To say that Riverdale’s depiction of a juvenile detention center and incarceration in general is absurd would be…a major understatement. Of course, this show often takes liberties with reality. But after last season made a conversation about the prison industrial system such a key part of the narrative, to follow that up with this cartoonish and stereotypical depiction of Archie’s incarceration is confounding.
I mean, at least Cheryl namedrops the Innocence Project? I guess? But also, what! I’m all about Riverdale leaning into its camp, but a campy depiction of prison is not a great move. At times, it’s like Riverdale is trying to have it both ways, pointing to the flaws in the criminal justice system while also including some straight-up silliness, suggesting that Archie Andrews can apparently inspire and change the culture of an entire prison yard through the power of…high school football.
But hey, that’s actually way less ridiculous than Veronica’s little plan to bring a slice of Archie’s outside life to the juvenile detention center by arranging to have the Vixens perform…”Jailhouse Rock” for the boys just on the other side of the fence. Yes, I love when Riverdale wilds out, but seriously, WHAT IS HAPPENING? Riverdale leans into a lot of tropes, making Archie’s parts of the episode come off as a mediocre prison movie with little payoff. The Vixen’s performance and the football game is promptly followed by a violent attack from the guards, so Riverdale certainly isn’t in denial about the horrors of prison, and that juxtaposition is compelling in theory yet the execution just doesn’t quite work. It’s a bit reminiscent of how the show fumbled with its gay conversion camp storyline last season.
While most of the Archie stuff is bad, the rest of the episode is quite good, delivering on the thrilling horror themes set up in the premiere. Betty’s own mom and sister might very well be gaslighting her, convincing her that they were just having a cookout with their farm friends on the night she had a seizure and not doing some sort of creepy ritual. Evelyn Evernever, the daughter of the guy who has supposedly “healed” Polly and Alice, shows up to stoke the flames of Betty’s suspicions about what really happened that night. (Also, can a medical doctor please let me know if stress-induced seizures are really a thing?!)
The stress-seizure apparently hasn’t slowed Betty down though, and she and Jughead start investigating whatever happened in the woods at the end of the premiere. Dilton, it turns out, is dead, and Ben’s just barely hanging on. The boys drank cyanide, as confirmed by the new disturbing coroner in town, the son of the former disturbing coroner in town. The coroner also confirms that Riverdale is dabbling in something much darker than it ever has before, rather explicitly stating the stakes for this season.
Sure enough, Betty and Jug encounter the spooky Gargoyle King in the woods, a demon-looking thing that they assume is someone in a costume. Betty even suggests it could be Ethel on stilts, because Ethel’s caught up in all this somehow and used to date Ben, who she hung out with in Dilton’s casual bunker in the woods (it does seem like this show just plugs Ethel into whatever’s convenient every season instead of making her a fully realized character).
Oh, and Jug’s pretty upset when he finds out Betty was hiding her seizure from him…but then also doesn’t slow down the investigation at all? Um, everyone should be a lot more concerned about Betty!
The most thrilling development in the episode is the reveal that pretty much ALL of the parents in Riverdale have had a decades-old secret pact to not talk about something bad that happened a long time ago that is connected to what happened to Ben and Dilton. Something evil from Riverdale’s past is resurfacing, and it’s making kids kill themselves. Betty and Jug witness Ben throw himself from a hospital window after he goes on about how he’s reuniting with Dilton in the kingdom. The game they played with Ethel — Griffins and Gargoyles — seems to be spilling into reality in disturbing ways.
And the fact that the parents are all somehow involved makes it all the more mysterious and captivating. While this episode is a bit disjointed in its tone and mangling together of genres, the parent pact promises a more cohesive narrative moving forward. Whatever conspiracy is afoot in Riverdale touches everyone.