“Why weren’t you a part of this?”
“Because I was playing basketball.”
Every so often, some of the dozen spinning plates on Riverdale wobble, and the show has to deal with Archie.
This is nothing against KJ Apa; if anything, he brings enough humanity to Archie’s wildly vacillating characterization that we feel for Archie more often than we really should. (He’s the “oh, buddy” of people, with varying inflections depending on how bad things are.)
But of the core teens and their troubles (Betty’s intense and increasingly futile family management, Veronica’s intense and increasingly compromising family business, Jughead’s intense and increasingly snake-metaphor-filled Southside dealings), Archie’s had the most trouble with the show’s stakes. Everyone else has accepted a base level of misery at this point. But he, more than any of them, wants to Be a Teen, and can’t understand why he never had a chance.
It’s a bizarre but fascinating process to watch a show routinely try to reset one of the stars to teen-show stakes. Last episode Archie wanted to take up the guitar and ended up a federal snitch pumping two experienced shitheads for information; he wasn’t nearly as bad at it as he should have been, but you can see the toll it’s taking. Archie wants to forget about informant stuff and serial killers and just play music again! Archie truly believes basketball should be a regular activity rather than an excuse you give your FBI (?) handler when you weren’t on the Pickens Day Planning Committee to get dirt on Hiram Lodge. And what can comfort him? Trying out for wrestling like regular teens do? Riverdale has so overclocked its teen trappings that Archie’s attempts at Youth Things feel like the moment in a war movie when somebody doomed talks about his girl back home.
The first season of Riverdale balanced its more surreal elements with a few old-fashioned teen shenanigans. Watching Archie channel his frustration into wrestling would be baseline for many teen shows; even here, we can see what they’re going for. But the subplot struggles under his pressure to play informant (to a man Archie seems to believe is a fed purely because of the X-Files lighting). And it doesn’t help when Hiram Lodge shows up to aggressively wrestle specific underage kids in a display of dominance.
This is, honestly, an unavoidable challenge for most teen shows. Not the wrestling; the adults.
Every teen show that features adults is trying to tell stories about legacy: generational violence, lost opportunities, the chance to make amends, the chance to do better. Many times, a show starts out trying to balance those narratives, only to sideline the adults after the teens have done enough things in canon to be caught in their own cycles of regret and reparations. Though these teens are already knee-deep in that, Riverdale has avoided Invisible Parents Syndrome, because the parental legacy is such an integral part of its overarching story that there’s a tighter knot between past and present. When it lands, it’s one of the series’ most effective themes.
When it doesn’t work—like most of this episode—it’s adults passing terrible decisions around. Fred Andrews, who once successfully hired Serpents as a crew, thinks asking Serpents to work security against their neighbors during a gentrification party on land that used to be theirs is the same thing. Hermione Lodge, who gently prostituted her daughter for a business deal, is one slo-mo reptilian blink away from declaring war on Mayor McCoy, who’s bothered by the Lodges but not enough to stop working for them (or notice Josie on the verge of a breakdown). The Coopers are in especially fine form; Alice’s hospitality to Chic has the forced banality of an antidepressant commercial, and Hal deals with his guilt about Chic via resentful one-liners, each worse than the last. (“You’re filling a void” might be the winner, if only for that fantasy-fulfillment innuendo he doesn’t even know he’s making yet.) FP Jones lucked out with double shifts at Pop’s; for once, he’s the best parent simply by not being available to screw anything up.
But this week, no other bad parent can touch Hiram Lodge, whose intensity about Veronica feels like an SNL sketch about a creepily overinvested father. He humiliates a high schooler to remind him who has first claim to Veronica’s respect; he barges into Veronica’s room to insinuate that Archie’s not man enough to worry him. Over breakfast (after beating him at jogging, of course), he tells Archie, “Boyfriends, they come and they go, but fathers...fathers are forever.” Even Archie’s worried by that. And that’s before Hiram explains his deepest issue with Archie: “Your father slept with another man’s wife, and why shouldn’t I assume you have the same weak character?” Did you know this is a show concerned about the sins of the past visited on the young people?
This is almost fun in the moment; Apa plays Archie so earnestly out of his depth, and Mark Consuelos plays Hiram so hissingly intense, that we can appreciate the soap-bubble sheen. But to what purpose? Not like this is a surprise; Hiram’s always been overprotective of/threatening to Veronica. And even the hints of the past in his overcompensating alumni swagger aren’t anything beyond what we learned at the celebration at Pop’s. Was the show worried we didn’t have enough reason to dislike him, and needed Archie in the crosshairs? Because this subplot gives us almost nothing new in the process; it’s just a forty-minute psychological quagmire in a season that was already above quota. We didn’t need this.
Something else nobody needed from Riverdale: attempts to be relevant to The Kids Today and Their Dislike of Racist Colonialist Monuments. It’s a worthy topic! But probably not here. The whole aesthetic hook of the show is “1957 but slightly less racist, with laptops”; if you’re aiming for semi-timeless, you’re restricted as regards the spheres of nonsense allowed you, unless you’re willing to do some social-context work. And as this is a show that’s spent a season lingering on a class divide it’s barely examined, this subplot’s probably not going to go great.
As satisfying as it might be to watch Toni tell Jughead “this wasn’t your story to tell,” that’s pretty much the only thing that lands the way they probably intended. In particular, it seems rich for the show to take note that the “Uktena”people aren’t “some prop for your insane vendetta” when Thomas Topaz’s history is scored with Tinkly Sadmusic (and focused on Jughead’s reaction), and the protest against SoDale is such an afterthought that we cut away before we see how it even ends. Did they leave? Were they escorted out? Were the Northsiders we know discomfited more by the protest or by Hiram?
In the absence of any real resolution to the protest, the polite applause that greets Hiram’s word salad about the Engaged Youth of the Melting Pot of Today Here in SoDale serves as our only hint about where this plot is going. Maybe this is the show’s nihilist streak! Maybe we don’t see much reaction to the protest because Riverdale believes that protest in a broken system is futile. Maybe Riverdale is a brutally honest reflection of the country’s overall attitude to indigenous land claims. Maybe the reason the show is having trouble with Hiram is because Riverdale’s antipathy for the Southside is so ubiquitous that Hiram sounds no worse than everybody else. Any of this is interesting enough to explore. We could have dropped quite a bit of wrestling to make room.
And Pickens Day feels like it really could have been important and not just an Obligatory CW Party. Riverdale is hit-or-miss about its legacy plots, but it’s genuinely interested in them. That strain is the source of a lot of this show’s weight, and an equal source of its ridiculousness. In Riverdale, it’s horrifyingly inevitable that you end up caught in the same problems your parents had, one way or another. And throughout the Pickens Day Festival, we see this play out in groups of parents and children who talk to other parents and children, with one generation or the other going quiet. It’s an uncanny rhythm, as if the silent half are bearing witness to resentments of the past as they propel the mistakes of tomorrow. If the show wanted to dovetail the protest into the idea of overdue reckonings, this was the time. No? More wrestling tryouts? Oh, buddy.
The episode offers plenty of additional closing implications about the damage this town is inflicting on the next generation—Hal contemplating some third-cousin-in-law congress with Penelope, Betty beginning her “dark education” with Chic at her side. But even here, there’s more Hiram sitting Archie down for another sinister discussion about how he intends to direct his daughter’s love life by proxy, while an FBI agent (?) waits for the teen snitch he recruited to pick up his phone already, like Riverdale’s shark hasn’t already moved in for the kill.
Are we supposed to think Archie was talked into decapitating the statue of Pickens? Are we supposed to think Archie believes, even for a moment, that Hiram intends to do anything but use him? Are we supposed to think Archie’s ditching his contact because he didn’t answer the phone while he was in conversation with the mark? And honestly, does it matter? He’s screwing up with the best of intentions; it’s exactly what Fred Andrews would do, and that’s probably the point.
- Riverdale Roulette: Fill in Jughead’s unseen oral report with Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure; chase with Clueless (debate scenes only).
- A show whose narrator terms the vandalism of a mass murderer’s memorial “a horrible act of desecration” is probably not ready to tackle the consequences of Hiram framing Southsiders for the crime.
- Jughead, Snowpiercer enthusiast, isn’t aware the “settling” of America involved the genocide of Native American nations? (Though he also seems freshly appalled every time people profile along class lines, so.)
- Cheryl: Not a character now so much as a collection of gifs who pendulums back and forth between victim and supervillain. This episode, she joins the protest (#notallblossoms). Gothic-heroine Cheryl is the best Cheryl; this bitch-with-soft-underbelly Cheryl is the second-best. If either of them lasted more than thirty seconds at a time we might have something to go on.
- Kevin: Useful enough to know Chic from the Sex Internet and recognize how weird it is that Veronica co-opted the Pussycats, not useful enough to be allowed to finish a conversation.
- Chic: Wasn’t nearly upset enough that his worldly possessions got sold out from under him. I...don’t even know where to start with the rest.
- Riverdale has just accepted that, given how fundamentally untrustworthy the adults are, the high school newspaper is the most reliable source of journalism.
- Hal is terrible, but “I went on your computer and I saw what you were doing online!” might be the most Dad Thing ever uttered on this show.
- Why is Veronica singing more than Josie? Is Josie not even allowed her own item numbers anymore?
- Never has a table been so vividly punctuated by orange juice as that Cooper breakfast.
- Hiram looks at ringing phones the same way I look at ringing phones.
- Thanks to LaToya for letting me step in on an episode brave enough to ask, “Who are all the people in the bleachers with enough spare time to show up to a high school wrestling tryout?”