A Whirlwind Tour of the Nightmare World of ‘Riverdale’

Riverdale’s greatest weakness is also its greatest strength. It compellingly criticises the culture which produced it, but this scrutiny reveals the show’s own inadequacies. Archie, played by KJ Apa, has an incredibly cliché arc in the first few episodes. Veronica calls out his struggle of balancing his passion as a musician and obligation as a football player as a tired dichotomy, something which they, as young people woke to the system, should actively resist, and seek greater depth in their lives. Despite blatantly criticising its own genre Riverdale got a lot of content out of that so-called tired dichotomy.

Riverdale, it seems, wishes to have its woke cake and eat it too.

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Another example of Riverdale’s damning self-awareness comes later in its second season. Lili Reinhardt’s Betty Cooper seeks to join the southside-serpents, a gang of which her boyfriend Jughead Jones is a member of. The initiation ritual for female members requires her to pole dance and striptease for the entire gang. One of the characters, Toni Topaz, calls this out for what it is: an antiquated, misogynistic ritual. Everyone agrees that there’s no need to do it. This doesn’t stop Betty, however, and the filmmakers were sure to capitalise on the moment’s eroticism. This moment has no development for Betty, focusing entirely on the reactions of the men in the room, effectively reducing one of the show’s principal characters to a prop. Again, we see the show actively drawing attention to its own weaknesses; why would a show whose creators have expressed taking the Archie gang into the 21st century reduce one of their female characters to a sexual prop, intended to elicit reactions from male characters?

If anything, these moments reveal that Riverdale wants to be two shows. The first, a socially conscious show flying a progressive flag. On the other hand, it actively conjures and embodies a sexy, edgy essence born from the last few decades of American horror films. On the surface these are incompatible. The two moments I just referenced are examples of this; they break in the seam which enables Riverdale’s existence.

However, subtextually, when you examine Riverdale’s bones, the synthesis works. Riverdale’s character arcs and narrative contexts effectively create a surreal, anxious atmosphere. The anxiety doesn’t come from a literal monster, but instead from recognising malevolent, destructive appetite of corporate greed and suburban perfection while being unable to combat it.

With this in mind, let’s take another look at that Archie arc, and how it fits into the larger criticism Riverdale strives for.

For those not in the know: Over the summer, Archie fell in love with songwriting. A good chunk of Archie’s story involves balancing various romantic relationships, and football, and helping his father’s company, with this newfound passion for music. Additionally, there’s the whole Miss Grundy affair.

And while on the surface the restriction of Archie’s artistic spirit is fairly non-essential and cliché, it does serve as an astute display and criticism of traditional masculinity.

In Riverdale’s third episode Archie confesses songwriting is his way of understanding the world. He connects to himself and others through lyric writing and performance; his soul feels cleaner for it. And later, when Archie tries to audition for the talent show and gets stage fright, he is shocked: if he can play football in front of a full stadium, why can’t he do this? Valerie has the answer: singing is far more emotionally vulnerable than playing football, bearing your soul to the world (or school) takes a different kind of emotional confidence. This effectively shows, that music is a form of emotional growth for Archie, it is the way which he strives to become a more emotionally responsive and aware person.

However, this growth is shoved to the side when his father demands he plan a financially viable future. Archie needs to play football to get a scholarship to go to business school so he can take over the family business one day. And most of his spare time needs to be spent helping with Andrews construction, because they need the income to stay afloat. That means no time for music.

And so we see that Archie’s emotional growth isn’t prevented by any sort of personal problems, but instead by massive economic anxieties larger than Archie or his family or anyone in Riverdale. Archie has represented the typical American guy for decades, and Riverdale’s version really does fit this bill. He’s classically charming, and, at least at the start, has a fairly righteous, if naive, moral compass. In the end, he just wants to do the right thing. But his growth into a fuller, more compassionate person is stagnated by financial instability.

Archie’s story show’s one of Riverdale’s most subtle critiques of American culture: the American dream of liberty and emotional satisfaction is shown to falter, if not fail completely, once any sort of economic anxiety is introduced, as that forces the characters to choose between their emotional well-being and avoiding poverty.

Betty Cooper’s stories throughout both currently released seasons of Riverdale are a far more specific and cutting criticism, focusing white suburbia.

Riverdale’s Betty Cooper resembles her comic-counterpart in many ways. She’s kind, beautiful, and strikingly insightful. Her big brown eyes gobble Archie up with innocent infatuation. Everything down to her outfits, a classic schoolgirl chic with a dash of 1950s material and style, is a focused attempt to cite what Betty usually is: a clear an example of the girl-next-door character type, originally popularised by her comic portrayals. The only thing that stands out is her ponytail. Unlike the large, fuller ponytail from the comics, Riverdale’s Betty has a tighter, more intense look.

Beyond her appearance, the first few scenes of the piolet support her position as the Girl Next Door. She gawks over Archie, ready to declare her love for him, writing in her diary and dancing in her room with her best friend. But then there’s that first scene with her Mom, Alice.

In this scene Betty prepares for her first day as a sophomore, Alice sits on her bed reinforcing how critical this year is for college. Grades, athletics, maintaining a decent character. The message is clear: don’t mess it up, don’t be like your sister Polly, your sister who had the nervous breakdown and dropped out of high school. Betty reassures her mother, its fine, I’ll be fine, I’m not Polly. And then Alice forcibly hands Betty a filled prescription of Adderall, Betty wincing, clearly not a fan of the pills. “Stay focused,” instructs Alice. Betty’s about to burst with resistance but bites her tongue. This encounter reframes Betty’s persona from a truthful embodiment of all things pure about suburbia to an act, a constructed persona crafted by a dominant sense of suburban correctness.

The pressure Betty feels to be good is so intense that it fragments her personality, leading to disassociation and the birth of Dark Betty. This persona Betty adopts is a conscious reversal of all things Betty usually is; while normally she is kind, homely and diplomatic, Dark Betty is demanding, sexy and confrontational. Dark Betty occupies whatever space she’s in, wresting attention away from everything else to herself, whereas Betty normally is content to be a wallflower.

The first time we see Dark Betty she completely disassociates from her identity as Betty, claiming instead to be her sister Polly taking vengeance upon the football players who wronged her. She almost kills the player they’ve lured into their interrogation. Here we see Dark Betty isn’t necessarily an evil Betty—she’s a version of herself without social inhibitions. She doesn’t almost kill that guy because she’s evil, she does it because she’s allowing the rage at the world which let off the men who sexually harassed her sister bubble to the surface. Dark Betty isn’t entirely a product of Betty, she’s the rage Betty feels at an unjust world refracting off the suburban preference for normalcy.

This is where the Black Hood comes in. Spoilers for season two, I guess.

By the end of its second season, Riverdale reveals that Betty’s father Hal is the Black Hood, explaining why The Black Hood seems to be obsessed with Betty. Under the guise of the Black Hood Hal has attempted to purify Riverdale by murdering those who fail to meet his expectations of morality. While doing this, he reached out to his daughter as the killer and attempted to generate in her a moral outrage similar to his own. He did this knowing that Betty and he share the same passionate sense of right and wrong, as well as an inner darkness, which allows them to momentarily disregard social rules for the greater good.

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Hal’s downfall, however, was Betty’s own condemnation of the moral fabric of Riverdale itself. All around her, she sees injustices; rich exploiting the poor, men threaten women, and murderers terrorising the town. Betty is morally outraged by the town which Hal’s deranged morality enshrines as sacred.

And so, while Hal keeps his alter ego shuttered away, only letting him out to murder someone, Betty begins the lengthy and often painful process of accepting her alter ego, and slowly letting its traits merge into her dominant personality. We see this in the sex game with Jughead when she wears the wig, and we see it again when Betty dances for the serpents. Dark Betty allowed her to shed the moral expectations of suburbia and do this erotic dance, but she did it for reasons that normal Betty believes in: reaching across the class divide and helping those being exploited and demonised by Riverdale’s suburban middle class. And so even though the dance itself was fairly awkward and tasteless, it made sense for Betty’s character arc which has focused on her shedding the social restraints which plagued her early in season one.

Betty’s relationship with the Black Hood is incredibly complicated, but generally speaking, it is like this: Hal represents the deranged, uncritical support of the status quo, of the suburban ideal which relies on the suffering of others to maintain itself. He couldn’t accept his own dark impulses and so his personality fractured, only revealing itself when his illusion of righteousness was threatened. Betty is similarly fractured by her own darkness and the ridiculous suburban expectations of perfection, but instead, she chooses to resist the fracture and suburbia, slowly becoming a more whole person while also unifying the classes of Riverdale with her compassion and concern for other people.

Moving on from Betty, both main antagonists are rich men whose goals are merely the maintenance or growth of their wealth and power. It’s never more complicated than the man wanting more power.

Season one’s antagonist was Clifford Blossom. The Blossoms are Riverdale’s oldest, richest family who live Thornhill, a massive stone mansion. This family more or less dominates Riverdale, with their maple syrup money going back generations, and effectively situating them as the town’s de facto founders. The social position of Cheryl Blossom, one of the Blossom kids, as the Queen Bee of Riverdale high effectively represents the dominance in a tangible way: nothing happens in the school that she doesn’t know about.

The inciting incident of Riverdale is the murder of Jason Blossom, Cheryl’s brother. Initially, the murder of the effective crown prince of Riverdale is framed as an attack on the town’s soul: who would dare kill the most handsome, smart, kind boy in town? Spoilers, again. But, it turns out, his Dad would.

The Blossom fortune is mostly maintained these days by narcotic smuggling, it turns out, and Jason found this to be reprehensible. Additionally, he wasn’t allowed to marry Polly Cooper because of some old generational feud. Feeling trapped by the demands of his family, he tried to escape, only to be captured and killed by his father Clifford, who then tried to pin the murder on Jughead’s Dad FP, who is the leader of the Southside serpents.

All said and done, the elder Blossoms are revealed to be a cold, calculating bunch who care deeply about the reputation and little else. Clifford kills himself to avoid the embarrassment of arrest. Cheryl, realising her family’s corruption, burns down Thornhill mansion and tries to cleanse herself of everything it represented. And, she becomes frenemies with most of the Riverdale gang. Season one dissects the legacy of Riverdale by way of dissecting and revealing all the badness of its leading family, effectively revealing that the threat to Riverdale’s soul isn’t some exterior drifter, but the king of the whole damn town. Small towns are only threatened by those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Season two’s criticism of the rich is far more aggressive in nature. Hiram Lodge, Veronica’s father, encourages crime, pays off politicians, and incites a minor class war to move forward with the SoDale project. Hiram bribes the mayor who then closes Southside High under the guise of public health concerns, but in reality, has sold the building to Hiram. Hiram also buys Pop Tate’s Choc’ Lit Shoppe and the drive in, effectively become the defacto owner of the economically disadvantaged Southside.

Jughead sees the moves Hiram is making and threatens to expose Hiram if he doesn’t relinquish his control. Hiram purchases Jughead’s trailer park, warning he’ll evict them if Jughead fails to back down. Besides, Hiram argues, there are bigger problems afoot: in closing Southside High and forcing most students to attend Riverdale high, the more middle-class school. Tensions between the two student bodies flare when serpent clothing and symbology is banned from school.

All the while Hiram is suggesting to Archie, whose dating Veronica, that the Black Hood who’s terrorising the town is a Southsider gone rogue because they only kill Northsiders. This results in the formation of a gang made up entirely of Northsiders meant to protect the Northside population from all Southside threats.

All these tensions explode when Jughead fights to save Southside high and Hiram convinces Archie that the school needs to go. A gang war breaks out and a Southside serpent is shot.

And, in the end, all of this is done in the name of Hiram’s SoDale project, which is this: to bulldoze the Southside and build a massive for-profit prison. Throughout this season we’ve seen Hiram disenfranchise people for this project, pushing them into desperation and criminality, only so that a prison to house those very criminals could be constructed. All of this done under the guise of creating a few jobs for the locals. Hiram himself, as the owner of this, stands to gain millions.

Riverdale, with the SoDale project, demonstrate how antithetical corporate capitalism is to individuals. It shows us how large corporate interests prey on pre-existing fissures in society, agitating them to create the social will for something as massive as a for-profit prison to be accepted. SoDale requires the politically powerful Northside not care about the Southside, that’s the only way it works, and so Hiram uses his money and power to smash open the crack which was already there. Both seasons show us the corrupting power of wealth, how it gives those with it power over those who do not.

The critique comes, of course, with the knowledge these are bad men who instead of using their wealth to better the world, use it to entrench themselves in their elevated social position, regardless of who they must harm to stay there. It is not a failing of American capitalism, necessarily, but of the moral character of these powerful men who only think of themselves. But the town doesn’t ask these men to be better. Maybe it can’t; Riverdale isn’t a rich community and so maybe all anyone can do is attempt to survive the whims of rich bad men. Riverdale doesn’t have an answer, only the knowledge of the problem.

Before I end off, there is one more consistent theme I must mention: its always kids vs adult. Always. Even when its kid vs kid, like when Jughead and Betty run against Archie and Veronica for class president, its kid vs adult. Jughead and Betty are the kids, purely motivated by their own desire to fix injustices they see in the world. Archie and Veronica are acting on behalf of Hiram, who needs a strong envoy in Riverdale high to keep the peace. The Black Hood vs Betty ended up being parent vs child, Betty VS her mom whenever Polly is involved, Archie VS his Dad, Archie VS Mrs. Grundy: almost every major conflict in Riverdale is centered around the different ways kids and the adults in their lives relate to the world.

Take Mrs. Grundy and Archie for an example: Archie wants to tell Sheriff Keller about the gunshot they heard, Mrs. Grundy doesn’t because she doesn’t want people to know she was involved with a student. A kid sees a problem and wants to fix it, only for an adult with an investment in the status quo to say no, that’s reckless.

Hal, as the black hood, killed to preserve the upper-middle-class suburban identity. Betty tries to destroy it. Jughead sees Hiram exploiting poor people, his father tells him to stop because they can’t be evicted. Clifford killed Jason because Jason refused to perpetuate the Blossom drug ring. This conflict is everywhere. The kids see injustice, the adults tell them to ignore it. Riverdale tries to show how social problems fester; those who want to change something cannot overcome those with a vested interest in the status quo. Those with perhaps enough power to do something, such as Hiram, are by their very nature either detached from the reality or simply do not care.

The Archie brand has always attempted to reflect contemporary young people. From the 50s through to now this meant goofy high-school hi-jinks: the gang’s misadventures in dating, dancing, navigating the American dream. In this way, Riverdale is both similar and different to its source material; the problems the gang faces are extrapolations of our own anxieties about the world. Their American dream is nightmarish and inescapable. The difference between Riverdale and the Archie of the 50s is that Riverdale doesn’t strive for a literal realism, a recreation of the world, but instead a psychological one. It strives to capture how young people feel about America, not what they do as Americans. And, if Riverdale does anything well, its reflect what young people feel: fear, and pure abject rage towards an uncaring world.

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