When thinking of the pathology that animates fandom, I often flash back to a scene from the episode of Bob’s Burgers in which boy band Boyz 4 Now loses one member as a publicity stunt. A news reporter on-site hands her microphone to one of the rabid tween girls assembled to protest this development, who screams, “I DON’T LIKE THAT THERE ARE ONLY THREE. THERE HAS TO BE FOUR!” To a psyche that thinks of its favorite thing as immutably, unassailably, wholly perfect, of course any minor change represents a total ruination. It kind of explains a lot about the aggressive sameness of, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself mentally blurting out “I DON’T LIKE THAT BETTY HAS A CRUSH ON ARCHIE. THERE HAS TO BE CRUSH ON JUGHEAD!” upon this week’s final scene. “The Locked Room” kills a lot of time on late-phase exposition that’s either redundant or out-of-nowhere, and yet it hardly amounts to much. “We’ll find a meaning to all of this at some point,” Betty reassures her beloved Jughead as the dust settles on the show’s latest arc. Little does she know, she’s at the heart of whatever lasting meaning this Stonewall Prep plotline has to offer; this has all served to reposition her in the same old love triangle between Jughead and Archie.
Whatever pretensions of objectivity or even basic sober-mindedness this critic might hold, I was still hit by knee-jerk rejection at the idea of stirring up romantic tensions between these three. (Well, four, as this definitely involves Veronica.) In my defense, however, this response doesn’t originate from any slavish attachment to the show’s status quo. It’s just that we’ve done this already, and it was tedious the first time, not to mention entirely pedestrian in a universe that regularly goes to stranger and fresher places than “manufactured relationship drama.” Sprouse and Reinhart share a sensational chemistry, and the only thing more counterproductive than playing bait-and-switch with a breakup that never comes would be actually following through.
Prior to that, Jughead gets to LARP as Inspector Poirot while he and Betty play out the locked-room mystery of his dreams. They’ve finally pieced together the puzzle, in no small part because they constructed a significant chunk of it, and they spell it all out for the Stonewallers over the course of an explanatory monologue that drones on and on. A lot of the information they divulge reiterates things we knew already but that the Stonewall set does not, so we must hear once more about how Jughead’s cushy beanie preserved his skull from a deadly crack when he was struck on the head with a rock. Other key details had been insufficiently set up over the course of this season. There’s no a-ha moment of recognition at a masterfully laid long game when we weren’t even playing with all the pieces.
The big denouement proves the make-or-break point for all whodunits (or, in this case, a whydunit), forcing them to make what usually amounts to pages of uninterrupted talking into kinetic entertainment. Episode director Tessa Blake does what everyone in her position has always done, cross-cutting with flashbacks illustrating each point as Betty and Jughead make them. That may break up the stagnation, but it all ultimately comes down to pacing, and Blake can’t keep everything moving at a sufficiently brisk clip. When Du Pont leaps out the very same window as Mr. Chipping, it’s not the culmination of a mounting tension. It’s shocking, but the shock doesn’t last as long as it would with a proper buildup.
The true resolution, that Donna is the granddaughter of someone we’ve never heard of before and accordingly had to take revenge on Du Pont, lands with a thud. This was all a tertiary character’s quest to do right by a character that didn’t even exist until now? I hesitate to ask “Who cares?” as that’s usually far beside the point on Riverdale, but it’s hard to accept that none of this had any real point beyond bringing an end to this segment of the series’ run.
The way has been cleared for something new, and the final scene sees Kevin cue up next week’s breather diversion, a schoolwide variety show. (Good god, yes.) More promising is the rekindling of Alice’s romance with F.P. in full view of their respective children, putting them on track to be — that’s right — sexy stepsiblings. Stepbrother/stepsister porn is all the rage right now, scratching the itch for the incest taboo without really going all in on it, and it’s one of the few remaining risqué buttons that this show has left to push. Could sharing relatives be the thing that distances Jughead from Betty, or will that just make their attraction all the more perversely intense? Either option sounds like a pretty good time, the latter slightly more so.
At the very least, we’re free to move onward as the kids enter the final two-or-three-month stretch of high school. They’ve earned some R&R, as have we, and the impending variety show should pile on the frivolous pleasures that have been absent from the past few weeks. It’s been fun, Stonewall Prep, but good riddance. May your halls of privilege and exclusivity fall as the Jugheads and Bettys of the literary industry assume the mantle of YA standard-bearers. Or whatever the point of all this was supposed to be, anyway.
- My esteemed colleague Louisa Maycock informed me earlier this week that pretty much the entire season has been one big homage to a novel called The Secret History by Donna Tartt. (Which explains why their sinister leader has been named Donna Sweett, and why she’s classmates with a Bret Easton Ellis stand-in.) Apparently, the book revolves around a cabal of elite private-school students crafting the perfect murder and then dealing with its fallout. HAWF writers, if you’re working your way through modern best-sellers about the cruelty of youths, why not do Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise next?
- Absolutely enraptured with the 9th-grade Honors English vibe of the other literary allusions in this episode, from the fleeting Crime and Punishment mention to recycling Mark Twain’s creakiest quote to “As they say in Lord of the Flies, I have the conch.” What, no Odyssey?
- At least we get to hear Veronica feast on the phrase “crypto-lesbian pulp fiction.”
- Where Betty got the key to that classroom at Stonewall Prep may be a mystery all its own, but whatever questions it raises are worth it for that insert shot of the lock turning from the inside.
- “No one ever really dies in Riverdale, do they?” muses Cheryl Blossom, unwittingly paraphrasing the cardinal rule from the X-Men universe. Death is just a big revolving door for Charles Xavier and his charges, and the same rule (or absence of a rule) goes for the indispensables of Archie’s life.
- “I just really hope my credits transfer. On the bright side, no one’s going to try and kill me while I’m here!” No show in the history of television has mixed the melodramatic with the banal quite like this one.