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Riverdale busts out the classic "long lost sibling" soap trope in a downbeat hour

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We don’t really know who Betty Cooper is, but to be fair, neither do the people writing Riverdale. Consistent characterization goes against the freely revisory ethos that allows Archie and Co. to slip into different playacted roles each week; in “Witness For the Prosecution,” for instance, Archie dons the balaclava of a vigilante crimefighter while Veronica tries on the gasps and suggestive stares of a daytime soap grande dame. Betty has benefited from that elasticity of the soul more than any other character, starting with the kinda-sorta-abandoned alter ego Dark Betty. There was a time when she seemed to really have a second personality, overtaken by a fugue state whenever she popped on the bob wig and felt dangerously sexy. The penumbra of her profile has grown more amorphous since then, sometimes manifesting as a wild glint in her eye and previously assigned a biological basis with the identification of MAOA and CDH13 (the so-called “serial killer gene”) in her DNA.

This hour returns to the whole Betty-as-Dexter conceit as she takes her first junior FBI training class, which turns out to be a real thing after all. She has a sort of spider-sense for psychopaths, able to perceive a kindred demon inside them merely by giving them a stare shot in hilariously tight close-up. Director Harry Jierjian and episode writer Devon Turner conceive of clever, humorous ways to visually represent Betty’s deteriorating mental state, best among them the bad-cop interrogation that puts her face-to-face with the parts of herself that excite and frighten her. She un-represses the memory of mercy-killing her cat Caramel at the behest of her nefarious father, shoved so far down because she didn’t feel the way she felt she was supposed to feel. She didn’t recoil in horror. She didn’t feel anything. Deep down, she might’ve found something pleasingly novel about taking a life for the very first time.

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Though her newfound passion for the FBI returns the show to its off-putting fetishization of authority organizations (written about deftly by my pal and A.V. Club regular Eric Thurm here), Betty’s latest endeavor paves the way for fun and games in classic Riverdale fashion. She gets to kibitz with Kevin, who’s needed something to do and occasions the one-liner, “Maybe you’ll meet a cute, gay FBI-agent-in-training.” (Come to think of it, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s thing for men in uniform might not be so much an ideological stance as it is, er, a thing for men in uniform.) Best of all, Betty’s suspicions about Charles sharing in her grim impulses leads to a stakeout that involves tucking her hair into a baseball cap. Whichever writer’s Mindhunter binge brought us here, may it never end.

Archie’s going in circles over at the gym, still dealing with the ongoing threat of the local gang kingpin, and still proceeding as if the only solution is committing himself to more social programs. He wanted to keep kids off the streets, so he started a community center, but when that didn’t work, he just doubled down. Announcing that the already underfunded, understaffed gym will now operate for longer hours and run a new Big Brother, Big Sister initiative does not sound like a winning strategy. But the real loser here is me, as the guy who’s forgotten the rules of Hot Archie Who Fucks and put too much thought into this. Best to just lie back and think of England, and await the eventual juncture at which Archie’s had enough and goes all Death Wish all over everyone’s asses.

Veronica’s really come into her own as the legal battle with her parents has thickened on both fronts, the familial squabbles and sudden revelation of a sibling ex machina driving home the Days of Our Lives vibe. The arrival of Hermosa (portrayed by Vida star Mishel Prada) throws an unpredictable new variable into the mix, an anti-Veronica currently in cahoots with Hiram but undoubtedly working both sides against the middle with ulterior motives of her own. Of course, the soap opera holy grail would be a long-lost twin or, better yet, a clone. But until they get the CGI budget to whip up a second Camila Mendes, this will do. Even if Hiram’s possibly-all-talk bid for the Mayor’s seat seems like deja vu, the Lodges are at their best when they’re at war with one another, and the new combatant will provide a welcome shake-up.

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That leaves Jughead, soldiering on in the unfriendly territory of Stonewall Prep. His rivalry wth Brett continues, the final measure of supremacy between them a writing contest to decide who will inherit the ghostwriting mantle of a popular paperback series. Simply spending time in the milieu of literary fiction proves more fun than Jughead’s inner journey to rediscover his roots and his sense of purpose. (Even if it may have spoken to me in specific — see below.) It all reeks of adult Harry Potter fandom, from the low-stakes drama of rival schoolmates to the narrative arc of a chosen one coming to grips with the destiny in his bloodline. Next week’s competition, to craft the “perfect murder,” will give Aguirre-Sacasa ample space to pay homage to Rope, the sublimated-homoerotic genre exercise of his dreams. That alone will be sufficient cause to tun in for another week.

Though keeping the audience hooked doesn’t usually feel like a present concern for this show, which mostly does its own thing and banks that we’ll be into it, too. Which is what makes the flash-forwards that begin or end most episodes play as a cheap ploy to maintain viewer interest in the least boring show of all time. Especially considering that Betty obviously didn’t kill Jughead, that this is either a frame job or a misunderstanding, and that we’re all being hoodwinked into believing otherwise. The snippets from the future have turned into a quick and easy way to give the final moment of an episode some extra cliffhanging oomph when the hour’s story doesn’t have enough drama of its own. But this one does. After four years, we’re perfectly capable of getting just as invested in a student creative writing seminar as in a murder.

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Stray observations:

  • Ever since the Riley Keough stunt casting announcement, I’ve suspected that this show was being made specifically for me, but this is just getting ridiculous. My grandfather also wrote pulp fiction paperbacks under a pseudonym — there he is, Bram Norton, right next to Harlan freakin’ Ellison — and though I never knew him, I’ve always felt like I inherited some inbred ability as a writer even though my father never made a profession out of it. I dedicated my book to him, as the thought that this all might be in my blood provided me with a surprising degree of reassurance when I felt like I couldn’t finish it. Seeing Jughead go through the exact same process of realization that I’d gone through, one that felt remarkably personal at the time, hit me like a sucker punch of empathy.
  • Some dynamite fake proper nouns this week, from chapter-book sleuths the Baxter Boys and Tracy True (the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) to the high-price “Tucci” handbag.
  • Because everything on this show is a reference to something, I reserve the right to interpret the design of Archie’s mask as a nod to Danger: Diabolik, the Mario Bava-directed crime classic soon to be remade with Martin Eden star Luca Marinelli — who, as I have previously mentioned, is a dead ringer for Riverdale’s own Rob Raco. It’s all connected! Pepe Silvia! Pepe Silvia!
  • Ah yes, Sketch Alley, so named because it is an alley that is sketchy. Where do they get this stuff?
  • When Archie depends his voice to disguise his identity while masked, you can hear a bit of the Down Undah accent creeping out. It’d be lots of fun if this show contrived a circumstance in which Archie had to pretend to be Australian, the joke being either that he can’t do it right, or that he’s instantly perfect and blows everyone away. Not to tell you how to do your jobs, Riverdale writers I know read these every week.
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