This week marks Riverdale’s fiftieth episode, a milestone the show nods to through F.P.’s fiftieth birthday party. It’s a time for reflection and summing-up, for taking inventory and speechmaking. The newly reunited Jones clan receives a State of the Family address from Jughead near the tail end of this hour, in which he comes dangerously close to letting slip a few ugly truths undergirding their placid, nuclear image. He stops himself for the sake of his father, who’s just happy to see everyone getting along. But something’s rotten in Riverdale, and try as Jughead may to take care of it himself, secrets will make themselves known. It’s practically a law of physics in this town.
As Jughead feints in a new direction well in the knowledge that it can’t last, so too does the program itself signal a shift that smacks of impermanence. Some planet must be in retrograde, because everyone’s having emotional flareups and making rash decisions that’ll echo throughout the season. But change isn’t Riverdale’s thing; Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa isn’t Joss Whedon, he doesn’t do the whole “dark season” bit. Insofar as this series is a machine that creates pleasure, its evolution is a refining and perfecting of that function. Riverdale doesn’t grow, it merely becomes more efficient.
We’ve been conditioned by dozens of retcons to take the Cheryl Blossom-Toni Topaz breakup just about as seriously as Archie’s ursine brush with death. Even though the writers give the couple what feels like a proper sendoff with what may be the show’s steamiest hookup yet, complete with standard-issue Kink 101 blindfold play, they’re entangled on the quantum level like Einstein’s atoms. Marina Abramovic and Ulay believe that they will never fully leave one another’s lives, destined to forever drift in and out of each other’s orbits; the vampires portrayed by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive share a similar bond, and so do Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz. Next week’s Heathers musical — in which Cheryl Blossom has already asserted herself as “HBIC Heather Chandler” — could very well bring them back together.
And in the event that it doesn’t, the writers will have some very difficult questions to answer. Because I have been burrowing ever-deeper into the social media K-hole that is Instagram, I know that the fandom for the coupling termed “Choni” has a reputation for being somewhat overzealous, and that this evening’s breakup will not sit well with them. I’m opposed on principle to viewers telling the writers of any television show how to do their job. (I suspect in no small part due to my antipathy for readers who think they know better than me; no one has ever known better than me, about anything, ever.) Having said that, their near-rabid fervor hints at a deeper actuality of the show, which is that Riverdale is at its best when Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz get along. Their recent squabbles have been dull and poorly-founded, and make both characters seem more inconsiderate and humorless than they are, or should be.
Veronica and Reggie also approach a romantic crossroads this week as the latter rehashes the confrontation shared by Sweet Pea and Josie earlier this season. He needs to be more than whatever they are, which isn’t all that concretely understood as is. They have mashed their privates, though she keeps him at a safe distance outside of the Boyfriend Zone and yet not within the Friend Zone. Reggie wants out of this sexy purgatory, but as a registered and certified stupid person — like, Archie-stupid — he articulates this with hostile, lumpy diction. They leave things off on a sour note, which could be the push Veronica needs to return to Archie’s toned arms. Which, we’re listening.
Ponytailed amateur sleuth Betty continues to meddle in both the affairs of her boyfriend’s family and her own, complicating the sale of the Cooper estate to the Jones family and blowing up Gladys’ spot as new drug baron in town. (She has enough loyalty to Veronica not to divulge that she’s the source, however. Kind of surprising Jughead didn’t push on that one a little more.) She and Jughead also put their mystery-solving skills to use on Archie’s plight, which somehow culminates in a drag-down bare-knuckle brawl with eleven opponents, one after the other. His piece of the plot is convoluted and nonsensical, and not really in the fun way that reigns on this show, though it does cue up the episode’s most bravura montage.
This is what Riverdale is all about, not real estate dealings or salary negotiations or rent disputes, which are, incredibly, all plot elements in this installment of a popular teen soap opera. It’s about some guy yelling “ENTER THE KRAKEN” just because. It’s about Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz playacting a sex life the same way they playacted a home life. It’s about both of these things happening at the same time, linked only by the camera’s worshipful gaze on lithe bodies in motion. The writers can stick a crowbar between couples as pull as hard as they like, but no matter the relationship configurations, this is always what Riverdale will be. After fifty episodes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
- “I was doing pretty good, Mr. Lodge, until a homeless kid stabbed me in my house.” Every now and then, the Riverdale writers like to let us know that they’re in on all of this. They know exactly what they’re doing.
- Could the Riverdale writing staff had possibly known, when this script was penned, that it would run in the midst of a spike in Robyn-mania? Veronica and Toni Topaz’s devil-may-care rendition of “Call Your Girlfriend” arrives hot on the heels of a viral video documenting the scene after a recent Robyn show at Madison Square Garden. Though they’ve been on their feet for hours, a subway platform packed with bodies turns into an impromptu dance party to “Dancing On My Own” in a demonstration of the Swedish pop star’s estimable powers. She’s currently lifting spirits by the thousand on a concert tour through the U.S., and somehow, yet again, Riverdale finds its finger on the pulse. (Personally, I’m more of a “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do” guy.)
- For the second week now, The CW hasn’t provided critics with advance access to the episode, which makes me think that they may be reediting around the late Luke Perry. This will be for an interviewer to investigate (R.A.S., I’m down if you’re down!), but his character has been cast in an unusually beatific light since his actor’s passing. As was the case last week, he appears here only in one scene to offer some sagacious advice. Of course, that was always Fred Andrews’ whole deal, but there may have been some tinkering to depict him with an especially saintly glow.
- I want to live inside Cheryl Blossom’s brain, where everything is all “ski trip to Mont Blanc” this and “be a doll and fetch me a bellini” that. Some scientists believe that a dark void of nothingness exists at the very center of the universe, and I believe that Cheryl Blossom believes that she is that dark void of nothingness.
- This week, I watched our boy Cole Sprouse in his big debut as a box-office draw, Five Feet Apart. It’s always weird to see these cast members pop up somewhere else, as Madelaine Petsch did in F the Prom or K.J. Apa did in The Hate U Give or Lili Reinhart did in Galveston, and not just because I’ve so identified them with the characters they play on this series. It’s that the style of acting that Riverdale demands is so specific and affected that a viewer can’t get much of an idea of how these people really are as actors until we have something to compare the performance to. Having said all that, I think Sprouse has the juice, though he will one day have no choice but to grow out of the “sensitive artsy boy with a touch of edge” type.
- I wish to leave you this week with the image of me on my couch, watching Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz come to the realization that they moved in together too quickly, and yelling through a mouthful of fried rice, “OH, YOU MEAN LIKE HOW I SAID?!”