Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Nothing spoils parent-teacher night (or a shroom trip) like a Riverdale prison break

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Photo: The CW

Over the years, a goodly handful of tertiary characters in the Riverdale world have ended up behind bars, jail being a handy writer’s device to sideline and neutralize a villain who’s outlived their moment. The accumulation of minor figures at the Hiram-controlled penal facility has now cued up another narrative maneuver more sweeping and clever in nature, as an explosive prison break sends faces from the past back into their victims’ lives. Penelope Blossom, Charles, Chic, and a host of other no-goodniks make a run for it after Hiram dynamites the yard wall in a bid to sow anarchy in Riverdale on the high school’s all-important parent-teacher night, and the results of this shake-up charge everyone’s plotlines with a welcome volatility. The nice thing about this show sending so many people into the carceral system over the years is that when you let them all out, it means something real to the people left in their wake.


Having committed the most of herself to enforcement of the law, Betty takes it the hardest, with an evil half-brother and an evil fake-half-brother to worry about. Both Charles and Chic, now sporting flowing blonde tresses I can describe only as Letoesque, make a beeline for the Cooper residence upon their flight from the pen with murder in their hearts. The sadistic game they play with Betty’s visiting FBI ex-beau Glen lends the episode its title and most thrilling scene, a twisted ritual in which the now-married boys of C+C Psychopathy Factory force little Juniper to stab Glen, the “Pincushion Man.” The mounting tension and the shock of Betty’s swift intervention (along with Alice’s grace under pressure) hits the same absurd-yet-intense high attained by this series’ best episodes. When summarizing the contents of the scene — say, to your inquiring girlfriend who’s watching the live broadcast next to you on the couch — makes you feel like a crazy person, you know they’re on the right track.

Cheryl Blossom has her own issues to deal with, as her nutso mother busts out and reestablishes her presence at Thornhill. Even prior to the unwanted family reunion, she’s having a rough week, as Reggie (now back in Hiram’s employ after the insubordination during last week’s football game) tries to put the squeeze on the maple operation propping up her family fortune. First, she is “shooketh” to find that the precious trunks aren’t yielding their liquid-gold sap, threatening their financial future. Her enemies then try to sucker the glassy-eyed Nana into signing a dupe contract which blows up in their faces, the oldster having been declared senile years ago and her signatures null and void, so they shift to plan B of arson. Cheryl Blossom and her squeeze Minerva are vulnerable to an unprecedented extent, her fortune heretofore an insulation from serious threats, and Penelope’s impending conversion to religion foretold in the next-week-on clip after tonight’s episode will only endanger them further. Cheryl Blossom doesn’t get a whole lot of face-time this week, but she leaves an indelible impression when onscreen.

Archie is the other member of the main cast touched by the prison breakout this week, his effort to put his best foot forward while greeting the student body’s families stymied by a random prisoner’s invasion. And that’s the least of his troubles, as he soon faces a court tribunal to get to the bottom of some war crime-type activity his commanding officer may or may not have gotten into while they were on the front in... Uzbekistan. (Borat will be pleased to hear that we’re bringing the fight to those bastards.) Archie faces some kind of vague moral reckoning, which, why not? His time in the army and the presumptive trauma he brought back with him should be put to use sooner or later, and the inevitable trial scene should make for some good television. At least Archie’s fight with the anonymous crow-bar-wielding rogue infiltrating the school has some oomph to it, and precipitates Kevin saying, “He was in the Army. He’s got it.”

Veronica’s continued futzing-about with Chad, whether concerning their falsified non-divorce or her guilt about the thoroughly who-cares helicopter accident, mostly drags on the hour. The best material belongs to Jughead, attempt to barge through his writer’s block by ingesting some hallucinogenic maple mushrooms, cooked into a sauce and served atop a cheeseburger by his crush/trip babysitter Tabitha. Their insistently platonic relationship keeps getting more and more intimate, whether it’s their oddly placed singalong to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” or a moment of closeness in the sex bunker where Jughead has sequestered himself. But that spark between them gets swallowed up in a series of Jim-Morrison-via-Oliver-Stone visions weaving together his various vessels for desire, with Tabitha morphing into his ex-turned-drug-courier Jessica (“let’s get lit, I’m in the mood to fool around”) and then into the Betty he claims not to want. It’s strange and sexy in a register strongly needed in an episode that otherwise runs the risk of dryness.

As everyone shifts to make room for the convicts intruding on their lives, this week’s installment bristles with tension and the potential for violence. But there’s no sense of climax to the episode that’s supposed to last us through a months-long hiatus that will stretch until July, as if we’re two-thirds through a complete movement. The timeline of this season has been thrown totally out of whack, and that’s still disrupting the flow that’s only just gotten in motion. We’re barely up the hill of rising action, and already cut off. It’s going to be a long pause, but come summer, hopefully big things await. May we all be fully immunized and having our watch parties by then.


Stray observations

  • The snake-eating-its-tail sensation attendant to some of the weirder pop-culture knockoffs is in strongest form yet with the mention of Pop Culture Weekly, a clear EW stand-in presumably included as the historically queer- and soap-friendly publication has been Riverdale’s primary source of coverage during its run.
  • We catch a glimpse of Alice leafing through William March’s 1954 novel The Bad Seed (adapted two years later into a camp classic of the silver screen by Mervyn LeRoy), relevant reading for a mother concerned about the potential for abnormal psychology in her offspring.
  • Veronica’s all ready for dinner at “Fukumomo,” saints preserve us. Maybe she’s going to get the world-famous sso bäm?
  • I don’t know what it is, but something’s making me crave the crispy crunch that only comes from a bag of Tostitos-brand tortilla chips! Perhaps paired with a jar of Tostitos-brand salsa, of either the mild or spicy varieties!
  • Betty offhandedly says that she gave Glen “only a flesh wound,” a possible Monty Python reference, though I can’t really tell if the nerds of the Riverdale writers’ room are also the Holy Grail type of nerd.
  • I’ve given the matter some thought, and I’ve really come to loathe Jughead’s new facial hair. The goatee is a difficult thing to pull off in the first place, and when realized in such a wispy patchiness, it’s not in better stead. Go John Waters pencil-mustache or go clean-shaven!
  • Quote of the week goes to Jughead: “Screw you, Steven King” and “Bondage, nice!” tie for the title.