Our assertion last week that Riverdale won’t be messing with the core characteristics of its cast of characters may have been premature. While the Big Four may be inviolate, lesser members of the Archie Comics pantheon seem to much more malleable in this side-universe. To wit: Chuck Clayton (Jordan Calloway), for decades a sports-happy aspiring comic book artist, is now a slut-shaming alpha jock, while boy genius Dilton Doiley (Major Kurda) is a hardcore survivalist bent on welding his scout troop into a militia. That’s a bit different.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Episode three kicks off with one of the fastest cliffhanger-reversals in history. When we last saw Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) she was holding her wrists out for the handcuffs and declaring herself guilty. Pretty much immediately she’s clarifying the situation to Mr. Weatherbee (Peter James Bryant) and Sheriff Keller (Martin Cummins): she’s guilty of lying to the authorities, not offing her brother, Jason. Now, at last, we get the heavily telegraphed revelation that Jason wanted to run away from Riverdale forever, and Cheryl was helping him fake his own death in order to get out from under their parents (who we meet briefly this episode, and it’s kind of an anticlimax).
The main thrust of this episode is the aftermath of Veronica’s (Camila Mendes) date with Chuck, who takes to social media to put it about that he gave her a “sticky maple” (apparently that’s a Riverdale thing, with the exact details left to the imagination). Ronnie is livid, but it’s social justice minded Betty (Lili Reinhart), currently in the middle of reviving the Riverdale High school newspaper, The Blue & Gold, who spearheads the counterattack, uncovering a culture of misogyny in the football team and bringing together a number of victims – including Big Ethel, played by none other than Shannon “Barb from Stranger Things” Purser. Revenge being needed, a honeypot is set, with Betty as the bait.
Meanwhile, Jughead’s (Cole Sprouse) investigation of Jason’s death continues, with Betty now promising him column inches in the paper a la Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Juggie takes a run at a witness that we haven’t spent much time with – Dilton, the smartest kid in town, who was nearby with his scout troop when Jason disappeared. After zeroing in on a weak link in Dilton’s khaki-clad foĺlowers, Jug learns that it was Dilton who was responsible for the gunshot everyone heard on the 4th of July – he was drilling his charges for the coming apocalypse because in this version of crazy-smart Dilton Doiley, the emphasis is on crazy. In return for Jughead not telling the cops about his penchant for firearms, Dilton drops a clue on him that the audience already knows – Ms. Grundy’s car was at the river that day, presumably along with Ms Grundy (Sarah Habel) herself. This will in all likelihood swing the focus of the investigation onto her next episode (a promise made, as it turns out, in this ep’s kicker).
Kind of lost in the mix this episode is ol’ Arch (KJ Apa), who manages to parlay Cheryl’s interest in him into an in with Josie and the Pussycats in order to further his music. Plus he manages to convince his dad that music to him is as important as football and deserves equal paternal support, which is all well and good, but pretty vanilla in an episode where Betty is donning a stripper wig and almost drowning a handcuffed Chuck in a hot tub.
And therein lies the problem with Archie as a character, at least in Riverdale; for all that he’s hunked out and had an affair with a teacher, he’s still a good kid trying to do the right thing, and the show is struggling to both dramatise that in a meaningful way and to make it stand out amongst all the other salacious action going on – and this is certainly the most salacious episode so far. The focus on Archie’s music is also sitting awkwardly; the creative process is always difficult to depict in a way that doesn’t come across as mawkish, and the series is definitely failing here. The show’s title certainly implies an ensemble piece, but surely the flagship character shouldn’t be this uninteresting? Give the Andrews kid some agency, for crying out loud.
There’s still plenty to enjoy here, not the least of which is some Melrose Place style histrionics among the parental set – Betty’s eminently bitter mum and the grieving Mrs Blossom damn near have a catfight, for crying out loud, and you get the feeling that some serious sins-of-the-father stuff will come to light before the series is done. There are also plenty of dangling threads left to ruminate on, in addition to the ongoing plot; Betty called Chuck “Jason” when she was torturing him, then claimed to not remember – does mental illness run in the Cooper family? Are we gonna meet the mysterious broken bird, Polly, soon? Still, this feels like a minor but measurable step down from what has gone before.
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.