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

Riverdale’s weakest plot doesn’t get any better with more screen time

Luke Perry, KJ Apa
Luke Perry, KJ Apa

This week’s Riverdale episode steps away from the high school drama and the town murder mystery for a bit, focusing instead on the coming-of-age aspect of the story. For Veronica, that means learning her mother (and father, to a lesser extent) isn’t quite as perfect as she appears. For Betty, that means reconciling her mother’s genuine desire to protect her with her mother’s constant ability to project. It also means having to learn the difference between when she’s doing something for the right reasons and when she’s doing something because of her feelings for Archie. For Jughead, that means the end of an era, with his “home away from home” (literally) and one of the last pieces of Old Riverdale, the Twilight Drive-In, being closed down. For Kevin, that simply means finding “a nice gay kid” to date in Riverdale, which appears to be a futile effort so far.

Sadly, for Archie, that means his “relationship” with Ms. Grundy (well, “Jennifer Gibson”) has to come to a head. “Sadly” is a term that barely scratches the surface though, because in an episode that could work on so many levels—due in large part to this cast’s instant chemistry and just how much can be milked out of the Riverdale setting—its weakest plot takes center stage. And to make matters worse, the lack of true resolution in the Archie/Grundy storyline bogs everything down as writers circle around it, even more than usual. This is an episode of television where a character’s specific life lesson involves learning that her parents are working backdoor deals with small-town gang members who hiss at people who call them out at drive-in theaters… and yet the Archie/Grundy story is the focus.

A really frustrating part of it all is that Riverdale has arguably done really well in terms of telling this Archie/Grundy storyline, as the show’s subtly painted it as a predator situation without having the mustache twirling villainy on full display. Plus, KJ Apa and Sarah Habel don’t even have that much chemistry with each other either, though it’s questionable how intentional that part of it all is. For all the teen dramas in the world, it’s absolutely rare to see the situation depicted like this; in fact, the predatory aspect of it all tends to be mightily overlooked in these scenarios. But on a show where part of the appeal is how over-the-top it can be, that type of subtlety doesn’t really have a place here, especially as the actual buildup to the reveal of Grundy’s treachery is far better executed than the reveal and result. Surely there are plenty of episodes left for Archie to really unpack what’s been going on in his life with this woman—but the fact that he doesn’t even once consider at any point in this episode that he was taken advantage of is mighty troubling.

Keep in mind, “Chapter Four: The Last Picture Show” is almost Lifetime-esque in how it approaches the red flags in the Archie/Grundy dynamic. In fact, it’s to a point where you can barely argue that Riverdale is trying to say anything positive about Archie/Grundy, no matter how much Archie protests in defense of the coupling. Archie first defends the relationship by saying that Grundy “believed in [him] when no one else did,” which feels like a gross misinterpretation of the text when it comes to Archie and his 11-years-too-late, Ryan Cabrera style of music. He’s then afraid Betty will write an exposé on his situation with Grundy, like she did about Chuck Clayton, so he at least subconsciously understands the wrongdoing here. But even after some “simple Googling,” Archie still refuses to believe he’s in a bad situation, because he’s “with her” and “know[s] what [they] have.” Riverdale makes it absolutely clear that Archie can’t even describe his relationship with Grundy in terms other than the fact that they’re “with” each other, because all Archie knows that he’s “all she has right now.” So in case it’s still not clear enough that this is a bad situation, Archie also drops the ultimate Lifetime movie warning sign of a line to Betty: “If you’re really my friend, you’ll let this go.” Eventually Betty brings the realness when she tells Archie, “You’re in this relationship with this person who’s cutting you off from everyone else in your life.” The signs are all there.

But where Riverdale fails is in the eventual confrontation scene. Oh, how it botches the finish here. Because Alice Cooper is so gung-ho about destroying Archie—and unfortunately, Ms. Grundy is really only collateral damage in this situation—what should be a valiant slaying of the dragon ends up only being this Alice’s vendetta against this dumb, oversexed red-haired boy who reminds her of the dead, oversexed (with her daughter) red-haired boy. Last episode, Alice quipped about how “slut shaming” is when “sluts get shamed,” and her oversimplification in terms of blaming the victim rears its ugly head again here, at the worst possible time. So instead of Grundy getting put away for statutory rape—and an actual investigation into what her true backstory is—she simply gets to leave town, scot-free… as Alice somehow ends up becoming the bad guy in this situation. And once he realizes this is another ploy for Alice to tear down his son, Fred Andrews ends up sleepwalking his way through the bombshell about his teenage son and his teacher. Then there’s Betty’s undying love for Archie, which has her threatening to tell people she “snapped” and lied about Archie/Grundy, which is simply the worst act of defiance against your mom when there’s a statutory rapist in town.

This all leads to Grundy proclaiming she’ll skip town to avoid any drama, and in case there was still any question of whether or not Archie was a one-time student fling, her ogling more teenage boys before she leaves answers that one. Riverdale has been upfront so far about its darkness and how it’s not a happy-ending type of show, but the end of this storyline isn’t bad because it’s not a neat little ending. It’s bad because it’s most likely not an ending. If this is the last we see of Ms. Grundy, then that would honestly just make this a true waste of a storyline, even as it is a subversion of the teacher-student trope.


The good news is that Archie comics purists can rejoice: The real Ms. Grundy was neither CW-fied nor sexed up. She did die seven years ago, though the obituary does have her in the comic character’s signature polka dots.

And all of this is front and center in an episode of television where Skeet Ulrich plays a snake-worshipping gang leader in fricken Riverdale. That’s just poor decision-making. Riverdale does make up for it by having the introductory episode for the South Side Serpents also be Veronica Mars director Mark Piznarski’s first go at directing the show. (That makes this the first episode of the series not to be directed by Lee Toland Krieger.) But for a town that supposedly came across as completely wholesome prior to Jason Blossom’s death, the fact that there’s a thriving biker gang wreaking havoc comes across as somewhat unbelievable. But in a town like Riverdale, people have to get their drugs from somewhere, don’t they? And you can’t truly have a compelling neo-noir teen drama without a compelling criminal element.


However, what really makes this criminal element compelling in “Chapter Four” is how it affects multiple storylines. Like I mentioned last week, Archie/Grundy is so detached from the rest of the story that even the revelation that Grundy did an independent study with Jason last year turns into a dead end (for now, at least). Here, the South Side Serpents situation affects Hermione, Veronica, Jughead, and eventually, the town as a whole.

It’s in this storyline that we see a version of Hermione Lodge that’s not exactly the warm, put-together character we’ve seen in the first three episodes. Yes, she’s still very much put together, but warm is no longer part of the equation. So is this an inconsistency in the character or is this another instance of Riverdale pulling back the shadows? The way that Hermione first lies to Veronica about her interaction with the South Side Serpent (Ulrich) points to the latter. As does Hermione’s later interaction with Smithers, in which she discusses her plans (she can plot with the best of them, apparently) with him, makes a self-deprecating comment about being an “old crone,” then surprisingly snarks back at Smithers’ insistence that she’s not. It’s very much different from Alice Cooper, who has essentially been a cartoon villain in these episodes (and manages to amazingly use the phrase “the wheels of justice”) and shows signs of genuine humanity at the end of the episode when she tells Betty that she’s just trying to keep her safe. So is this the “real” Hermione Lodge?


What makes this even harder to swallow is that, while Betty and Veronica have been quickly achieving teen-girl BFF status from day one, it’s still been quite clear that Veronica’s true best friend is her mother. This changes things a bit, as Veronica looked to her mother as the moral compass of the family, and now that’s turning out not to be the case. Her father she claimed to stand with really is every bit the criminal people say he is, and her mother (and unbeknownst to her, Mayor McCoy) isn’t exactly above that type of trouble either. Hermione is understandably doing what she needs to do to keep her family afloat, but at the same time, this is a woman who’s been romanticizing this town to her daughter, only to try to rationalize her criminal husband’s plans to speed up the process of the death of Old Riverdale. It’s unfortunate, because with Fred’s laissez-faire attitude about the Archie/Grundy situation and Jughead’s dad being a gang leader, Hermione was the last line of defense in terms of “hero” parents. (Alice Cooper was never in the conversation.)

Meanwhile, the closing of the Twilight Drive-In is easily the most organic and original CW event of the week Riverdale’s had so far (and that The CW has possibly ever had), as Jughead’s passion for the place makes sense even before the reveal that he’s been living there. It reminds him of simpler, happier times with his family and his younger sister, Jellybean, and as a brooding artist, it’s the perfect oasis for him. (Though Kevin is 100 percent in the right when he stops Jughead from quoting Quentin Tarantino.) Jughead’s passion for this theater and what it means to Riverdale and life as he knows it is palpable—it’s the exact opposite of Archie and his music or his relationship with Grundy or whatever it is he truly claims to want in life. The same goes for Betty’s passion for the truth, even if it is mostly fueled by her feelings for Archie. And the same goes for Cheryl’s weird passion for her dead brother, honestly. These characters who feel fully realized so far are the heart and soul of Riverdale. Unfortunately, they’re all secondary here to a passionless tale of a predator and her victim. At least we can say good riddance to that storyline. For now, at least.


Stray observations

  • Riverdale roulette: Don’t let the fact that Kelly Osbourne was part of this ensemble deter you from checking out ABC’s one season teen drama Life As We Know It. It’s a more conventional teen drama than Riverdale, but the reason I’m suggesting it is because of the student-teacher relationship between Ben (Jon Foster) and Ms. Young (Marguerite Moreau). Ultimately, you have the teenage boy who “should” love this arrangement soon realizing what a problem it is and how unfulfilling his “relationship” with his teacher is. That’s followed by the other realization that a teacher who gets involved with a student can’t possibly be all that stable or mature in the first place. The send-off for Ms. Young is much more romanticized than Grundy’s is here, but it also comes with her acknowledgment of why what she did was wrong and how she’ll have to give up her teaching career because of it. Also: Moreau and Foster had some of the best chemistry I’ve ever seen in a teen drama, which is saying a lot.
  • This episode’s namesake, The Last Picture Show, is also the movie Dawson creepily watches and likens to his own life in Dawson’s Creek’s “The Longest Day,” the episode where he finds out about Pacey and Joey’s relationship.
  • My favorite early part of the episode is the shots of Sheriff Keller interrogating all the families. The Blossoms’ residence is full of cherry blossoms, I believe, which is a nice touch. But the best shot is the one of the Coopers, as Alice clearly dominates the conversation, leaving her daughter and husband to just stand around.
  • Jughead comparing Riverdale to “Salem during the Witch Trials”? Boo. Him calling Betty “our friendly neighborhood Hitchcock blond?” Yay. Also, “our friendly neighborhood Hitchcock blond” doing the end of the episode voice-over (in the form of her diary) is quite the welcome change.
  • Jughead: “As the godfather of indie cinema, Quentin Tarantino, likes to say—”
    Kevin: “Please, god. No more Quentin Tarantino references.” Thank you, Kevin. Thank you.
  • Hermione: “Cheryl, I went to school with your mother. She didn’t know the difference between having money and having class either.”
  • Veronica (to Cheryl): “Threatened much? Don’t worry: You might be a stock character from a ’90s teen movie, but I’m not.” Try as she might, Cheryl is certainly no Jodi Lyn O’Keefe or even Rose McGowan.
  • Betty (so pleased with herself for picking a lock with a bobby pin): “I learned that from the Nancy Drew Detective Handbook.” This is after she breaks into Grundy’s car, because Betty Cooper is a girl of many talents.
  • This may be Cheryl’s best episode yet, simply because of how she tries to be the shit stirrer with the picture of Hermione/Mr. Jones, only to later join the “outcasts” (who she clearly considers her friends now) Kevin and Veronica at the drive-in. Also, was she adding cherry schnapps to her and her lackeys’ drinks at Pop’s? That’s possibly the most high school thing to happen on this show so far.
  • Sheriff Keller not only accepts his son’s sexual orientation, but he’d also rather Kevin not just be the gay best friend and find a boyfriend of his own. This episode puts Kevin in better perspective, as his behavior makes more sense as he sees himself as the only good gay kid at his school, in his town, in his social circle. There’s Moose, but Moose doesn’t even know what he wants. Now there’s Joaquin, who is (presumably) out and into Kevin… but is also a South Side Serpent. (Though I’m definitely intrigued by this star-crossed lover situation.)
  • Also: Who broke into the Keller’s house and stole the murder wall?
  • Alice: “I thought the one thing that we could keep our Riverdale safe from was child predators.”
    Archie: “Ms. Grundy’s not a predator—she’s a good person.” And in that moment, Alice Cooper became the hero of this story. By the way, even if Grundy was actually abused by her ex-husband, that doesn’t excuse her taking comfort in Archie, especially if she’s as terrified of the man as she made Archie believe (which supposedly excused her constant moving and the gun in her car). In fact, that means she was putting this boy in danger, again for her own gain.
  • The backstory of Fred firing Mr. Jones for stealing on the job creates another parental relationship for Riverdale, though I’m surprised this supposed tough guy hasn’t tried to get back at Fred. Then again, he’s too busy being an awful father, leaving his son homeless, so nothing’s truly surprising. (Jellybean’s fate probably isn’t great, is it?)