Tackling several genres at once isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be great. Outlander is exceptionally good at it. The new Netflix Spanish-language series Elite does it quite well, too. Elite, in fact, combines some of the genres Riverdale also dabbles in. Part murder mystery, part high school drama, it both pulls strengths from each setup and also finds compelling ways to let them interplay.
Riverdale has done that very well through the seasons, too. Its most effective mysteries are the ones soaked in emotional stakes for its characters. It increasingly uses horror tropes and stylization to explore and heighten its themes. But ambitiously blending genres, at times, runs the risk of fracturing the narrative. As it stands, season three is all-over-the-place, which is a pretty par-for-course descriptor for Riverdale. As Autostraddle editor Yvonne put it in one of her recent Instagram story recaps (which I highly recommend watching whenever they pop up), Riverdale could do just about anything and a lot of us would just keep on watching. We’re in it for the wild, unapologetic madness.
All that said, Riverdale certainly suffers from a fractured narrative right now. Archie’s stuck in a cliche-filled prison movie that this week involves an underground fight ring orchestrated by the sadistic warden who handpicks young boys to turn into killing machines in the ring. Archie is his latest pick, and as usual, he’s a little slow on the upswing, the other fighters having to bring him up to speed on how this works: they have no real choice, the warden wants a drawn-out, bloody fight, and the winner might get a few perks like a meal from Pop’s, but the only way truly out is in a body bag.
So Archie has yet another reason to be shirtless all the time and to be a prison savior. He finds ways to push back against the warden’s request for a longer fight, letting himself get a pummeling in the ring instead of torturing the other kid. But a bottle of rum gifted by the warden reminds him who’s really calling the shots here: Hiram Lodge.
Not that there were ever any doubts that Hiram Lodge is pure evil — especially after the reveal last season that he wants to be a for-profit prison magnate — but this season makes it very, very clear that he’s a not-to-be-fucked-with villain. While Archie’s parts of the episode comprise a prison movie, Veronica Lodge is caught up in…an organized crime story? She opens her “speakeasy,” a secret bar beneath Pop’s that only sells virgin drinks because it’s a speakeasy for TEENS. Penny Peabody attempts to blackmail Veronica by sending jingle jangle to the club, and Veronica turns it around on her father (who is really pulling the Ghoulies’ and Penny’s strings), blackmailing him after going on a sneaky heist with Toni and Cheryl (the trio’s heist outfits, predictably, prioritize fashion over function) to snap photos of the Ghoulies’ underground drug lab. She strong-arms Hiram into a cool…$10,000 a week? Did I hear that correctly?
Betty and Jughead continue to carry the best storyline of the season, the meat of Riverdale’s latest town mystery, which is all wrapped up in this Griffins And Gargoyles roleplaying game that the parents are extremely wary of. The crime-solving lovebirds have been shacking up in a dead teen’s doomsday bunker because it’s the only place in town where they can get some privacy (well, and because Alice and FP are shacking up in the trailer). Despite protest from their parents, they keep digging into both the farm and the game, which Betty suggests are linked.
Betty tries to fake her way into the farm’s inner circle in order to meet Edgar Evernever, but Alice of course sees through her plan. But Betty learns some crucial intel about the farm: Alice has told them…everything. About Hal, about Chic, about the casual murder that Alice, Betty, FP, and Jughead all helped cover up. Betty is rightfully spooked by this. She also told them what she knows about the game, though we don’t get to hear about any of that. The grave and terrified reaction that these parents all have toward this game has been a very fun development, instantly heightening the stakes.
For his side of their investigation, Jughead has to play the game with Ethel in order to receive the sole copy of the rulebook. He does so and ends up playing a dangerous round of Russian roulette with two cups, one containing poison. He drinks the safe one, but then Ethel — after forcing him to kiss her — downs the poison. Jug gets her to the hospital in time, where she’s eventually visited by the weird tree monster known as the Gargoyle King (which is likely someone in a very elaborate costume since, even though it often hints at it, Riverdale hasn’t fully stepped into a supernatural realm at any point).
And now, thanks to Ethel, every student at Riverdale High has a copy of the rulebook and has fully thrown themselves into this apparently highly dangerous game. That ending is effectively chilling, spelling more doom for the people of Riverdale. Again, this farm/game mystery stuff is where the show really excels at the moment, and some of the other storylines happening — like with Archie and with Veronica — don’t pull the same kind of weight. Maybe it’ll all start to come together. I certainly hope Riverdale is building an elaborate game. Right now, it just feels like three separate shows happening at once.