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We measure TV finales, even those marking the midseason break, by closure and the lack thereof. That can be somewhat confusing on a show like Riverdale, which raises and answers new questions on a week-to-week basis. When every week has a sense of high-drama climax, the actual climax comes off as a bit, well, anticlimactic. Though some momentous things happen in this week’s hour — Cheryl Blossom figures out who’s been tormenting her, Jughead succeeds in infiltrating Quill & Skull and locating his wayward grandfather — it all feels like more of the middling middle. Which it is! This is only the midseason finale, and yet the presiding tone is more “midseason” than “finale.”

Still, any sensation of creeping humdrum in this episode comes from a matter of perspective built up over the past eight weeks; after all, this is the episode in which Cheryl Blossom bug-bombs her own mother as part of a suicide ruse complete with a candy-apple-red gas mask perfectly matched to her lip color. Which is to say that plenty happens in this episode, that it’s not wanting for action, but that the action it does boast fails to live up to the standard of mania, out-there-ness, or shock that this season (perhaps the series’ best yet) has served up thus far. Archie beats a guy to within an inch of his life, and so what? He’s already reckoned with his own terrible capacity for violence, and it made for stagnant television then, too. And that time around, there was a bear!

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Archie’s growing obsession with living up to the impossible legacy that he has assigned his late father in his mind could be the start of something good. That’s a meatier emotional foundation for the angst he loves so damn much than the show can usually muster. The appearance of his Uncle Frank, a phrase that reminds me only of one thing, could be a harbinger of upheaval. For the time being, however, he’s spinning his wheels, though his rashness does give F.P. cause to growl, “It’s been a while since these fists delivered some proper street justice.” He’s really the focal point of what outwardly appears to be an Archie-plot, and his arc hardly qualifies as such. He gets at most a moment, as F.P. proves to us that he’s still got some of the ol’ piss and vinegar left in him, even if he might be slumming it as a cop for the time being. It’s not nothing, and yet it’s barely something.

Archie’s off throwing punches, Veronica’s navigating the path to higher education (more on that in the Stray Observations) while encountering and clearing more minor snags in her fatwa against her dad, leaving Betty and Jughead to seize the core of this hour. They both embrace a side of themselves they don’t know all that well, cuing up the back half of the season for a metamorphosis into someone either one barely recognizes. Jughead accepts the contract to become the new Baxter Brothers ghostwriter and the Chekhov’s NDA that comes with it, which grants him entry to the secret society he’s been worried about. Much like my many real-life friends who have gone off to fancier schools and been instantly subsumed by the money in the air, Jughead will most likely not become a better person out of all this.

At the very least, he’ll be dead (-ish, we’ll see), and at Betty’s hand! The best passages of this week’s installment belong to the unstable Miss Cooper, who gets in touch with her shadow-self in an effort to vanquish it, and might have accidentally succumbed to it along the way. There’s a lot of room for ambiguity in the episode’s emphasis on her mental interiority, and her finishing move of smashing her own mirror could represent the dispelling of Dark Betty as easily as her takeover. In either case, the marvelous foolishness with the telephone brainwashing and the reappearance of Evelyn Evernever behind prison glass both come as welcome developments, even if they’re only leading up to Betty’s dark night of the soul. Lili Reinhart cannot quite sell the dream in which she must save her own inner child from the inciting moment for all her trouble — her cold-blooded murder of the cat Caramel — in part because she’s fighting rough material. But also in part because Betty’s ill-equipped to process the heavy load of trauma with which these flashbacks confront her. Her psyche may very well have cracked from the strain.

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Everyone’s brought together for the conclusion by Cheryl Blossom, having smoked her scheming mother out from the walls and finally decided she’s ready to lay Jason to rest forever. The kangaroo-court trial to which she subjects villainous Penelope keeps the bulk of the episode moving, and her tearful goodbye to her brother may be some of the best acting that Madelaine Petsch has given to the show to date. Her decision to trap her mother in the sex bunker all but guarantees that we haven’t seen the last of the malevolent matriarch, which is fine, seeing as the moment’s going to be all about Cheryl Blossom’s grief in specific.

It’s the most potent moment of an episode that doesn’t land with the oompf a midseason finale needs, even as it positions the next stretch of episodes for more lurid goodness to come. Betty’s the one caught holding the smoking rock, an icon lodged deep in her subconscious that rises to the surface in a fashion most grim. Surely, there’s more to these glimpses than we can perceive. But how much more? I’ll see you all after the New Year so we can find out together.

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Stray observations: 

  • When the gang sets Jason Blossom’s funeral pyre ablaze and sends him out to sea, why are the flames CGI? It’s a boat with a dummy on it, shouldn’t be so hard to set on fire. I’m guessing that it was a particularly windy day on location and they reasoned that a real-life inferno wouldn’t have the same wow factor, figuring they could just fix it in post and only realizing how distracting it looked once it was too late. Riverdale writers I know read these, if you could provide any clarity, it would be much appreciated.
  • Betty’s hallucination sequence does more to establish an atmosphere of the oneiric than most of the show’s lapses into fantasy. Episode director Gabriel Correa knows how to work the scene, between the disorienting panning POV shots and the slick dilation of time as day melts into night.
  • Veronica’s disgust at finding out that she’s been rejected by Dartmouth, her safety school, shot me through a time-cannon right back to senior year of high school and the constant shock at discovering how relative the concept of a “good school” really is. We had a girl who settled for MIT! I am but a lowly Cro-Magnon, gnawing on rocks.
  • Speaking of college admissions, I was dubious about the logistics of Hiram’s whole scheme to embarrass Veronica by inviting her Columbia interviewer to show up mid-bash at La Bonne Nuit. So I contacted my dear sister, a high-ranking admissions officer at a sizable mid-Atlantic public university, to ask her whether such behavior as operating a speakeasy, performing a saucy floorshow to the music of Elton John, and offering her contact an Old Fashioned as an introduction would harm her chances of getting in. Her retort: “I’d say that an admissions committee would probably be favorably impressed that the student is running a small business of their own founding, and a student who both has business acumen and ability in the arts seems nicely well-rounded to me. And admissions folk love a drink.” Nice try, Hiram Lodge, but no cigar!
  • The running theme of movie-reference episodes titles would suggest that “tangerine” being Betty’s trigger-word doubles as a nod to Sean Baker’s superlative iPhone-shot buddy comedy of the same name.
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