In ‘Death Proof,’ Riverdale pushed its eccentric format to a point of fulfillment where it was most utterly and distinctively itself. So what’s next? Change the format!
As Pocahontas and Heraclitus both sang, you can’t step in the same Riverdale twice. Or, as Robert Browning and Sarah Polley both sang… everything’s strange and new…
Betty and Veronica
After some opening narration that threatens a found footage episode, we learn that we’re in for a horror anthology instead. One in which the Black Hood sets our pals a fun challenge and, over the course of three interconnected stories, they will proceed to completely ignore it and not trouble themselves to reference it in any way.
Across the three stories, Cheryl is the only character who alludes to its framing device. Once. Dismissively.
Good for them. It was a silly challenge.
The Hood’s rules are that they are to avoid sinning for forty-eight hours or otherwise he’ll “take up the sword” once more. No element of that is well defined. The Black Hood is shit at game design.
First of all, we’ve still no idea what you understand by ‘sin’, mate. Seems very random and lacking any theological rigour or substance if you ask me. All over the place you are with your ‘sin.’ And what’s this ‘Forty-Eight Hours’ business? Forty-Eight hours from when? From when the news broke or from when you nailed your theses to the door of Pop Tate’s? Sounds like you meant the second, but that’s hardly fair, is it? People would have been sleep-sinning for hours before they learned they were even playing.
Then there’s “take up the sword again.” You can’t threaten us with resuming killing when there’s been no indication that you’ve stopped! You killed someone just last week! What sort of terrifying threat is “things will continue as they have been”? You have to at least threaten to escalate or something.
(Unless by “take up the sword” the Black Hood literally means he’s going to switch weapons. Unwise if so as he’s only just got the hang of successfully shooting people)
Directed to abstain from unspecified activities for an unclear period of time or face unclear consequences, everyone apparently decides to not bother playing and to just get on with their lives.
Betty’s life involves accusing random people of being the Hood, but it would have anyway.
The episode ends with Archie shocked they didn’t win.
THE TOWN WITH PANCAKE MIX
Archie and Jughead
We zoom in on a road sign, the central image of this segment. In one direction it points to Riverdale and in the other to Greendale. No mileage to either is given. That’s not the information it’s there to provide. It’s simply there to tell us this; we are in a place between. Archie and Jughead are in a story about what it means to be on that road and a story that happens because it is happening there.
Tony Todd’s character has more to say on this. He’s quick to fill us in on some of the things we’re specifically between. Archie could have been Jason Blossom, he tells us. That’s something that’s possible on the road to Greendale. It’s also something we were told fairly often in season one, but it meant something different then. When we’ve previously considered the idea that Archie could have been, or could yet be, Jason then that’s been a statement about roads he could have taken or roads he could yet take. Here it’s a statement about the road on which he stands. Archie could be Jason on the road between Riverdale and Greendale because that road is a space between life and death and also a space between the self and the other. It doesn’t matter who Archie is and it doesn’t matter who is alive or dead. Those concepts are blurry here.
We’re outside of the show! Driving to a town that belongs to a different television programme, an exciting new show that was confirmed as having been commissioned on the week this episode aired. ‘Riverdale’ often means Riverdale, and never more so than it does here, where it’s being contrasted with the setting of a show other than Riverdale. Under those conditions then to drive out of Riverdale is to drive out of Riverdale and launch off out into extra-textual space.
Riverdale’s gestures towards mimesis never include the idea that its reality is consistent, but they do aim for a certain integrity. Its world strives to flow but hold together. Yet the word ‘Candyman’ is present in this episode. Not spoken, but present. When horror icon Tony Todd from Candyman shows up in a horror themed episode, we know it’s because he’s horror icon Tony Todd from Candyman. The arrival of that knowledge inside the head of the viewer is an event that occurs when this episode is watched. “Candyman” is said, silently, at least three times, and that’s a dangerous word to have in the air when you’re still telling a story about the death of a mythologised childhood terror called the Sugarman. If you’ve ambitions to pretend that you’re presenting a world of flesh and blood rather than a world of writing and lighting, then it’d be risky to remind your audience to think about actors, names and Candymen while also expecting them to pretend the Sugarman is something that actually happened. But there’s no such risk and no such ambition. There’s no need to treat Riverdale as anything other than a production once you’re out in the wilds between it and other texts.
Which is exactly where we are. Deer wander on from Life is Strange and crates plonk down from At the Mountains of Madness. But most interestingly for Archie and Jughead, being on the road between texts puts them between themselves and other versions of Archie and Jughead.
“I had this stupid idea…” says Archie, and then shares a fantasy of him and Jughead moving into a place together in New York. What’s being referenced here is pretty clear. Archie’s Stupid Idea is Archie’s Weird Fantasy, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s 2003 play about Archie moving to the big city and coming to terms with being gay. Being outside of Riverdale is important in that story as it equates Riverdale with the closet, but being outside of Riverdale is important here because it makes all this sayable. Outside of his show then Riverdale’s Archie can talk of what he wants when he’s other people.
And Jughead can listen. His one question, “Where are Betty and Veronica in this scenario?” shows that he’s understood perfectly. The question makes no sense if this is a childhood dream of the Riverdale character who met Veronica less than a year ago, but all the sense in the world if we’re eavesdropping on iconic Archie Comics characters trying to puzzle out what they really mean.
Betty and Veronica would, of course, get a place of their own together. Archie presents this world in opposition to the lives they’re living right now, to the world where Jughead is trapped as a serpent and they’re all trapped in the ongoing plotlines of Riverdale. What stands between this Archie and him living his weird fantasy is that he’s Riverdale’s Archie.
If this wasn’t our lives, he’s saying, if this wasn’t our version of our lives, if we weren’t living moment to moment in a shambolic CW show, then the most true and natural fate for all us Archie characters is that we’d end up happy, gay and metropolitan.
‘Candyman’ is never said out loud. ‘Bert and Ernie’ is said twice.
Did anyone ask for a Chuck Clayton redemption story?
Not that that’s really what this is. There’s no real interest here in him as anything other than a piece of misdirection. This story doesn’t care about him any more than it cares about that janitor. Chuck’s role is to mislead us that we’re watching a story about a young black man trying to be a better person before ending up blamed for the invisible creepcrimes of an old white man. His role to tell that decoy story and also to be someone who can be ironically berated by Cheryl for thinking “women are playthings to possess or torture” shortly before she’s unmasked to the viewer as a possessive torturer of women.
One of Mayor McCoy’s main roles in this show is to judge people unfairly. So as soon as she’s judged Chuck irredeemable and dragged Josie out of Pop’s then we all feel reasonably sure we’re being directed to see Chuck as hard done by. We, as an audience, may well not feel like following that direction. We may not feel like buying the story they’re selling but we feel pretty sure we know what’s on sale. And it isn’t really that. Chuck gets off scott free at the end and nobody cares much either way because SHOCK! Look what the story was really about!
But to pull that off, the show had to gesture at what it thinks a Chuck Clayton redemption story would like like.
What would a Chuck Clayton redemption story look like?
The sketch of one here is kind of weird. It involves Chuck doing nothing to address the specific failing of being an abusive misogynist but instead be shown to be vaguely striving to be a ‘better person’ through three different endeavours.
Going to Church. Trying to become a kids’ book artist. Trying to become a comics artist.
‘Going to church’ as evidence of being a top bloke is interesting as, the last time we heard from organised religion in this episode, some preacher on the radio was going off like a Godspeed You! Black Emperor track, while Tony Todd’s character was putting it about that the local godly folk were right behind the Black Hood.
‘Trying to become a kids book artist’ is a straightforward signifier of innocent pursuits.
‘Trying to become a comics artist’ seems less so. “You know what the opposite of predatory misogyny? The Comics Industry!” sadly isn’t a move available in Two Thousand and Seventeen. But it makes sense when you remember that this Riverdale always stands contrasted with the supposedly idealised Riverdale of the comics. Comics are a symbol of innocence for Chuck because the Good Chuck is still in the comics. Write it in your diary.
Josie at first seems sceptical that going to church, trying to draw kids books and trying to draw comics constitutes any real sort of moral reform. Then Pop Tate confirms that Chuck is indeed going to church and she withdraws her objections. It turns out that she has granted that doing those random things somehow evidence that he’s a changed man. She just didn’t believe he was doing those random things.
A Chuck Clayton redemption story would look ill-judged.
Poirot is so weirdly pronounced that I wish the script had called for Jughead to have a go at his first name too.
Brian Lyster, Production Sound Mixer is a man not afraid of undercutting the tension of a spooky tale of the Riverdale Reaper with a big ol’ farting noise from a ketchup bottle.
The Riverdale Reaper shot all his victims. Left no survivors. I have no idea why people think he might be the Black hood.
Kevin is getting high readings on the Agency-o-Metre this week! Interested in his own life and happiness? Displaying interests that aren’t listed on the generic Gay Best Friend character sheet? This is all encouraging.
Veronica, Betty, and Sheriff Keller all agree its best to keep everything secret from Kevin so he doesn’t have to have any feelings or make any choices. They have neglected to check the readings.
Josie has an extraordinary way of placating a mother who’s concerned for her safely and and about her drug use. Comparing herself to Whitney Houston.
Cheryl chose that version of ‘Milkshake’ to send to the producers. Should have been our first clue.
Mayor McCoy’s intonation suggests she takes particular exception to the twist.
The Candyman does not appear.
The Sugarman appears in flashback.
THE TOWN WITH A KILL KIT
Betty and Veronica
Betty’s and Veronica’s investigation uncovers two facts about Sheriff Keller. That he is having an affair with the Mayor and that he is diligently and thoroughly investigating a number of local crimes.
They only treat the first of these as a genuine revelation, although both seem such to me.
Perhaps the shock of learning that the Sheriff is actually having a fair crack at doing his job hasn’t quite sunk in for them yet. Indeed, Betty’s entire reasoning for thinking that a big wall of clues and evidence regarding the Black Hood suggested that Keller was the Black Hood relies on her not even being prepared to consider that he might have been doing any sleuthing.
What’s now becoming a classic Riverdale inversion visits itself upon Betty in this story. An episode will position a character ready for a development… and then the subsequent episode will do the opposite. ‘Death Proof’ ended with Betty presented as having come into her own as a detective and having seized the reigns of the narrative. Look out world! Here comes Betty! What’s she going to do now she’s all super-charged?
“Act like a nob,” answers ‘Tales from the Darkside.’
There’s not even any consolation in Betty having been right about something. There’s no “Oh well, she was wrong about Keller having been the Hood, but she knew something was up, alright, and that hunch led her to the actual truth.” That’s not a face-saving story available here as the actual truth is just what Veronica intuited at the start.
Betty’s isn’t the most striking inversion though. ‘Death Proof’ had Cheryl as sympathetic and heroic. I wonder how she gets on this week.
THE TOWN WITH A SPOOKY LITTLE GIRL
As soon as we see that the first story is called ‘Archie and Jughead’ then we feel certain that one of the remaining stories will be called ‘Betty and Veronica.’ Then the second story appears. It’s called ‘Josie.’ We might think it strange that it’s not called ‘Josie and the Pussycats’ but then the story goes on and explains why it isn’t. Then we might come to find it strange that it isn’t called ‘Josie and Cheryl.’ The reasons for that are also eventually provided. Josie is alone.
Since early in the first season we’ve been told that Cheryl and Josie are friends but we’ve never really got a chance to see how that friendship works. Now at last we do, only to learn that there’s no friendship here. There’s something alright, but there’s no friendship.
Since the first episode of this season we’ve seen Cheryl portrayed as a torturer and possessor of women. In that instance it was her mother and in that instance it was awesome. It wasn’t morally justified in any way, of course, it was just the abused becoming an abuser. But within the fiction of this theatre of monstrosity then Cheryl remained a sympathetic character. She does not here.
The timeline isn’t clear so we don’t know exactly how long her relationship with Josie has been characterised by this sort of manipulation and control, but it does seem that its recent escalation relates to the attempted rape. Cheryl tells Josie that the reason for her outward attempts to control her career is that she’s trying to express her gratitude for the rescue. It would seem to follow that her hidden fixation on Josie and more horrific actions towards her are also part of her trying to process exactly that.
If we were to apply real world morality then we would see little to have changed with Cheryl. She was a well-motivated monster and she remains so. But dramatic morality is very different; In the real world then everyone’s real and everyone matters, while on telly then nobody’s real and how much people matter varies wildly. We are not with Penelope as she experiences any effects of Cheryl terrorising her in the hospital. We are with Josie every step of the way as Cheryl’s cruel manipulations destroy her relationships and leave her with lasting trauma. In terms of television morality then Cheryl is an entirely different kind of monster now.
And then there’s race. That’s what we’re talking about about when Mayor McCoy says, “There are people in this town with hate in their hearts. You’ve read the letters I used to get. The words they used.” The viewer has not read the letters. But the viewer knows which words she means. “I’ve worked so hard to get us here,” she says. “To shield us from this kind of hatred.”
The sustained and consistent hate campaign against the McCoys has been a racist one. That’s very clear even before the script goes for a glancing and indirect Trump analogy with the idea that their harassers have been emboldened by the successes of the Black Hood. Cheryl’s motives for escalating and repurposing it are not racist, but that hardly matters. Her creepy doings are as effective as they are because they harness the power of the terror that Josie and her mum have already been subjected to for being black women. Again, she looks like a different kind of monster now.
Archie and Jughead
“Riverdale had a Reaper?” asks an astonished Jughead. Jughead whose recent interests include researching all the murder and whose most abiding interest is in the social identity of his community. That this is new information to him is almost as curious as Alice having been able to just erase her past from the public record and have almost everyone act as if it had similarly vanished from their memories. Things drift in and out of Riverdale’s past. It is editable.
Because we know what should be there. Seventy-Six years worth of Archie and the gang’s antics naturally fill the entirety of the town’s history. It was born with them in 1941 and their distended adolescences bloat to fill its days and years. Before them was nothing.
Archie’s Weird Fantasy dealt with this by supposing an eternal present, by supposing that the characters existed in a NOW! where anything that had ever happened was happening as we speak, provided it was of sufficient cultural relevance. Riverdale instead supposes a vacuum. If the town’s past exists as a empty space, stripped of the eternal summer of Archie’s youth, then the present balances on that emptiness and must adapt as Reapers and Serpents are sucked in to fill it.
Why is Riverdale a river? Why is Greendale green?
Whatever the historic reasons for the two Archie Comics towns having these names, you can’t pair two terms like those as explicitly as they’re paired here without letting Meaning in.
Talking about Riverdale in isolation then the important thing is that its on a river. It’s on a boundary, and very specific one. Pick just about any folk music tradition in the English language and you’re going to find the word ‘sweet’ frequently and powerfully associated with death. Sweetwater River is drawn as the boundary between life and death from the first episode’s opening scenes. To live on its shores is to live at the frontier of the mortal world.
So that’s pretty straightforward. But what does it mean when you have other [Something]dales that are also positioned on that river?
‘Riverdale’ normally signifies in terms of what it stands next to, but when another town is next to the same river and not named for it then that positions Riverdale as of the river. To be Riverdale then Riverdale must share qualities with the river that Greendale does not. I’ve argued so often in these columns that the defining characteristic of this show is a churning inconstancy of character and narrative that you already know what I’m going to say here. Riverdale is the river because it is the place where everything’s fluid and in motion.
So why is Greendale green? We’ll find out when we get there, I suppose. The safe bet at this stage would be, like much that’s lush and green, it grows on top of death and decay. Archie stands next to death. Sabrina stands upon the dead.