct answer to the question of “Is that clear?” must necessarily be “As a bottle of sparkling San Junipero water.”


- “Boxing is not something you want to do half-assed,” warns coach Keller. Sound advice, though it poses the question of what is something you want to do half-assed. Receive gluteal reconstruction surgery?

- The song Josie sings during the episode’s climactic montage is Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome),” so titled for having been written as part of the soundtrack for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The omnivorous cultural tastes of the Riverdale writers know no limits.


- Archie and Josie may be a mismatched couple not long for this world, but their relationship has given us the sublime moment when they make eye contact and the porno music kicks in at full force, so I’m calling it a wash.