For a comic franchise that started out lily white back in the day, in recent years the Archie books have embraced diversity with gusto, and the new series has taken it even further. Mr Weatherbee (Peter James Bryant), Pop Tate (Alvin Sanders) and all of the Pussycats are African American now, while Reggie Mantle (Ross Butler) is Asian. Most prominently, however, we have at least two LGBTQI characters: fan favourite Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), who is openly gay, and Moose Mason (Cody Kearsley) – and it’s these two who provided last episode’s cliffhanger, stumbling across the corpse of Jason Blossom while canoodling at the river, and revealing that Blossom had been shot, not drowned.
After the plot-heavy pilot episode, “A Touch of Evil” eases off the gas a bit, dealing mainly with the fallout of the body’s discovery. First and foremost, we have Archie (KJ Apa) wrestling with whether or not to tell the authorities that he and Ms Grundy (Sarah Habel) heard a gunshot on the day Jason disappeared, spilling the beans about their illicit affair. Parallel to that, we get Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) playing queen bee, determined that a pep rally go on in the face of the recent tragedy.
The lighter plot machinations allow more time to flesh out some of the relationship dynamics. Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes) break up and make up over – who else? – Archie, in the end vowing to never let a boy come between them again (yeah, right). Perhaps more importantly, Archie and Jughead (Cole Sprouse) mend some bridges, and thank god for that – perhaps the most jarring element so far has been the idea that these two seven decade BFFs are on the outs.
Jughead is, of course, our narrator, giving voice to melodramatic voice overs that don’t really add much plotwise but do add a little noir je ne sais quoi. The obvious comparison is Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick, with Juggie playing high school detective. Admittedly, at the moment there’s not much detecting going on, but he does see Archie with Grundy, and pushes America’s favourite redhead to do the right thing. He also drops the bombshell that Jason died a week after he disappeared, but the whys and wherefores of that revelation have to wait for next week.
The central mystery aside, we learn a few more bits and pieces along the way, some of which suggest deeper mysteries. Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols) is now working as a waitress at Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe – what happened to the bagful of money from last episode? If that’s not in play and finances are tight, how is Veronica getting cupcakes flown in from New York (her apology gifts to Betty are lavish AF)? There’s also a strong suggestion that Polly, Betty’s as-yet-unseen sister, has been institutionalised for her mental issues, leaving Betty’s mother, Alice (Madchen Amick) bitter, mistrustful – and possibly vengeful?
It’s becoming clear that Jason intended to fake his own death – at one point Cheryl tearfully wails that “…he was supposed to come back!” and she is notably unsurprised to be arrested by Sheriff Keller (Kevin’s dad, apparently) in this episode’s cliffhanger. The question is now raised: what – or who – drove him to that, and what is Cheryl’s involvement?
Cheryl Blossom is turning into a fascinating character, with Madelaine Petsch’s brittle performance letting us see how broken the head cheerleader is under her ice-queen demeanor. You just know there’s going to be some horrible Blossom family history unearthed in the course of the season, some terrible House of Usher stuff, and there are moments when you can see her just screaming on the inside. While almost every other character is more likable – even Reggie, who Archie punches on with this ep in defence of Jughead – Cheryl is easily the most interesting we’ve been introduced to thus far.
Fans of the comics get some iconic treats this ep. Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and the Pussycats cut loose at the pep rally, performing – what else? “Sugar, Sugar”, and we finally see Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica sharing a booth and a couple of milkshakes at Pop Tate’s. It’s the balance between loving nostalgia and lurid, hairpin-turn soap opera histrionics that is making Riverdale enjoyable so far, and hopefully they can keep it up.