After winter break, school is back in session on Riverdale, although we all know these kiddos are rarely in actual school and prefer to spend their time doing murders or solving murders or idk talking to their murdered twin brother’s dead corpse. Just normal teen things! It certainly beats calculus. So gather round, let’s share all our traumas in a high school basement as part of some secret society’s bonding ritual!
Yes, that is exactly what happens on this episode of Riverdale when Jughead burrows deeper into the vowels of Stonewall Prep, a school where students like to dress in deranged bunny costumes and attack people and also have a football team that notoriously “plays to hurt.” What is the point of this feelings circle? Adding depth to the otherwise one-note—and perplexing!—rich monsters of Stonewall? Showing us that bullies have their burdens to bear, too? I’m not really sure, because we literally don’t grapple with the emotional weight (or even narrative significance?) of any of it at all before we’re flung back into the true meat of “Varsity Blues”: the championship football game a.k.a. “Social Darwinism in uniforms” as our dear, deranged Bret Weston Wallis (real character name!) calls it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the abuse and violence that happens in high school sports, mainly because I have been watching the brilliant new USA series Dare Me, which deals with these realities as it studies a small-town high school cheer squad and its new coach, Colette French. Coach French conflates manipulation and cruelty with ambition and discipline. Am I going to use this recap of Riverdale to convince you to watch Dare Me on USA? Absolutely, because much like the teens of Riverdale, I do what I want when I want regardless of societal rules or laws of science.
I am not, however, suggesting that you should watch Dare Me on USA instead of Riverdale. They are inherently very different shows. But “Varsity Blues” in particular deals with some similar themes as the USA cheer thriller, albeit in its own Riverdale way. Riverdale has, over the course of its four seasons, established its universe with theatrical detail. The aesthetics, tone, and narrative devices of the series evoke gothic-glam horror camp. Sure, we haven’t checked in much on the Riverdale Bulldogs or the Riverdale Vixens much this season, but when we’re told at the top of the episode that this game is a very big deal for everyone involved, it’s perfectly easy to swallow it up, because the stakes are always high on Riverdale. This is a series that revels in chaos and extremity.
Dare Me on USA, which you should be watching, takes a still heightened but significantly more grounded approach to its tales of teen violence and small-town drama. It still dresses up its darkness with glitter, but that mask is very intentional, a piercing juxtaposition of the thrills and terror of high school sports. The young women on Dare Me hurl their bodies into the air in a way that seems to defy gravity and also basic survival. All for what? Power? Control? Glory? A ticket out of town? It’s all of these things and more, and Coach French instills a gladiator’s sense of duty in them.
In Riverdale’s “Varsity Blues,” Munroe risks it all just for a shot to play in the championship and potentially get recruited by a Notre Dame scout. After getting beaten up by a gaggle of Stonewall ghouls, he takes drugs—doled out by Archie’s Uncle Frank despite Archie’s protests—just to play through the pain. This is the kind of pressure high school sports can place on teens, who push their still-growing bodies to their limits and take huge risks to get what they want (or, sometimes, to get what others expect them to want). That pressure intensifies in a small, class-fractured town where sports scholarships can be life-changing.
On the Vixens side of things, a new coach named Miss Appleyard (this show and its names) shows up threatening to take the squad away from Cheryl. Like Dare Me’s Colette French, Miss Appleyard touts her winning record as proof she’s the real deal and makes it clear that she wants to control these young women. Miss Appleyard is absolutely a Colette French Lite, but here presence here nonetheless has real stakes to it, because the Vixens have always been such an important part of who Cheryl is. It’s the only place where she has some semblance of control. The HBIC letters Cheryl wears mean much more when you consider the fact that Cheryl never had any freedom to even be herself in her own home. There are certainly parallels to be made between Cheryl Blossom and Dare Me’s own dethroned queen bee Beth Cassidy, who similarly lashes out when coach takes her power away. For Beth, it’s about more than just the title of captain. For Beth, squad rules are as binding as a blood oath. For Cheryl, the Vixens are her family. And she certainly doesn’t rule over them with kindness, but she has never betrayed them, and her leadership style absolutely reflects the conditions she was raised in, much like Dare Me’s Beth’s do.
Have I mentioned that you should watch Dare Me on USA?
Anyway, teen journalist Betty is busy exposing the culture of violence fostered at Stonewall, and she and Jughead squabble when she learns he joined a secret society without telling her. His defense? “I didn’t tell you because it’s a SECRET SOCIETY.” Well, that tracks. But Betty also reminds him that this secret society happens to be made up of people who, I don’t know, have maybe committed murders and absolutely have never had Jughead’s best interests in mind like for example that one time when they locked him in an actual coffin for hours as a fun lil prank. Which also tracks! Maybe don’t throw yourself into the den of lions, Jughead! But hey, at least he’s getting an offer from Yale out of it. I have a lot of questions about how college admissions work on Riverdale, and yet I shall not ask them.
Betty enlists Veronica to seduce a confession out of Bret and very casually asks “would you be willing to wear a wire” because Betty just has unlimited access to FBI equipment now. Betty Cooper is a cop, and it stresses me out! Veronica makes time to help her friend amid her busy schedule of launching her rum brand, which I assume is the first-ever teen-run alcohol business, so I imagine it does indeed require quite a lot of work and law-breaking! Daddy Lodge is done with law-breaking though, supposedly, appealing to his daughter for the one millionth time, which is how you know he feels actually threatened by Veronica’s latest move. She figures out how to really up her rum game after one lick of Cheryl’s maple-flavored snow cone which is, sadly, not a sexual euphemism but rather something much more twisted: Cheryl! Eating! A! Snow! Cone! During! Autumnal! Weather! Again, the townspeople of Riverdale follow neither society’s nor science’s rules. This isn’t even the first time that snow cones have been consumed by people in light winter-wear on this show. Absolutely sickening! But according to Cheryl, Veronica’s new rum recipe “tastes like breakfast on the beach” (which for me personally evokes something like sandy eggs, so not exactly an enticing image but ok). “No, Cheryl, it tastes like money” is Veronica’s real-ass response, and I just have to say…bless this show.
Rum wars, family wars (Archie’s mom vehemently hates Uncle Frank, and tbh she has good reasons to because the dude let his own brother take the fall for his DUI and is also out here giving prescription pain pills to teens?), and sports wars (“We may have lost the game, but we haven’t lost the war” – Betty Cooper) make “Varsity Blues” a wild but honestly tight episode of Riverdale. Every once in a while, this show deals with real high school drama. Again, it brings its own signature theatrics and aesthetics to that drama, but there’s still real stakes to it all. Football, cheerleading, student journalism—it all does feel immensely important and high-stakes when you’re living in the bubble-world of high school. Riverdale captures that with a heavy dose of camp. Dare Me does it with the edge of a slow-burn noir.
In conclusion: Watch Dare Me on USA!