This episode of Riverdale tells three distinct stories about its core four, tied together by the nefarious thread of its titular man in black, Hiram Lodge. Though her section comes second, let’s start with Veronica Lodge’s speakeasy casino escapades. Because if there’s one thing for sure about this season, it’s that Riverdale has a big ol’ Veronica problem.
Serious question: Did V catch Archie’s stupidity? Because, not unlike her mother Hermione, Veronica seems like a different character week-to-week. Even within this episode, she oscillates wildly. At one turn, she’s standing up to her father, finally moving out and suggesting to Hermione that she do the same.
At the next turn, Veronica’s planning an underground casino night because — surprise, surprise — her teen-run speakeasy that sells $5 mocktails is NOT MAKING MONEY. She taps in Elio and has to be told by the very man she claims to despise that the boy is planning on screwing her over. Veronica acts like it’s new information that Elio and all his friends are criminals, even though when she was still a somewhat willing participant in the Lodge Family Mob, she was set up with Elio as a potential suitor and KNEW he came from a crime family. Hearing her try to tell Hiram that Elio and his friends aren’t criminals is honestly painful in how much it undercuts this character, who used to be smarter than this.
And when Hiram tells Veronica that Elio will most certainly cheat on the casino night in order to take her money, she then forgets everything she has been feeling all season toward her very bad dad and asks for his advice. He instructs her to cheat, and she does it. Riverdale has long struggled to make Veronica’s motivations make much sense. She spends most of season two willingly helping her parents carry out their evil plans, even somewhat defends her father’s prison project and also tries to bring Archie into the crime family with her. She hasn’t had to face many consequences for those actions outside of a very brief fight with Betty last season. And by the time season three rolls around, she’s supposedly working against her parents… while living with them. Now, she’s doing the exact kind of shit they do.
Veronica has to decide if she wants in or out of being a Lodge. And right now, it doesn’t seem like the show’s writers really know what they want for the character in that regard. Hearing Veronica say that maybe her father isn’t such a bad guy after all — when she has been given no discernible reason to believe or say this — is, again, painful.
The three-narrative structure of “The Man In Black” is technically fun, providing three distinct genres. Veronica’s in a casino heist movie, complete with a stylized classic split-screen device during her blackjack faceoff with Elio. Archie’s in a throwback war drama where a wandering soldier falls for a farm girl in the middle of nowhere. And then there’s Betty, who carries the best act of the episode, a dark and darkly funny crime noir in which Riverdale leans way into Betty’s town detective status by giving her a PI voiceover that’s cutting, snarky, and insightful. But let’s save the best for last and jump back to Archie and Jughead, whose segment kicks off the episode.
There’s certainly something out-of-time about Archie and Jughead’s days in a small farm town where there are no men, because all of them have gone to work for Hiram Lodge at a prison that’s also maybe a drug lab? Jughead’s talk with a bunch of teens girls playing G&G has shades of Sharp Objects to it. His wandering through this ghost town taking photos of all the foreboding symbols that have become a huge part of this season’s visual DNA provides some suspense, setting a clear mood for this portion of the episode.
Meanwhile, Archie’s finding more ways to be shirtless, throwing a bunch of hay bales around on the farm and letting the cute farm girl Laurie Lake shave his face?! They kiss for a while before Archie pulls back and is all “I have a girl back home.” They go back and forth with some dialogue that definitely sounds like how normal teens talk and not at all like simulations of teens. Then she hits him on the head with a frying pan, because as Jughead points out himself, Archie always finds himself in peril. Laurie Lake struck a deal with Hiram to exchange Archie for her father and brother, who apparently owe Hiram a debt. Hiram’s ubiquity in not just Riverdale but its surrounding towns is becoming a little much.
He’s even involved in the Sisters Of Quiet Mercy, where we find poor Betty (hello, shouldn’t Veronica notice that her best friend has been missing for days?!) locked up and forced to play along with the Sisters’ twisted games. Ethel shows up as Betty’s roommate, and it honestly tracks that Ethel has been sucked into the Sisters’ manipulations. It often feels like Riverdale just plugs Ethel in somewhere whenever it’s convenient, but there has been a consistent throughline to her arc, which hinges on wanting to be respected. She’s an insecure teen girl who wants a more powerful place in the conventional social hierarchy of high school. As she gleefully points out to Betty, the Sisters Of Quiet Mercy isn’t Riverdale High. She feels like she’s at the top here. And she wastes no time trying to rub it in Betty’s face that she kissed Jughead. Parts of this feel like the closest Riverdale ever gets to real teen drama.
But, of course, it’s teen drama that’s still laced with all the over-the-top camp and conspiracy that Riverdale runs on. Ethel and all the other “patients” at the home are being forced to take fizzle rocks, the drug that the original Midnight Club got high on the night that Principal Featherhead was killed. Misbehaving teens are also sent behind a closed door to visit the Gargoyle King, making the Sisters Of Quiet Mercy the epicenter of this whole G&G conspiracy.
Betty eventually fake-seizures her way into the infirmary where she finds her own medical records that contain instructions from an “HL” to give her increasing dosages of fizzle rocks. She assumes HL stands for Hiram Lodge, but it could of course stand for Hermione Lodge. Then things take a genuinely terrifying turn, Betty’s part of the episode delving into straight-up horror territory when her escape plan goes south. By episode’s end, Betty’s hallucinating the Gargoyle King, unable to keep up her act with the Sisters, and repeating a creepy mantra to herself that Ethel first utters earlier on. Betty is no longer herself, and our detective hero is lost. This storyline is so good that it probably should have been the whole episode. Sorry, Archie and Veronica!
So… Hiram’s making drugs in a for-profit prison and then testing those drugs on teens being hospitalized against their will at an abusive home that also, need I remind you, dabbles in gay conversion therapy?! There are… no limits to Hiram Lodge’s villainy. Which is, again, why it’s absurd that Veronica is somewhat softening to him all over again.
Where the hell is Cheryl? Do we think things will come full circle for her and she’ll be the one to break her dear cousin out of the Sisters Of Quiet Mercy? Does Riverdale have any real plans for her this season? The various conspiracies afoot this season are starting to come together, connected by Hiram, but overall, Riverdale still seems fractured right now.