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In Riverdale, the world revolves around “The Man In Black”

Illustration for article titled In Riverdale, the world revolves around “The Man In Black”
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Last season, Riverdale had an episode that still stands out for how different it was from the rest of the season and series, “Chapter Twenty: Tales From The Darkside.” While it’s an episode that ultimately exists with the knowledge after the fact that the series couldn’t quite live up to the plot points, standards, and even foreshadowing it set up (Cheryl’s obsession with Josie, the general aura and threat of the Black Hood, the crossover potential between Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina and Riverdale), the series’ inability to properly follow-up on it never retroactively tarnished the episode. The episode was both narratively and visually different—even from segment-to-segment—and even in a series like Riverdale where changing things up is the norm, it especially stood out in that episode.


Riverdale attempts to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time with “Chapter Forty-Two: The Man In Black” (written by first-time Riverdale writer Janine Salinas Schoenberg) and not only does it fail so tremendously on nearly every front (absolutely saving itself in the last third of the episode), it also makes sure that one thing is even clearer than ever: Hiram Lodge (aka “The Man in Black”) is the center of every damn thing on this show.

A weird problem with this episode is, that because of the fact the larger story engulfs everything (the Gargoyle King, G&G), it’s still technically not as bad as the worst of season two. That was consumed by mobster and fascist Archie (and the whole Lodge crime family), as well a serial killer that was never quite as devastating as the series kept promising he would be (something this season has at least learned from with the GK). But two of the three stories in this episode are so awful—for characters who really need a win in terms of their writing and seemingly will never get one—that they also make this possibly the dumbest episode of the entire series. The audience accepts Riverdale as it is because even when it goes balls out, it makes sense within the rules of established nightmare world of the series. Yeah, Archie is running for his life, but surely he’ll make sure to keep a low profile. Yeah, everything about a teen speakeasy is stupid, but Veronica obviously has to have some idea what she’s doing. Nope and nope. With this episode, Riverdale actively has these characters either learn nothing after all the build or learn something they should have known (and did) in the first place (only to still not learn a bigger lesson), insulting the intelligence of the audience until it can go out on a strong note.

Archie & Jughead (Grade: D-)

Kind of like their plot in “Chapter Twenty,” this segment of the episode has the potential to be a stealth highlight of the episode, trading Tony Todd and the supernatural for Riley Keough and riding the rails. Instead, the plot is more concerned with cementing Archie’s role as the worst character of the core four, as it triples down on him learning absolutely nothing from every episode of the season that came before this one or even from the very fact that he’s running away from a very powerful man (who, like Lena Luthor on Supergirl, really should be more known just by face alone) right now. (Then again, he didn’t even think to dye his hair—one of the most distinguishing things about him besides his abs—while on the lam. That’s actually one of the more “very Riverdale” aspects of this). It’s even kind of funny at first because the episode has Jughead (who bailed on the Serpents, by the way) acknowledge early on just how bad Archie is at everything he tries to do—while also giving the audience comfort that Betty will be alright… a fact that is flipped on its head in the third segment.

“Archie—no offense, but Betty took down a serial killer last year. You can’t go five minutes without being kidnapped or getting the crap kicked out of you. That was before you were marked for death by Hiram Lodge.”

But then for the rest of this segment and even the second one, Riverdale decides that a self-awareness of its characters being absolute idiots then makes it fine for them to continue to be absolute idiots in the same way. Because at least the show knows it’s doing it! It doesn’t actually work that way, especially as that kind self-awareness just stands out as the series acknowledging its writing problems and not caring at all—which is really the ultimate slap in the face to its audience.

So when Archie/Jughead reach Kent, er, Lake Farm, even without seeing promos for this episode, anyone with half a brain (Jughead, the audience) can tell it’s bad news—but Archie decides it’s the safe haven they need. When they’re stopped at gunpoint by Laurie Lake’s (the terrific Riley Keough, who’s on this show because she tweeted she wanted to be on this show) little sister Gracie, Jughead is quick to lie about their identities (Cal and Biff, “from Centerville”), thinking quick on his feet. At dinner, while Jughead gives obvious cues to Archie that they shouldn’t stay—after Archie asks where all the rest of the people on the farm are, and Jughead notices just how weird Laurie’s answer is—Archie emphatically throws him under the bus… because as we see in the barn, he’s already ready to jump the bones (which is different from making the bones) of the first girl he sees after he dumped his girlfriend over the phone. While Archie eventually stops himself later while kissing Laurie, this episode is really quick to show that Archie is already ready to hook-up with someone else. And the thing about Riverdale is that something as simple as teenage hormones can’t be used as an excuse for this behavior when it’s always framed Archie/Veronica’s relationship as one defined by sex. So him going that route this quickly with a stranger is more of a slap in the face to that “endgame” relationship than something like Jughead/Toni’s hook-up in season two. (I’m sure Riley Keough got the Riverdale experience she hoped for though, so I can’t blame her for that.) Also, nothing substantial comes out of Archie’s strange sense of feeling at home and comfortable on this farm other than his wanting to hook-up Laurie. And if that was really all it was, the episode could have just been honest about it.


Then when Jughead goes into town first thing in the morning to take photographs—which he points out to Archie was their joint plan—we learn something major: This town, Athens, has become a ghost town completely covered in G&G symbols. It’s also missing all of its men. (There is a wise old woman in a rocking chair in the middle of an empty town square, and it’s hard to even enjoy it because of the Archie stuff.) So Archie’s behavior during all of this—despite the fact that he and Jughead came here for a reason—is also him ignoring something major because he was too… drawn to a farm? Too in desperate need of a hook-up to help work a Riverdale mystery for once? While Jughead learns some major information about Athens, the status of the SoDale prison, the Fizzle Rocks epidemic (apparently rebranded as candy post-Midnight Club days but now a drug again because of Hiram) and its connection to G&G… Archie spills his entire life story (names, including Hiram’s) to a stranger. And even if she weren’t already part of the larger “The Man in Black” conspiracy, she could have easily put together that Hiram Lodge could probably pay a pretty penny if she offered this kid up to him. But she is part of the conspiracy, and we learn that her father and brother (and one can assume the rest of the men in the town) owe a debt to Hiram, one that will be paid once she offers up Archie to him. (Archie and Jughead escape though, so I guess this one-off character and her family are screwed.)

Before the escape, however, this segment really makes clear just how little Archie has learned, with him arguing with Jughead about how they should stay and fight Hiram. (This is after Jughead had to untie Archie, who had just been knocked out by a frying pan to the back of the head.) Archie is adamant he can kill Hiram, but you know what? We already had an entire season of Archie saying the same thing about the Black Hood, and the lesson there was that he can’t and no one cares about seeing him make his bones (and it’s a waste of everyone’s time to pretend otherwise). Him saying “I can kill Hiram! I can.”? Archie has learned nothing and had Jughead listened to Archie at the beginning of the episode and gone back to check on Betty, Archie would literally be dead right now. The thing is, this entire part of the episode provides no good reason why that would even be a bad thing for anything other than the series’ shirtless quota.


And we don’t even get to see Jughead and Archie ride the rails.

Veronica (Grade: F)

I’ll be honest: It was at this point in the episode that I completely lost it while writing my notes. While the Archie stuff in the first third of this episode is maddening, there’s nothing to suggest the show would simply continue down the same path for its next segment. But then Veronica says to Reggie: “We’ll never turn a profit selling mocktails to high schoolers who sit here all day, playing some stupid board game.”


And that’s when my notes for the rest of this segment essentially became all-caps rants.

It’s not self-aware for Riverdale to have Veronica point this out now, because almost everyone watching this show knew the teen speakeasy was a dumb idea back when it was introduced in the season two finale. And then literally everyone watching knew it this season, upon confirmation that this “speakeasy” wouldn’t be serving alcohol, because it’s literally a local hangout for teens, underneath another local hangout for teens. And as I pointed out during La Bonne Nuit’s grand opening, Pop’s doesn’t require a dress code, making it obvious which place children would rather go. Highlighting bad writing episodes later doesn’t retroactively make the writing better—WWE keeps trying to do that, and it never works.


Then it manages to get worse, as this entire plot is all about the copout that is Riverdale’s basic plan for redeeming Veronica after her hand in all the Lodge villainy last season, a tactic which is basically to give her amnesia about said villainy (and everything in that orbit) and turn her into a moron. Not realizing Hiram is right about Elio and his friends being criminals until the casino night, despite Elio’s introduction in season two as one of her potential mob suitors? (And remember, she already went through the realization that all of her family’s powerful friends were also crime families, with the Nick St. Clair saga.) Thinking that Elio’s family’s casino empire was built on legit practices? Again, when his crime family knows her crime family because they’re crime families? Not understanding that the house always wins because the house always cheats, not because of some weird casino magic? (And while it would almost be funny to realize she doesn’t understand this concept because she’s a child, the show’s obsession with proving her to be a worldly young adult negates that possibility. So she’s just oblivious.) I noted last season how the show tried to write Veronica as brand new about all this mob stuff toward the end—after making a big deal about her having “a seat at the table” and her parents revealing all of their dirty little secrets to her—and for some reason, the show still thinks that strategy works. It doesn’t.

On top of just the absolute stupidity on display, again, while this episode tries to play the self-aware game like it’s funny to be poorly-written, when it comes to the concept of Riverdale’s internal set of rules (just on a narrative level), this very episode even breaks those when it comes to Veronica. Because these segments focus specifically on the characters they’re about, there’s no moment where we’re all of a sudden kept in the dark about their actions.... until we are, with Veronica and her reveal. The contentious scene between Veronica and Hiram at Pop’s then takes us to Casino Night, and after that, we’re suddenly clued in (via flashback) to an additional Veronica/Hiram scene at the Penbrooke (in which she came when summoned, despite the Pop’s scene) that must have happened post-Pop’s/pre-Casino Night. There, she not only finally listened to him about Elio (with no additional proof to believe him this time, other than the fact season two exists) but asked him for advice and accepted his help (when she’s supposed to be proving just how much she doesn’t need or want his help).


Riverdale wants Veronica to have her cake and eat it too when it comes to her rebellion against Hiram and her family’s criminal practices—she whines and rants about it, but she has no problem accepting it to help her ill-advised plans, even as we see how much it actively harms the ones she loves outside of her family. We see that in this very episode, as Archie is marked for death because of Hiram, and Betty is drugged and traumatized because of him too.* But at least Veronica gets to keep her speakeasy open and continue to make no profit off of it or Pop’s (which she apparently took out a second mortgage on). Because she’s a teenager who has absolutely no skill at all when it comes to this, no matter what the show tries to pretend with some knockoff Blair Waldorf moves.

*Obviously, we see Hiram Lodge at the Sisters, but “H.L.” could still mean Hermione Lodge. Either way,· Veronica’s parents are both monsters.

To really twist the knife about how the show actively destroys a character that really should be much less pathetic than this, Veronica says at the end: “Pop—deep, deep down, maybe my dad’s not so bad.” What show is Veronica currently on? What world is she living in for it to make sense for the writers to have the character say that especially with the way this plot (this entire episode) begins? Especially when Hiram has already made clear he only cares about his family—specifically, her—so he’s not even revealing any new depth here by helping her? Especially when she knows Archie is running because her father had him marked for the death? The headless, handless body of Sheriff Minetta shouldn’t be the thing that makes her think her father is a monster, because she’s supposed to already know her father is a monster.


Then again, the fact that she also apparently learns nothing is why Jughead is able to convince Archie to retreat with the question “Will Veronica ever forgive you?” (if Archie killed Hiram). If she were a character written to consistently care about literally anyone other than herself or about what her father has done to literally everyone in Riverdale and beyond, then the answer would have been an easy “hell yes.”

Betty (Grade: A)

It somewhat speaks volumes to just how surface-level characters like Archie and Veronica are that they don’t get voiceovers in this episode (and probably won’t ever, unless something changes drastically for either). For Archie though, it’s excused by the fact that Jughead is the voiceover king around here: His voiceovers are still actively terrible with their faux depth, but they’re still very much his. Betty’s voiceovers in this episode, on the other hand, are a functional part of the episode and the character—they’re a detective’s voiceovers, the inner thoughts of Riverdale’s resident Veronica Mars—and provide as much clarity as they do humor to an otherwise humorless situation. These voiceovers are the thoughts of a normal person (like “Bite me.” and even her telling herself, “This is me, acting normal.”), while Jughead’s voiceovers are the words of a younger writer trying too hard to act deep. These voiceovers also work in concert with Lili Reinhart’s oft-praised facial expressions, especially when Ethel comes into the mix.


This segment of the episode is also where director Alex Pillai gets to play with Riverdale’s interesting visuals and style cues (the earlier split screens don’t cut it), especially once Betty’s drugged and forced to meet with the GK. In fact, it’s a truly horrifying end to a story that deserves it, though also one for an episode that doesn’t do anything to earn it outside of said story.

As Jughead earlier notes that Betty (who he has no idea is in this type of peril) will be fine, it makes sense that Betty—despite the massive betrayal by Alice Cooper and the massive nightmare that is Sisters of Quiet Merchy—will be fine, because already she’s fine as we first see her in this episode. She has a reconnaissance plan and an escape plan, after all. Yes, it’s obvious Betty’s escape plan is going to fail, but it’s also one she had to create while on the inside; it’s not as though she’s doing this undercover, Sydney Bristow-style. Unlike Archie and Veronica in this episode, she’s not put in a position to fail upwards. However, as much as Betty and this story is the saving grace of this episode, surely she should have realized the Sisters would have finally found and blocked the secret escape after as high-profile of a “patient” as Cheryl Blossom escaped from their clutches. And that’s why you don’t blackmail these monsters, you burn them to the ground.


Ethel’s role as the gleeful narc and villain of this piece is hard to stomach but not in a way where it doesn’t make any sense. In fact, Shannon Purser must be having the time of her life playing the character as what it’s become. Not only do we now know Ethel (like the others) is heavily-drugged (though it won’t be surprising if it turns out she no longer needs her “candy”), she’d already fallen down the GK/G&G rabbit hole, and her “rivalry” with perfect Betty Cooper—who she sees as a Queen Bee, despite that not ever being an aspect of Betty’s character—as well as imagined starcrossed romance with Jughead, is more than enough reason to explain this heel turn. (In that Ethel sees Betty this certain way, it also speaks to the Coopers’ original established, perfect Norman Rockwell appearance, even if that image has clearly been wiped away since the series began.) And while Betty disagrees that she and her “shallow friends” think they’re better than Ethel, Ethel’s actually right here. While Betty and Veronica may have helped her out back in season one, think about how the whole gang (which now includes Cheryl, who’s never great to Ethel) has treated Ethel since then, whether it’s in the school musical or during the class president race. Things took a turn toward mental breakdown with G&G, and here we are.

Ethel arguably went from someone who would be the victim of a Salem-style witch hunt to someone leading a Salem-style witch hunt. It’s a twisted version of her working to no longer be a victim—remember, before everything started to really suck for Ethel, she was a person Archie and the Red Circle helped—and like I said before, Ethel is really out here just trying her best. She’s still technically a victim of the GK, but she’s a victim with power. As she tells Betty: She’s the Queen Bee now. It’s honestly far more chilling than anything from Sister Woodhouse because while that woman is abusing her power and her duties, Ethel is a peer. (And just look at how broken Betty is after the GK encounter. Ethel did that.) It’s the same reason (on a lesser scale), Hiram’s feud with teenagers isn’t all that captivating at this point. Well, that and the fact he’s literally the center of the Riverdale universe.


The only thing keeping “Chapter Forty-Two” afloat (and that also clearly applies in terms of the final grade) is the final third of the episode, as well as the general concept of everything about the GK/G&G being connected. Of course, that also means everything better have one hell of a pay-off and that Hiram better have one hell of a demise.

Stray observations

  • The Bones Zone: Sheriff Minetta’s bones were made and sawed off.
  • Josie and the Keller-cat: These two are luckily far away from all of this, even though Kevin’s supposed to be the emcee of Veronica’s speakeasy.
  • Archie: “There’s nowhere he won’t follow me. I can’t run from him.” I don’t see Archie calling his big-city lawyer mother for help.
  • Hermione: “Minetta was a corrupt man. He had many enemies.” I recently tweeted that when I take notes (for any show), I write “oh, fuck off” a lot. I wrote that twice in this scene, and then the rest of the Veronica segment became the all-caps experience that went so far past “oh, fuck off.” Hermione can do the stand by her man, denying any knowledge about Hiram’s wrongdoing thing with other characters and as mayor, but has the point not been that she can drop the act with Veronica? Especially after she admitted that she’s scared of Hiram, because he’d never harm his blood, but she is a whole different story? So either she was full of crap about Hiram having nothing to do with Minetta’s disappearance and Hermione’s a lost cause of a character or she’s absolutely oblivious all of a sudden too and she’s a lost cause of a character. Marisol Nichols honestly plays it like she has no idea what this character’s deal is anymore either.
  • When I say Hiram is the Riverdale’s obsession, I do think that given all the pieces on the table—and the midseason finale coming up—there’s a big chance the show has the GK (or one of its minions) kill him off. Why? Because it then forces everyone to reframe their idea that Hiram is the answer to all of this, it prevents Archie from making his bones, and it would also explain why Kelly Ripa’s character (I won’t spoil) shows up all of a sudden (to pay her respects). It then also puts the Legion of Doom—which still has yet to live up to its beautiful introductory scene—in place to do anything. Who would take over after that? And just to be clear, it wasn’t until after I wrote all of that that I learned someone is dying in the midseason finale.
  • The first inkblot scene reminds me of my favorite inkblot scene, from Batman Forever—where the inkblot is clearly a bat, Bruce Wayne points out it’s clearly a bat, and Dr. Chase Meridian goes on about how, with inkblots, people see what they want to see. Even though it’s clearly a bat. (Here, Betty even gets one that’s clearly the Black Hood.)
  • Ethel: “Betty—I don’t think Jughead’s into you anymore. We connected when we played the game together, and things got pretty hot and heavy in the bunker.”
    Betty’s face: “This psycho bitch.”
    Betty’s V.O: “This psycho bitch.”
  • This episode marks the return (despite the fact it was originally fake) of “lol Ethel’s vision board.” Only now, it’s a “warrior board,” a “visual collection of [her] destiny”... in which she ships herself with the Gargoyle King. She also says she and Jughead are going to be a ship, leading to only shipper discussion in Riverdale history that actually works.
  • The second segment features split screens that honestly come across more as an unearned De Palma movie riff than a typical “fun Riverdale De Palma movie riff, thanks to the entire plot failing on such a spectacular level in the first place. Once they showed up, all I could do is call upon the spirit of my personal Gargoyle King when it comes unnecessary split screens, McG, for guidance.
  • In the Scooby-Doo! animated movies like Scooby-Doo! On Zombie Island and Scooby-Doo! And The Witches Ghosts (and even the live-action feature films with Sarah Michelle Gellar and the gang), the franchise upped the stakes by flipping the script and making the actual threat a supernatural one. The more Riverdale gets into the Gargoyle King, G&G, the seizure stuff (which, in this episode at least, is a fake-out) and even the effects of Fizzle Rocks, the less satisfactory it will be if it all has a “logical” human explanation.
  • This is a long review, and my editors are going to be mad at me for writing such a long review, but I have a good reason for it. Besides there essentially being three episodes’ worth of material in this episode (for better or worse), I also realized during this episode (while writing my notes and trying to make sense of two-thirds of this episode) that, while I’m mostly enjoying this season, an episode like this really makes me not enjoy writing about this series. I don’t want to bring that into my writing, so I’m tapping out. I’m honestly not sure if I’m done for good—I’ll maybe review the midseason finale if I can’t find a replacement reviewer—so I’ll just say: It’s been a pleasure. Until next time.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.