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“Riverdale” makes for two very different—but very good—shows

“Riverdale” makes for two very different—but very good—shows

I’ve accepted Riverdale’s insistence on throwing murder into its mix, but I haven’t forgiven it for its inability to balance it with its high school shenanigans. “Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!” isn’t a bad episode. It’s actually a very good one. It just so happens to feel like two different shows in an awkward crossover. While Betty and Jughead’s investigation finally leads them to Polly, Riverdale High’s variety show means drama for Archie, Veronica, and the Pussycats. This separation isn’t a new thing for Riverdale, which has struggled to bridge the gap between its straight coming-of-age elements and murder noir (the last time it successfully did so was “Body Double”), but six episodes in, it should be getting better at it.

Betty and Jughead find a pregnant Polly at a convent/mental asylum. After hearing so much about her, to see Polly in the flesh is something of a thrill. The only thing dragging at this point are the Coopers, tedious in their determination to gaslight and abuse their daughters. After catching Polly trying to run away on July 4, they sent her away and didn’t even tell her when Jason died.

Polly is clearly not entirely mentally well (neither is Betty, if you’ll recall), but she’s hardly as unbalanced as her parents want her, and Betty, to believe. Polly may sound a bit manic, excited by her sister’s appearance and the possibility of escape and a reunion with Jason, but that’s hardly the height of mental unwellness. The Coopers’s single criteria for her mental break is not hating the Blossoms apparently. That’s not a good enough reason, but Betty’s almost convinced they’re telling the truth until it’s dispelled by the discovery of the car Jason and Polly planned to use to leave.

This all unfolds fairly well, though it’s knocked off its axis by a kiss between Jughead and Betty. Even as a fan of Juggie and Betts, their kiss is confusing. Riverdale knows how to sell a romantic pairing — even Gross Grundy and Archie shared more meaningful eye contact — but this is just sloppy. Even if we ignore the show’s suspicious aversion to an asexual Jughead (which is, at this point, impossible to ignore), his new feelings for Betty don’t feel character driven but like the writer’s room decided all this quality time must equal a romance.

Not to mention that the kiss, dumped in the middle of the episode, is both poorly conceived and poorly timed. You know when people don’t feel romantic? When they’re freaking out because their parents may be killers and their sister may be mentally unstable. And who cares anyway when Betty and Jughead are running afoul of a murderer?

Such is the problem with the rest of the episode. Everything that happens is structurally sound, and it’s all delightfully high school. But when you hold a variety show up against a potential killer stalking Betty and Jughead, setting fire to Jason’s car and all the evidence inside, it doesn’t feel so urgent. Pretty Little Liars has done this particular bit better, with the threat of A tainting everything from midterms to prom. But Jason’s killer, whoever they may be, doesn’t seep into the rest of the show. Despite what Jughead says, no one’s that concerned they haven’t caught the killer or fears that they’ll be next. Jason’s name is dropped every once in awhile, but he may as well be on another planet for how much of an effect his death has had on the town as a whole.

But Riverdale has committed to capturing the high school experience, down to its most emotionally fraught but mostly nonsensical trappings. It’s odd that in the high school-iest episode yet Cheryl is nowhere to be found, but her absence allows Josie to come into a storyline of her own. Her parents, also graduates of Riverdale’s Poor Parenting Academy, lay on the pressure until Josie’s behavior pushes Valerie to quit the band in favor of performing with Archie (Archie’s hot but is he that hot, Val?). As her replacement, Josie accepts an even less disciplined Veronica, spiraling after catching Hermione and Fred kissing.

It’s a relief for those of us waiting for Veronica to get something more to do, but every time Riverdale pretends there’s an ounce of sexual tension between Hermione and Fred, a fairy loses its wings. Poor Tinkerbell needs to look into a bus pass because this isn’t ending anytime soon. Veronica figures that out herself, as Hermione refuses to stop seeing Fred even after Veronica offers to sign the construction contract that’ll save Fred’s failing business in exchange. Hermione just forges Veronica’s signature in a move that’s easily foreseen but still a blow to one of the only semi-acceptable parent/child relationships on the show.

Perhaps Riverdale’s idea of coming-of-age is simply realizing your parents will disappoint you. It could probably wring a season out of that. There are lots of places to go with teenagers growing into young adults, but where is this murder mystery going? What happens when Jason’s killer is unveiled? Will it even matter or will everyone just return to their variety shows and fighting with their parents? Betty will probably feel a little something, and most certainly Cheryl, but who else is this important to?

Riverdale chose to toss a-not-entirely-necessary murder into its makeup, but it hasn’t been able to integrate it. We’re just left with Archie and friends doing their usual thing while a murder investigation chugs along in the backdrop. Teenagers may be self-centered, and the lack of interest would probably be true in the real world, but this is fiction. It’s hard enough to care about the murder of a dude we’ve never met without most of our characters being equally indifferent.

Stray Observations

  • “Josephine? I didn’t know that was your real name.” Her name is Josie so…why does Archie sound so surprised?
  • What is the timeline exactly? As far as we know, school just started so how pregnant is Polly if she wasn’t showing on July 4?
  • Yay for Josie getting more screentime! Yay for Archie successfully performing solo and smiling! Yay!
  • A couple who had a nice kiss? #Archerie.
  • If you want to know more about the conversation surrounding Jughead’s asexuality, look into #AroAceJugheadOrBust.

Chelsea A. HensleyChelsea A. Hensley is a writer and blogger who recently received a BA in English from the University of Missouri. Besides television, she also loves chocolate chip cookies, puppies, and Dragon Age. In between episodes of her favorite shows, Chelsea’s hard at work on a young adult novel. You can read more of her writing on The Chelsea Review and follow her on Twitter @ChelseaBigBang.

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