Riverdale is a show about teens who look like they’re in their twenties acting like they’re in their thirties and forties. That applies to their romantic and sexual lives, and this playacted maturity also regularly extends to their amateur extracurricular pursuits. This episode’s two main prongs — Jughead and Archie’s attempted crackdown on the local drug trade, and the joint effort from Betty and Cheryl Blossom to infiltrate the Farm — both require high schoolers to design and execute operations that carefully trained professionals with years of experience will spend weeks planning. And so of course things go wrong twice over, albeit in more obviously predictable ways than usual. Being stupid, headstrong, and rash never serves these characters well, but at least it usually benefits the show itself. Here, however, our ability to see the obstacles in everyone’s paths from several narrative miles away mostly just drains the episode of its suspense.
I visited Los Angeles for the first time last year, and a friend aware of my predilection for doing dumb things to get a good story out of the experience warned me not to consort with the Scientologists prowling around Hollywood Boulevard, not even as a gag. A person may enter their giant, blue church under the impression he or she has the mental fortitude to resist the so-called “processing” interview, except that that’s precisely how they getcha. I only received this wisdom secondhand as a young adult; high schoolers shooting from the hip never stood a chance.
Betty sends Cheryl Blossom into the belly of the beast to do recon on the scruffy-chinned Edgar Evernever, convinced that the girl’s protective shield of weaponized cattiness will see her through. But The Farm has chosen a particularly accommodating turf to seed their chapter. Riverdale is practically begging to fall victim to a cult, populated as it is with emotionally precarious people feeling lost in a world full of lingering memories about their many past traumas. Cheryl Blossom is, by her own frequent admission, the HBIC. Still, when she agrees to sit for intake with Evelyn and then Edgar himself, they can smell the vulnerability on her. She lost a brother, and nearly killed herself trying in vain to save him. She’s survived mental institutionalization, and a crisis of sexual identity she’s only recently come to understand. Sending Cheryl Blossom to a Manson type adept at preying on insecurity and festering psychical wounds is like throwing a T-bone steak into a dog pound.
Complete with a wiretap hidden in her “iconic” spider brooch, her stint undercover frees her up to do the whole “*hacker voice* I’m in” thing, which is fun, and over all too quickly. Moreover, Betty should have plenty of guilt to reckon with in the next episode, as she is completely and singly responsible for the dark misfortune now befalling her friend. She’s in over her head, toying with forces she can’t control, and the stakes keep getting higher. Betty being Betty, however, she will almost definitely try to handle the situation herself and get herself even deeper in trouble.
Maybe that’s why she and Jughead make such a good couple, their shared tendency to make decisions without considering their risks or possible consequences. Impatient with the length of the training program required to become a junior cop, Jughead and the Serpents appoint themselves “Riverdale’s unofficial DEA” (the political undercurrent of which I will get to in a second) and tackle Gladys’ operation on their own. Jughead’s got personal reasons for acting so recklessly — if he can only put the kibosh on Mom’s drug dealing, maybe the Jones family can be happy together — and his personal investment clouds his judgement.
Director Pamela Romanowsky stages the Serpents’ assault on the Gargoyle HQ with agility and overall brio, sidewinding through hallways with the same lurker’s touch that Gareth Evans brought to the film lending this episode its name. This scene, the centerpiece of the episode, works in isolation from its context. But once the episode moves past the action, and the viewer starts to give any thought at all to what’s going on, some troubling questions arise.
My pal (and regular AVC contributor) Eric Thurm wrote about Archie’s heel-turn to quasi-fascism last year, during the Red Circle arc. The show’s general liberal leanings with regards to feminism, sex positivity, and LGBTQ rights can sometimes clash with its need to create conflict, which can inadvertently lead to endorsing some weird, reactionary stances. Are we supposed to feel good about the fact that what began as a cool street gang of greaser toughs has devolved over time into a collection of wannabe narcs? The show expects its audience to root for them, and genuinely believes that they’re doing worthy work. (The number of Fizzle Rocks casualties places the drug somewhere closer to the opioid epidemic than something as harmless as weed.) But when they employ some classic entrapment just to bust a comic shop owner trying to put together some extra money, it’s a far cry from the Jughead we’ve come to love.
Archie and Veronica aren’t inoculated against the case of Bad Idea Fever going around this week, either. She’s taking her parents’ separation hard, and fears that her newly single mother will be a target for vengeful mob types. Her suspicions compounded by the arrival of two putrid fish wrapped in newspaper, she urges her parents to present a united front during the opening of Hiram’s new private prison, which is what she wanted all along. Who’d have guessed that she was behind the threat in the first place, aside from everyone with brain cells?
Archie’s also worried about the opening of an evil private prison in town (another tick in the liberalism column), albeit for a different cause. His experiences with the illegal underground gladiatorial combat circuit left him with understandable concerns about the potential for misdoings at the new clink, and Mad Dog agrees. Archie threatens to take his story of boxing peril to “every 24-hour news channel in the tri-state area,” which poses the question of what kind of media landscape exists in Riverdale. Mostly, however, it lands Archie in the middle of Jughead’s raid, and in the Gargoyle crosshairs.
Everybody helped themselves to a nice big serving of Dumb Juice this week, a tangy draught with which all the characters have a close familiarity. This isn’t an issue when their behavior suits the crescendoing tension of each episode, landing them in traps from which they must then wriggle out. But when that same dumbness removes the tension by laying bare the path in and out of the messes they create for themselves, that’s another issue entirely. Riverdale should like its characters the way Veronica likes her men: stupid, but not too stupid.
- TV Guide has this episode listed as “Chapter Fifty-Two: The Master,” though the CW’s official site uses the subhead “The Raid.” My guess would be that an early draft of the script went with a different reference, and the Iko Uwais fan contingent on staff won out over the Paul Thomas Anderson diehards. Both allusions work!
- Because this show has proven itself so carefully attuned to gay culture in the past, I have chosen to accept this week’s Hockney reference as a nod to the play Daddy currently lighting up Off-Broadway. The set mimics painter David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures)” — previously imitated on Mad Men as well — and word on the street is that Greg Berlanti has been spotted in the audience.
- I like to imagine someone on the writing staff feeling very pleased with themselves over having gotten the word “forsook” onto the television. Wordsmiths prize little victories of language such as this.
- Cheryl Blossom one-liner of the week, on critiquing cult members: “Yes, they wear white after Labor Day, but apart from that, are they really that horrible?” (Honorable mention: her favorite color is red, obvi, and to be specific, it’s Pantone’s Flame Scarlet. Somebody on the writing staff studied CMYK at art school! I’m more of a Cadmium Red guy.) (Other honorable mention: her describing Edgar Evernever as “among the Hot Dads of Riverdale” and a “yummy snack.” Big week for Cheryl Blossom saying awesome things.)
- Veronica yelling “You trying to kill my boyfriend is ‘water under the bridge’?” at her father is pure, uncut soap opera goodness.