“This game is fixed,” Jughead tells his dad and Betty moments after he gives up in his fight against plagiarism accusations rather than defending himself. “It’s been fixed from the beginning.”
That much has certainly been true of Stonewall Prep, whose hellish walls have contained an ever-intensifying game of class warfare ever since Jughead ended up there at the beginning of the season. The Stonewall kids want Jughead gone simply because he is not like them. Pack mentality, bloodthirst, and entitlement have turned them into a gang of predators, determined to stamp out Jughead by any means necessary. They even seem to have the backing of adults like Mr. Dupont, who Betty now thinks is the real mastermind behind the plot to oust Mr. Chipping and spin a web of conspiracies to cover the tracks.
A storyline that involves an oppressive group called the Brotherhood that literally oversees a syndicated pulp fiction series about boy detectives is without a doubt something that only really works in the context of Riverdale, and the more I think about “Ides Of March,” the more I believe that this writing seminar setting for Jug’s arc this season—despite being extremely eye-rolly at times—really does work as an excellent backdrop for this heightened class tension. The Stonewall kids want Jughead gone because he’s different but also because they’re bored. Their lives are boring. Their fiction is boring. Jughead’s stories standout time again because there’s a realness to them that the other students can’t really replicate. Instead, they’re all trying to craft a thriller in real life, putting Jughead through the ringer because they derive sick pleasure from it, want their lives to be the stuff of twisted horror. Jughead’s manuscript is doctored up by the Brotherhood, which deems it not dark enough, not sociopathic enough. It’s too real (literally, considering Jughead and his friends lived it), and Stonewall doesn’t want real. It wants a game.
I’ve been back and forth on the stakes of this storyline, namely because Bret as the central villain, the typical golden boy hellbent on crushing his enemies, feels so one-note most of the time. This is, though, a show that often employs over-the-top villains that seem plucked out of pulp fiction, and sometimes that cartoonishness actually works quite well, especially when those characters can represent some sort of larger idea. Bret no doubt represents the extremes of privilege, which he wields as a weapon. What if entitled rich boy but MAGNIFIED BY 100? Riverdale asks with Bret. Stonewall has become its own theater of horrors, its villains relentless and easy to hate, Jughead always one step behind everyone in this twisted game.
And while his motive is as simple as wanting to preserve his place at the top, that clarity in some ways makes Bret a more compelling villain at the moment than Hiram Lodge, who is DYING, a fact that this episode likes to remind us over and over again and also roots a pretty major Veronica moment in despite the fact that this development was crammed into just last week’s episode. It almost feels like Riverdale had lost its grasp on how Hiram functions in this story and then just boom gave him a terminal disease in order to mechanically create new conflict. Veronica does decide to defy/challenge her father in “Ides Of March”…but merely as a way to help him? She knows Hiram thrives on competition, and she pulls him out of his grief over his diagnosis by baiting him.
Veronica HAS figured out how to have her cake and eat it too! She can stand up to her father in the name of supporting him. I’m just…does no one remember when he took out a literal hit on her boyfriend? Does ARCHIE even remember? He welcomes Hiram into his gym and also takes advice from him, and there has been no reckoning of the past at all. Does Hiram just get a billion passes because he’s sick now? That’s a bad message and a frustrating plot development, one that really loses sense of these characters. Archie is truly all over the place in “Ides Of March,” making the emotional decision to sell the construction company and then the emotional decision NOT to sell the company. The dude can’t decide what he wants, and Riverdale can’t decide quite what to do with him from episode to episode.
That said, part of Veronica and Archie’s arc in this episode does work quite well and dig into some genuine character-driven tension instead of getting too caught up in plot. Archie and Veronica are pulled in different directions because of their divergent opportunities. For Veronica, there’s a whole life waiting for her outside of Riverdale, and both characters know that. Archie, meanwhile, is more bound to this town, partially by choice (he does want to fix the town up and seems to get genuine pleasure from running the community center) but mostly by circumstance. He doesn’t have the same access that Veronica has to college, and the wedge this drives between them is becoming more and more visible. There’s a lot left unspoken, and Veronica copes with it all by insisting that they have to maximize fun, which for them means having sex in the woods.
Back in the Jughead and Betty side of things, there also seems to be some short-term memory loss for these characters, because after Betty learned that Jug lied to her multiple times in the past couple episodes, she’s just back to solving mysteries alongside him like nothing has happened. Sure, Betty loves a mystery so maybe she’s just putting aside all tension in their relationship to throw herself into another murder conspiracy, but “Ides Of March” really flattens Betty, making her an accessory in this Jug-centric storyline. He quits Stonewall to supposedly protect her honor (Bret has a sex tape of the two of them that he uses at leverage), but Betty never asked for that.
In very important news: HERMOSA IS BACK. Mishel Prada guest stars in a silvery wig, which Hermosa wears as a disguise in order to weasel her way into The Maple Club, which as a reminder is the social-club-slash-secret-rum-bar that Veronica, Cheryl and Toni are running together (in addition to Veronica’s existing duties as a teen speakeasy owner). Riverdale sets up a bait and switch here, first using Hermosa’s arrival as an excuse for a sexy and homoerotic dance montage between Hermosa, Cheryl, and Toni that admittedly verges on fetishizing them, especially since Cheryl and Toni only seem to be allowed to be Hot or Traumatized lately. But instead of a threesome, this all leads to an ambush (hot in its own way tbh!), Toni clocking who Hermosa really is from the get. (Side note: Cheryl clues Veronica in by sending a HANDWRITTEN NOTE on a TINY CARD to the speakeasy, and I just have so many questions like do they have an on-call page that shuffles messages between the two businesses?!) Prada is an excellent guest star. Hermosa mostly just exists to raise the stakes of Hiram and Veronica’s ongoing warfare, but it works. Hermosa is the idealized version of what Hiram expects of a daughter. She reflects him, while Veronica certainly shares some of his qualities but uses them to go up against him rather than just being loyal. Here, Riverdale asks what if competitive sisters but MAGNIFIED BY 100? Riverdale loves to take a trope and ramp it to the nth degree.
At last, we arrive at the cliffhanger that has been teased all season: Betty standing with a bloodied rock over Jughead’s limp body, which Archie pronounces dead. We’re led to believe that Donna whispered some trigger word to Betty provided by Evelyn Evernever that snapped Betty into killer mode. No, not the old trigger word “tangerine,” which made OTHER people attack Betty. This is a NEW trigger word! Chad Michael Murray’s cult farm was apparently very thorough in their attempts to program people into killers!!!! That said, we don’t actually see Betty strike Jughead, just the aftermath. And Jughead also arrived at the party with some sort of plan. So the mystery is still very much afoot, and that suspense is much more invigorating than the idea of Betty actually killing Jughead because of some sort of secret codeword. Next week’s episode is titled “How To Get Away With Murder,” the title of another show that has tested my limits when it comes to plotting out convoluted murder mysteries but sometimes sticks the landing magnificently. Let’s hope Riverdale can do the latter here!