Graphic: Dean Buscher (The CW)

After last week’s relatively strong premiere, Riverdale keeps the momentum going with “Chapter Thirty-Seven: Fortune and Men’s Eyes.” And this episode truly is non-stop tonal shifts, as the culmination of Archie’s terrible, no good, very bad summer is a walk in the park compared to the Dark Dungeons-esque mystery Jughead and Betty have stumbled upon. One part of the episode is a classic Riverdale murder mystery, with horror elements that prove it can be like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (and actually doesn’t even care it’s no longer a spin-off); another is a prison (football) movie; another is a gay love story that’s missing several integral pages; and another part is a decades-old secret pact that might explain the first part.

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Somehow, this all captures the woes of a new school year as well as one of the biggest truths of this series: Adults are the worst. And that truth is still a major problem for this show.

The problem itself pretty much begins and ends with Hiram Lodge. Mark Consuelos does an excellent job as Hiram, but Riverdale has taken the “parents just don’t understand” mentality and heightened it to a point where it’s not all that enjoyable to watch. And because of how good Consuelos is as Hiram, it’s clear that the Riverdale writers only want to write more for him as the series villain. Which is the problem. Everything in Riverdale is heightened to an even greater point than it needs to be, but with Hiram (and his underlings), the show has no idea how to take its foot off the gas pedal. An adult man who wrestles teen boys to assert dominance, orders hits on them, frames them for murder, and now even has them beaten for no reason other than he can, he isn’t a formidable opponent: He’s pathetic. Especially since this being a teen drama means he’ll never truly be allowed to win. His biggest enemies are teenagers, and even as he has a rush of power over destroying them, he can’t even fully do that. But the show is still so fascinated by watching him mustache twirl and pull the strings when it comes to random violence towards kids.

Hiram is the embodiment of Riverdale’s warped Scooby-Doo approach to villains, with him constantly saying, “I would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids”... only he’s the one bullying these kids into meddling by getting involved with them in the first place. It’s one thing for the adults on this show to function as antagonists toward their own children—Alice/Betty, early FP/Jughead, Penelope/Cheryl—but Hiram functions as an antagonist to his child and every possible child around. That’s not intimidating, it’s weird. But as the secret pact meeting of the Riverdale parents put him in a room with actual adults, Hiram instantly becomes an interesting character again (except for when he calls Jughead “a concern”).

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This does also beg the question of if Riverdale has just completely forgotten how to write true teenage antagonists, if it ever really knew. Cheryl is on the side of good now, Reggie/Moose no longer fit the bully jock mold for the show, and last season, Chic was just the worst. Even teen gang members aren’t antagonists unless they’re in juvie, and even then, a game of football can fix that. The introduction of Evelyn Evernever (Zoé De Grand Maison) suggests Riverdale is trying to fill that teen villain void in some way, and based on just this episode, she’s pretty good at creeping. though.

Going back to those first week of school jitters, who can blame anyone in this town when there’s a mythical creature terrorizing the weird kids at the local high school and Archie’s in juvie with no shoes? The only “realistic” beginning of school issues here come from Kevin/Moose and the truly inconsequential high school president bit, but the gist of Jughead’s opening voiceover still rings true. A new school year for Riverdale means a new mystery for Jughead/Betty to solve, but it also means a new world for Archie to navigate.

Archie’s time in juvie ticks pretty much every prison genre box it can, though it chooses to up the homoerotic subtext instead of going with the actual text of the episode’s movie namesake. But I’ll admit I’m torn on Archie’s situation once he decides that football is the answer to making it through this place without becoming an “animal.” His plan here to create peace technically works, and his speech provides the type of earnestness you’ve got to appreciate, even if you find Archie exhausting. But part of why Archie is considered exhausting is because his decision to go full Coach Taylor-meets-The Longest Yard in his first week in juvie—and the fact that the show has it work—isn’t so much inspiring as it is the epitome of the type of “aww shucks” moment Riverdale typically tries to subvert. It also paints Archie as this savior figure who solves prison through the power of sports—as temporary as it is—and apparently has more drive and perspective than any of the other kids who got locked up. Still, the football scene in all its corniness is fun; and the fight scene that follows is actually awesome, despite the Hiram-based cause for it.

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I was also torn about the fact that the show literally gave Archie a magical negro in the form of his cellmate Mad Dog (Eli Goree), because I couldn’t decide if it perpetuated the stereotype or if it simply proved Riverdale’s deep familiarity with its particular inspirations. But then the show ended up killing the guy in a forced underground fight club situation, so I leaned more toward the former.

But at least Archie comes from a place of trying to make a better place for every shirtless teen boy, not just himself, which makes the non-Mad Dog stuff easier to swallow than Veronica’s complete loss of identity.

While the show focuses on how they’re the more sexual couple, Archie/Veronica are actually a pretty good couple. Except for when their individual weaknesses are highlighted in the same episode. That was the case for most of last season, as they were both basically just bad people—in different ways, but still bad. Here, Archie is exhausting at worst, but Veronica comes off especially terrible. Initially, it’s just because she demands Cheryl give her the student body presidency—just to keep warm for Archie—and it takes a lot for someone to come across as more entitled than Cheryl Blossom. But then it’s also apparent that the Veronica character has become one that completely defines herself by her boyfriend. It’s not cute when Veronica’s promising to hold things down at school for her “Archiekins” to his father (and two other adult men who don’t care) or when she starts a conversation with Weatherbee by calling herself “Archie’s girlfriend”—it’s just sad. While it’s admirable to stand by her man and want to help save him, for two episodes in a row, Veronica has had nothing going on besides Archie. It doesn’t help that Veronica’s only other hobbies are “saying things Upper Eastsiders are supposed to say to sound interesting,” “Betty sometimes dragging her into investigations,” and “maybe a speakeasy.” As soon as it stopped being Veronica/Hermione against the world, the show really began highlighting all of Veronica’s weaknesses but none of her strengths.

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This episode also highlights what a poor decision Riverdale made by going as all in on Serpent Jughead as it has, as there’s nothing more “pure Riverdale” than Jughead/Betty solving a grisly murder together. As absurd as it is that kid detectives solve every major case in this town—and that Betty is 100% on point when she admits how much it actually keeps her sane—Riverdale, Cole Sprouse, and Lili Reinhart all sell it better than they do the Serpent Stuff. Season two had Betty keep so much about the Black Hood from Jughead too (even teaming with Archie instead), so this dynamic here is like a drink of water in the desert. There’s also just something so thrilling about them putting the screws to whoever they’re questioning (it’s a wonder Ethel doesn’t completely break); yes, Riverdale is such a corrupt place that the idea of someone doing thorough investigative work is exhilarating.

The entire Gargoyle King/game-turned-reality story is something Titus Andromedon would refer to as “white nonsense,” but Riverdale still pulls off the chilling vacantness that comes from characters like Ben and poor Ethel as a result of said nonsense. Jeff Woolnough’s direction in this episode has to do a lot of things—because of the tonal shifts—but his work in this plot is the key to this episode. (That tends to be the case when Riverdale goes horror.) The scene where Jughead/Betty discover the Gargoyle King—and writer Michael Grassi also deserves a praise for the part where Betty quickly checks with Jughead to make sure she’s not hallucinating—truly makes this episode, and the subsequent scene at Pop’s—with the extreme close-ups—encapsulates just how intimate this entire plot feels, despite being so big.

As I previously mentioned Scooby-Doo, I’ll also note that things like the Gargoyle King, Betty’s hallucination (?), and the seizure epidemic will probably all be “logically” explained in the future, meaning that Riverdale won’t go full supernatural. But Riverdale is still a show that could completely change its genre for a full season and change it up again the next, no questions asked. So even if there really is no connection between Riverdale and Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina anymore, that doesn’t mean Riverdale should scrap any and all possibility of supernatural elements: It just means it doesn’t have to play by Sabrina’s rules.

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Stray observations

  • The Bones Zone: Underground fighting made Mad Dog’s (and his pin-up posters’) bones on game day. Creepy Dr. Curdle’s also no longer with us, but now we have his creepy and sweaty son, Dr. Curdle Jr. And Ben falling from a window onto a car definitely killed him this time, right? Also: Riverdale really named that kid “Ben Button,” huh?
  • Josie and the Keller-cat: Kevin gets his own plot, and it confirms he’s very needy. We still have no real idea if Moose is out of the closest. Kevin thinks so, but since he’s only with Moose here, we don’t know if it’s a situation where Kevin’s friends even know he and Moose are a couple. Kevin just might not be as interesting a character as anyone hoped, which could explain why Riverdale can’t seem to give him a full story. As for Josie, she’s part the girls’ locker room scene that’s the show’s version of equal time for male and female objectification, even though the ratio is still 5:1 on that front. Then she leads the River Vixens’ “sing” and “dance” routine outside L&L. To be fair, she’s not the reason I put sing in air quotes. Neither is Veronica, actually, but if we had to hear that really bad “Jailhouse Rock” cover they should’ve stuck to just Josie singing. Also, in that locker room scene, Josie has the third funniest moment of the episode when she tells Cheryl to feel bad for Veronica and give her the presidency.
  • Cheryl: “You can’t discriminate against someone because they’re better looking than you.” The funniest moment of the episode.
  • The second funniest moments of the episode involve Betty’s eye-rolling, first at the realization Grundy seduced another teen boy, then at the realization Ethel’s relationship with Ben was only in the game. Betty’s not gonna be on the cover of Sanity Fair, but the way she judges the other weirdos in town is an endless delight.
  • Ethel at least has good taste in books, as she was reading RIverdale writer Britta Lundin’s YA novel, Ship It.
  • Ben: “You’ll fly too.” The Gargoyle King stuff is Pennywise—with a side of Jonestown—and the Riverdale parents are involved in some IT-style pact.
  • It would’ve helped to know last week that apparently three fake eyewitnesses spoke up against Archie during his trial.
  • Wow, the Serpents are like a real gang in juvie. And neither FP nor Jughead gave Joaquin the heads up that Archie would be coming in as one of their own. Did they even know Joaquin was inside?
  • This show needs to stop acting like student body presidency matters. Cheryl’s the only one who brings up the college application aspect, meaning she’s the only one who understands its purpose.
  • Each season has opened with one of the core four starting at a new school—Veronica, then Jughead, now Archie—so I guess next season is Betty. Guessing she’ll be institutionalized since they’ve already done good public school, bad public school, and now juvenile detention.

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