The unfortunate thing about this episode as a midseason finale is that, when it’s over, there’s relief. Relief that the episode is over. Relief that it’s time to take a much-needed break from Riverdale. Relief that we can get away from Riverdale’s warped sense of Christmas spirit.

The “Christmas spirit” point isn’t even taking into account the gang violence or Black Hood of it all. In fact, it would be a disappointment if Riverdale didn’t have a wholly inappropriate holiday episode, no matter the holiday. But a good portion of “Chapter Twenty-Two: Silent Night, Deadly Night”—the portion that actually cares it’s Christmas—is dedicated to spoiled brats not understanding why they can’t get what they want. And just that, as these particular stories never elevate past this lack of understanding. Veronica “luckily” has the other story thread of her broken relationship with Archie to give her something more. But Cheryl is in an absolute dead end plot, only tasting something slightly interesting as a supporting character to her barely lucid grandmother’s interaction with Betty and Archie.

Cheryl and Veronica being “spoiled brats” isn’t surprising or even especially problematic, given their characters. But when that’s all they are and the execution of their stories doesn’t even help, it’s disappointing. When two characters are spending money they don’t have as a way to get back at their parents for no good reason, that doesn’t make the concept twice as entertaining; it just calls out how weak the story is. (The Blossom family not being able to afford a real Christmas could be an emotional plot—Christmas without Jason and Clifford—but it’s too concerned with “HBIC Cheryl” really giving it to her mom for not being able to afford a tree or presents.) This is apparently the episode where Veronica learns that poor people exist, or at least that there are people who can’t just charge an $86,000 medical bill to a black card. She pontificates—she, Cheryl, and Archie really do a lot of that in this episode—about her family’s life of excess, comparing them to “Russian oligarchs.” Hiram and Hermione may not be good people, but the fact that they don’t want to pay Fred Andrews’ medical bills isn’t one of the reasons why. Because it’s not their fault Fred doesn’t know how to care of his money.

Seriously: What does Fred do with all his money?

I’ve written before that Veronica’s demand to have a seat at the adults’ table only highlights how much of a kid she is, and this episode does nothing to change that perception. Veronica’s so desperate to be in the know that she tells her parents she’s all in, but then she immediately tells them she won’t do anything illegal. She’s telling the people who forge her signature and threaten her from prison that she’s onboard but immediately explains how she’s not actually onboard. Remember, 90% of Veronica’s conversations with her parents are her telling them they’re immoral, criminal villains. Then Hermione teaches her the phrase “plausible deniability,” and the plot ends with Veronica very clearly regretting her decision. At no point does Riverdale—here or in the previous eight episodes—create a compelling argument as to why the audience should care, why they should want Veronica to be more involved with her parents’ company or not.

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Archie did a decent job last week when he and Veronica filled in for Betty and Jughead on the mystery-solving front, but there’s a reason it’s not his usual beat: Archie’s approach to mystery-solving involves a lot of emotional speeches. His speech to Betty (before she kisses him), his speech to the Black Hood (before Sheriff Keller shoots him). Seriously, Archie treats mystery-solving like he’s in a sports movie, which finally explains the letterman jacket during investigative work. He also reacts to information he already knew from last episode—like the fact that Riverdale folks executed the presumed Riverdale Reaper—like it’s brand new information, which is either a poor acting choice on KJ Apa’s part or a poor writing choice on Riverdale’s. The Archie/Betty plot actually plays off the fact that neither Archie nor Veronica briefed Betty (or Jughead) on anything they learned about Mr. Svenson and the Riverdale Reaper during their investigation, almost to a point where Riverdale itself isn’t sure the audience paid attention to what happened last episode. In that case, it’s understandable, because Riverdale spends these last two episodes dumping information in order to make things come together for the underwhelming Black Hood reveal.

Yes, the Black Hood was Mr. Svenson. Or was it? “Chapter Twenty-One” and “Chapter Twenty-Two” work hard to make the answer to that question: Who cares? As Jughead voiceovers at the end of the episode, everything’s tied up in a “neat, tidy bow” with Svenson as the Black Hood. They all accept it, because as the janitor who creeped, he was everywhere. (Except, that doesn’t explain how he knew anything about Betty’s favorite childhood book…) If this is the end of the Black Hood, then it’s an underwhelming ending. Though Riverdale certainly gets points for milking unintentional humor out of Archie’s obsession with (incorrectly remembered) green eyes. It also means that Veronica is two for two on mystery-solving (Sheriff Keller’s affair, Svenson as Black Hood). If it’s not the end—as Svenson’s behavior looks like a man who felt guilty finally snapping, not someone who’d snapped earlier—then the audience gets to look forward to more of the world’s worst serial killer spewing nonsense and making all of these characters miserable. That is, when they actually care to listen to any of his nonsense warnings.

As enjoyable (in a schadenfreude sort of way) as it is to see Jughead and his merry band of teen Serpents deal with Penny Peabody, it begs the question: What the hell are FP and Tall Boy even good for then? Assuming that Jughead really did take care of Penny and put the fear of snake God into her, how is it that FP just laid down and took what Penny was giving him instead of doing something and getting rid of her? Toys for Tots or not—the Southside Serpents are a gang, and FP is a gang leader. It can’t be said FP didn’t take matters into his own hands for fear of getting sent back to prison, because he literally starting running drugs instead. (“Chapter Twenty-Two” introduces his parole officer, but like the rest of this episode, the stakes don’t last longer than a second.) Are we really supposed to believe Tall Boy hasn’t disappeared someone before? Especially someone who so greatly betrays the Serpent rule of law? Jughead can’t be the only one who realizes sometimes it’s better to go more Sons of Anarchy with your “motorcycle club,” especially when you have as big of a problem as Penny on your hands.

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But in questioning what FP’s even good for and the brainstorming skills of the elder Serpents, that shouldn’t count out how good Jughead (Cole Sprouse, specifically) is in this episode. Especially in the scene where he and his crew get rid of Penny, as it takes the Riverdale ridiculousness of a bunch of children in snake masks kidnapping a queenpin and then turns it into a surprisingly twisted moment of Serpent law in action. It’s a different scene than we usually see from Jughead, but Sprouse pulls it off scarily well, to the point where it finally clicks why Jughead is seen as a Serpent leader—outside of his legacy status. It’s also a moment where the father-son casting of Skeet Ulrich and Cole Sprouse isn’t just based on physical appearances, with Sprouse channeling the spirit and attitude of a young Ulrich. Maybe not necessarily Jughead channeling a young FP though, because if FP’s world weariness tells us anything, it might be that he wasn’t exactly the natural leader Jughead is.

Going into Riverdale’s second season, there was a lot of discussion about how the show would be “darker.” Considering the first season was already pretty dark, the continued mention of that particular buzzword didn’t exactly bode well. “Darker.” “Edgier.” Those words describes the essence of more, but they don’t actually speak to quality. The Black Hood saga is indicative of this, though there are clearly other things that fall into this particular trap. What we’re told about the Black Hood—that he’s a serial killer, that he’s putting everyone on edge, that he destroys the town—has yet to be shown nine episodes in. Assuming the Black Hood isn’t actually dead and gone, that still doesn’t make the disappointment here less. The most successful concept to come out of the “darker” Riverdale is the deeper dive into the Serpents, but even that still has Riverdale refuse to go all the way with it. (see: all the “The Serpents aren’t a regular gang, they’re a cool gang!” rhetoric and behavior) It doesn’t feel like audiences ever ask for these promises of “darker” and “edgier” follow-up seasons, yet they still come. Is it so much to ask for just a consistently good season? And maybe less unecessary singing moments?


Stray observations

  • Riverdale Roulette: ‘Tis the season, so I’ll suggest Black Christmas. Both the original and the CW appropriate—Katie Cassidy and Michelle Trachtenberg are stars—remake.
  • Svenson actually does go full Silent Night, Deadly Night here. Witnessed his parents’ murder: check. Strict Catholic upbringing: check, temporarily. (They throw in the tidbit of him staying with the Sisters of Quiet Mercy, which definitely wasn’t mentioned last week.) Mental breakdown: check. No actual confirmation of him murdering though, as he fails at the one attempt at murder we see him commit.
  • Archie’s mom booked a singles cruise for Christmas, officially making her the smartest person on this show.
  • Do the teens of Riverdale still believe Santa Claus exists? Because the impression I get in this episode from dream Betty, Cheryl, and even Veronica is that they still believe Santa Claus exists. Also, Betty’s dream image of the Black Hood is a much thinner man than any Black Hood we’ve seen—which is great because she hadn’t actually seen the guy before.
  • Betty (to a stranger): “Excuse me. Who are you?” The audacity of these children.
  • During the first season, there was a comment about how the show made sure everyone knows Nana Rose Blossom used to have the signature Blossom red hair by comically leaving the one red streak. The fact that her hair has always been white with one red streak is even better.
  • So either there’s something more or it’s just a weird acting moment: When Sweet Pea tries to defend Snake Charmers (as there are apparently more than just the one), he and Fangs share a look when Jughead asks him about the favors he ends up owing them.
  • After learning her parents bought Pop’s, Veronica turns that into meaning her parents lied about not having the money to pay Fred’s medical bills. That’s not what happened: They said they had gone through their charity budget for the year, which is what this would have been. That doesn’t make Hiram an “Ebenezer Scrooge.” He actually reacts surprisingly well for someone who’s being asked to pay the medical bills of the man who was dating his wife while he was in prison.
  • As ride or die Jughead is for the Serpents, you’d almost never know the character is this fiercely loyal outside of his scenes with them and FP. Yes, he’s playing dual roles; you’re not going to see him wear his Serpents jackets at Pop’s with Archie and the gang, after all. But it’s become more apparent that the allegiance and loyalty he feels toward the Serpents in such a short time doesn’t exist when he’s with his friends he’s known for years. He’ll fight for Serpents he just met—he’ll fight for Sweet Pea—more than he will his relationship with Betty or even his friendship with Archie. His decision not to go to Betty to thank her in person (unlike Veronica did with Archie) is somewhat of a continuation of his decision to push her away from the life he loves and the mess he made… but the mess is over, and this very episode has her telling him not to make decisions for her (in a scene that would’ve been better had either one of them addressed the very misguided Serpent Dance she performed while she was “making her own decisions.”)
  • Archie and Veronica get back together in this episode, after Veronica tells Archie she loves him. It’s almost like Fred’s advice to Archie about giving Veronica time was right and Archie shouldn’t have been so pushy about it. It also means that Archie gets to have his cake and eat it too: Betty very clearly initiated the kiss, not the other way around. So he gets that when he’s broken up with Veronica for a day, and then he gets Veronica to say she loves him, without actually having to deal with the fallout of his immaturity in the situation in the first place.

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