It seems like three lifetimes ago that the first musical episode of Riverdale made me cry (I’m a former performing arts high school LOSER, okay?!), but I suppose it was technically only five years ago. But haven’t we lived so much life since 2018, all of us, but especially the fictional characters of Riverdale? They’ve time-jumped, time-traveled, experienced celestial and supernatural phenomena, gotten lost in a pocket universe, and explored just about every ship combination possible, creating not love triangles, not love quadrangles, but love helixes. Now, in its final season, Riverdale serves up a fresh musical episode — FEATURING ORIGINAL MUSIC.
That’s right. Whereas previous Riverdale musical episodes have borrowed songs from the likes of Carrie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Heathers, “Archie the Musical” features exclusively original songs, composed in-universe by Kevin Keller. It plays out like a meta-musical contemplation of some of the central high school tropes and ongoing, cyclical character arcs of the show’s main players. Most importantly, it’s very gay. Boyfriends Kevin and Clay share a love duet before the title card even hits, and they sing another love song later in tandem with Cheryl and Toni explicitly “about the longing of being in a queer, interracial relationship in the 1950s.” “Archie the Musical” also begins with a typical love triangle arrangement of Archie/Betty/Veronica (boring!) and twists it into a much queerer shape, continuing the season’s slow-burn exploration of a Betty/Veronica romance (thrilling!).
(As a reminder: This season is set in the 1950s. Please don’t ask why; “why” is not a question that should be asked of Riverdale, because it exists on a plane beyond mere mortal logic.)
Early on in “Archie the Musical,” Betty, Veronica, Cheryl, and Toni (in character for this deranged musical Kevin penned) sing about being in competition over Archie’s affection, and the girls promptly accuse Kevin of seeing them as vapid teen girls obsessed with a teen boy who has no interest in any of them. It feels like a fun self-referential moment that acknowledges just how goofy the idea of fighting over a bland boy like Archie is! Or at least, that’s my reading. Archie has a solo where he sings about choosing between Betty and Veronica, and even though that’s the bold text of Kevin’s song, Archie’s psyche injects some of subtext of its own, expanding his indecisiveness to be about whether to pursue sports or poetry as well as choosing between Reggie and Jughead as his best friends. Even this subtle equating of a choice between Betty/Veronica and between Reggie/Jughead feels distinctly queer. Kevin’s musical constructs a world where all these characters are forced to fit into neat boxes that follow archetypical narratives — narratives many of them have already gone through at some point in the series. What makes the episode so compelling is how the characters bristle against these musicalized, conventional — if heightened — versions of themselves and forge different, less expected paths.
The most striking example of this happens with Betty and Veronica. Following their pushback against Kevin’s sexism-coded song, the two are cozy in Veronica’s penthouse, and Veronica confesses to Betty that she kissed Archie, because she knows Betty also has feelings for him. But instead of this creating conflict between the two girls the way it would in the musical world Kevin has constructed, it does the opposite. Veronica and Betty decide to put aside Archie and to focus, instead, on their friendship, an agreement they seal by clasping each other’s hands.
Later, they sing the new song written for them by Kevin, an accidental love song about how they don’t feel seen by anyone but each other. It ends with them kissing. Now, this kiss technically happens in the fantasy space of the musical. Every time characters are singing in this episode, they exist in this fantasy realm, but the veil between it and their realities isn’t just thin; it’s gaseous, barely there. Indeed, when we slip back into reality, Betty and Veronica’s eyes are locked. Clay and Kevin are in awe, ask what just happened. “Some kind of energy exchange, I think,” Veronica says. “Yeah, a seismic one,” Betty agrees. Seismic energy exchange might as well be a euphemism for lesbian sex IMO!!!!!!!!
After, they process together, agree that their musical connection was “primal, charged, intense.” Veronica says: “All this time we’ve been thinking, ‘When are we going to climb Mount Archibald?’ When in fact…” Betty interrupts: “Maybe there are other, more…emotionally complex mountains to climb.”
Archie, of course, chooses this time to bust in and say that while he has kissed both of them, he is in a place of growth and doesn’t feel like it’s the time to choose between them and instead would like to focus on himself. Okay, sounds good Arch! Literally no one asked or invited you!
I’ve already gone long on my thoughts on Betty/Veronica this season, and “Archie the Musical” gives momentum to this arc, even if it’s still in small, gradual doses. I think it would be overly dismissive — and tbh, not even true to a lot of young queer experiences — to downplay the significance of Betty and Veronica’s mutual attraction to each other by saying all of their kisses have only happened in fantasy sequences. What are fantasies if not the purest, most primal expressions of our innermost desires? In some ways, what Betty and Veronica have feels more real specifically because it exists in this yearning, aching interiority rather than in their outer lives. And we’ve seen it seep into their outer lives, passing through that wispy veil. This is especially true in “Archie the Musical,” the looks they give each other in the final minutes of the episode suddenly tinged with something new, something as charged and intense as they say they felt earlier.
I enjoy the explicit queer storytelling we’re getting from Clay/Kevin and Cheryl/Toni. But there’s something to be said of this slow-burning, genuinely emotionally complex (as Betty herself says in the episode!) arc between Betty and Veronica, a romance that hasn’t previously been explored on the series with as much urgency and weight as it is now and yet carries immense urgency and weight, even as it remains in this fantasy space. Ironically, Betty/Veronica as it has played out so far has actually felt more entrenched in realism than Clay/Kevin and Cheryl/Toni. In many ways, it’s those more explicitly queer pairings that feel like a fantasy, especially in the 1950s setting. That’s not a problem all the time. I welcome Riverdale‘s ahistorical approach to these storylines that softens the edges of the homophobia and racism they experience (up to a point; some of it crosses a line into the same issues with Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, though I’d argue Riverdale does a marginally better job at threading its needle when it comes to its acknowledgement of race). This is, at its core, an escapist show. The fact it has made musical episodes a regular occurrence rather than a one-off gimmick speaks to that.
But perhaps this is exactly why Betty/Veronica stands out. Veronica and Betty are escaping the daily pressures and expectations of their lives with each other, but this storyline itself doesn’t drip with the same level of escapism as many of the show’s other plot beats this season. It doesn’t feel like mere fanservice, because if it were, then I think it would happen in a faster, louder way. They would have made out one time — in reality rather than fantasy — and that would be that. I think viewer frustration with this storyline could paradoxically mean it’s working well. This isn’t a battle being fought in the shipping wars; it’s a messy and hard-to-define romance blossoming between best friends. It tracks that a queer, romantic dynamic between teen bffs would play out largely in fantasy — in the 1950s, yes, but also even today. In many ways, it’s the current Riverdale storyline that looks most like my actual experiences at a performing arts high school where, yes, preparing for the twice-a-year musicals were always times simmering with latent gay yearning.