Riverdale is, above all else, totally self-aware. Its characters drop pop culture references with the savvy of writers twice their age. Its style is as camp and glossy as style can get, because it knows that style is also its substance. And, every now and then, it isn’t afraid to take a step back and give a character a meta-slap across the face, or nudge them in an deliberately unexpected direction. What a relief, then, that it’s only taken the show six episodes to realise that Archie Andrews, ostensibly its main star, remains its weakest character.
Archie’s boring and so is his music, the show finally admitted in Episode 5. Episode 6, though, has its Archie cake and eats it, continuing to follow his dream of being a musician while undermining it completely. The result is entertaining, smart and some of the series’ best writing so far.
It centres around that rite of passage of teen movies: the high school talent contest. Entering, of course, is one Archie Andrews, who, bless his ginger cotton socks, suffers from stage fright. And so Veronica does the decent thing and offers to sing with him – only for her to be trumped by Valerie, who quits the Pussycats, because Josie won’t let her sing co-lead vocals. Splitting up the Pussycats within hours of bringing Archie Comics to TV screens? And then getting Val and Archie to duet together? It’s a smart, subversive bit of scripting, not least because the series identifies the best part of Archie’s storyline (his burgeoning romance with Val) and decides to give us more of it.
But this episode also gives the other characters the chance to call out Archie for his self-absorbed, first-world, Zac-Efron-in-High-School-Musical problems. Top of the list, naturally, is Veronica, who can’t believe he replaced her without even telling her. “You literally have zero loyalty, you ginger Judas,” she seethes, slightly less smoothly than usual, because she’s genuinely hurt by his thoughtless behaviour. Archie is equally oblivious to Val’s spat with Josie, actually describing her decision to quit the band as “great news” – the kind of declaration that would horrify any real Riverdale fan. Hell, he doesn’t even know “Josie” is short for “Josephine”, or that Josephine is named after Josephine Baker, let alone who Josephine Baker is. One brilliant moment sees Fred refer to Bob Dylan, only for Archie to say he doesn’t know who that is either. It’s as if Riverdale has suddenly woken up to the fact that Archie’s not all that and the programme’s turned into a clip show full of montages of his red hot stupidity.
And so he walks about in his orange bubble, doesn’t seem to flinch at being called Yoko Ono to the Pussycats’ Beatles. Oh, and he hallucinates his football teammates’ heads as werewolves when he’s nervous on stage – a tic that’s so odd it only makes his self-centred angst even more sniggersome.
At this point, Riverdale is now fully aware that Archie has little, if anything, to do with what else is happening around town. He briefly crosses paths with Jughead and Betty, both supposedly his best friends, but has no clue what they’re up to or what they’re uncovering.
Speaking of which, Jughead and Betty (more on, ahem, that later) take their biggest steps towards solving the Jason Blossom mystery this episode – a further kick in the teeth to just how little Archie has progressed so far. Most intriguing is that this also means we get a chance to find out more about Betty’s mysterious sister, Polly. First off, we learn that she’s now locked up in a place called “Sisters Of Quiet Mercy”, possibly the most sinister name for any mental health institute imaginable. Second off, we discover that Jason got her pregnant. And third off, we see that she’s played by Tiera Skovbye, who is wonderfully wide-eyed in a way that speaks of quiet but completely cray-cray unhingedness.
The truth about Polly? That goes something like this: she and Jason hooked up, but they were forced apart, albeit not before he knocked her up. And so their plans to meet on 4th July and run away were scuppered, with Betty’s parents sending Polly away to the Sisters instead. As for Betty? Polly was told she didn’t want to visit. So when she does, it’s a genuine joy for Polly, until Betty drops the bombshell that Jason is dead. Cue more cray-cray hysterics (maybe the Coopers really do have an underlying crazy problem – you know, apart from being involved in a decades-long Maple Syrup Feud with the Blossoms).
But there’s still nonetheless a hint of truth to Polly’s story, backed up by the discovery of Jason’s car and the fact that we see someone following them and disposing of evidence. Polly’s escape at the end of the episode, having apparently jumped out of her window, only emphasises that shizzle just got real for our Riverdale detectives.
When it comes to getting real, though, these teens have no shortage of things to be preoccupied with. Veronica sees her mum and Fred snogging, which throws her for a loop – and, after joining the Pussycats (best idea ever), she takes that out on Josie at rehearsal. It’s the kind of immature behaviour we might not expect from someone whose first bit of dialogue referenced Truman Capote, but it’s a reminder that these are kids we’re watching, and Veronica, underneath her cool, classy air, is still a teenager.
Hermione is no more mature, mind you, lying through her teeth to her daughter – and it’s that brazen demolition of trust that really seems to knock Veronica for six. She holds her mum to account, as fiercely as she believes in her dad, and so Hermione ultimately reveals that Veronica was made an official officer in her father’s company, which gives her a stakeholder’s say in how the business is run – and gave Hermione a chance to forge Veronica’s signature to cancel the existing construction deal for their land, instead giving it to Fred’s company. Is it because Hiram had a deal with a dodgy company, or because she wants to give her new boyfriend some much-needed business to keep him afloat? More importantly, how much of this is driven by love for her daughter?
If you thought the Lodges’ parental relationships were bad, just take a look around at Riverdale’s endless array of dysfunctional families. Alice Cooper (still a funny name) callously laughs in Betty’s face, when she suggests that her dad could have killed Jason Blossom, and spends the whole time when Jughead is in their house having breakfast openly mocking his name, by deliberately saying “Jug Head” as two words. (Mädchen Amick is having way too much fun. Which is just the way we like it.)
And, of course, there’s Miles McCoy, Josie’s father, who disapproves of the Pussycats with all the snobbery of Ryan Gosling in La La Land. He’s delighted that Val leaves the group, keen to push Josie forward in life without the long tails and ears for hats. Her mum, the Mayor, is not much better. She cheers the Pussycats, but cares about that more than the friendships that went into the band, which formed when all three members were working in the same store (they used to rehearse in the supply cupboard). So her words of comfort to her clearly hurting daughter are merely to make sure that she “remembers our brand” when finding Val’s replacement.
It all boils over wonderfully in a dinner scene that sees Archie and Fred visit the McCoys to pitch for that Lodge contract (although Fred is still unaware that Hermione is behind the land development – that’ll come next episode, no doubt). Miles lays into Archie for his lack of musical knowledge in a way that’s entirely accurate, but while we cheer that on, we also get to dislike him, as he goes on to dismiss Fred as a dollar-loving gentrifier – if the people awkwardly eating together don’t dislike Archie, they certainly loathe him. To really seal his fate in our eyes, he dismisses Josie’s music as pointless pop rather than soulful jazz (way to encourage your kid, Miles), then, after skipping a jazz festival to see the Pussycats perform at the talent show, he leaves halfway through their act. The Mayors’ husband is not a nice man.
He also doesn’t know much about music, if he doesn’t like the Pussycats. Because Riverdale never shies away from the chance to show us Josie and co. in action – and they always sound good. Here, they mix things up with a cover of I Feel Love, a track that’s more synthy and raunchy than anything they’ve done yet. The addition of Veronica to the on-stage line-up makes it even more entertaining than usual, but there’s a sting in the tail, as Josie turns around at the end of the number, barely concealing her tears from her dad’s departure. Ashleigh Murray’s performance is pitch-perfect here; if Riverdale is as much music video as hardboiled mystery, the show still finds a way to develop its characters through those music sequences. Yes, there’s Kevin Keller being a diva presenter, but there’s also emotion behind Josie and Val’s decisions to perform. And even, in its own way, behind Archie’s sub-Ed Sheeran act.
And that’s what impresses about this episode of Riverdale. The series has already shown that it can do gothic weirdness, dark humour, crime thriller and high school musical, but it’s self-aware to the point that it also knows how to make its teen drama both important and not cringe-inducing. When Jughead and Betty share a kiss at the end of the episode – “Hey there, Juliet,” he greets her, climbing up a ladder to her window – it actually feels like something that matters, not just an unexpected twist in Jughead’s personal life or a way to keep Betty distracted from the potential Veronica-Archie love triangle. Bughead shippers? You bet we are. And not only because it results in the portmanteau “Bughead” (or, if you prefer, “Jetty”). Cole Sprouse impress more and more with every additional bit of screentime he gets. And Lili Reinhart? She deserves better than Archie anyway.
The result is one of the sharpest Riverdale scripts so far, advancing the show’s bizarre plot elements while still finding time to ground everything in the teen genre. For all of Riverdale’s delicious irony, it takes a lot of self-awareness to know when to dial it down – and when to dial it back up again. Yes, Archie may be the weakest character in town, but the show is wasting no time in turning that to its advantage. If we had any hesitations before about this show, we’re now officially all in.
Here’s the trailer for Episode 7, which has even more Jughead action:
Riverdale is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription, with new episodes arriving every Friday.
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