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War, literary frustration, an Uncut Gems homage—on Riverdale, a lot can happen in seven years

Illustration for article titled War, literary frustration, an Uncut Gems homage—on Riverdale, a lot can happen in seven years
Photo: The CW
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It’s always edifying to take note of which craziness on Riverdale ends up permeating the mainstream. Every week brings some nutty development, but it needs to be something with the right concise, out-there quality to inspire thousands of quote-RTs on Twittersuch as “Archie goes to modestly-budgeted war.” Those out of the loop, amused every time the show they think of as being about the Archie Comics deigns to be about the many other things it has chosen to be about, were dumbstruck to find that Betty has transformed into Clarice Starling while we weren’t looking and that our boy has marched off for what looks like a Saving Private Ryan LARP. (Complete with blithely anachronistic steel M1 helmets and other WWII-era costuming.) But this drive-by amazement at the show’s heroic disregard for plausibility and realism can’t account for how fully this week’s episode goes for it. Only we week-to-week viewers actually watching will get the chance to appreciate, say, the part where a literary groupie casually blackmails Jughead into reading her manuscript. Or the part where Cheryl Blossom seems poised to become an art forger. Or the part with the brief Uncut Gems homage.

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Even the joke-version of this episode playing up its best plot points can’t come close to covering the sum total of the goofy upheavals, a complete rejuvenation for a show in danger of stalling. Not since Archer threw up its hands and started adopting a whole new premise with each season has a show’s disregard for its own internal laws worked so well in its favor. Instead of awkwardly shuffling everyone into local colleges, the much-discussed time-jump cuts through that logistical challenge to start from square one, albeit a square one informed and shaped by the years of history we’ve seen lead up to it. It’s a shake-up that grants us a fresh array of conflicts, romantic tensions, and character developments, and yet the only part that feels like it comes out of nowhere is Toni Topaz’s pivot to “pregnant Santanico Pandemonium.” And even that can be explained away by actress Vanessa Morgan’s real pregnancy.

The swift passage of seven years extrapolates from the paths the main ensemble was on when we saw them last to project a fitting future for each of the four primary cast members. They’ve all left Riverdale for the East Coast, only to be drawn back to their roots by an Archie with no other choice but to return. He’s just been honorably discharged from the front (though we only see a smidgen of its through a dream sequence combining the hell of battle with the scenery of high school, explaining why the snippet shown in the promo looked so much like a random field near Vancouver) as a respected if shell-shocked Sergeant, sent to Riverdale to revive the school’s ROTC program. He’s matured, as so many of us do during our early twenties, and not just in his tighter-cropped new haircut. We watch him reading A Farewell to Arms, proof that he’s both scarred by the hell of armed conflict and less dumb than he used to be. When he sees that his former home has become a derelict clubhouse for the Ghoulies, he restrains himself from heading right in and cracking some heads. That’s what the old Archie would’ve done.

In getting reacquainted with a town gone to seed, he finds a serviceable tour guide in Toni Topaz, bumped up to a series lead this season. After she does a rendition of “After Dark” a la From Dusk Til Dawn in a questionably appropriative headdress (Morgan’s half-Tanzanian, so who’s to say), she gets Archie up to speed on what he, and we, have missed. Hiram has taken over Riverdale and encouraged its slide into crime and poverty, seeing it as an obstacle to be removed if the luxury community of SoDale is to follow. There are no more firemen, no cops, no law, and no order. My colleague and A.V. Club comrade Eric Thurm has noted the conservative undertones weird for a show so immersed in queer camp; we’ve now entered a zone somewhere between the holler from Hillbilly Elegy and the Republican fantasy of Joe Biden’s police-defunded America.

With Archie’s reappearance as a sort of framing device, the remainder of the episode divides its attentions between the other three wayward alumni of Riverdale High in their own spheres, and delays their reunion until next week. Betty’s continuing her fledgling career in criminal forensics, having blossomed into a Clarice Starling stand-in also introduced jogging through the woods in a crew-neck sweatshirt. (Also, she has forsaken the customary ponytail, and now wears her longer tresses down. Change your hair, change your life.) Like Archie, she’s accumulated some more trauma, having been trapped in a pit by the Trash Bag Killer or TBK, a garbling plot point that casts her as an entirely different Silence of the Lambs character while bringing in elements of the BTK killer from Mindhunter. Though she’s uniquely qualified — “I caught serial killers in high school,” she states matter-of-factly — she’s still rankled by her experiences, dreaming of severed limbs after spending long nights hard at work, alone. Plus, she’s schtupping some guy she works with, though that’s clearly not long for this world.

Next up is Veronica, re-introduced toasting “one glorious year of marriage” to her dear Chadwick across one of those comically long dinner tables rich couples buy to externalize the distance they feel between them. The state of their marriage is, in reality, anything but glorious. She’s lying about working at Macy’s Lacy’s while she’s off doing her best Julia Fox at the jeweler where she hawks the apology baubles her husband buys her. Her days as the “She-Wolf of Wall Street” beckon to her, but Chadwick would rather have her waiting barefoot and pregnant at home instead of on the stock exchange floor. We know better than to think there’s any leashing this tiger, even if she’s still a little shaken up by a recent helicopter crash. She can’t wait to get out of the Upper East Side and away from her marital keeper.

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Downtown, we find Jughead in the dingy yet spacious apartment he shares with his Asian girlfriend (of course) in Alphabet City (also of course). His writer’s block has generated the expected issues both personal, as his squeeze summarily ditches him, and financial, as debt collectors come banging on his door. A one-night stand goes from bad to worse when he discovers that she only slept with him as a literary groupie, and that she’s going to blackmail him into reading her manuscript. She thinks he’s her ticket to the big time, but he’s having trouble getting in himself — as his agent tells him, he’s one year out from his big success, an eternity in terms of relevance. That New Yorker job isn’t coming, and it’s only a matter of time until the Hinton homage threatening to make him a one-hit wonder looks like a fluke. Archie’s summons couldn’t have come at a better moment.

The structuring absence in “Purgatorio” is Cheryl Blossom, glimpsed only briefly as she paints with an eerie, detached calm. We’ve been assured that more about her and her dabbling in art forgery will be brought to light in the weeks to come, bringing an element of suspense to an episode otherwise focused on exposition (albeit particularly entertaining exposition). With the core quartet either singled up or in relationships we can’t wait for them to get out of, they’re geared to fall for one another all over again. That’s the magic this show had all but lost, and now attempts to recapture: compatible people coming together, with the emotional payoffs hopefully greater than ever considering the compounding of time, both in- and out-of-universe. We’ve all been through a lot together. We want their love as badly as they do.

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Stray observations:

  • So, not to be a noodge, but there’s one logical thread I’d like to tug on: Veronica mentions to her husband, in upbraiding him for a bit of old-fashioned chauvinism, that “it’s 2021" and that “women can have it all now.” This seems to imply that everything contained within the first five seasons up to this point has taken place, at the most recently, in 2014. That discrepancy opens up a whole universe of inconsistencies and other errors, my favorite being that we had teens shilling for Bumble years before the dating app would even launch. But, again, anyone holding this against the show comes off sounding like the guy from the Poochie episode of The Simpsons.
  • Why Toni Topaz would want to keep the identity of her baby’s daddy under wraps is a mystery, though it’s unclear whether the writers are just waving away inquiry or saving this for a reveal later in the game. If the former, why not just invent a donor or some other matter-resolving explanation? If the latter, who could be worth keeping a secret?
  • Making a grown-up Kevin the drama teacher at Riverdale High seems almost too easy. You can hear the writers failing to come up with a second idea for a job befitting the one kid with theatrical ambitions. (Shades of The Prom, which assigns this same resolution to Andrew Rannells.)
  • The girl Lynette, who disappears on the Lonely Highway at the hour’s conclusion, has clearly been nicknamed “Squeaky” as a nod to Manson girl and would-be Presidential assassin Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. Is this a clue, or just a side effect of one writer’s preoccupation with cult mythology? As allusions go, it’s often hard to tell what means something and what’s just being done for the fun of it.
  • Is it me, or have there been a lot of older, female, Black therapists on TV as of late? Betty’s counselor gives off the same vibes as Rebecca Bunch’s Dr. Akopian on Crazy Ex Girlfriend. What could it mean?
  • Kudos to the casting director on finding a husband for Veronica who looks so aptly, unsettlingly identical to her father. Daddy’s back!
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