Though the town’s key twentysomethings have converged on Riverdale High as a new locus of action, “Back To School” nonetheless takes on the fragmented feeling of the downbeat episodes that fill out the midsection of each season. We’ve got some sturdy narrative potential from the recruitment of the hottest teaching faculty in human history, guaranteed to yield classfuls of A’s in at least economics and shopwork, and Archie’s plotline works comfortably within that sphere. But we’ve officially reached Lots Of Stuff Going On territory, with Cheryl Blossom forging paintings and Jughead on what seems to be a wholly tangential adventure and Betty tracking down her sister, who’s not so dead after all. It’s an eventful hour, and in spite of a an instantly immortal karaoke performance, that’s all it is—full.
Archie has been more fully engaged with the premise of the season’s brave new phase than anyone else, continuing his commitment to the cause of saving the community through the school. While he doesn’t seem like a very good teacher, starting out by asking his charges random trivia he hasn’t yet taught them, he’s got his eyes on the prize. In this case, that would be a literal football trophy to be won by the revived Bulldog team, a gleaming emblem of renewal and excellence to inspire a town in need of something on which to hang their vision of the future. After clocking Reggie in a declaration of war, Archie wrangles a record-scratch-worthy budget, rounds up a ragtag squadron of unschooled young talents (including one knockabout female player — so long, glass ceiling!), and prepares for a gridiron battle with stakes no smaller than the soul of Riverdale. As Hiram states in hilariously plain terms, “a high school offers hope.” That’s the core of the season, as far as I can tell, and everything else feels like a branching extremity of varying awkwardness.
Take Betty, for one, putting her FBI skills to use as she susses out the bad business conducted around the truck stop off the Lonely Highway. Her little sister is still out there somewhere, and finding her will keep Betty busy when she’s not teaching kids car-fixing (a thing they apparently teach at non-trade public school, and that she apparently knows how to do) or smashing pelvises with Archie. As opposed to the colloquial leg-work of her constant rabbitish trysts, the leg-work of her investigation lacks the intrigue of mysteries past, save the phrase “TruckerBoy69.” This new tract of shady territory is creatively fertile, the highway and roadside stop being a time-honored noir space explored in everything from Kiss Me Deadly to I Know Who Killed Me. Still, it’s too evident that the good stuff is yet to come, meaning that we’re currently mired in the so-so stuff.
Same goes for Veronica, shuffled out of her relationship with Chadwick as abruptly as she was shuffled into it. He was an obvious albatross around her neck from his earliest introduction, inevitably destined for a hasty elimination, and his exit still lands as a ass-covering retcon for something that happened too recently not to be planned for. After one fight kind of small-scale for the instant divorce Veronica treats it as, she’s single and presumably ready to mingle, another repositioning that creates anticipation without entertaining in the here and now. Are we cruising for the classic Veronica-Archie-Betty love triangle, once Archie and Betty’s friends-with-benefits arrangement eventually leads to one or both parties catching feelings? Will that be a workable new entanglement for the delicate composition of this show’s hookup chart?
In the first season, that seemed like a played-out equation the writers were keen on avoiding, in particular because this leaves Jughead sidelined. He’s the farthest from the heart of these episodes, flirting up his Pop’s colleague Tabitha when he’s not tromping into the wood to get some answers about the Mothman (!) from Old Man Dreyfus (?) in the hour’s most detached subplot. Jughead negotiating the social humiliation of waiting tables while employed full-time as an educator pertains to this season’s relaunch with greater relevance, not to mention its implied commentary on the heinous underpaying of America’s teachers. But that falls by the wayside so we can chase another big weird thing through a forest, a well from which this show has drawn one time too many.
And then there’s Cheryl Blossom, forging paintings and having dazed conversations with her underlings at Thornhill. She’s off in her own little world, psychologically and dramatically, sequestered in her house with only her nutso relatives and the occasional visitor for company. She’s sure to come into play deeper into this season’s game, but for the umpteenth instance in this episode, we have more to look forward to than enjoy. A strangely emphatic enunciation of “Venice Biennale” does not an amusing D-plot make. The impending conflict between Cheryl Blossom and her former paramour-turned-usurping-HBIC Toni Topaz will be a scorcher to be certain, with the preview of next week’s chapter teasing a dance-off evoking the first season’s first viral showstopper. That’ll be good, but that’s two long weeks away.
A lot’s left up in the air, particularly the fate of Archie, trapped inside his burning house as flames rapidly engulf the building. The junior arsonists with the Ghoulies first tried to torch the school, and failing that, decided to cut the snake’s head off and send Archie out in a blaze of glory. He’ll break through a wall or bust down a door or something, but more important is the question of what’ll be waiting for him behind it. Plot-advancing episodes such as this one create excitement for next week, and the best do so while getting their own private jollies. Those are few and far between this week, all the more reprehensible for the can’t-miss promise of the sexiest high school TV has ever seen.
- Obvious question—Jughead hasn’t read Of Mice and Men? Even if we’re to accept that he’s one of those reprehensible newfangled authors who insists that there’s no value in classic literature, he has demonstrated himself obsessed with the midcentury greats time and again. You’re the teacher, Jughead, teach what you dig.
- The major musical moment of the hour couldn’t be anything but Veronica and Chadwick’s tearjerking (for Kevin, anyway, who doesn’t get the chance to break out his “Defying Gravity”) rendition of A Star Is Born showstopper “Shallow,” however, we’d be remiss not to mention the inclusion of “Back to School Again” from the Grease 2 soundtrack. “Mine” by Bazzi also gets some air time, and though I have not heard this song before, my research indicates that it was popular on the Tik Tok precursor music.ly.
- I would watch Reggie and Hiram eating their giant sandwiches, dialogue-free, for ten to fifteen minutes. That’s good television.
- Let no one say this show’s writers don’t have a sense of humor about themselves, judging by the rightful callout of the legendarily eye-rolling line about “the epic highs and lows of high school football.” Memed to death and back, it’s turned into something like an emblem of this show’s so-bad-it’s-amazing dialogue, but I always liked that line. It’s nice to think that Archie talks in the same quasi-ironic hifalutin vernacular as me!
- Of course Betty Cooper, a human vodka tonic, drinks vodka tonics as her beverage of choice.
- Get that Doritos money, Riverdale!