Sometimes, Riverdale is just so fucking Riverdale. Like did anyone else’s season four bingo card include a space for “sex montage set to a Billie Eilish song?”
But the most important — and most Riverdale — musical number of this episode comes at the end. Veronica Lodge, plus a whole crew of backup dancers including Toni and Cheryl, performs “All That Jazz” in its entirety at her underground speakeasy, where she also hosts an old-timey press conference to let the world know that she will not be testifying on the behalf of her mother or her daddykins. Veronica Lodge walks alone.
The sequence is perfect, absurd camp. “All That Jazz” doesn’t really fit Veronica’s narrative, but who cares? She probably thinks her life is a little bit like Chicago, full of crime and glamour. And her deciding to not take sides when it comes to her parents makes sense for the character. Of all of the teens, Veronica is the most inconsistently written, and I swing back and forth between whether that’s intentional or not. Because, hey, it’s probably pretty confusing to be raised by two criminal masterminds! I try to give Veronica the benefit of the doubt. But it’s never clear whether the show wants her to be her parents’ foil or an extension of their evil. Here though, a clear line is drawn. Veronica doesn’t even want to be a Lodge anymore, quite literally changing her last name, which is a pretty huge turning point for the character.
“Fast Times at Riverdale High,” which nods to the 1982 teen movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” has a lot of those over-the-top Riverdale moments, but it’s also smart about character and especially relationship writing. And I don’t just mean the romantic relationships. The episode, which picks up at the start of senior year, emphasizes friendships. And beneath all of the really wild shit these teens face — like, you know, a literal FBI investigation that Betty Cooper is somehow co-leading with her long-lost brother — there are emotions and stakes that do feel like normal high school stuff.
That’s seen most sharply in Kevin Keller. Kevin tries to apologize to Betty, and she’s rightfully like “um, I don’t think saying I’m sorry really makes up for the fact that you literally dragged me by my legs so I could be lobotomized by an organ-harvesting, brainwashing cult leader but thx anyway.” Kevin’s weak apology coupled with the fact that he’s actually still willing to throw Betty’s investigation under the bus just to visit Fangs, who is still very much under the influence of Edgar Evernever, makes it impossible for Betty to trust him. But Riverdale doesn’t just write off Kevin as a snitch. His attachment to Fangs comes from a cogent place. First of all, defecting from a cult isn’t exactly a one-and-done process, but it especially makes sense that Kevin still feels tethered to it since someone he loves is still in it.
But Kevin’s also lonely, and he’s lonely in a way that feels specifically queer. The show has touched on his queer loneliness before. Betty has long been his best friend and someone he could confide in about feelings toward guys, but when she started dating Jughead, they started seeing each other less and rarely hanging out one-on-one, which is a very real thing that happens. Romantic relationships shift friendship dynamics. And being queer can be especially lonely, especially in a small town like Riverdale, where Kevin has often had to cruise in the murder woods just to get some action. He has a real connection with Fangs, and that’s hard for him to let go. He proves his loyalty to Betty in the end, and their arc in this episode is sweet and feels like real high school shit.
And maybe Kevin and Betty will be able to be close again, especially now that Jughead is apparently going to be in boarding school during the week and only home on the weekends (P.S. I definitely forgot that the Jones family lives in the Cooper house now.) I always love when Riverdale introduces a new place in the town’s sprawling map, because it’s only a matter of time before we find out it’s A. haunted B. a secret crime factory or C. run by a murder cult—or something to that effect. There’s no way weird shit isn’t going down at Stonewall Prep, where some man named Mr. Chipping (played by Sam Witwer) recruits Jughead. I mean, their idea of fun is a salon discussing Moby Dick!!!!!!!! SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT. (Betty’s subtle shade @ the book…we love to see it.)
Archie gets a storyline centered on friendship, too, stepping in when he sees for himself how much Reggie’s dad is physically abusing him. It’s not the first time we learn about Reggie’s realty. One of the strongest parts of this show in terms of its character development has been the way it digs into high school tropes and unearths all the muck beneath them. Reggie is a bully because his father is a bully. That doesn’t excuse the way he treats Munroe (previously known as Mad Dog, who has enrolled in Riverdale High at the encouragement of Archie) in the locker room, but it does contextualize it. And even though Reggie does eventually stand up to his father, the way the story plays out is deeply sad and far from the resounding victory that Archie seems to perceive it as. Reggie combats his dad’s violence with more violence, smashing his beloved car. It’s not so easy for these teens to break out of the boxes their parents and experiences have put them in.
Cheryl Blossom also thankfully gets a subplot in the episode, and I hope this season continues to do more with her, since she has been one of the most complex characters with the most compelling arc since the show’s first season. And I don’t just say that because she’s gay! Cheryl has long harnessed some of the darkest sectors of this show, ones that touch on abuse, violence, and familial turmoil. On its surface, her role in this episode seems like typical teen stuff. There’s a new principal in town—Mr. Honey—and he doesn’t want to have a school dance (because of the murders that happened at the last one, which, fair). So Cheryl sticks it to him by throwing a back-to-school party at Thistlehouse (which, btw, I have some questions about…what’s the electricity situation in this mansion? It seems to only be candlelit, and people use candelabras to get around dark hallways instead of, you know, the flashlights on their phones, but hey, Riverdale’s shirking of modern technology in favor of an aesthetic is honestly one of my favorite things about the show). It’s very students vs. principal in a fun movie type of way.
But, of course, there’s actually way more at stake here. For starters, Cheryl’s attachment to conventional high school things is deeply rooted in her inability to fully grapple with the loss of Jason. She’s talking to her brother’s corpse every day, hiding it even from her girlfriend, which is bound to have effects on their relationship down the road. Cheryl wants a “normal” senior year, because her life has been anything but normal. And on top of that, Mr. Honey might just see her as a fire-starting queen bee, but Cheryl’s antagonistic attitude toward authority figures isn’t just a personality quirk; it’s also rooted in the character’s history and her environment. Her father killed her brother, and her mother tried to kill like every kid in town and also sent her to conversion therapy, where a bunch of evil nuns physically tortured her. Cheryl has no reason to trust authority figures or, frankly, anyone but herself. Her queer loneliness mirrors Kevin’s. She may have a girlfriend and friends, but she doesn’t have a family. She’s literally confiding in a ghost.