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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In Riverdale, home is where the pain is

Illustration for article titled In Riverdale, home is where the pain is
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Riverdale has yet to truly achieve its most “perfect” form in the story it’s telling, but at this point in the season, it’s already so close. Since “Chapter Five,” Riverdale has taken certain genre inspirations and knocks them out of the park in its own way. “Gothic heroine” Cheryl Blossom, “Betty And Jughead: Teen Sleuths”—neither episode has approached Riverdale the same way, but they both still managed to succeed in terms of quality.

But like I said, they’re not quite there across the board; there’s always something dragging them down, for lack of a better term. It’s easy to just say Archie is the reason, but even that’s not necessarily the whole case. In fact, “Chapter Seven: In A Lonely Place” may not double down on Archie’s daftness like last week’s episode did, but because of the character’s dedication to his friends in this episode (which has been lacking either because of a subpar plot or because his friends simply make excuses for him not to join), Archie comes out looking like a something of champ for once. Where the previous two episodes succeeded in their approaches to certain genres outside just the teen drama designation, “Chapter Seven” actually works in how it focuses on that. Because as we’ve all noticed, the parents on Riverdale are not great, and that has to have a real effect on these characters. Again I’d say these past three Riverdale episodes are all on the same quality level, but it speaks to the strength of the show that it’s all for different reasons.

It would also take a lot for this week’s episode of Riverdale to crash and burn after such a stupendous opening teaser. In fact, the episode’s open is so good that I’ve resorted to using the word “stupendous.” For all the criticism (and complaints) that Riverdale is nothing like the comic books—it’s a television adaptation, not a bizarre fictional biopic—I’ve maintained that the series has done well to at least factor in the core of these characters into this modern, albeit surreal, setting. For it to straight-up go Archie comics though—and as a result, actually channel even more of its Twin Peaks inspiration—it yet again acknowledges a sense of self-awareness so many are still quick to assume Riverdale doesn’t have. As the show’s resident observer, Jughead apparently dreams in Archie comics context. (After Cheryl and Jughead, I truly can’t wait to see how the rest of the Riverdale clan dreams.) His voice-overs this week, about “home” and “hope,” are actually an improvement over the norm, and they work perfectly along the backdrop of the hyper-stylized classic Archie comic come to life:

What makes a place feel like home? Is it warmth and familiarity? Some idealized make believe version of the American dream? Is it love and acceptance? Or it is simple safety?

That “idealized make believe version of the American dream” defines the entire concept of Archie comics in the first place, and the supposed lack of “warmth and familiarity” that makes up Riverdale compared to the comics is part of the initial pushback on the series. People instantly recognize Jughead with the crown, Archie in a crooked bow tie, Betty looking the the ultimate ’50s “girl next door.” That’s familiar. That’s what people expect out of an Archie television series. But to be completely honest, how far would that have gotten before it became fodder for being unrealistic, especially in a 2017 context? Superficially, everything about the Riverdale cast in their true Archie form is perfect. But the episode makes clear just how superficial it is. And it’s quite the statement to start an episode with, especially one that looks to strip down the idea of warmth and familiarity left in Riverdale (with the hope of rebuilding but absolutely no guarantee).

Outside the dream world, there’s no such thing as simple safety either, because safety leaving Riverdale is the general premise of the series. There’s a moment in this episode where Betty tells Jughead he doesn’t have to walk her home, and he matter-of-factly explains to her why he really does: “There’s a killer on the loose.” Sure, it’s a cute couple thing for them to do—they hold hands as they walk together—but it’s also a matter of basic necessity in this nightmare that’s actually they’re waking life now.


Even a pregnant teenage girl has to fear for her life in this town, though you can’t really say a dead redhead caused that one. After jumping out a window and coming away unscathed from that, the Riverdale event of the week is the hunt for Polly Cooper. (If you really want to question if this counts as a CW event of the week, please look to the Blossom search party. Besides the hunting hounds, there are extras basically dressed like old school Sherlock Holmes. That absolutely makes for event status.) Polly—save for her ability to sneak back into the Cooper attic—has no viable options. A scared pregnant teen isn’t necessarily the stuff of compelling camp drama, no matter how many Teen Mom series there are, but Riverdale really can’t go half tilt on anything.

On one side of the fence, there are the Cooper parents, whose first instinct was to send their eldest daughter away to a place called “The Sisters Of Quiet Mercy.” And they just can’t seem to stop lying; when Betty asks about Polly possibly coming home, her parents tell her that Polly promised to put the baby up for adoption, even though this baby is literally the only thing Polly’s living for at this point. Then on the other side of the fence, there’s the Wilson to the Cooper parents’ Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, the Blossom parents, who appear to be fine taking the baby but are more than willing to simply get rid of Polly. In case you forgot that Riverdale is a hotbed for bad parents, this plot marks the ultimate reminder, and in the case of the Blossoms, Cheryl’s red flag comes in the form of her mother talking about cherishing and loving Polly and the baby, accepting them into the family—something they don’t even do for their own flesh and blood like Cheryl. Thornhill is already terrifying on its own, but the image of Mrs. Blossom coolly gathering information on “party girl” Polly from Cheryl just adds to the aesthetic.


By the way, I need to see some confirmation on this “party girl” lifestyle Polly supposedly had when she was with Jason, because I buy that less than her sanity.

The easiest comparison to make when it comes to Riverdale’s Archie Andrews is often Dawson’s Creek’s Dawson Leery, even if it’s a comparison that’s not completely accurate. Sure, the pilot had Archie become infatuated with the new girl from New York while he rejected his female best friend, and he has an obsession everyone humors even though the audience can’t quite see why. But Dawson Leery always had a malicious side to him, especially when it came to anything outside of his myopic world view. His otherwise perfect, supportive parents in his otherwise perfect life would have marital issues, while his best friend’s dad would outwardly verbally (and eventually physically) abuse him… and he would still see his problems as bigger. But here, Archie’s immediate reaction is to help Jughead. He sees that Jughead is homeless? He literally says “screw that” and tells Jughead he’s staying with him. He sees that Jughead wants his dad to get his shit together? He gets his dad to give FP a job, without even knowing the full sordid story. Archie sees that his friend’s life isn’t as good as his—and this is also with the acknowledgment that he didn’t see his friend being in a trailer as beneath him, just different—and he does everything he can to get it back to the version of normal he thinks it should be. As far as we know, FP’s behavior under the influence doesn’t lead to physical abuse, but if it did, there should be no doubt that Archie would want to step in, any way he possibly could. That’s admirable, and it’s the Archie who wants to do the right thing that I’ve addressed in my earlier reviews (though it had to contend with the backdrop of Grundy to ruin it).


There’s a very mini-jam session in this episode, but Archie’s biggest role is trying to help Jughead out and being a good friend. No music stuff. No football stuff. No trying to join in a mystery plot with no discernible deductive skills. Even awkwardness regarding the Betty/Jughead situation is back-burnered (Jughead punishes himself more—here at least—in his dream than Archie does) in favor of him focusing on helping Jughead out. And it’s so refreshing, because it includes the adolescent ability to simplify complex adult situations with an earnestness that works just as easily as Dumb Archie, but actually helps the character in the long run. Good guy Archie is more in line with the character’s best, and that’s the rub here. Archie also succeeds in the realization that his father choosing what’s best for his family can also affect others, like the Joneses.

In fact, Jughead’s life with his father is basically the perfect brooding teen drama character backstory. Here, we get the update that Jughead’s mom left his dad due to the excessive drinking (and South Side Serpenting), and she took Jughead’s 11-year-old sister Jellybean (also known as “J.B.” now) with her. Jughead obviously wants no part of FP either, which is the reason for his homelessness, but as much as his sardonic nature defines him, he still wants things to be “normal.” He wants a family. He wants a home. He wants to be safe. The thing about the Jughead/FP storyline is that, for the most part, it’s obvious where things are going to go. Of course FP falls back into old habits almost immediately, as he never even actually stops drinking. It’s realistic, but also just the teen drama way. (Bringing it back to Dawson’s Creek again, it’s like Joey Potter’s dad and crime.)


Jughead supposedly decided to stick around instead of leave with his mother and sister, and as such, he’s also stuck with his broken father. Even when he’s not living with him. And now he’s also stuck with the classic youth question: “What did I do to deserve this?” He’s got the girl, but he feels guilty about that. He gets his dad his job back, but he’s constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Skeet Ulrich really nails the despair and sadness of being the “deadbeat” (Sheriff Keller’s pretty rude words) dad, but it’s Cole Sprouse’s sadness—practically walking on eggshells as Jughead tries not to trigger his dad’s drinking—that helps sell the story. Jughead realizes how much trouble his father is in, wishes things could change, and sadly knows that they won’t happen.

The scene outside the sheriff’s station, with a messy FP promising his son he’ll be clean in a month—two at the most—is sad on its own. It’s even sadder that it’s in front of his girlfriend, best friend, and best friend’s dad. Especially when it comes to a teenager. Especially because it rings as a true, honest moment in such a ridiculous show. Dueling search parties are awesome, as are malevolent in-laws who want to steal a baby. But heart can be awesome too, and that’s the case here. Funny it all started with a dream shout-out to Archie comics, huh?


The weak point in this episode unfortunately comes on the Veronica side of things, which also shows the adolescent ability to simplify complex adult situations, but without as much success. Overall, Riverdale is doing a good job by pointing out its characters’ flaws—especially characters like Veronica, who easily fit the fan designation of “flawless” from the pilot on, and Betty, whose entire character is pitted with the marker of “perfect,” for better or worse. But she’s still a teenager, and in honoring that, Riverdale also honors the fact that teenagers are kind of annoying. As we’ve been told, Veronica’s pre-Riverdale life was basically Upper East Side, Gossip Girl antics, but here, she’s turning over a new leaf. The crimp in that plan is now the Fred Andrews/Hermione Lodge relationship and the fact that Hermione forged Veronica’s signature to give Fred the construction bid. Sure, Veronica has a right to be angry her mother forged her signature, but her father’s criminal antics—that he is more than willing to continue even in prison—are proof that he puts himself and his own gains over his family. Over his wife. (So that whole “adultery” thing Veronica harps on really ignores the separation status of her parents.) Veronica’s honestly not thinking about this from a rational stance, which is understandable. But Veronica’s ride or die status for her criminal father who has no problem making her an accessory to his criminal activities is a real problem. Especially when she’s quick to call her mother out for criminal behavior.

Her game of chicken—or “blinking”—with her mother in this episode is not as mature as she pretends it is. As this “bender” was her New York way of acting out when she was even younger, it’s clearly an act of a kid acting much older than they are. It luckily doesn’t have a dark ending here or before, and it’s fun to watch Veronica hang out with “with [her] fave celebrity gal pal… best gay, and some dimwitted, sexy, disposable arm candy.” After last week, the show following up on Veronica’s friendship is a nice bit of continuity, and Veronica/Kevin have a great dynamic (as both acknowledge how absolutely insane Riverdale is), while Reggie serving as “arm candy” is officially the best use of Reggie on Riverdale so far. (How he somehow thinks she still has a trust fund after monologuing about having absolutely nothing is especially endearing. It’s like the opposite of Moose barking for a misogynist’s quips.)


But on a series where teens are solving crimes and suffering through jazz dissertations, Veronica’s battle with her mom comes across as childishly petty. And when a teen drama commits to having its character act wise beyond their years, it has to make sure that it sticks the landing with the youth experience. It does with Jughead and his dad, Archie and his attempts to fix that situation, and even Polly and her pregnancy (even though it goes full blown Riverdale with that one). It doesn’t with Veronica here—though this is supposedly the end of this particular plot—and as we’ve seen, it hasn’t really with Archie before this.

“Chapter Seven” is the boys’ episodes, which could sound troubling any other week, but really works here. You know something’s good when even Archie works, without caveat. While this episode doesn’t hit the over-the-top button outside of all things Polly, it’s a reminder that Riverdale has to succeed at so many things and is mostly doing a good job of it all. There’s still room for improvement, but the same can be said with all the parents in Riverdale.


Stray observations

  • Riverdale Roulette: I’ve brought up too much Dawson’s Creek not to pick an episode from the series, so here’s the season two father-son fishing trip, “Uncharted Waters.” (The girls also have their own separate event, but I’m currently trying to prove a point about Dawson Leery and how Archie is avoiding his problems.)
  • Outside of all those emotions, the most important thing to know about FP Jones is that he has Jason’s letterman jacket. The assumption is that he was paid to set Jason’s car on fire, right? (I don’t think he’s the killer. He’s just too much of a Sad Dad.)
  • Jughead lives under the stairs at school. Teenage me would be all in by this point. I know, I know.
  • Camila Mendes looks so much like comic book Veronica in the actual scene that I think it actually reaches terrifying levels of similarity. Were the only casting requirement for this series that they can pass the Archie comics test, it now appears that Riverdale’s cast passes with flying colors.
  • However, the only thing I don’t buy in Jughead’s dream is Archie saying “dude.” He’s really not a “dude” kind of dude in reality, and as Jughead’s dream is super specific, I don’t see it happening here.
  • Veronica: “Please, what decade is this? …Honestly guys, we should just move.” Like I said, only Veronica and Kevin acknowledge the crazy here. It’s great.
  • What is more of a stunt queen move? Every instance of Cheryl gliding into a room to give a speech or Alice Cooper’s family press conference outside a church? The former is good for Sheriff Keller’s new role as character who has no stake in the Blossom family shenanigans (seen again when Penelope Blossom blames Polly for Jason’s death during the dueling search parties). He’s the opposite of his son in terms of actually wanting to be a part of this drama.