Graphic: Katie Yu (The CW)

Because of Riverdale’s second season, it’s hard to watch these early season three episodes without waiting for the other shoe to drop. As promising as these stories are right now, there’s still the sense that whatever the answers behind mysteries like the Gargoyle King and the seizures and The Farm are, they won’t live up to the expectations set here. These first three episodes have been all rise, but the fall has to come eventually, just like a roller coaster… or like a show that’s doing way too much.

But until that fall comes, Riverdale’s third season remains quite the exhilarating ride, and “Chapter Thirty-Eight: As Above, So Below” is a great example of why.

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First of all, you know something’s going down when a Riverdale episode doesn’t begin with Jughead’s voiceover, and Aaron Allen’s script instead ends with it. (Allen has a strong Riverdale resume, as he also wrote “Chapter Seven: In A Lonely Place,” “Chapter Eighteen: When A Stranger Calls”—no Jughead voiceover at all—and “Chapter Twenty-Eight: There Will Be Blood.”) In lieu of opening voiceover, he makes sure characters mention how three weeks have passed between the events of “Chapter Thirty-Seven: Fortune And Men’s Eyes” and now, which is especially integral to understanding Archie’s state of mind (finally agreeing to be the new “Mad Dog”) and how Dilton and Ben deaths lead to a calm before the storm. Three weeks is also supposed to be enough time to buy that Betty/Jughead would use Dilton’s bunker for some much-needed “privacy” and not realize until now that a missing piece to their puzzle was the rule book—or “scripture”—for Gryphons & Gargoyles.

They also missed that Evelyn Evernever created a student chapter of The Farm. (Principal Weatherbee strikes again.) While this episode quickly makes clear Evelyn is not a Betty hallucination, it also has the character come off differently in her scene with Betty than she did last week. It’s an interesting scene too—that hopefully intends to function this way—because while the score would have you believe things are off with Evelyn, Zoe De Grande Maison’s performance is perhaps the purest, most desperate-to-fit-in teen performance on this show since season one Ethel. The surplus of chairs and pizzas, the clear excitement but confusion as to why Betty’s there—De Grande Maison plays the scene like a new girl who’s just trying to fit in at her new school, not a dangerous cultist. Even Betty’s reaction to Evelyn sneaking up on her—which, despite the score, she doesn’t do—is more annoyed by the weird new girl than it is freaked out. This leads to the Farmies—all women who serve a male cult leader, of course—actually sneaking up on Betty at home, but the Betty/Evelyn scene is an interesting example of genuine humanity dropped into the show’s strangest plots.

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Like when Jughead and Ethel play G&G in the bunker and there’s just this shot of Ethel in her game costume. As much as things take a turn for the patented CW “OMG” here, in that small moment, all I could think is that Ethel’s really just out here trying her best. (Even more so than when she lit hundreds of candles like she was Lana Lang.) The same for Evelyn and Farm club, the same for Veronica and her tame speakeasy. And I’ve always written about how “just trying his best” is actually Archie at his best—which is technically what he’s doing in juvie as he tries to navigate an underground child fight club. When it comes to Riverdale, “just trying their best” leads to these cults and sacrifices and child fight clubs, which isn’t normal on other shows, but there’s something to these over-the-top stories having these earnest moments that actually make them work.

Riverdale is doing a solid job of not just calling people like Polly, Alice, or Ethel crazy, instead showing how their grief or desire to be part of something has been warped by and into this. And they’re not just “too weak” to fight it, since Jughead points out that nearly all of Riverdale High ends up hooked on G&G by the next weekend.

We also see that Ethel has greatly lost touch with reality, but according to this episode, the Gargoyle King is very much part of reality. So who even knows what’s real and what’s not? With the Black Hood and mob stuff last season, Riverdale took these concepts and constantly pointed out how dangerously real and close-to-home they were, which sucked the fun out of it all with each passing episode. Here, things are still very close-to-home—passed down from the parents to the children, even if Jughead/Betty think FP/Alice were the only two to know about it—but Riverdale has yet to let us in on what’s real and what’s a town-wide breakdown.

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Meanwhile, as frustrating as it must be for KJ Apa (as an actor) and Robert Aguirre-Sacasa (as a showrunner coming from Archie Comics) to have Archie be so separate from the main plots, it’s arguably for the best. The challenge becomes making Archie’s side stories compelling in their own ways, which is what Prison Archie’s all about. Riverdale’s adept at turning depictions of toxic masculinity into beautifully-shot scenes—the Serpent jump-in, the Serpent/Bulldog rumble—and while you can Betty Cooper eye-roll your way through this plot, director Jeffrey Hunt perfectly captures that beauty in scenes like Archie’s dramatic rum bottle throw and especially the “Anything Goes” fight montage. (In a comparison I’m sure no one else is making, the montage reminded me of one from Fastlane, the pinnacle of beautifully-shot depictions of toxic masculinity.)

On the outside, I wondered why Veronica’s speakeasy opening coincided with her suddenly calling her friends by their full names (“Reginald” and “Antoinette”). Actually, I wondered more about why it—along with all the French—felt so weird, until I realized it was because she was acting like a Blossom... parent. While this episode has Veronica put herself first, not focusing on being one-half of “VARCHIE” (sorry) brings the character’s other issues to the forefront. Specifically the fact that, while it all may have worked for The O.C.’s Taylor Townsend and Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf, Riverdale’s Veronica Lodge is no Taylor Townsend or Blair Waldorf. And it’s really Camila Mendes’ biggest hurdle to jump over as an actress playing this type of character, because as likable as she is and has been in this role, she’s just not an Autumn Reeser or a Leighton Meester. Because that’s the character type she has to play—especially the more the series gets away from focusing on Veronica as a redeemed version who wants to move past that—the series regularly exposes that it’s not her strong suit. It’s actually Madelaine Petsch’s strong suit, which makes the character overlap bad for Veronica in the long run.

And this is also another episode where Veronica has to challenge Hiram, with nothing to suggest that she can keep up with him, just like Archie and his bones promise. It’s difficult to root for these characters when Riverdale treats their very dumb moves as such: Is there an intelligent, non-contrived reason Veronica doesn’t go to the FBI to set up a Jingle Jangle raid (bless this show) instead of going for the desperate $10,000/week demand? Hiram Lodge isn’t a criminal mastermind, it’s just that the teens who challenge him are so bad at this. Veronica’s a character that needs the kind of big wins Cheryl’s gotten—that Jughead/Betty get as kid detectives—to make any of her big moves work on any level, and she has yet to get them. A killer line like “It’s your mess, Daddy. You clean it up.” means nothing if Riverdale shows that Hiram can in fact always clean up his messes and Veronica has no reason to think she can hurt him. Ultimately, they’re all adults vs. kids, but Riverdale gives Veronica these “teen businesswoman” plots without showing any work that she’s actually capable of pulling them off.

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However, the scene that leads to this failed attempt is one of the finest of the episode, as it’s a perfect combination of Archie Comics, Scooby-Doo, and Breaking Bad (before Veronica even makes the “Heisenberg” reference). In terms of Riverdale picking its spots, that they finally played “Jingle Jangle”—for Riverdale’s version of “Crystal Blue Persuasion”—all while the trio Scooby-Doo sneak around in their stealth gear, is an almost perfect moment. (It’s not perfect because Veronica does not bring her cape.) You can say Veronica’s “just trying her best” when it comes to going toe-to-toe with Hiram, but this is the better use of the character’s and the show’s time. Because even the actual speakeasy opening is bogged down by the arrival of Hiram and the reminder Riverdale is giving these children another place to sing. Riverdale is a dark show, and every other scene is a competition to see how it can get darker—while also appeasing the shippers—but it’s a bizarrely fun show, and a scene like this captures that. These girls are sneaking into a drug (called Jingle Jangle) lab run by gang members (called Ghoulies) as a song (also called “Jingle Jangle”) from an Archie cartoon plays. That’s the good stuff right there.

This episode relies heavily on characters not telling each other the whole truth or being cut off just before they can give the full story. It’s necessary to keep the season longer than a few episodes, but it can also make the episode frustrating at times—in a good way—since there’s a desire to get to the bottom of all this. It could eventually backfire if the answers to all of this season’s questions—especially when it comes to the parents’ G&G pasts—end up disappointing compared to all the build-up and theorizing. That’s that waiting for the other shoe to drop aspect of it all because right now, the mystery and the tension built off of that is Riverdale just doing its best.


Stray observations

  • The Bones Zone: No bones made this week, except for maybe the bones of Penny Peabody’s legit job prospects.
  • Josie and the Keller-cat: Kevin is the MC at Veronica’s speakeasy—which makes sense, as he was all about MC’ing in season one—and sometimes he’ll sing. Also, Moose is definitely dressed in his RROTC gear for the speakeasy debut—Riverdale’s gotta do the wartime aesthetic—but there’s neither a scene between him and MC Keller-cat nor any follow-up on that plot. As for Josie, as much as the “Anything Goes” montage works, at this point in her “career,” shouldn’t she be focusing more on original music? And while scheduling conflicts is the the real reason for no more true Pussycats, is there any awareness on this show’s part that Josie’s decision to go solo kind of makes her look like a diva, in a bad way? She never actually tried to reconcile with Val and Mel after realizing Cheryl orchestrated the break-up.
  • Reggie: “Password.”
    Kevin: “I don’t know. Stonewall.” In the span of five seconds: I laughed, noted “Of course Kevin said ‘Stonewall,’” then wondered if it was insensitive to have Kevin say “Stonewall.”
  • Alice Cooper—once Riverdale’s resident skeptic—thinks she can trust the Farmies. They support Alice/FP, so maybe they are on the side of good.
  • When they’re not riding their motorcycles across the USA, Cheryl makes Toni snap photos of her for an impromptu trailer park photo shoot. Is this the gay agenda?
  • Greg Berlanti is obviously not around for the day-to-day of his shows, so we can’t blame him for The Count of Monte Cristo being the only book about false-imprisonment the writers of Arrow and Riverdale know.
  • An eyewitness told Fred about the L&L riot… but the lack of cell phone camera footage really sticks out when Cheryl Instagrams Veronica at the speakeasy (I’m assuming to promote a phone that wasn’t completely clear in my screener). With Riverdale being very deliberate when it comes to its anachronisms, to bust out technology (that could’ve really helped the L&L boys) for no good plot-related reason really messes with that.
  • Any chance Pop’s is hemorrhaging money because it’s charging ‘50s era prices in 2018? Or because Veronica closes up shop while she’s running her sober speakeasy for teens—and Hiram—despite the fact there have to be some people in Riverdale who just want their diner food without having to dress up?
  • Ethel: “Sorry, Betty. But you’ll never be worthy, no matter how hard you try.” Lili Reinhart’s face says it all.
  • Because Riverdale is a live-action comic, I’ll accept the instant and impossible-to-get-rid-of blue lips plot point.

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