Maybe we should feel betrayed. Last week, Riverdale went to great lengths to convince us that Jughead was morally, ethically, physically, spiritually, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead. The scene at the morgue was supposed to be an emotional K.O. for us — they used “Kettering,” lest we forget, there’s no unmaking that choice — conveying the full impact of one boy’s loss on his family and friends. Despite what we know about the laws of physics that govern TV universes, it really seemed like the writers wanted us to believe Jughead was gone for good, a patent impossibility considering the show’s careful formula for success. At this point, viewers know that it’s best to just play along and let whatever will happen, happen. We enter into a compact with a soap opera as viewers, agreeing to accept whatever harebrained contrivances of plot they come up with in exchange for the fun of being along for the ride. It’s all a ruse, we know that, the only questions being what and how and why. Then, Archie and Betty share a kiss.
It is at this juncture that even the most credulous, gullible, oblivious viewer realizes that something’s up. This show would never tamper with the Archie/Veronica vs. Jughead/Betty dynamic that’s gotten it so far; that would be like cutting Felicity’s hair all over again, times approximately one million. This aberrant behavior betrays the game, that the kids are putting someone on, but who and to what end? Even as the fakery starts to show its seams, it leaves so much unanswered when there’s still so much to answer for. Even the eventual revelation that Jughead isn’t dead, that of course it’s all been a ruse, still leaves the hottest-burning question up in the air: why bother doing any of this in the first place? Why go to such pains to fake a kid’s death when you could just... not?
This hour opens with an epigram from crime fiction junkie Jughead himself, declaring that “Life’s not an Agatha Christie novel, it’s a lot messier.” Judging by the preview for next week’s episode featuring Jughead going into a full Poirot-style dissection of the sordid case, that belief won’t stop the writers from trying to turn his life into one. But a different reference jumped out from “To Die For,” one pertaining to the Sherlock Holmes story “The Final Problem.” Jughead has a passage from one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most revered compositions read at his funeral, the bit that describes the great detective Holmes going over the Reichenbach Falls outside of Geneva with his nemesis Moriarty. The selection details how the incident was only found after the fact by Watson, and that the evidence he sees (little more than footprints) can only suggest the conclusion to their fight without giving him a confirmation. Doyle was going to end the series then and there, but that ambiguity left the door slightly ajar and allowed him to later reenter when he decided to continue the Holmes saga.
The Riverdale writers have pulled the exact same fast one, showing us just enough to cement an impression in our minds while leaving enough doubt to hit Apple-Z on everything when the time comes. The ostensible grieving process for Jughead continues, with Alice slapping together a true-crime parody with Kevin as her cameraman. (Wisely, this is shown only intermittently. Pulling off a spoof of Making a Murderer isn’t easy in a world that already has American Vandal.) Cheryl Blossom does something thoughtful for once in her life and puts Betty on a forced suicide watch, projecting her own pathologies onto her cousin. Veronica and Archie seem to be doing alright, introduced unbothered in bed as an early clue that they’re in on something. (Also, it allows Hermosa a moment to ogle Red’s abs.) Alice’s interviews with the other assorted students show the individualized nature of mourning, with Reggie in denial and Kevin observing it all like we might, as a drama from which he’s pretty much detached.
He’s the one who gets meta when Betty and Archie kiss, a move that plays as less than endearing and something closer to self-aggrandizement. All this talk of “closeted Barchie stans” and “people who don’t think Bughead should’ve happened” feels like the tail wagging the dog, a concession to the people who should be following the show and not exerting their influence on it. But Kevin’s insights, distractingly fannish as they are, may be the right way to approach this. He thinks it’s all one big production, and it is, and it’s a pretty good one at that.
Betty is on some Professor Professorson-level long game shit, having found a bloodied but still-living Jughead on that fateful night and instantly launched a plan to bring his assaulters to justice. She replaced the rock used to strike Jughead with a different rock covered in synthetic blood that could clear Betty’s name while driving Donna to madness. She rises to a new register of hysteria in this episode, getting the single greatest moment when Betty details a truly nutso plan and Donna immediately blurts out “THAT’S WHAT I WOULD’VE DONE!” Betty plays her role of the widow losing her patience more convincingly than Lili Reinhart usually plays Betty, doing her best with such non-badass lines as “Bitch, I’m done with you.” The enmity between these two women reaches a fever pitch when Donna reveals that she has indeed seen Betty’s sex tape, and that Betty brings the ruckus to such an admirable degree that Donna fears her as a “nympho.” Little does she know that Betty has her right where she wants her, on the ropes.
It’s all part of a scheme to sow doubt in Donna’s own mental acuities, one that will lead to the outing of Jughead’s real attackes. A skeptic could wonder how she roped in so many other collaborators on this game of gotcha seemingly in no time at all, but that skeptic would be a real wet blanket while everyone else is just trying to have a good time. Likewise, there’s no real use in trying to sniff out instances of pretenders keeping up the charade even when they don’t have to, a narrative faux pas I held against the new Fantasy Island movie just earlier this week. Next week will be all about spackling over whatever plot holes have been left opened, though even if that’s not much of a concern, so be it. The game is afoot, as a man who died and then came back once said. We might be a step ahead, but we’re not at the end, not yet.
- Opening an episode with a title-card quotation from one of the characters in that very episode has a strong “‘You miss 100% of the shots you never take. - Wayne Gretzky’ -Michael Scott” energy to it.
- Red-letter week for sexual pettiness from the one and only Cheryl Blossom. In response to Toni’s fond recollection of the night of passion she spent with Jughead: “I’m not threatened by what was surely one loveless tryst!” Summoning words of compassion for her slain peer: “I’m sorry I called Jughead a hobo that one time.” Best of all, when she sees the dupe lip-lock between Betty and Archie: “Oh grief, you wicked heartless aphrodisiac, destroyer of endgames and worlds.”
- This show’s dedication to anachronistic technology mashups has not been abandoned, as we see Bret playing with what appears to be an old-school Atari joystick in his room. How many of the writers actually lived through the era when this was in use? I know some of them are my age, and I was a touch too young for that.
- Veronica has taken Helen Mirren’s masterclass. As if acting can be learned by watching a video! Someone needs to get this girl a copy of An Actor Prepares. Everyone knows acting can only be learned by reading books.