Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 9. Not seen Riverdale? Catch up with spoiler-free review of the first three episodes.
The reds are coming. And they’re bringing maple syrup. Yes, the Blossoms are descending in force upon the small town of Riverdale – and they mean business. And, in Riverdale, business means maple syrup. For Grandpa Blossom, that business even went so far as killing off Grandpa Cooper all those years ago. Because when you need a back-story to explain a strange, mysterious community, nothing cuts it quite like “maple syrup blood feud”.
We’ve written before about how weird the Blossom are, and how most people seem to gloss over that completely, so it’s a treat to see the writers are once again all too aware of the Blossom dynasty’s disturbing otherworldliness – right to the point where Jughead’s narration describes them as “a cabal of vampires”. (We know we said last episode that we doubt they’ll actually be vampires, but you know what? We wouldn’t rule it out, what with Cheryl Blossom’s strong cape game.) They certainly depend on a certain sticky fluid to stay alive. (Did we mention the maple syrup?)
We were also puzzled about why Polly and her unborn child would choose to live with the Blossoms over the Lodges (if not the Coopers). Episode 9 gives us the answer – and some fascinating insight into what exactly drives the Blossom empire, as they gather for the ritual tapping of the maple tree that starts each year’s syrup season.
But first, let’s talk about Ethel Muggs. Shannon Purser (#TeamBarb) gets to reappear as the girl at school whom everyone forgets about – and promptly grabs our attention with the reading of a disturbing poem: They put me in a wooden box / as I desperately opposed / But all my screaming was for naught / my mouth had been sewn closed
Veronica (Camila Mendes) immediately checks to make sure Ethel is ok, an ongoing effort on her part to put her old Mean Girls persona behind her. Ronnie, bless her, tries to empathise. Ethel’s parents are fighting? And they have to sell the family home? “We lost our place at the Dakota,” nods Ronnie, sadly. And so she begins to offer Ethel fancy clothes and pampering – a little misjudged, but a genuine gesture. That becomes more evident when Veronica hears that Ethel’s dad has attempted to kill himself, and discovers that the Muggs lost their money because they invested with Hiram Lodge. She yanks her pearl necklace off her neck in the bathroom, leaving the white spheres scattering across the flow in slow-motion. Unsubtle? Absolutely. But does it work? Undeniably. That mix of over-the-top style and sincere substance (bonus points to both Camila Mendes and Shannon Purser for their believable chemistry) is precisely what makes Riverdale’s teen drama work.
“Her father is a criminal,” Mrs. Muggs tells Ethel, justifiably outraged. Hermione Lodge, meanwhile, is aware that they’ll be testifying against Hiram. But Ethel and Veronica still remain friends, with Ethel ultimately grateful for Ronnie’s support.
Compare Veronica’s behaviour with her mother’s and her honestly good intentions become clearer: Hermione is only now revealing to Fred that his mystery boss is actually the Lodge family, and that Hiram sent the thugs last episode to trash his equipment. Fred’s furious, quite understandably, but she begs him to keep working on the SoDale project – and he agrees, despite saying that they will no longer be lovers, or even friends, and despite the fact that the project has such a terrible name. (His other condition: a 20 per cent stake in the whole thing. You go, Fred.) Veronica, on the other hand, isn’t lying or manipulating anyone; ever since her arrival in Riverdale, she’s impressed precisely because she’s bucked the normal new-girl or rich-girl stereotypes to become someone more nuanced, interesting and likeable. Long may that continue.
Why is all this important, when we’ve got a murder to solve and maple trees to tap? Because it brings out La Grande Illusion’s themes of class and privilege – themes that are highlighted by the episode’s title, which comes from Renoir’s classic social critique. (Because when you’re Riverdale, referencing 1930s French cinema is totes normal.)
The Blossoms, obviously, are the epitome of both: you can tell just by Clifford Blossom’s costumes (still hilariously inept) that they’re a family with more money than sense. But if Veronica is doing her best to upend the social hierarchy of wealth, that only gives Riverdale a chance to do our favourite thing: expose Archie for the self-centred male idiot that he is.
With syrup season upon us, Archie finds himself the target of Cheryl, who swoops on him, offering him the chance to come and, ahem, tap her maple tree. He agrees to hold the bucket, while she hammers in the spike that drains the sap from the trunk – a ceremony that takes place in the snowy forest, surrounded by a whole horde of pale ginger figures, like a remake of Twilight directed by Ron Weasley.
He’s then invited to come to the family’s board banquet at the Mansion of Foggy Doom, an offer that he also accepts. In exchange, he’s offered a trip to Clifford’s tailors for a new suit (surely more of a threat than a favour, judging by Cliff’s clothes), and – more importantly – is reminded that the Blossoms have sway with the Brandenburg Music Academy, which holds a prestigious summer program for the gifted (read: rich). Penelope even turns up at school and accosts him in the corridor to offer him a place on the course (again, more threatening than friendly).
Archie is over the moon, but his idiocy is called out by every other character in sight – not least of all Val (the under-used Hayley Law). “All the Blossoms are doing is opening a door for me,” says Archie. “Wouldn’t you rather earn your place with your music?” she counters. It’s a textbook juxtaposition of privilege and none – one person climbing the ladder through connections and favours, while the other person (with more talent) is left scrabbling for purchase. “Do you have to audition for it?” asks Jughead (Cole Sprouse), also many rungs below Archie, on account of him being, well, homeless. “Not exactly,” smiles Archie.
It’s a pleasure, as always, to see the writers aware of just how uncool and uninteresting their ostensible protagonist is – every time they put Archie in his place, he grows as a character and the show gets to shine a spotlight on the superior supporting ensemble. Even the direction puts us firmly in the shoes of his friends: Val wastes no time in dumping Archie’s ginger ass, taking her headphones off briefly to inform him of this, as he stops her in the streets – and, throughout, we stay listening to what’s on her headphones, drowning out anything he has to say.
Speaking of superior supporting characters, Madelaine Petsch is amazing as Cheryl, glowing throughout the episode with stunning outfits (“I’m wearing viridian!”), smug manipulation and, underneath it all, a sad vulnerability. She knows that the rest of the family don’t trust her to inherit the maple business from her parents – and, while Clifford quietly takes Archie to one side to explain that he’s the right fit for their family’s stable, honest image, she also knows that her parents like Archie because he’ll help to make her seem like a more viable future for the Blossoms, in the wake of Jason’s death. (Let’s skip over the ginger profiling going on here, shall we?)
Archie, like the blithering muppet he is, tries to show Cheryl some support, prompting her to kiss him. And it’s only then – not at any other point in their bizarre courtship – that he finally wakes up and leaves the party. “My lipstick’s maple red, by the way, in case you’re wondering why it tastes so sweet,” offers Cheryl, with a surprising note of tragedy. (It also goes fabulously well with her viridian dress.) But she then explicitly threatens him with no more freebies or handouts – and, finally, Archie grows enough of a brain to say no. It helps, of course, that he overhears Clifford and Penelope discussing their evil plot to claim back that drive-in cinema land now owned by the Lodges and being worked on by Archie’s dad. (“Hermione Lodge will crumble,” says Clifford, in a way that would be menacing, if he didn’t look like a Martian dressed for a game of golf in the 1990s. “Maybe you should have sent her to jail instead of Hiram,” sneers Penelope.)
Now we’ve once again cleared up the mystery of Archie’s dim-wittedness, what of Polly? Alice Cooper (still hilarious) is getting more and more determined to hit back at the Blossoms for stealing her daughter. And so she does what all crusading heroes do: she writes an article for the local newspaper exposing the family. But her hubby refuses to publish it. And so she does what all possessive, temperamental mothers do: she chucks a brick through the window of the newspaper office. “I want my daughter back, you bastard!” she yells for good measure – in case swearing, in addition to property damage, is the final step to achieving this.
But there’s good news for Alice, when Archie (at the behest of Betty) quizzes Polly at the Blossom banquet, only for her to reveal the real reason why she’s now living in Castlevania: she’s undercover, hoping to find out what the Blossoms had to do with Jason’s death. It’s a brilliant little twist, giving Archie’s stupidity some sort of relevance, while simultaneously developing his (still fledgling) intelligence. And, of course, it explains Polly’s behaviour, and takes us a step further in the underlying murder-mystery narrative that, with only a few episodes left, will need to be wrapped up somehow. With the Blossoms hoping to take down the Lodges, could Hiram have retaliated by bumping off Jason? Or, with Archie looking so eerily like a member of the maple clan, was someone aiming to bump him off and got Jason by accident? And will Miss Grundy make a return come the finale with her own account of events?
There are so many questions still to answer – not to mention how adults keep wandering in to Riverdale high school without anyone commenting on how weird that is. Heck, Alice has even been asked to write for the school newspaper by Bughead (although the suggestion that the school paper would have a better budget than the local news publication is worryingly plausible). With Cheryl drawing a maple-red marker pen over Polly and Archie’s face in her maple-tapping photo, though, what we do know for sure is that Cheryl still has a part to play. This redhead is coming for her enemies – and she means business.
Riverdale is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription, with new episodes arriving every Friday. Episode 8 will be released on 31st March.
Photos: Diyah Pera/The CW