“When I heard what happened at Nick’s party, I decided that we should come together...to deal with this motley crew of liars, dope fiends, and fornicators.”

In a normal show, “Chapter Nineteen: Death Proof” would be an episode about the complexities of justice. In a broken system, is there really justice? Does intent matter? Is justice possible when people set up injustices against you? Can any one person make deals for justice that affect many? What happens when trying to do good causes more trouble? How much can you compromise before you compromise yourself? Is it worth the cost?

Of course, Riverdale is not a normal show. It exists in a unique and charming quantum state where the agony of its characters is visible or not as High-Speed Plot Moments allow. (The Sugarman is introduced, discovered, and murdered in forty minutes, because despite Betty’s ongoing breakdown at the hands of the Black Hood, this episode has a more urgent mandate: “Challenge them to a street race.”)

Honestly, Riverdale is delightful in part because of how little it cares about its own problems. This show knows it’s absurd. (Look at Alice’s pull quote.) It sows Technicolor trauma and harvests it as necessary. In the meantime, we get phone calls with a serial killer, an enthusiastic amateur drug sting, a drag race for gang territory as the Serpent Prince earns his colors, and two slow-motion arrest scenes!

And honestly, fine. We accept—even welcome—quite a bit of absurdity if it means a Great Moment. What makes or breaks the show in the long term is how well it’s able to carry genuine character beats amid the rest.

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The best barometer for this is usually Cheryl, who exists in an upstate Gothic where her mother delivers lines like “And God help me, so began the terrible series of events that led to Jason’s death!” in all seriousness. It’s a place that only occasionally brushes up against Riverdale proper, no matter how many high school hallways Cheryl glowers through or Serpent drag races she signals. Despite the camp, she’s genuinely a tragic figure; only Jughead comes close to what she suffered in the first season. But bringing her into Riverdale’s A-plots is always a trick.

We get it here. She tearfully confronts her mother about not protecting her, before her mother’s defensiveness melts into an admission—a beat in the ongoing saga of parents vs. children that Riverdale does very well, when it remembers to. And when Cheryl has to confront Nick, it’s heartbreakingly grounded; she stands up, trembling, because she can’t bear being beneath him as Nick crowds her. And her anger isn’t the anger of the over-the-top maiden in white who burned down the family seat to prove a point. It’s the anger of a terrified young woman who’s hit her limit with an everyday rapist. For a show deeply interested in the way generational trauma affects young people, Riverdale sometimes forgets its teens are just teens; moments like this are necessary, and effective.

It’s even better when the campy and the earnest intersect. (Partially this is because it makes the most of the actors, many of whom occupy slightly different shows within that quantum Riverdale otherwise; partially, it’s just good for the storytelling.) That rapist is certainly very bad, but we know this subplot’s a guest stint; nothing Hiram can’t fix. The moment only gets heavy after Veronica receives the news with Chesire satisfaction. The hints of Veronica’s guilt-free darkness against Betty’s moral agony feel like they’re building to something really interesting.

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Then again, we’ve thought that before. Like last episode, when Archie—on an awkward breakup-proxy errand and enraged to see Jughead joining the gang Archie had made his enemy—threw out the most hurtful litany of blame and dismissal he could muster and stormed off. Given that he’d warned Betty how hard it could be to walk things back with someone as sensitive as Jughead, it seemed like we were settling in for a protracted, painful rift in the Three Musketeers.

Nope. Archie’s almost immediately sending texts and expecting Jughead to respond—and though Jughead manages a snappish “Betty ask you to throw some salt in the wound?”, he almost immediately takes Archie back.

There are probably meant to be some parallels here with Betty mending things with Veronica. However, Betty apologizes without expectation of forgiveness, and she and Veronica have been friends for...however long part of a school year is in Riverdale, where time has no meaning. Archie and Jughead have been friends since childhood, and Archie drew on the depth of all those years to punish Jughead, because Archie was angry. That should take one hell of an apology to start mending.

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What Jughead gets: “I’m sorry about what happened, and how it happened.” Is that an actual apology? It is not. Is this show determined to get both of them in a roadster no matter what it has to barrel past? It is. Does this plot quietly harvest Jughead’s bottomless fear of loneliness to hint that he takes Archie back out of a painful need to maintain the friendship? It does. And is this the end of their troubles? Well, Archie secretly calls the cops on the race and then forces Jughead to lose with his new school and his trailer park on the line, putting him in even hotter water with both the Serpents and the Ghoulies, so, you tell me! I’d like to think we’re in for more rough waters, but at this point I wouldn’t bet on it.

Sure, some of this is just Riverdale rushing to next big danger. But last episode was meant to emotionally devastate Jughead, and at first, we do get a sense that there will be lasting problems here. When Betty’s fixing up Reggie’s muscle car for him, Jughead can hardly bring himself to look at her, and their stilted conversation overflows with hurt; he’s in agony, and that feels about right. The show’s been laying Serpent Prince stuff on pretty hard, and one imagines that’s for a reason—seemingly, this break would push him deeper into the arms of the Serpents.

But there’s no aspect of Jughead’s plot here that’s actually a result of that terrible break: his relationship with Toni doesn’t suffer even a blip, he makes the same choices about the Ghoulies he’d always have made, and Archie could have called the cops without being invited into the passenger’s seat first. Jughead and Betty even reconcile—offscreen—after the race. (I guess Polly’s safe house is airtight?) Betty sobbed through last episode because losing him was so wretched, and Jughead gave up the last of his self-preservation as soon as she was gone. It was the delicious agony a teen show thrives on. It’s not that I believe Jughead wouldn’t take her back right away (of course he would). It’s that for once, an artificial reason for staying apart actually made sense; not wanting the town’s serial killer to target your boyfriend is a rock-solid excuse. Wrapping it so fast means that Bughead’s back on track, but it seems like a disservice to waste so much angst potential. Why not make them yearn a little first?

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Still, no time to worry about it—this is Riverdale. Sure, Archie’s now betrayed Jughead to the bone twice, and Jughead’s reconciliation with Betty was so fraught they skipped it wholesale. But while we were worrying about that, the Sugarman came and went, Betty turned the tables on the Black Hood, Fred’s in the early stages of Prime-Time Plot Disease, and Veronica signaled to her father that she’s absolutely cool with a little murder. This whole show is a street race; the ridiculous will outpace the real at every bridge, and there’s only room for one car going into Dead Man’s Curve.


Stray observations

  • This show’s putting its teens through such a wringer that when anyone actually acts like regular teens having a regular time—say, Reggie and Josie sophomorically hate-flirting during community service—it feels weirdly subversive. Nearly every other teen picking up trash at that park is in various stages of murdering and/or being murdered! Josie and Reggie: Portraits of Courage.
  • Jughead and Toni’s debrief is the most baldly meta conversation this show’s had in a while. The action? “PG-13 grope session.” Toni’s verdict? Jughead’s not over Betty, she never likes being someone’s rebound (interesting one-two combination of reasons), and the immortal TV-bad-girl refrain, “I’m more into girls anyways.”
  • Toni’s also maybe been spending her nights curled around the rattlesnake case in the Whyte Wyrm for warmth, but I guess we’ll get to that later? (I hope Jughead makes good on his offer of a crash pad.)
  • Betty’s Graveyard View Promenade phone call is only slightly less intense than her Bus Stop to Nowhere bench. I hope her next threatening phone call takes place beside a statue of Justice, crumbling and abandoned in the woods. (RIP, horrifying “Lollipop” ringtone.)
  • The twelve-person standoff in a living room must have been a bear to shoot, but dammit, they made sure everybody got coverage.
  • “Oh my god, you have a dealer?!” Reggie’s mom is new to the show.
  • So many people this season have had to say “Jingle Jangle” with intensity, but never more so than Cole Sprouse here. (Then they made him say “Sweet dreams, Sugarman,” which will teach you to do too well with this sort of thing.)
  • Earlier, Alice’s Serpent heritage was a bombshell reveal. This episode, Hiram casually calls her ‘Acid Queen Alice’ as everyone else nods at the well-known story of the Southsider made good. So why did the Black Hood think the article about a well-known piece of town history would discredit Alice in the first place? Half the point of Riverdale is that everybody is knee-deep in everybody else’s business.
  • Fred cares enough about Jughead to ask Archie about him twice, but not enough to actually contact him. (Nice nod to FP, though; this is generational-trauma gold.)
  • I know Alice is precisely as mean or awesome as immediate circumstances dictate (and Amick does very well with a role that’s a series of hairpin turns), but why has no one called her on her antipathy towards the side of town she came from? Are they waiting for FP to come back and do it? That’s too long a wait.
  • FP’s appearance is accompanied by the sound of a jailhouse door slamming closed. Watch it twice; it’s worth it.
  • Will there be repercussions for Cheryl horning in on Serpent mascot territory in a jacket she clearly bought new for the occasion? God, I hope so. I hope Sweet Pea tries it and gets obliterated. (After that they’ll be best friends; remember how Cheryl got Kevin to be her lab partner/drug buddy by snitching about him cruising in the woods?)
  • Thanks to LaToya for letting me drop in! I’ve missed bonkers teen dramas; their agony comforts me.

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