As each plot progressed in this week’s Riverdale, I found myself asking one question: “Is this too ‘after school special’?” At first glance, it’s an understandable thought. Archie has to learn his lesson about the price of dignity; Veronica has to learn once more that the sins of the father have consequences; Betty has the responsibility of fixing her broken family. To top it all off, Jughead is still the Shawn Hunter to Archie’s Cory Matthews in terms of his living situation. But after school special isn’t really Riverdale’s style, so it was a valid question and possible concern. “Chapter Eight” sadly flew too close to that creative sun and paid the price for it, but it couldn’t possibly be the new normal for the series, could it?

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“Chapter Nine: La Grande Illusion” answers these questions with a resounding no. Because just when you think Riverdale is telling a straightforward story about what happens to a teen when their parents start fighting, all of a sudden, one teen’s parent attempts suicide or another teen’s parent throws a brick through a glass door (after shouting, “I want my daughter back, you bastard!”). In the case of the former, while this episode runs the risk of becoming a “very special episode” when it comes to Veronica learning a valuable lesson about how her family hurt other families, it also completely changes course by having Veronica respond to the attempted suicide news in this amazing fashion:

  • She goes into a fugue state and immediately storms off…
  • …into the girls’ locker room, where she proceeds to sob uncontrollably.
  • She then rips off her pearls—gifted to by her criminal father—and they come crashing down to the ground in the most spectacular of slow-motion shots.
  • She tops it all off with a controlled slide—impressively, against neither a door nor a wall—as Betty rushes in to embrace her.

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This is Riverdale. And while there’s plenty of humanity in this and the rest of the episode’s stories, “Chapter Nine” is a return to wholly ridiculous, over-the-top form. This episode begins with a Jughead voice-over about maple syrup as we witness the slow-motion beauty of these characters pouring it, tasting it, and even just dumping an empty bottle of it in the trash. “Thicker than blood, more precious than oil,” Jughead voice-overs from his terrible novel (that makes for delightful television). “We consumed Blossom syrup by the bucket. That sickly sweet smell was inescapable.” In this same episode, Cheryl Blossom utters the line, “When Jason died, I thought I’d tapped my last tree.” Maple syrup is the most important thing when it comes to Riverdale, and at no point in this episode do I ever think to question that. Maple syrup is precious. This show is precious.

But back to Veronica Lodge. Her plot this episode has an interesting trajectory, in small part because it’s rather ridiculous (and somewhat frustrating) that it’s taken Veronica this long to wash her hands of her father. In fact, her refusal to do so earlier has hurt this character a bit, especially considering her MVP status early on in the season. But the early revelation in this episode that she didn’t sell Hermione and Fred out is a quick bit of saving grace for Veronica; then her decision to approach Ethel after hearing her poem in class makes Veronica come across as the most empathetic teenager on the planet, fictional or otherwise. The twist that Veronica is reaching out to Ethel as amends for her old bullying ways, coupled with the twist that Ethel’s family was screwed over by and is testifying against Hiram Lodge? Well that makes for the type of immense guilt that fuels Riverdale’s more “go big or go home” sensibilities. That’s a lot of weight to carry, and this episode has Veronica prove her capability in maturely handling it and finally waking up to the type of person her father is. In between all the tears, that is.

It should also be noted that, outside of the iconic Betty and Veronica friendship, Riverdale has allowed Veronica to create strong bonds with Cheryl, Josie, and now Ethel. It sure would be nice to see all those bonds exist in one episode. Because this week, you wouldn’t even know Veronica/Cheryl had a weird sleepover at Thornhill that one time; according to Cheryl, Archie Andrews is the only one who’s ever been good and honest to her. If you’re thinking, “Well that doesn’t sound right,” then you’ve officially put more thought into everything that happens in this week’s Archie plot than Archie does himself.

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It was only a matter of time before Archie got into a relatively low-stakes version of Indecent Proposal, as there’s very little you can actually do with Archie in terms of the big picture. It’s also no surprise Archie stumbles upon a couple of big revelations in this episode, but it’s even less of a surprise that he immediately takes them to the only two characters who can actually do anything about it: Betty and Jughead. The ridiculously oblivious and confused version of Archie from “Chapter Six” returns in this episode, and it’s so much more palatable than the hurtful, Dawson Leery version from “Chapter Eight.” (You still get the unintentional jerkiness though, like when Archie tells Cheryl he thinks she’s “awesome,” after the audience has already seen the way she treats Betty, who just wants to know how her sister is doing.) And this Archie is back in action all because the Blossoms promise to help him get into a very exclusive music academy’s summer program… in exchange for escorting Cheryl to the Blossoms’ annual tree-tapping ceremony (at first).

What’s funny about how all this starts is that Jughead says Archie is basically a “gigolo” in this situation, Veronica pretty much agrees, and the only reason Betty tells Archie it’s a good idea is because it means he can talk to Polly, who’s not been returning any of her calls or emails. At no point does anyone in Archie’s life tell him they think he’s making the right decision, and yet he soldiers on as though it is. Even after Valerie calls him out on how “the Blossoms are buying [him].” In fact, the boy’s exact reply to that is, “For one night.” Even when Cheryl—who Valerie also warns Archie about—stares longingly at him like he’s her dead brother/soul mate. Even when Clifford Blossom magically agrees to resolve issues with Fred because Archie asked, even though Fred himself couldn’t convince Clifford. Even after Clifford’s banquet aside with Archie. Archie still doesn’t quite get what a colossal mistake (or two) he’s made until Cheryl kisses him… and he kisses her back, poorly, before pushing her away. As this is still Riverdale and not Archie, the saving grace is that it all ends with Valerie dumping Archiekins, citing how he always either ditches or ignores her. The girl’s not wrong, even if one of the episode’s opening scenes features the two of them eating pancakes at Pop’s together, bonded by syrup.

Even funnier is that Archie doesn’t really learn his lesson; he just happens to stumble upon a clandestine, beautifully blocked villains’ meeting that’s way above his story clearance level and exits stage Betty/Jughead:

Clifford: “I’m so close to getting that land back. Hermione Lodge will crumble.”
Penelope: “Who would’ve thought she’d prove so resourceful? Maybe you should’ve put her in jail instead of Hiram.”

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But without Archie’s blank canvas to play with, the Blossoms probably wouldn’t have such a great coming out episode as the villains of this half of the series. Yes, “Chapter Five” showed how terrifying they could be, but that was mostly image—like how Thornhill is a terrifying hellscape that goes on forever and has a pine tree thicket for eavesdropping. However, it’s here in “Chapter Nine” that we see just how desperate and dangerous they are, whether it’s with the revelation about Hiram’s imprisonment or just the simple way they manipulate Archie in their plans to ensure their family’s legacy. This episode goes out of its way to show just how evil the Blossom parents are, juxtaposed against a beautiful, snowy backdrop. But evil doesn’t begin to describe the image of Clifford reading from a sacred scroll as part of the tree-tapping ceremony. It’s something else entirely, and just like that parade of (mostly red-headed) trustees with their umbrellas, the snow makes it all stand out even more. Although, for Cheryl’s final moments of instability in this episode, the snow’s not as integral to standing out as the black and white of the group photograph is. That really makes the red Sharpie she uses on Archie’s and Polly’s faces pop.

This episode also brings the real estate plot back into the realm of fun that was missing in last week’s “our family is legitimately struggling to make ends meet” focus, for a few reasons. There’s the fact that it’s dangled in front of Archie like a carrot as he pimps himself out, but there’s also Hermione finally telling Fred the truth about Lodge Industries owning the drive-in land, as well as Fred’s eventual decision to make that fact work for him. Plus, the bombshell that Clifford put Hiram in prison puts certain things into perspective (like Penelope’s “So you’ve come to gloat?” greeting to Hermione at Jason’s memorial) and leads to an interesting theory of motive on the Lodge side of things when it comes to Jason’s killer. We know Hiram has no worries about collateral damage; and while he couldn’t have guessed Fred’s construction crew would be teenagers, he could have wanted to take Clifford’s family away from him as revenge. But the thing Betty, Jughead, and Archie don’t consider here is that what counts as motive for Hiram technically counts as motive for Hermione as well. What if Hermione had Jason killed as revenge for putting her husband—and let’s be honest, partner-in-crime—in prison? Or what if Hermione’s framing Hiram to take the fall for this, too? What if Hermione Lodge is the truest evil mastermind in all of Riverdale?

So if the Blossoms (or Hermione) are the series’ villains now, what does that make the Coopers? When it comes to Hal Cooper, Alice has an answer for that one: “milquetoast.” But as for the one and only (in Riverdale) Alice Cooper… As I mentioned last week, her transformation from cartoon villain to a relatable human with real emotions shouldn’t work half as well as it does; but here we are, hoping Alice gets back to her old self, insulting redheads of all shapes and sizes and getting slapped in public. There’s some of that old Alice Cooper fire when she bricks the newspaper and even when she pitches the exposé to Betty, but this part of the episode really is about a grieving mother, and Mädchen Amick continues to knock it out of the park. Alice Cooper is a rollercoaster of emotion, and Riverdale knows she’s absolutely worth the price of admission. But you can’t forget about the mini-Coopers, as the fact that Betty quickly becomes 100 percent on board with Alice’s proposed exposé on the Blossom family is even more of a reason to root for the Cooper matriarch. Because Betty’s enthusiasm is infectious and if she’s ride or die for her mother’s plan, then the audience might as well feel the same. Meanwhile, Polly Cooper basically comes out of nowhere with her greatness in this episode as she reveals to Archie that she’s undercover at Thornhill to prove the Blossoms had something to do with Jason’s death. The moment Polly explains to Archie what’s really going on, it’s like a light switch is finally on; the confidence is all there, and for the first time, Polly doesn’t come across as lost or a little off. She comes off like a Cooper woman, which is one of the highest bits of praise I can give when it comes to Riverdale. But also, what a harsh plan, Polly. Had to make it look real, I suppose.

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One final question: Archie didn’t give that ’84 Les Paul back, did he?

Stray observations

  • Riverdale Roulette: In honor of Cheryl’s desperation this episode, I suggest the fake dating teen romp, Drive Me Crazy. It stars Melissa Joan Hart and Adrian Grenier, two actors you may know from the Britney Spears music video “(You Drive Me) Crazy.” Unlike this episode of Riverdale, the fake couple becomes a real couple, and then there’s a weird ending about the couple’s parents also getting together. Perfect for Riverdale. Also, Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas wrote the screenplay, so that’s always something to think about.
  • Much thanks to sock monkey for finding that “Our House” cover from last week’s episode.
  • Veronica didn’t tell her father about Hermione/Fred, but supposedly Clifford did. How did Clifford find out? Did he even do it? Is this all part of the duplicitous plan of Hermione Lodge: Blossom Butcher?
  • Penelope: “You’re good and decent, Archibald. Unlike most people in this town… I swear, Archibald, when the light hits you just right…” Ignoring that people in Riverdale really want to act like Archie and Blossom look anything alike outside of hair color, I’m surprised no one ever makes a music connection between Archie and Jason. Remember, Jason also received private music lessons from “Ms. Grundy,” and while Betty tried to grill her on that, it’s possible they were actual music lessons. The biggest problem, however, is that in all of this talk of what Jason was like, I still couldn’t tell you what he was like. We still have no sense of his personality outside of the football “playbook” and his genuine love for Polly. We don’t even know what he sounds like.
  • If Archie were a smarter boy—or if anyone ever questioned the Blossom twins’ relationship—he’d be weirded out by how into him Cheryl is, especially with all the talk of how similar he is to Jason. I realize that the big “i” looms over everything Cheryl says and does when it comes to brother, but this episode lays it on thick like it did in the first few episodes. I have no problem believing Riverdale would go there, but from what I’ve read, it’s more a running joke behind the scenes than something that will come to fruition.
  • Archie: “And don’t worry, Ronnie. I can take care of myself.”
    Veronica: “Famous last words, Archiekins.” Every episode so far has proven Archie cannot take care of himself.
  • Hal: “I am not publishing your personal vendetta.” This is from the man who destroyed his entire family over a centuries old maple syrup feud.
  • Cheryl: “I’ll pass your message along.”
    Betty: “Thank you.”
    Cheryl: “If I remember.”
    Jughead: “Cheryl!”
    Cheryl: “That was a joke, you hobo.” And that joke pushes Betty to join Alice Cooper’s Blossom family exposé cause.
  • Cheryl: “Mr. Andrews! Nice haircut. Looking extremely DILF-y today.”
  • I understand if Riverdale is trying to make a point about gender inequality in the board of trustees thinking Jason was somehow more fit to be the heir to the maple syrup throne than Cheryl—since we know nothing about Jason, we have no idea if he’d even prepared for the position—but I’m still confused why Archie would point out Jason’s role as a football player (in order to mention Cheryl’s parallel role as a cheerleader) when listing credentials to that pair of trustees. Does this explain why he always wears his letter jacket? Does he think high school football matters in the sticky, maple syrup-covered real world?
  • Polly tells Archie not to let Betty know what she’s doing because Betty will worry. Apparently Archie takes that to mean he should tell Betty exactly what Polly is doing… but luckily, she doesn’t worry. In fact, Betty’s excitement when he announces to Alice that Polly is a spy at Thornhill is a highlight of the episode. She’s even giddier than when she brought up the Nancy Drew Detective Handbook in “Chapter Four.”
  • In the short-term, it’s for the best that Archie doesn’t tell Veronica about the Blossoms and her father, because this is a really rough episode for her and her family. But in the long-term, Veronica’s probably going to destroy everyone involved once she sees her father’s name on the evidence board.
  • She probably won’t ever admit it, but I think Alice Cooper has grown to like that Jughead boy.

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