The gap is closing. “Varsity Blues” concludes with a flash-forward, as have most of the episodes in this fourth season, but the amount of time between the “present” and the future being shown to us keeps shrinking. In this episode, only a month separates the Riverdale Bulldogs’ big game against the Stonewall Stallions (don’t high school football seasons generally end around Thanksgiving, which was a few episodes ago? why am I even asking this?) from the premonition of an irate Bret blaming Betty for Jughead’s untimely death. It’s a clever way to build suspense, like a massively expanded version of the Hitchcockian device in which he cross-cuts between his action and the countdown indicating how much time is left. Filling that time, however, is another kettle of fish.
“Varsity Blues” returns the kids to the high school corridors where they belong, back-burnering the serial murder and matters of the occult for the time being. They’re dealing with football games, college admissions, power struggles among the cheerleading squad, family matters. (Though for Veronica, that last one hardly implies a more grounded storyline.) It’s the sort of register that should give us Riverdale at its best, but to make use of a situationally appropriate metaphor, the script constantly fumbles the ball. The individual storylines don’t make sense even under the strictures of anti-sense that this show has set for itself. This hour cannily illustrates the subtle difference between a mess that’s been fully thought-through and a mess that arises from the lack thereof.
Consider Archie, caught between Mad Dog’s limitations and aspirations. It’s a classic afterschool special setup: the star athlete has it all on the line for a big game, and an unsavory third party tempts him with performance-enhancing drugs. The particulars of this application may make things seem more complex than they are; Mad Dog gets Nancy Kerrigan’d, but needs to get on the field if he wants to impress the Notre Dame recruiters, so Archie’s unsavory Uncle Frank offers him some pain pills that’ll help him play through the pain. It didn’t work for Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Waves, but Mad Dog fares much better. He plays, and the Bulldogs’ loss turns pyrrhic as he discovers that he’s made it into college! After having gotten understandably angry at his uncle for attempting to sell drugs to his friend, Archie stands down and accepts Frank’s reasoning that life requires risks, but sometimes those risks pay off. What’s to be learned here? There really is a dril tweet for everything, and this thread of plot smacks of the classic koan about drunk driving getting people to work on time.
Cheryl Blossom’s exploits also lose sight of themselves, rewarding bad behavior for no perceptible reason. While continuing her ongoing feud with Principal Honey, she gains a secondary nemesis in Ms. Appleyard, the new coach of the cheerleading team. Appleyard sets everyone straight in her introduction, announcing in no uncertain terms that she plans to whip them all into shape and carry them to national glory, starting by focusing on actual cheerleading instead of being the dance team that they’re been acting like. Cheryl Blossom doesn’t like that one bit, though of course what she really objects to is the idea of anyone telling her what to do, in any circumstances, ever.
But Cheryl Blossom’s been a tyrant all season, and it would’ve been satisfying to see someone in authority knock her down a peg. Instead, the opposite: Cheryl Blossom is petulant and bossy and bratty and ultimately gets her way. She demands that Ms. Appleyard be dismissed, forgetting that students are not permitted to determine faculty hiring and firing decisions. She threatens a “cheer strike,” evidently unaware that the cheerleading program is mostly for the kids, and a strike would only be a challenge to themselves. She then attempts a coup, and accuses her teammates of betrayal for heeding the commands of their coach instead of their extremely domineering classmate who treats them all like human waste. “I’ve never turned my back on you, like you did to me,” Cheryl Blossom says. “That’s because you’re a horrible person,” says no one.
This storyline generates lots of fun stuff on a standalone basis: Cheryl Blossom reading The Art of War (a book you’d assume she’d have memorized by now), Cheryl Blossom performing The Ruanways’ “Cherry Bomb” as a show of defiance, Cheryl Blossom mispronouncing the word “scourge,” Cheryl Blossom saying things like “MY BODY IS PERFECTION, YOU CRONE!” and “We got off on the wrong Repetto-covered foot.” But it concludes in the most aggravating way possible, reinforcing Cheryl Blossom’s nasty streak as something helpful and good, in the same way the show often reinforces Archie’s rash judgement as good, when it works.
Betty and Jughead continue to traipse through Stonewall Prep on parallel tracks, with Betty investigating allegations of foul play in the football program while Jughead settles into the Quill and Skull society and finds that it comes with plenty of perks. He cruises right into Yale despite having never applied, which naturally seeds resentment in Betty, who worked extremely hard and got rejected anyway. That crack in the foundation of their relationship opens a bit wider when Betty discovers that Jughead has been keeping his entry to the secret society a secret from her. (In his defense, the society’s a secret.) They’re playing a long game of character development in the tradition of Joss Whedon, who knew that major shifts had to be seeded weeks, months, even years in advance to land correctly. If this ends with Betty killing Jughead, we’re getting closer and closer to learning why.
Veronica’s off in her own little world of familial war, resolving yet another kink to her burgeoning rum empire each week. The writers can most likely tell how minimally interesting this is, because this script knits her into Betty’s story instead, recruiting her to bust out the Monica Posh persona once again and infiltrate a party at Stonewall Prep. The blonde wig is always good to see again, and the moment in which she cringes out of her skin after Bret asks her to “Go back to my room, undress, and wait for me” shows off Camila Mendes’ considerable acting chops. But she’s not up to all that much, stuck in pre-production before her rum business can really get off the ground.
If this week seems at times uneventful or counterintuitive, there’s no cause for worry, as the final scenes set the place for next week’s formal trivia-team showdown, a guaranteed smash to be sure. Riverdale has entered a new decade, and we can only hope it’ll forge ahead accordingly.
- Upon his first appearance, I mistakenly theorized that Bret’s name (then misspelled as Brett) was a veiled reference to recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, just the absolute worst. This episode’s reveal of the character’s full name as Bret Weston Wallis clarifies that I was wrong, and that he is in actuality a stand-in for Bret Easton Ellis. Who is, to my credit, also the absolute worst.
- I shudder to think at the unspeakable things the fandom will do with that gif of Cheryl Blossom asking Veronica, “Care for a lick?” The fan-fiction fires are a-blazing.
- On a show that’s included absorbed utero twins, rocket ship travel, long-lost half-siblings, and clandestine gay serial killer romance (and that’s all this season!), the most hilariously outlandish sentence ever uttered on Riverdale has to be “At Yale, everyone earns their spot. Should you be accepted, you will succeed or fail on your own merit.” How did the actor deliver those words with a straight face? I can hardly read them without cracking up!
- Betty’s exploits as upstart student journalist using the very go-getter skills taught to her by her educators to take them down provide a nice reminder: keep an eye out for Bad Education on HBO later this year, in which Geraldine Viswanathan portrays a similar character uncovering scandal in the halls of her school. Hugh Jackman gives a career-best performance as a corrupt superintendent.
- Could the dark-secret-sharing scene be one of the worst in the show’s history? The way Donna’s history of abuse and self-harm was deployed felt opportunistic and trivial, and then we get Bret admitting that he lost his V-card at 14 to a sex worker because “I was afraid [my father] would kill me. For real.” The words “for real” have never fallen with less impact.
- Ah, the endless comedy of restating in plain terms things that Archie has done: “Well, this one time, I boxed a bear!”