When committing one’s self to watching a soap opera, a viewer must breed a certain skepticism where paradigm-changing plot twists are concerned. Dramatic upheavals and retcons restoring the status quo are as natural as the ebb and flow of the tides, and so even the most credulous among us learn to not take life-and-death situations so seriously. When Archie got attacked by that pesky bear, for instance, I don’t think anybody genuinely believed that the show about Hot Archie was considering killing off its load-bearing pillar of Hot Archie. Likewise, Jughead seems like an off-limits quantity by virtue of his popularity and necessity to the show’s continued functioning, and I’ve been perfectly upfront about my suspected impermanence of his supposed death. That dubiousness is fine, nothing more than the cost of doing business with this type of entertainment, but the back half of this fourth season has gone to great lengths to convince us that this is real and this will stick.
At several points over the course of “Chapter Seventy-One,” this critic found himself at a real loss as to how the writers can possibly dig their way out of the hole into which they’ve burrowed. Old Jughead is dead as a doornail, and we know it because he’s now been laid out on the slab and identified by his weeping girlfriend. We know it because the kids have identified what sure sounds like a valid means of murder — Donna drugged Betty with a little hit of scopolamine and convinced her to commit the unspeakable while in her suggestible state — and the police have launched an investigation. The writers have left themselves little openings through which they might sneak out; there’s something conspicuous about their refusal to actually show us Jughead’s corpse. But as for now, how in the world that might work remains a real stumper, and promises a coming contortion of plot that will stretch the suspension of disbelief farther than this show has taken it.
I, for one, cannot wait — both in the colloquial excitement sense and a literal impatience sense. This episode spends an hour at a single juncture of the story, one that the show could stretch out much longer, the indefinite Point B between Point A of Jughead’s ‘murder’ and the eventual Point C of its denouement. There’s no satisfying deduction to be undertaken, seeing as we know full well that the Stonewall Prep kids must be the culprits behind all this grim business, and lack only the ‘how.’ To that end, all this bug-planting and ruse-setting feels a bit futile. The episode begins with Archie, Veronica, and Betty coming home in their skivvies and each improvising different yet equally flimsy lies. The episode ends with them only marginally closer to clearing their consciences, but we never really dig into the terrified guilt they must feel as people concealing a murder. Best-case scenario, this would be Search Party without the astuteness about millennial pathology, sitting quietly as anxiety devours the damned’s souls. Instead, after one bout of stress-puking, it’s just junior-detective roleplay as usual.
Though, to its credit, this episode does touch on the fractiousness between those bound together by sworn secrecy. Archie and Veronica both diverge for their own subplots — Archie’s mom comes out as a lesbian, Veronica forces her dad to reckon with his oncoming mortality — affording them the privacy to wonder whether or not their friend could really be a killer and what they should do about it. The masterstroke of the prepsters’ plan has to be that Betty’s the perfect suspect, so likely that even those closest to her will suspect that she did it, even if she didn’t know it. The struggle to betray Betty, even if wrapped up in the rationalization that it’s for her own good, should tear both of them up inside. The show only fleetingly telegraphs that, but that inner turmoil could have been the emotional fulcrum of an episode that really goes all-in on the pathos.
I am referring, of course, to the sadistic deployment of “Kettering” by the Antlers, surely one of the saddest songs ever recorded. Setting aside the unnerving realization that I’ve entered a phase of my life in which TV shows are now being made by my contemporaries, it’s a harrowing moment. The devastating outro hits as Betty goes to the morgue, and despite the song being about losing a loved one to sickness, the air of death justifies its use. Frankly, it’s a far more powerful moment than this show has earned, a testament to the locked-and-loaded power this song can conjure in mere moments.
It creates a sense of great momentousness that the episode unsteadily lurches into, one that viewers can expect to continue with next week’s funeral episode. The show isn’t just going through the motions of proving that Jughead’s really, really, for-realsies dead; aside from the red herring with Evelyn Evernever, her return demanded by who-knows, Betty’s efforts to get to the bottom of the situation make us want to approach this with the gravity she does. In her episode-ending showdown with Donna, somewhere around the double Hitchcock zooms, she makes it clear that she won’t rest until Jughead’s killer has been brought to justice. The show wants the big point of tension to be who happens to have dunit, but for us, the question remains whether the crime we’re dealing with happened at all. There are still lots of options left on the table to undo all this — a secret twin (dear Christ, please let this be the beginning of Dylan Sprouse’s tenure on the show), a body double, a supernatural resurrection. In any case, it will hopefully be out-there enough to compensate for the strain it places on this show’s highly tenuous internal logic. Whatever it ends up being, though, we can’t get there soon enough.
- Looking up “scopolamine” (a.k.a. Hyoscine, a.k.a. Devil’s Breath) on Wikipedia, the first thing that the “Crime” subhead tells you is: “Claims that hyoscine is commonly used in crime have been described as ‘exaggerated’ or even implausible. Powdered hyoscine, in a form referred to as ‘Devil’s breath’ does not ‘brainwash’ or control people into being defrauded by their attackers but these alleged effects are most likely urban legends.” Gotta hand it to Riverdale, points to any TV show that can hip me to an urban legend I’ve never heard of — keep on trawling those corners of occult hearsay, writers.
- Oh look, Lili Reinhart nervous-vomiting because she thinks she’s been party to a murder after a night of inebriated revelry, where have we seen that before? Next thing we know, Betty’s going to be dosing sleazebags and playing sexy Robin Hood to pop hits of the late ‘00s.
- Betty’s tossed-off line that “people will say we’re in love” makes awkward reference to Oklahoma!. The Rodgers and Hammerstein allusion feels like a weird fit for both Betty and the show, until we remember that Broadway’s recently-wrapped Hot ‘N’ Sexy ‘N’ Dark version of the classic musical probably clicked with the extremely-online contingent of the writers’ room.
- Some truly incredible snatches of straight-faced absurdity in the dialogue this week, from Alice demanding of her daughter, “Is that blood on your bra?” to Jughead’s possibly posthumous opening narration of “Three friends, in their underwear, covered in blood. My iconic beanie, up in smoke.” And let’s not forget Betty’s warnings that she’s “the ultimate wild card” and “the nightmare from next door.” Oh god, and “Can you for one second stop being such a suspicious bitch?”