This Riverdale recap was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors who are currently on strike, TV shows like this one would not be possible, and Autostraddle is grateful for the artists who do this work. This recap contains spoilers for Riverdale season seven, episode 16, “Stag.”
Just when I think the final season of Riverdale can’t get any better, it surprises me. I’ve even come to adore the 1950s setting, even if it means characters tend to speak in charmingly goofy colloquialisms, anachronisms, and American history 101 lessons. In fact, this week, Archie Andrews learns about the beatniks! He’s very interested in these authors and artists who eschewed convention, and Clay even teaches him the word heteronormativity. As a reminder, Archie is experimenting with poetry rather than football these days. And that experimentation ends up expanding to sexuality as well. Yes, I do believe “Stag” confirms some bisexual leanings for our dear Archie, who is grappling with the fact of his own squareness and finds himself in something of a situationship with his best friend Reggie. There’s a lot happening in this final season, which seems determined to try out every possible pairing the show has to offer, effectively making every single character queer — even if it so far has only played out in fantasy for some.
I find it fascinating that this 50s-set season has been obsessed with sex, sexuality, and sexual shame and repression, because it really highlights just how much the culture wars of our real world today are cyclical of the past. Much of what the teens contend with in this season of Riverdale is familiar in our real world context. “Stag” sees Jughead fighting against fascist oppression in town when a new code emerges explicitly banning certain topics — namely, violence and sex — from any comic books produced in Riverdale. The adults implementing these restrictions — including Cheryl’s evil father Clifford Blossom — use all the same talking points popular with the far right these days about book bans and what subject matter is “appropriate” for children. This season of Riverdale is actually the most timely depiction of censorship and restrictions on art and teenage autonomy I’ve seen on television recently.
“Stag” brings the sexual exploration themes of the season back to the forefront. New queer character Lizzo introduces Toni and Cheryl, who have been dating on the downlow, occasionally using secret boyfriends Clay and Kevin as part of lavender arrangements, to the underground lesbian pinup magazine Femme-and-In Magazine. The photos inspire Cheryl and Toni to have a pinup shoot of their own, with Cheryl planning to turn one of the resulting photos into a giant oil painting in the style of the pulp novels she and Toni have been burying their little queer noses in. During said photoshoot, Toni at one point holds up one of these in-universe pulp novels, and it is called….THE COST OF PEPPER. As in, an obvious and hilariously precise riff on The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith.
THE COST! OF PEPPER!
I had to pause my television and process this for at least 45 seconds. It’s just so silly, so good, so Riverdale.
While Cheryl and Toni are bonding over being hot together, the rest of the Riverdale teens are grappling with sexuality and desire as well. We don’t get a ton of concrete content on the ongoing Betty/Veronica front, but this episode no doubt continues their amorphous and scintillating arc as best friends who are also undeniably something more than best friends. When Veronica learns the boys in town are all riled up over a “stag” movie (also called “smokers” and essentially retro pornos that were black-and-white, short, and silent) Julian Blossom got his hands on, she insists she wants to attend the viewing herself and bring along a friend. That friend, of course, is Betty. But whereas I thought this might lead to Veronica and Betty continuing to feel curiosities about each other, it actually gets a lot messier. The film begins, and Betty cuts it short, recognizing her sister Polly as the star. Soon, she learns her sister is actually a world famous burlesque dancer under the stage name POLLY AMOROUS. And while Betty initially seems to have some internalized shame and stigma against what her sister does, she quickly comes around on it, feeling empowered by her sister’s sexual liberation and also coming to understand Alice’s strict grip on her own desires and libido as a harsh reaction to Polly’s life. Realizing just how deep her mother’s hatred of anything sexual runs, Betty finally stands up to Alice at episode’s end.
But before that, Betty and Veronica plan a special performance at the Babylonian (Veronica’s movie theater, because yes, no matter how many iterations of Veronica there have been over the course of the series, Teen Business Owner has been a consistent throughline) for the one and only Polly Amorous to showcase her talent. What follows is a burlesque performance set to “Rose’s Turn” — one of my personal favorite showtunes of all time — in which Betty ends up imagining herself in the position of her sister. Betty’s fantasies all season have been some of my favorite storytelling. I love the intricate nature of this moment here; Betty is only able to access her true desires by projecting herself onto her sister. Isn’t sexuality just strange and uncomfortable like that sometimes?
And after a full season of homoerotic friendship between Archie and Reggie, the two boys finally move their dynamic from a subtextual space to a very embodied one. When Julian attempts to “prank” them by giving them a stag movie about two boys wrestling, Archie and Reggie are confused at first, but their confusion gives way quickly to curiosity. They keep watching, together. Later in the bedroom they share, they wonder aloud about things, like whether Kevin and Clay are together (which, obviously, they are) and if there can be room for sexual experimentation between boys. Archie posits that there could be some “wiggle room” between straight and gay. And when their poetry teacher Ms. Grundy (who thankfully is not having a relationship with Archie this timeline around) challenges her students (Archie, Betty, and Clay) to do something they’ve never done before and stay up all night to see the sun rise, Archie ends up inviting Reggie along to visit a sex worker, who the boys see together. We aren’t privy to exactly what happens in that room, but it’s safe to assume the lines between a platonic broship and queer desire were blurred. After, as Archie and Reggie watch the sun rise, they tell each other “I love you.” It’s a surprisingly tender moment, one that again makes me feel as if Riverdale is doing much more with these relationship shakeups and sexual curiosities than just basic fanservice. It’s all shockingly organic storytelling — horny and ridiculous, sure, but not pandering or salacious. (In fact, the only moment that really feels like empty fanservice in the episode is the Veronica/Jughead kiss, but I’m not too mad about it.)
In both the Archie/Reggie and Veronica/Betty arcs, there’s so much nuance and complexity to these distinctly queer friendships and to how these characters are starting to explore their sexualities beyond the confines of rigid 1950s heteronormativity. In some ways, these storylines feel more queer than some of the beats we get from Cheryl/Toni and Clay/Kevin. With previously believed to be straight characters like Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Reggie, Riverdale is quietly blowing up everything we might have once assumed about them, the characters each questioning their own desires in visceral ways with real stakes to it all, even when it unfolds somewhat at the periphery. Of course I love the overtly erotic and femme lesbian aesthetics of Toni and Cheryl’s photoshoot, but I’m almost more invested in the sexy-strange nature of Betty imagining herself as her sister, of Veronica wanting nothing more than for her best friend to be by her side when she watches porn for the first time.
But at the end of the day, nothing tops The Cost of Pepper. The Cost of Pepper immediately belongs in the Riverdale hall of fame. Good golly, I’m gonna miss this show when it’s over.
Now, enjoy Archie learning the word heteronormativity: