Fourteen years ago the legal department of Archie Comic Publications torpedoed Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa satirical play about a gay Archie Andrews. Four years ago, Aguirre-Sacasa and Jason Moore walked out of Perks of Being a Wallflower with the idea of filtering the Archie characters through something a bit like that. Earlier this year, season one of Riverdale aired.
What a winding route to the screen it took. Along the way there were versions where it was a movie with time travel and dinosaurs. Along the way there were drafts where Kevin was an agentic and autonomous individual. There were all manner of things, and following them all came season one; Camp, compromised, and with an insistent heart pumping pure molten television around its overheated veins, boiling your syrup and cracking your ice.
Now here’s season two to follow that. Season one got to be a response to seventy five years of a peculiar strain of American pop culture and to one peculiar writer’s efforts to understand how it relates to his life. Season two gets to be a response to all of that and also a response to Riverdale. Here’s where things get really interesting as its success and its strong foundation free it up to take bigger risks and ask bigger questions. Or maybe here’s where things get really boring as its birth cry hushes and it settles down to become a well-behaved CW show.
I’m hoping it’s the former, as I’ll be writing these weekly recaps, Everything’s Riverdale. Welcome. Let’s see what we get. Let’s see what we do with it.
THE TOWN WITH A PAST
Teen drama series, as they go on, have to negotiate the problem of the parents becoming people. Watching early episodes of Pretty Little Liars and it feels inconceivable that the mothers or fathers could ever have storylines of their own in which they’re the viewpoint characters and the stakes are their personal wellbeing. Then by season two you’d die for Hannah’s mum. Early UK Skins had a neat trick for managing this, casting Eighties comedians we hadn’t heard from in a while as prominent parents, their recognisable faces a clear signal that their characters weren’t to be understood as ‘real’ in the same way the kids were, that they weren’t to be understood as something that mattered right now.
Riverdale went for a related strategy, looking to actors associated with shows in this show’s DNA. Luke Perry is here as Luke Perry from 90210. Mädchen Amick is here as Mädchen Amick from Twin Peaks. There to show us where this came from, not what this is. What seems to have disrupted this “Remember these Nineties guys? From the Nineties?” function of the casting is that most of them then turned in unignorably brilliant performances. So here we open season two with an episode where many of the set piece scenes are not only from Fred Andrews’ perspective but set inside his brain.
What parents are for isn’t the only question about how the past relates to the present that this episode has to wrestle with. Having treated itself to the fun of doing two big finales to season one, Riverdale now has to open its second season with an awful lot of aftermath. Amazingly little happens here, as characters mostly turn up to visit the hospital and fill each other in on the various different forms the apocalypse manifested to each of them.
And as we look back, the town itself starts to acquire more history. What were these riots all about then, Pop Tate?
Jughead is the character most in motion this week, finding himself with the power to hurt people and trying to work out if he can handle that. Being the central character interferes with his always shaky ability to function as an outsider narrator, and he delivers the opening voice over in the most extraordinary way, putting the stress on Archie not owning a driver’s license as if that were the most curious aspect of Fred’s shooting. When we talk about others we’re often talking about ourselves, I suppose, so I suspect what’s really on Juggy’s mind there is that he shares Betty’s concern with how he himself instantly learned to ride a motorbike.
Kevin, conversely, never talks about anything except other people. He stresses that everyone’s thoughts are all about Fred but that if they weren’t they’d all be about Betty. He is briefly invited to consider his own life but moves things swiftly on.
Pureheart the Powerful is chosen by Jughead as Archie’s superhero name. Sounding unlike any superhero name in current popular culture, this only really makes sense if Jughead somehow knows that ‘Pureheart the Powerful’ is his superhero name in the comics. This isn’t like in Season One when Kevin plucked the name ‘Madam Satan’ out of thin air – that was obviously his unconscious mind trying to alert the gang to the proximity of Actual Madam Satan in the form of ‘Miss Grundy.’ This is something else. My theory is that Jughead has been secretly writing Pureheart the Powerful fic for some time.
Archie continues to be someone unable to name his traumas. It remains unclear if he’ll ever understand that he’s been sexually abused and it’s very clear here that he doesn’t have the foggiest idea why he feels so guilty about not having got himself shot. He’s also very cross with himself for enjoying dog walking and sex while his dad is at death’s door. This anger at having enjoyed sex he then takes out on Veronica. In the Pureheart the Powerful comics, Archie loses his powers when he thinks sexual thoughts. Not sure Pureheart the Powerful is an altogether healthy hero to be.
Cheryl can name her traumas. She knows what was done to her and can say it out loud. Magnificent and terrifying in her always significant white, she resembles an Angel of Life and Death more than anything else in an episode replete with references to such. Moving from establishing her control over her mother to acting like her kiss can resurrect Fred Andrews she appears to genuinely believe that she can damn or save any of us. I’m not suggesting she can’t. She’s for reals, Baby Jane.
Sheriff Keller continues to be entrusted by the state with the investigation of serious crime. This one, he suspects, may be jingle jangle related.
Doctor Master is an unusually large man in usually sized scrubs.
Alice has been kind of reset. She’s now a fussy but protective mother with a role as one of the show’s main anti-Serpent voices. Her redemption arc seems to have left her as funny-controlling rather than sinister-controlling.
Hermione remains Schrodinger’s Mother. Owed either jail time or innumerable apologies.
The Virgin Mary looks suspicious, judgemental. Knows more than she’s saying.
The Pussycats appear at the hospital, looking as if they’re all set to support Fred with an immaculately choreographed dance routine.
Reggie appears at the hospital looking as if he’s all set to support Fred with the secrets of true immortality, timeless perpetual bodily regeneration.
Veronica is exploring two new roles. Having drawn a line between Old Veronica and New Veronica then she’s feeling her way to how New Veronica works as someone’s girlfriend. ‘Incredibly giving and supportive’ is her answer to that so far. Meanwhile, she’s also puzzling out how the well-established rules for domestic squabbles among the Lodge family apply when those squabbles might involve a body count. How do her tactics apply when the stakes have changed? For her the episode ends with a scene that looks like something out of The Godfather but is pretty much just her being told off for raiding the fridge.
Betty is not blessed with such narrative complexity, as her entire episode is just about the learning to be a supportive girlfriend thing. Her arc this week ends with her announcing that she’ll back Jughead’s choices no matter what, before we cut to a scene that illustrates she was doing uncannily better back when she was questioning them.
Count Drago, Betty’s Vampire Uncle, has yet to appear.
What is Jughead writing? Is this a sequel to his novel about Jason’s murder or a continuation? If it’s a sequel then what’s he doing with his completed Jason book? Will we see him seek publication over the course of the season? If it’s a continuation then what does he even see this book as being about? Just ‘all the stuff that happens to my friends’? Tighten your focus, Jughead, or you’ll never finish the thing.
As Twin Peaks first season opens with “Who Killed Waterborne Teen?” and its second opens with “Who Shot Grown Man?” then so goes Riverdale. Hold on for a wild ride in season three.
Or maybe sooner. Greendale, you guys! Greendale! Home of actual teenager and actual witch, Sabrina the Teenage Witch! From Sabrina the Teenage Witch! And also from the forthcoming CW series based on the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic.
Now look. Here’s the thing about that. Sabrina’s main antagonist in that comic is Madam Satan, a pre-Archie Archie character whose deal is that she’s a dead woman who goes around wrecking people’s lives with sex. Specific to the Chilling Adventures version being adapted as a Riverdale sister show is the fact that Madam Satan is also a substitute teacher.
Our first look at Greendale in this show also sees us witness to the death of Jennifer ‘Miss Grundy’ Gibson, an itinerant sexual predator working as a music teacher.
At this point I would tell you that ‘Miss Grundy’ is Madam Satan. But I think you’ve always known.