“Prom is this weekend? We still do things like that here?”
A fair question, Veronica Lodge! With one serial killer on the loose, a second not quite as dead as we may have previously believed, and a cult spreading its influence through the town like a psychological plague, who’s got the time for such quintessential prom activities as shopping for outfits or googling how to pin a boutonnière or getting local sleazeballs to buy you and your friends grain alcohol? Riverdale’s two selves collide once again in this hour, and the good news is that the script has been written with enough awareness to get out in front of the incongruity between the teen-drama stuff and the grimmer genre stuff. In fact, “Chapter Fifty-Five” excels by suggesting that they’re one and the same, or at least by forcibly smelting them into a single irregular object.
Sweeps enters full swing with Riverdale High’s big school dance, just the sort of easy-to-promote event intended to goose ratings when nobody’s getting married or having a baby. Everything comes to a head at this most important night of any teen’s life — that is, when your life doesn’t already entail several near-death experiences. The TV medium thrives on big events such as this, where characters can be brought together and plotlines bundled into a single explosive climax. This particular prom serves two purposes, allowing frisky adolescents an occasion to smush their bodies (and feelings) together, as well as providing cover for Betty and Jughead’s sting operation to lure the Gargoyle King out of hiding. It’s the ideal balance of pulp and soap, an organic fusion of what can sometimes feel like discrete parts making up a fractured whole.
The fateful prom starts with the humblest of intentions, by which I mean as self-aggrandizement for the Christopher Columbus of taking ego trips. In an episode that primarily orients itself around Betty’s increasingly futile efforts to keep the darkness surrounding her at bay, the most compelling conflict is internal, and happening to Cheryl Blossom. She’s already decided that she will be prom royalty, thank you very much: “Vote Choni for co-monarchs because, when you think about it, no other options make sense.” She’s not wrong, the Choni Court makes sense from a narrative perspective, that’s where the best version of this story appears to be waiting.
Until the austere strictures of The Farm clash with her bone-deep narcissism, threatening to tear Cheryl Blossom in twain. Edgar, he of the needlessly toned cheese-grated abs, forbids her from pursuing the office of prom queen on the grounds that it violates The Farm’s vows of absolute equality. Cheryl Blossom was all on board when this cult assured her that she’s perfect just the way she is, but everyone else being perfect too proves a bitterer pill for her to swallow. Her contact with Jason paramount above all else, she acquiesces and drops out of the race, growing listless and disillusioned with The Farm as a result.
The other result is that she puts up no resistance when Betty and Jughead effectively usurp her as prom planners, a turn of events the couple responds to with a “that was a freebie” look of comic gold. They need to rig the election so that Betty can be voted “Gryphon Queen” and fulfill the instructions of the Satanic game they just can’t stop playing. A heretofore unknown book called The Gospel of the Gargoyle King has issued a new quest, one that turns Betty’s prom night into a waking nightmare.
The standout scene of the episode, in which Betty scrambles through the halls of her school with a newly hook-handed Black Hood in relentless pursuit, sends the tone from suspense into full-blown hellacious horror. Everywhere she turns, the camera reveals a new corpse tucked into the corner of a frame, leaving her nowhere to hide. While the cross-cut flashbacks reminding us of the last time Reinhart faced mortal peril in a bathroom don’t need to be there (Don Draper voice: that’s what the “Previously on Riverdale” is for!), they subside quickly, and a barrage of terror takes their place. This series is best at being sexy, then funny, but this passage re-asserts the production team’s ability to be truly scary as well. The dolls that hang from the ceiling of the Gargoyle King’s bus hideout don’t have to siphon eeriness from Blair Witch Project/True Detective, their power to frighten going beyond the purely elusive.
Betty’s night of violence leaves her between a rock (a death cult) and a hard place (two homicidal maniacs with a special interest in her), the same unfortunate position Archie lands himself in. In his case, both the rock and hard place are the fists of people who want to beat him up. Driven to appease his mother and stay competitive on the boxing circuit, he lines up two fights for one day: one with Veronica (who’s been acting awfully friendly as of late) and one with a scout for the Navy at the behest of a returned Mary Andrews. Archie, who evidently has a few functioning brain cells remaining, does not want to join the Navy. But he doesn’t want to disappoint his mother, so he spreads himself too thin and goes on a crash diet to drop six pounds within a few days.
Archie’s hardcore Rocky III-style training montage — ice baths! puking! that rope thing Beyoncé does in Homecoming! — gives the producers one more chance to flash the hefty music budget depleted earlier this season by The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” with “Eye of the Tiger.” But, also like Beyoncé in Homecoming, Archie ultimately realizes that his eating behaviors could cost him more than they’re worth. The after-school special vibe of the anti-crash-diet sermonizing (my dear teen readers: is this a very serious concern among your contemporaries?) fits in with the atmosphere of Riverdale, that’s just fine, but the same cannot be said for the reappearance of Mary.
It’s grown undeniable that this show has no idea how to handle Luke Perry’s death. This episode marks the first produced in a post-Perry world, and so his character of Fred Andrews has been sent away without warning or explanation. There’s no departure, just a sudden absence and a tossed-off line from Molly Ringwald, clearly brought in to fill the Gen-X nostalgia vacuum: “I’m gonna stay in Riverdale a little longer, Archie. I don’t want you alone while your dad’s away.” We don’t know where he is, but we know that he’s not coming back.
This leaves Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and his writers with two options. The first is to do nothing, and hope that the audience forgets about the magically vanished Fred as unquestioningly as the other characters will. The second is to kill him from offscreen, via car crash ex machina or however they might like. At least the latter option forces the show to reckon with the emotional fallout, but neither is really satisfying. They got stuck in an unenviable position with no clear way out, but anything would be preferable to this non-decision that stalls for time and leaves an anticipatory viewership hanging. This week, the specter of a real death takes a bit of the fun out of all the fake ones.
- Let us add the college of “Sarah Florence” to the list of cheeky stand-in proper nouns.
- This week in Cheryl Blossom one-liners: brushing off Evelyn with “Easy for you to say, Evelyn. Aren’t you, like, thirty?” and remarking on Archie and Veronica’s choice to go to prom together with “What was off is now back on again. [To Toni Topaz:] You owe me a cherry phosphate.”
- Is Veronica going to be one of those Mark Zuckerberg-type weirdoes who never finishes college because their bustling business concerns are keeping them too busy? What sixteen-year-old takes a meeting with a loan officer to talk refinancing? I love this shit.
- Edgar Evernever has an infinity symbol tattooed on his wrist. Edgar Evernever sounds like the kind of person who posts photos of himself on the top of a mountain with the caption “gratitude.” to Instagram. It is mostly in this respect that I see him as a villain.
- Color me vaguely unsettled that Pop is aware of Veronica and Archie’s fluctuating relationship status, in the same way that it creeped out my collegiate self to learn that our professors absolutely spent their lunch hours speculating about which of we students were schtupping.
- I have learned through Instagram that Evelyn Evernever actress Zoé De Grand Maison has apparently been the target of harassment at the hands of aggrieved Riverdale fans evidently unable to discern the lines between fiction and reality. Are the teens okay?
- In the course of my research earlier this week, I learned a few nifty factoids about Cheryl Blossom herself, Madelaine Petsch. Did you know that her middle name is Grobbelaar? Or that she is from South Africa? I wish to leave you for the week with this magnificent Coca-Cola ad, and may it bring you as much joy as it has already brought me.