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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A key party catalyzes break-ups and hook-ups on a libidinous Riverdale

Illustration for article titled A key party catalyzes break-ups and hook-ups on a libidinous Riverdale
Photo: The CW
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The key party spiked in popularity during the 70s as the free livers and lovers of the previous decade’s counterculture attempted to maintain their libertine streak even as they settled down in the suburbs. It caught on as a last chance to feel the thrilling abandon of the lusty good ol’ days, and it’s on those same terms that our horny, confused pals of Riverdale retake the long-smoldering torch. Cheryl Blossom announces it as such, and even though she may have contrived the event as an elaborate ruse to get herself alone with Toni Topaz for a ill-advised bid to reconcile, a handful of different characters share her desire to re-experience their carnal past — or the one they would’ve liked to have.

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The flirty soirée that serves as the centerpiece for “Lock and Key” straightens out the relationship dynamics for some and throws them into disorder for others, a catalyzing force in all cases. It’s a welcome shake-up after the relative inertia of the past couple weeks, proving that the rejiggered social terrain of the post-time-jump era can still consistently shift and evolve itself. It’s no coincidence that the party comes right at the halfway mark, an inflection point dividing the first part of the episode from the inverted second. Betty and Archie, for one, start the episode with a sweltering fireman roleplay and end it having parted ways from their casual setup. The sexy reckoning of the exchanged keys sends him Veronica’s way, and Betty’s freed up to devote more time to investigating the murderer her sister may have escaped. They’re both better off for it and so is the show, having forged a path through a plot juncture going nowhere.

The most upheaval comes to Kevin and Fangs, occupying more space in this hour than we’ve previously seen this season. We haven’t dug into the interiors of their relationship since jumping ahead to their mid-twenties, and they’ve seemingly got it all figured out — the boys have opened things up, so Fangs can get his rocks off while out on the road and Kevin can have the occasional romp with truck-stop patrons like Rick. It works for them, as suggested by the steam-room exchange that begins with “your lats are looking great, babe,” but there’s trouble in paradise. The news that they’re going to get married and raise Toni Topaz’s baby with her as a new-normal parenting triumvirate comes a bit too quickly, a hint that Kevin’s trying to fix a problem he can’t yet articulate. For him, the key game (and Rick’s surprise presence there, inviting a sex farce that never comes) triggers his realization that he’s not ready for the sudden rush into adulthood facing him.

Jughead is tumbling through his own plotline and, due to the recent uptick in his daily number of drinks, his own life. Plagued by visions of an otherworldly terror he just can’t shake, he’s trying to get some help with the alien encounter that might just be a Mysterious Skin-style repression tactic. More to the point, he’s headed for a link-up with Tabitha, tasked with carting him home and tending to him when he gets too wasted to partake in the key game. They get paired up, one of the more convenient matches in a game that ties itself up with undue tidiness, and it gives them a valuable push on the way to couplehood. But sectioning Jughead off from the other characters that complete this show’s delicate dramatic equation has weird side effects; Archie must now tap army buddy Eric for the bro-to-bro conversations he would’ve once shared with his burger-scarfing BFF, and the work-minded Betty has no romantic prospects whatsoever on the horizon.

The orbits of Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz intersect, their respective planets then drifting in opposite directions. The news that T.T. will raise her baby with Fangs and Kevin sends Cheryl Blossom into a furor, leading Toni Topaz to divulge her unnamed, convenient medical condition compelling her to have a baby while the having is good. But it’s not in the cards for them, Toni being far too sane for the ongoing high-Gothic soap at Thornhill. Cheryl then flings herself at Minerva, which, good for them? They both seem like pretty naturally melodramatic people, maybe it’ll be a good fit. At least everyone knows where they stand at this point, the futile pining having come to an end. Or maybe just the beginning of its end, but a significant step all the same.

It’s appropriate that this episode sees all the major characters convened in the old hangout room at school; the key party is one of those full-ensemble set pieces that clinched the best episodes of the pre-time-jump period, though there’s a satisfying bait-and-switch at play. The party itself doesn’t entail much sex or even sexiness, but the delayed payoff comes the next day as big plot developments ignite new fires. We move onward with great promise and a reconfigured relationship map, the romantic bedrock holding the show together while we try to be patient with the alien and highway killer subplots. Long live Archie and Veronica, the Ross and Rachel we actually want to see get together.

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Stray observations:

  • The disembodied voice of Katy Keene makes a cameo appearance this week, beckoning to us from the plane of nothingness she now inhabits post-cancelation. Her siren call lures unfortunate characters to the oblivion beyond the text, like the haunting choir of wails from the damned souls drifting through the river Styx.
  • Hot take: I do not care for Cheryl Blossom’s key party dress. Looks like a bunch of dang flaccid icicles hanging off her midsection.
  • Second hot take: weak sauce, teasing us with Reggie’s bisexuality only to backpedal his orientation into toe-dip experimentation that flames out with a single lip-lock.
  • The mechanics of a key party in Cheryl Blossom’s consent-oriented safe space seem confusing to me. She’s saying that, once coupled and given the okay, anything goes? Is this not true of all sex, all the time — that you’re allowed to do everything you’re allowed to do? The whole key party concept seems anathema to our current paradigms of wokeness and diverse sexualities, necessitating a group of ten to twelve people all interested in and compatible with one another. Luckily, this isn’t hard in a town so conspicuously stocked with hotties, as Chadwick notes.
  • Meme-destined quote of the week either comes from Veronica (“everyone’s a winner in a bull market,” she purrs, casting her glance Archie’s way) or Betty (“I don’t want my darkness to overtake you,” she says, with impossible earnestness).
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