Graphic: Jack Rowand (The CW)

I should probably start this review by saying up front that I am on a lot medication and recovering from surgery... so I am in the perfect headspace to enjoy a Riverdale episode that includes an extended prison break sequence, Veronica putting Hiram out of commission by stomping on his foot, and Cheryl doing a William Tell. I mean, just writing that sentence makes me happy!

Still, “The Great Escape” highlights all of the problems I’ve been having with Riverdale’s third season so far: There are fun, bonkers moments of the sort I’ve come to crave from Riverdale, but describing a given episode often feels more rewarding than actually watching it.

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In this case, the big action set piece, which cross-cuts between the G&G game Jughead is leading for the Serpents and the prison break Veronica is leading for Archie, is genuinely cool and fun. Betty rides the motorcycle wearing the helmet with the Jughead symbol! Reggie generally looks like a villainous doofus from an ’80s movie but also can really pull off his sunglasses! Veronica bluffs her way into the fight club by pretending to be the warden’s daughter or niece or something! Cole Sprouse dramatically says fantasy words!

The construction of this sequence is just aces. The editing is solid, using the G&G game primarily as a way of letting Jughead narrate the prison break and using the Serpents for emphasis. The direction of the moments of Betty leading the warden’s men on a desperate motorcycle chase through the woods, only for her pursuers to discover that her passenger is Kevin, successfully builds tension, even if you can see the fake out coming. There’s even a bunch of humor, largely coming from Kevin complaining about having to take a grate off a drain, which injects some levity into the otherwise somewhat bloody proceedings.

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Here’s the problem with these kinds of sequences, as best I can put it: I can easily imagine the writers saying something like “Oh damn, it would be sick as hell to have the teens do a prison break.” And it is! But the thrill of watching the characters do this stuff comes from the way we’ve invested in them, and continue to invest in them, even when—especially when—the things that they’re doing are just insane. Doing these kinds of nuts episodic centerpiece sequences, especially right after the big flashback episode, burns that accumulated fuel in ways I mostly didn’t mind last season (because the show is a fever dream and I expect it to be one at basically all times) but am starting to be lightly annoyed by this year. Sometimes you gotta recharge.

Maybe this is a long-winded way of saying I’m having a hard time getting invested in the overarching plots for the season. G&G continues to be delightful as a way of getting everyone to yell dramatically about paladins and hellhounds and stuff, but this season continues to tease us with the probably-not-really-supernatural nature of the villain, and with the exception of Shawshank Archie and that one appearance of Penny, it feels like it’s mostly given up on the Hiram And The Legion Of Doom setup from the end of the last season, or put it on a burner so far back I’m going to forget the Penny even existed. Last season was absolutely a Journey (if it was possible to capitalize a capital letter here, I would), but by the end of it I was pretty stoked to see the show continue to do zany capers... while continuing to explore the town’s class clashes.

At the very least, we get a capper to the warden’s time on the show with the reveal that he’s actually playing G&G and has failed in his mission to kill Archie (The Red Paladin), which is my favorite soapy storytelling bit in this episode. At first glance, all of his dialogue about “destiny” and whatever (by “whatever, I mean “literally branding Archie”) seems like standard villain boilerplate, but it works much better as the raving of someone involved in the game. Not only is this a good twist—or, at least, one I fell for—it also raises the stakes of the G&G plot in a way that repeating the same beats about the game turning teens crazy over and over just hasn’t done.

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The situation is kind of dire outside of the prison break. There are a few isolated moments that hint at a more consistently entertaining, smoother version of the the show—mostly courtesy of Veronica. When she tells Elio “I’m a Lodge, I know how this goes,” it feels like the first moment in ages I’ve understood what’s going on with her character this season. And when she tells Archie “curse your broad shoulders,” I almost fell out of my bed laughing. Camila Mendes is great in this role, when she gets the right material.

There are so many talented actors on Riverdale—or, at least, actors who are totally committed to and able to accomplish the project of being a Character On Riverdale—that it sometimes feels like the show doesn’t quite know what to do with any of them, even the main characters. Take Jughead’s mania about the game, which seems to be setting up for his role in the G&G plot. It’s a seeming cover for getting to meet the Gargoyle King through inside means. Or is it? Based on Jughead’s playing, and eventually glimpse of the Gargoyle King, it kind of seems like he’s being set up to get In Too Deep, though more in a David Fincher or Hannibal way than as a mere cultist. (Basically, it feels like the Betty plot with the Black Hood last year, but retooled for Jughead.) This is dumb on a character level since Jughead is also the show’s preeminent “rational” crime-solving boy, but Cole Sprouse does unhinged so well I’m maybe willing to let it slide depending on where it goes. (He should do Batman voice.)

Thankfully Marisol Nichols gets a great showcase this week, as Hermione blows up at Veronica and Hiram in the wake of the disastrous fight club-slash-escape. This is the best thing that’s happened with the Lodge family all season—it’s insane that Veronica is still living at home after everything Hiram has put her through, but Hermione yelling at both of them, and framing it as a weird squabble and mutual obsession with Archie, makes much more sense in Riverdale’s emotional universe than taking any of their feud literally would. Put another way: This is the kind of stuff that “grounds” the characters of Riverdale, and makes it easier for us to invest in the wacky hijinks they get into. Let’s hope the rest of the season has more of it!

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Stray observations:

  • Archie, still the dumbest person on this show, plans a prison break that consists of “run for the fence in the middle of the day.”
  • There’s some very slight material at the high school, but it seems like the bunker is slowly replacing the school as the main place the teens gather, which is... a choice.
  • Jughead’s rant about the meta-narrative of Riverdale and Gryphons & Gargoyles has convinced me that the real identity of the Gargoyle King should obviously be Roberto. I will not be taking questions at this time.
  • Episode MVP: Reggie, who gets to deliver the incredible line, “There’s no way my old man hung out and did like, cosplay with a group of lame-ass nerds.”
  • I may be somewhat heavily medicated, but I am definitely not LaToya. Thanks for letting me fill in, LaToya.

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