What happened in this episode of Riverdale? Well, Archie befriended Cheryl in exchange for certain favors from her parents, then realized the Blossom family is evil (a truth already acknowledged about 500 times before) and pulled away, leaving Cheryl angry and out for revenge; Polly, who has been living at Thorn Hill, reveals to Archie that she believes the Blossoms are responsible for Jason’s death, which is the real reason why she’s still there. That’s the main story. In other news, Archie’s dad discovers the identity of his benefactor and Veronica sees firsthand the effects of her father’s misdeeds.
Look. I will be the first to say that something doesn’t have to be Citizen Kane- level quality for you to be able to watch and enjoy it. Something can still pose interesting questions even if it’s not the most sophisticated work of art or doesn’t project some auteurist philosophy. Thus far I have hand-waved those who criticize Riverdale for its somewhat shallow characterizations and aversion to realistic characters and dialogue. Where I draw the watch/don’t watch line, rather, is the point where such shallowness stops being fun and interesting and becomes boring and annoying.
Let’s compare Riverdale to its contemporary, the Netflix original A Series of Unfortunate Events. In many ways, the two shows are similar. Like Riverdale, the Netflix series prioritizes aesthetic over reality, a complex and multi-layered mystery over character development. But A Series Unfortunate Events embraces its weird and wholly unrealistic characters with a twinkle in its eye, while Riverdale refuses to admit its characters are anything less than real teenagers. I’ve given the show a pass up till this point because, again, the entertainment value has so far overpowered the shallowness. But for me, last week’s episode crossed that line into boring/annoying territory, and I am thoroughly irritated. I am talking, first and foremost, about Archie, who is both the show’s ostensible main character and its weakest link.
It has become a somewhat popular practice among me and my fellow millennials to assign houses of Hogwarts to fictional characters outside of the Harry Potter universe. Why? No real reason; it’s just really fun. Betty is the Gryffindor of the group, the one who breaks into a creepy hospital to find and rescue her vanished sister. Veronica is undoubtedly the Slytherin, more willing to coerce and manipulate to get what she wants. Jughead, with his pacifistic attitude and keen investigative spirit, is a Ravenclaw. Archie? Archie is nothing. He’s not even got enough character to be a Hufflepuff, the house we generally assign to those who lack defining characteristics. At best, from the point we’re at now, Archie functions as an object of female desire, yet as we have seen he appears to be a failure even at that.
I’m just saying, if Val and Archie had to break up, couldn’t it at least have been a little more interesting than that? Val and Archie have so far been nothing if not absurdly functional, yet now it seems as though Val is going to leave the show and our lives as abruptly and as randomly as she entered them. Val accuses Archie of “ignoring her” the whole time they have been together, which I haven’t seen any direct evidence of other than the fact that the show itself periodically forgets she exists.
Riverdale has no sense of object permanence; its writing team seems to have the same problem as Guy Pearce in Memento. Things that happened in one episode are forgotten or unquestionably resolved by the following one. The pedophile cellist, despite being set up as hugely important in the first half of the season, is now gone: out of sight, out of mind. The boorish jock Moose has made a sudden reappearance with no mention of his past relationship with Kevin the Gay Best Friend. Jughead is apparently now such a committed boyfriend as to be compelled to attend Betty’s awkward family gatherings, without any buildup to that whatsoever. And where the hell is Josie? No, the show can’t be expected to write all its recurring characters into every episode, but it’s not just that; it genuinely seems to forget about them when they’re not on screen. It is clear that Riverdale’s biggest weakness is the relationships it forces between its characters, and in no case is this clearer than with Archie.
Archie is the Good Guy, the infallible male protagonist who inevitably becomes the least interesting person in the room. But he lacks Harry Potter’s hero complex, Percy Jackson’s irreverence, Luke Skywalker’s temptations. In short, he lacks anything that could make him a watchable character. When confronted with a problem, he figures out the most moral decision within twenty minutes. The Ms. Grundy storyline, though terrible, at the very least introduced Archie as a slightly interesting personality. Now that that’s over, there’s apparently no moral dilemma that he can’t resolve.
The Archie plotline of this episode had potential, as Archie finds himself in the position of being offered riches and success in exchange for friend-pimping himself out to the Blossoms. As his friends remind him several times, the Blossoms are the enemy and Cheryl has never been a friend to them (in so doing disregarding her development of the last several episodes in which she seemed to be growing, but we’ll come back to that later). Archie responds by pointing out that he has nothing against Cheryl and that she says she just wants an ally there (which literally everyone else recognizes as bullshit), and besides, the Blossoms are offering him the chance of a lifetime. What’s the downside? Archie’s stupidity, though intense, is something we’ve all become accustomed to, and so we know that he’ll figure it out by the end of the episode.
In what way have the experiences of this episode affected Archie? In no way whatsoever, even though in its course we saw him ignoring his friend’s warnings and abandoning his values in pursuit of personal gain, letting Cheryl kiss him a surprisingly long time before pulling away, and losing his girlfriend because he was too wrapped up in everything else. Yet he has been given no time to reflect on his moral compromising, or even to mourn his breakup. Doubtless, he will soon forget about Val just as he forgot he ever liked Veronica and Grundy. Archie is actually dumb enough to let himself get pulled into Cheryl’s life, to let her walk up to him and talk to him with their faces mere inches apart, to stand there while she waxes eloquent about how he’s the only person who really knows her, without figuring out that she’s gearing up for a kiss. And then when it does happen, it takes him a moment to figure it out, letting her kiss him for a few seconds before breaking away and asking, surprised, “Cheryl, what are you doing?” as if nobody could have seen this coming. This is because Archie is simply too good to be tempted, or to even understand what temptation is.
What’s even more irritating than all this is the show’s treatment, or mistreatment, of Cheryl, who is shaping up to be that one character who alternates between good and bad from episode to episode without any actual development. It’s fine for her to feel conflicted about her allegiance to her terrible family who continually rejects her, and I’ll accept her going back and forth on this dilemma for a while. But the way she acts towards Archie’s gang plays out like an insufferable game of ping-pong: at one moment she’s inviting Veronica to a slumber party and laying bare her emotional insecurities; at another she’s back to bullying them all with her Vixens. Again, this kind of inconsistency goes from acceptable when the show is still getting off the ground, to unbearable nearing the end of the season. The final scene of this episode shows her furiously scratching out Archie’s face (and Polly’s too, for some reason) on the photo they all took together, crying and vowing revenge. This is an irritating direction for the character, given the fact that she seemed, in general, to be growing closer with Archie’s group. Can the writers please just pick an end point for Cheryl, and then set her on that path? Her constant vacillation is, like Archie’s kiddie-pool character development, starting to get unwatchable for me.
As usual, the show does a better job with the rest of its characters. We have started to see the horrible Alice Cooper turn over a new leaf, which is some nice development even if it’s presented with Riverdale’s customary lack of buildup. The weekly revelations about the Cooper family are always interesting, though with reveal on top of reveal it’s starting to feel like the show has no idea where it’s going with this and is kind of just making this all up as it goes along. Meanwhile, Veronica is brought face-to-face with a family that has been destroyed through her father’s corruption, suggesting, not for the first time, that she is the only character the writers really put effort into. Veronica, Ethel, and Kevin win the prize for strongest and most consistent storyline this week.
Look, I still have faith in Riverdale. I’m still interested in the story, I still like the characters, I still want to know how it turns out. For the most part, the storyline about the abuse Cheryl receives from her parents and extended family is a good one. It’s when Archie is tasked with carrying a storyline himself that the show’s weakest points become noticeable. And this is a real problem: Riverdale is not an ensemble show. It has a small core of important characters, at the center of which a single person lives, and this stems not only from the show’s treatment of that character but also from the place that he has in our culture. And for the central character of a show to be its weakest link is simply unsustainable. Archie should be able to be the main character while still having an interesting personality, while still encountering struggles and temptations and chances or growth. And just because this is a problem that befalls plenty of other stories (Scott McCall in Teen Wolf, Frodo in Lord of the Rings), that doesn’t excuse Riverdale’s laziness.