“Riverdale” Episode 501 Recap: Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz Are Prom Queens But At What Cost

Welcome to the season five recaps of Riverdale! This week, the teens and all of their codependent parents are going to the big dance! It’s prom night, but because this is Riverdale, you can bet on someone getting stabbed and/or indoctrinated into a cult as part of the festivities! Before we get into all the murder and mayhem of “Climax,” let’s get up to speed…

Previously on Riverdale: The latest Big Bad—hilariously dubbed The Auteur née The Voyeur by none other than Future Terrible Novelist Jughead Jones—has been filming people’s homes around town and dropping off the lil tapes on their stoops as a vague warning. Then The Auteur must have decided that was much too subtle and started filming reenactments of all of the characters’ worst traumas and gifting those tapes. There’s a creepy videostore in town that deals in snuff films and sex tapes that is no doubt connected to this villain somehow. Archie’s thinking about going to the naval academy; Jughead wants to go to Iowa; Veronica got into Barnard; Archie and Betty pretended to date and then actually kissed before swearing to each other that they would never tell Veronica and Jughead. Yikes!

We start exactly where we left off, just a few weeks out from graduation and directly in the aftermath of the latest art from The Auteur: a film of people in Betty, Veronica, Archie, Jughead, etc. masks stabbing Mr. Honey to death. A reenactment of the metaphorical killing of Mr. Honey that occurred when the gang got his ass fired. Also an homage to the Jughead Jones short story called, well, “Killing Mr. Honey.” It’s meta, you see. We’ve got a villain with a twisted sense of humor and also an eerie ability to know a lot about these characters and their experiences. The call is very much coming from inside the house.

Archie has a physical coming up for the naval academy, but Veronica takes a balled up piece of paper out of his trashcan and is like HEY I FOUND THIS SONG YOU WROTE! And first of all, it’s a hilarious reminder of how many hobbies Archie has had through the years: Remember when his biggest problem in life was balancing football and music lessons???? Now he balances being an owner of two businesses, boxing, assorted other physical activities, occasional vigilantism, high school musical productions, applying to the naval academy, and oh right I guess he still writes songs or something.

Second of all, Veronica finding this little original tune all wadded up is actually the impetus for one of the best bits of drama in the episode. Because it’s the song Archie wrote for Betty when the two were very briefly like “hm we might be into each other jk we love our significant others too much to give into the Barchie shippers let’s pretend this never happened.” One would think that Archie might have done a better job destroying the only physical evidence of his betrayal, but that Archie isn’t really known for his thinking skills.

Back at the Lodge penthouse, Veronica still apparently suffers from both short-term and long-term memory loss regarding all of her father’s worst behaviors (including but not limited to the time he just sort of left her and her mother for dead and the multiple? times he has tried to kill her boyfriend) simply because she is under the impression that he is dying. But wait! He might not be dying after all, because Hiram’s latest workout routine—beating up low-level criminals in the middle of the night—is somehow a cure and he’s on the up and up. Sure!

As a reminder, the teens got Mr. Honey fired at the end of last season after he used extreme measures to try to cancel prom, which means Riverdale High is in need of a new principal. Lo and behold, Mr. Weatherbee’s back after his brief stint in Chad Michael Murray’s cult, which he informs Betty he still has nightmares about.

Ever the supportive girlfriend, Veronica suggests to the naval academy recruiter that Archie and the other student up for a spot at the school duke it out in an exhibition match. The other student turns out to be KO Kelly, Katy Keene’s boyfriend in the canceled Riverdale spinoff Katy Keene. Archie challenges him to, essentially, a Bro Off, yielding a workout montage that ends with Archie winning. The two have a heart-to-heart sleepover, too, where Archie says that he feels like he’s holding Veronica back, which is an interesting way to say that he cheated on his girlfriend of many years with his best friend and then lied about it but okay Arch.

Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz are both determined to become queens. For Cheryl, that means being voted prom co-queens with her sweetheart, and for Toni, that means avowing to become the Serpent Queens again. “I exist in a world where EVERYONE wants me to be prom queen,” Cheryl declares after convincing Kevin not to run against her. And I do have to admire Cheryl’s persistent self-confidence.

Cheryl and Toni’s relationship, however, hits a snag when Toni reveals that even though she’s out as bi to her grandparents, they don’t actually know that she has a girlfriend and also maybe it would be best if Cheryl just pretends to be her friend at graduation. What in the Happiest Season is going on here?!?!?! One would think that this would have come up sooner given the fact that Toni practically lives with Cheryl. Also, on the topic of their teenage cohabitation, I find it absolutely hilarious how Toni and Cheryl are styled whenever they’re in bed together because Toni is always in like a literal flannel and Cheryl is always in full silk lingerie and it just looks like a very specific lesbian fantasy. Anyway, it turns out that Nana Topaz doesn’t approve of the relationship not because it’s a queer one but because the Blossom family is responsible for years and years of colonial destruction and trauma against her family. And it’s like…ok fair.

Again though, it’s a little wild that this hasn’t come up for Toni and Cheryl before. I guess I’m technically getting what I have constantly wished for, which is more screen time and narrative weight for Toni and Cheryl, but must their relationship be so constantly mired with traumatic shit?!?! I often struggle to understand exactly why Toni and Cheryl are together other than the fact that they’re both queer and in close proximity to one another. Cheryl’s motives I understand a little better, because Cheryl has only ever wanted unconditional love and family, and Toni provides that. But Cheryl has not been a great partner to Toni—and definitely crossed yet another line by visiting Toni’s grandmother without telling her—and yet Toni stays and hardly exists outside of Cheryl’s plot orbit. I’m a little torn, because while their relationship has been inconsistently developed and often an afterthought on the show, I DON’T THINK I WANTED THEM TO JUST BREAKUP????

I wanted more depth and dimension to these characters, especially for Toni. Suddenly injecting this drama of her grandmother forbidding her from dating Cheryl is, while technically based on backstory that has already been established, very sudden. It does tie into Cheryl’s overall arc of being unable to escape her family and the harm they’ve inflicted on her and others. But it’s too tidy a conflict, and Riverdale continues to try to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to these two: After the very significant drama of Toni being forbidden to see Cheryl, she “chooses” Cheryl over her family and takes her to prom where they’re crowned Riverdale’s first openly queer queens, but then as soon as the dance is over she tells Cheryl that she actually can’t be with her and has to be back home by midnight or else her grandmother will never speak to her again.

Once again, the sweet queer romance of their plotline is abruptly undercut by very serious drama, and no one seems to be reacting in a believable way? I kind of don’t even really understand if this is a breakup or if Toni is just saying they have to live two lives or WHAT, but Cheryl seems weirdly cool with it despite having very well established attachment issues. Sometimes I swear these two act like a 50+ year old married couple rather than teens, and it just doesn’t compute! Also, it is frankly very rude of Cheryl to name Betty, Jughead, Veronica, and Archie as her prom court after forcing Kevin and Fangs—the only other named queer couple at the school—out of the running?!?!

But I’m also getting ahead of myself a little, because before prom, there’s a lot of other stuff going on. Betty and Jughead visit their ol’ nemesis Bret Weston Wallis (will never be over that character name) in prison to try to get dirt on David, who runs the creepy videostore Blue Velvet and is the top suspect for who might be The Auteur. Bret says they have to snag an invite to one of Blue Velvet’s underground parties where snuff films and other horrifying works of cinema are screened. Betty and Jughead then hatch a plan to make a faked snuff film to get in, casting Reggie as a murderer and Cheryl, naturally, as their scream queen.

Ah, yes. A typical date night for Jughead and Betty, who honestly seem a little too into making a fake snuff film. Also people say “snuff film” so much in this episode and are relatively chill about the fact that there seems to be a very large percentage of the town population who are into watching people get fully murdered on screen?????? I suppose it is Riverdale, the town with pep and thematic serial killers.

Also I don’t really know why Betty and Jughead go through the trouble of filming their snuff film, which David easily deciphers is a fake when Betty apparently had a real tape to hand over the whole time. It’s not a snuff film but rather the tape of her father as a young boy being indoctrinated by his mother. The origin of the Black Hood. Betty hands it over, and Creepy David says these exact words: “Could I screen this at a little film festival slash rave?”

Now we’re at the film festival slash rave and we’re at the boxing exhibition match; we’re at the combination film festival slash rave boxing exhibition match. We cut between both scenes, and honestly, the boxing match doesn’t have that much interesting stuff going on other than several shots of Archie’s mom and her GIRLFRIEND in the stands watching Archie gets his ass beat. Over at the film festival slash rave, things are very, very scary.

Again, it’s well attended for a supposedly underground and exclusive event. Betty gets recognized from the Ponytail Playmate sex tape of her and Jug, prompting Jughead to punch someone out. This is yet another example of what honestly feels like a normal date night for Betty and Jughead. The sleuthing duo almost have The Auteur in their grasps but are interrupted suddenly by JELLYBEAN, who is for some reason at this “party” that she should definitely not be at!!!!! Don’t worry, Jughead later makes his baby sister promise him she won’t go to any more film festivals slash raves showing snuff films, ESPECIALLY if he ends up going to Iowa. Good job working that in there, Jug.

I hate to say it because Veronica and Archie are so often the least interesting couple on this show, but the dramatic tension between them in this episode is absolutely a highlight. All the nice things Veronica does for Archie to try to get him into the naval academy and also support his music feel like gut punches since we know that he isn’t being honest with her. Then the biggest gut punch of all comes halfway through the episode when Veronica surprises Archie with a performance of the song he wrote at the speakeasy, not knowing that he wrote it for Betty. Betty looks at Archie; Archie looks at Veronica; it’s a genuinely fraught and heartbreaking.

I always like Riverdale best when it grounds some of its more over-the-top machinations with good old-fashioned high school drama. When Veronica tells Archie that she’s doing to defer Barnard for a year to stay with him in Riverdale while he figures his life out, the guilt is finally too much. He tells her right in the middle of the prom dance floor that he kissed Betty and wrote the song for her. It’s devastating!

As a side note, the soundtrack for the prom scenes slaps. Mazzy Star playing when Cheryl and Toni win prom queens? Awards! Then we jarringly flip to “Psycho Killer” as a video of masked folks stab who we’re led to believe is David to death on screen. “Why does every one of our dances turn into a Jamie Lee Curtis movie?” Jughead asks, and I have to wonder the same and think that maybe Mr. Honey was onto something by trying to cancel prom, but also, I’m very here for the slasher vibes.

It’s a prom night with a lot of murder and heartbreak, which does feel right for Riverdale. Jughead and Betty leave to do what they do best: investigate violent crime. Veronica tells Archie that after graduation they’ll just go their separate ways. Cheryl tells Toni to go home to her grandmother because “family is the most important thing,” and once again, I am not sure if this is a breakup or a break or what! It feels sudden and also emotionally insincere for either character. Archie, newly freed of the weight of his lies, comes home to find the latest horror tape: This time, it’s a reenactment of the time the Black Hood held a gun to his head. Will the teens of Riverdale ever catch a break? Are Toni and Cheryl broken up???? Help.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 309 articles for us.

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