Upon last week’s return to a changed Riverdale seven years into our present, I compared the lamentable state of the town to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a reference point the latest episode grabs onto and clutches for dear life. With all the characters somewhat settled in their new lives (with the exception of Jughead, who doesn’t have two thin dimes to rub together, unless he Jokerfies himself into a Vance double by writing Elegy For A Small Town, but hold on, we’re getting there), the show requires a new focal point for its dramatic stakes, and the soul of Riverdale will do quite nicely. It’s like the old Sex And The City recapper’s adage goes: it’s almost like the setting is another character on the show, and in this case, this character needs someone to save it. Who? Who but Archie Andrews!
Except that his usual methods of beating people up until something happens will only get him so far this time. He can rough up the Ghoulies so that they vacate the house they’ve already turned into their den of sin, but fixing the socioeconomic challenges facing the community won’t be as simple as dispatching the latest serial killer. Besting Hiram is still a matter of careful maneuvering, with the moves now involving bills and restructuring instead of baseball bats and brass knuckles. The big objective is no longer solving a mystery, aside from the mystery of what happened to Cheryl Blossom. Their task is rural renewal, and the writers have some awfully funny ideas about how to best go about accomplishing that.
“Chapter Eighty-One” concerns the fate of Riverdale High, the linchpin keeping the town charter intact as Hiram hurls every obstacle possible at its self-appointed defenders. He’s stripped the school of funding as his attempted crushing blow, confident that without its last functioning public service, nothing will stand in his way to dissolving the town and making room for the “Stepford for bougie mobsters” that is SoDale. Archie presumably sees rescuing the town as a path to rescuing himself, mostly from a lack of purpose. And so he joins forces with Toni Topaz, Riverdale High’s snake-dancing drink-slinging guidance counselor (the trouble I’d have gotten into as a teen if I’d known she’d be the administrator I’d be sent to!), to find a non-state source of funding for the school. It’s here that they run into the core problem of most civic projects going against the government’s will, which is an unavoidable reliance on the favor of the uberwealthy.
It looks like things are about to work out for our cash-strapped heroes, as Toni Topaz curries sufficient goodwill from her amicable ex Cheryl Blossom, the last source of capital enduring in this fiscally arid region. She ponies up the money required, with gaps in the staff budget filled by Archie and the gang, only for Hiram to gain enough votes to shut the town down anyway. Their loss is supposed to land like a win, because they’ll continue to operate Riverdale High as a tuition-free private school exempt from the regulations that would’ve kept the severely under-qualified Archie from holding the position of teacher. But what manner of victory is this, with a school now entirely dependent on the largesse of one highly unstable woman, with a faculty of degree-less educators we’ve seen prove themselves dumbasses on many occasions in the past? The show’s notion of hope, in practice, shakes out to a dystopia of Republicanism.
Of course, it’s easy enough to put this in the back of our minds when Archie and Betty have latched mouths in a spirited effort to swallow each other’s uvulae. Their shower hookup, the show’s hottest sex scene to date in a walk, established a welcome dynamic of casual platonic attraction between two characters heretofore entangled in repetitive relationship dramatics. The chief benefit of the time-jump has been how it affords a reset. As Betty and Archie reason, plenty of heat can cool in seven years, so why even bother telling Jughead and Veronica, both of whom have their own things going on after over a half-decade of being split up from their respective pairings? In a change of pace from the weekly my-world-is-ending love games, everything feels more laid-back. And as some of us surely know, strings-free smashing can be a lot of fun, something this show can never have too much of.
While his best pal is busy absolutely going to town on his ex, Jughead pulls his act together and faces the same moral reckoning that every novelist strip-mining their own lives for material must eventually face. He gets some guff at the White Wyrm from the Serpents, who didn’t appreciate being lightly fictionalized and used to give Jughead’s work some authenticity and grit. He must consider the consequences of repurposing real strife for success in the world of fiction again when he realizes that capitalizing on the “tragic Americana” publishers are so hot for right now might be his only way to beat the sophomore slump. He doesn’t want to make Riverdale out to be some forlorn stretch of boondocks, but he also doesn’t want to lose his footing in the industry. All things said, treating “becoming J.D. Vance” like a fate akin to selling your soul is solid comedy.
He’s at a crossroads, just like the town he’s decided to call home for a little while. For Jughead and Riverdale itself, to resist the tempting narrative of despair will be the only route to salvation. Their other option is to let go and accept self-negation, and no one’s going down without a fight.
Oh, and Polly appears to have died. That would probably be a bigger deal if the show had gone to any effort to make us care about her prior to this hour. But sure, worth mentioning. Goodbye, Polly.
- “You can’t go home again” isn’t really so much an ‘old adage’ as it is just the title of Tom Wolfe’s posthumous 1940 novel, the phrase having been taken from a conversation he had with his contemporary Ella Winter. It’s kind of like calling “to kill a mockingbird” an ‘old adage.’
- Jughead’s whole Trust Exercise-type situation with the Serpents is also classic Gossip Girl, a direct retread of the arc that saw Dan inventing a stand-in for his friend Chuck Bass named ‘Charlie Trout.’ Jughead’s just as good at veiling his inspirations, having rebranded Sweet Pea as ‘Popeye’ and Fangs as ‘Toothy.’
- Good to see you again, Monica Posh! The blonde wig still fits, after all these years.
- Strong week for Kevin one-liners, seemingly taking over as the soundbite dispenser while Cheryl Blossom is morose, when she’s even present. Kevin’s been watching a lot of Succession, remarking that Toni Topaz’s stirring speech was even better than Kendall’s at the end of season two. We’re waiting for season three right with you, Kev. (Also delectable: his read of “Dammit, Miss Crouton!”)
- Reggie has a mullet. Don’t know how I missed that last week, but there it is. Business up front, party in the back, turncoat sellout all over.