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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Riverdale returns to form (and high school) as the gang bones up for the SATs

Illustration for article titled iRiverdale /ireturns to form (and high school) as the gang bones up for the SATs
Photo: The CW
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The trouble with shows like Riverdale, which survive by continuously raising their stakes, is that the writers can’t keep raising them forever. Eventually, American Horror Story Syndrome starts to take effect, and the creative team must fling every provocation at the wall in increasingly desperate hopes that one may stick. At that point, all objectives aside from dogged pursuit of shock value (or, in this instance, the adrenaline rush of danger) fall away and the series in question will start moving in circles, or worse, spin out completely.

The flip side of this issue is that once a show has raised its stakes, it’s difficult to shrink them back down without coming off as slight or inconsequential. My knowledge of anime is limited, but even in my younger years, I was always put off by the “filler” episodes designed to tread water in between major story arcs. Last week was all demons and near-death experiences and threats of the apocalypse, and now I’m supposed to care whether the lunch place the characters have decided to visit runs out of rice balls? It always feels a bit ridiculous when the end of the world has to take a back seat to conflict in the “nuisance-to-annoyance” class.


Luckily, Riverdale thrives on ridiculousness. Ridiculousness is like Gatorade for this show; it replenishes the narrative electrolytes. So when “The Stranger” turns on a dime from talking organized crime and undercover infiltration operations to the impending doom of [checks notes] the SATs, the segue may be liable to give delicate viewers whiplash. But swallowing the sudden return to basics that I pled for in last week’s coverage requires no more suspension of disbelief than anything else in this internally-lawless universe. The destination matters more than the journey, in part because there’s no journey. Much in the same way Jughead and F.P. materialized within Riverdale despite a blockade ending the previous episode, things just kind of reset themselves. Best not to look the gift horse of the ensemble having another soft-beverage powwow at Pop’s in its mouth.

That’s right, Archie has rolled back into town sporting “dark hair and scars, both inside and out,” as the most groanworthy tidbit of Jughead voiceover goes. He’s a changed man, which we know because he likes root beer now and because he says, “I survived a bear attack, dad. I can’t live my life in fear of when [Hiram] might come after me anymore.” Perhaps the writers have heard the constant cries of anguish over Archie’s person-defining idiocy and now hope to re-cast him in the mold of a moody brooder. He carries some phantoms of trauma with him back to Riverdale, and though he might have survived prison, it’s all too easy to fall back into the grim routine of pulverizing punching bags and slugging whiskey in the daylight hours.

Wiser still, the show has begun angling to reframe Archie’s bone-deep dumbness as a feature of his character, rather than a flaw. What if, they suggest, Archie was always doing dim-witted things not because he’s poorly written, but because he had an actual learning disability? In passing, Betty mentions that Archie had trouble reading into the second grade. It’s a pretty smart way out of being not-smart, and creates substantive drama within his increasingly unlikely goal graduating on time with his friends. “I want to be a normal student,” he says. Normalcy keeps slipping farther from his grasp, and estrangement from the academic day-to-day his friends haven’t lost track of marks a reasonable way to represent that much.

Towards the same ends, with twice the forced artifice: the rumbling Archie-Veronica-Reggie love triangle. At first, things resolve themselves almost too cleanly as Veronica freezes Reggie out and, with a sultry rendition of Basque band Mocedades’ 1973 hit “Eres Tú,” jumps back into Archie’s embrace (...among other things; nothing quite like a reunited-and-it-feels-so-good hookup approximately ninety seconds after seeing your significant other again). Things get good when the dueling alpha males lock horns sans shirts, Reggie bellowing, “I’m talking about how you stormed out of the speak-easy like a little bitch, Andrews!” They come to an understanding after Reggie discovers Archie “was attacked by a friggin’ bear,” but Veronica’s heart won’t be decided so easily.


Regrettably, the lovey-dovey stuff doesn’t extend to Betty and Jughead, who share the most pleasurable rapport on the show but remain stuck in their respective genre-specific endeavors. Jughead’s getting to the bottom of the Gargoyle King’s identity, or so he thinks, while Betty has once again been inconvenienced by the Farm and her mother’s devotion to it. Each storyline delivers its fair share of humor (“Party like your life depends on it”) and camp flair (Betty’s dad has been remanded to some Hannibal Lecteresque digs). Still, the primary purpose of these passages remains to keep the show connected the one foot it has planted in the lurid.

Striking a balance between the sensational and the school-corridor banality will always be Riverdale’s greatest challenge, and “The Stranger” evens the scales with a deft hand. Everyone’s back where they belong, and while storm clouds continue to gather over Hiram’s criminal enterprise and Veronica’s love life, conditions are clearing on the whole. So what if Archie sweating over multiple-choice testing might not make for the grabbiest trailer? Tension, panic, insecurity — that’s good television, on any scale.


Stray observations:

- Reggie’s seen cruising for a new girlfriend on Bumble, which raises a lot of questions. Do actual teenagers in high school use Bumble? I suppose they’d have to, or else why would Bumble bother with what I’m sure was not a cheap product-placement buy? But that doesn’t explain what teenagers are doing on dating apps in the first place. I was under the impression that Tinder and the like were all 18+, and besides, what would a teen even need Bumble for? You’re in high school, a gigantic room-temperature, Band-Aid-strewn pool of potential partners! I’m only twenty-five years old, but as far as this show is concerned, I might as well be one hundred.


- There’s nothing this show can’t retcon, and that includes a symbolic dye job. Pleased to have you back, rightful ginger Archie.

- The name-drop of The Revenant makes me wonder if the writers ever kicked around fond remembrances of the Leo-bear-sex non-controversy that swirled around that year’s Oscar cycle, as I often do.


- You gotta love the unabashed Scooby-Doo-ness of the gargoyle unmasking. I half expected Tallboy to yell that he would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

- As a young woman, Penelope Blossom did write the odd letter to Jeffrey Dahmer.

Spoiler time!

- This episode rates an A-, but Skeet Ulrich in town-sheriff gear winking to the camera is A+ stuff.


- When I took the AP Psychology exam in high school, one guy in our class up and walked out of the room after twenty-or-so minutes. After I had finished up, my friend and I went downtown to get lunch and saw that same guy fishbowling his parked car outside the CVS. Long story short, he just got engaged to be married and has what seems to be a lucrative trade-based career, so by no means does bailing on the SATs spell ruin for Archie’s future.

- This isn’t just a Riverdale issue, but across the whole of fiction, I’m getting real tired of that thing where a man pushes away the woman he loves for her own good. There’s nothing compelling about watching a serious-face yell at his weeping girlfriend to get outta here like it’s Harry and the dang Hendersons. Serves Archie right that Veronica’s going to shack up with Reggie.


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