We had something good, and then Riverdale snatched it away. That’s pretty par for the course on a show that is goth to the bone, a show that relies on us believing that its characters are stuck in a cycle of misfortune and evil in order to really sell its drama. Moments of happiness on this show are usually swiftly followed by the macabre, albeit often in a fun and campy fashion. But having Cheryl Blossom come out as bisexual and then two seconds later push her down a conversion therapy hellhole? The first word that comes to mind is YIKES. The second, WHY?
It isn’t all bad at first. In fact, the episode is pretty good — until it isn’t. Veronica opens the first act by punching Reggie in the face. Frustration over how the rest of the town sees her and her family builds, reaching a boiling point when Ethel Muggs throws a milkshake in her face and then spilling over entirely when Reggie says a bunch of shit about her father who is, it should be reiterated, a Very Bad Guy with a Very Evil Plan! Still, seeing Veronica punch out Reggie is pretty rewarding.
Despite her parents’ advice to keep a low profile, Veronica decides to run for student body president with Betty as her running mate. She bribes Josie into endorsing her, and Josie, a burgeoning schemer, agrees to do so in order to get the carrot Veronica dangles in front of her (a chance to be on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live — Andy also appears in the episode and, again, I feel unnerved when Riverdale suddenly exists in our realm!). But ultimately, she betrays Veronica, slipping some insider intel to Ethel to help bring her down. Suddenly, the whole school knows that Veronica knew about her parents’ plans the whole time… namely, that she knew that Southside High would be closing.
This leads to a long-building fallout between Veronica and Betty that HONESTLY plays out a lot like a breakup. There’s a tearful argument in the bathroom (gay!), during which Betty tells Veronica she can’t trust her anymore and decides not to run for student council with her. Later, Betty says to Jughead: “There is no me and Veronica.”
And they aren’t the only friends breaking up. Jughead, on a hunger strike to protest the tearing down of Southside High, tells Archie that they’re two friends barreling down the same train track from opposite directions; a collision is inevitable. To borrow his metaphor, Betty and Veronica are more like two trains diverging; their fall out is more subtle, quieter, but it’s meaningful nonetheless. Even though this episode doesn’t seem nearly as explosive as last, it shakes up major character dynamics in a huge way, building on tension that has been mounting all season. Jughead and the other young serpents chain themselves to Southside High so it can’t be torn down, but Hiram sends in America’s Next Top Goon Archie Andrews with bolt cutters to cut them down. It rather bluntly signifies the severance of the friendship between Archie and Jughead, Archie crossing a very clear line that will be hard to come back from.
But Archie already crossed that line when he took a LITERAL BLOOD OATH to be loyal to Hiram Lodge. I have had my qualms about Mary Andrews in the past, mostly because she seemed like a shell of a character. She still is tough to pin down, but at least she is the one who finally puts Archie Andrews in his goddamn place when he starts running his mouth about Hiram Lodge is the only man with a real vision for Riverdale’s future. It’s still baffling that Archie can be so stupid as to believe that a massive for-profit prison will solve Riverdale’s problems! But I think Mary Andrews is onto something: He’s mostly just madly in love with Veronica and has been wrapped up in her family’s tornado of evil as a result. Because he’s a teen, and teens do the dumbest things when they’re in love. I am in no way defending Archie, but I find the storyline believable from this perspective.
In addition to her falling out with Veronica, Betty has a really strong episode, the strain between her and Chic the most tense dynamic of the episode. She tries to seize the upper hand by sneaking into his room in the middle of the night, holding a lighter to his face (why?!) and saying “hello, brother” in a very creepy voice when he wakes up. As if that weren’t enough, she delivers this middle-of-the-night soliloquy: “I’m going to break you down, because I catch bad men. I caught Clifford Blossom, I caught the Sugarman, I caught the Black Hood, and you know what they all have in common? They’re dead. Consider yourself warned.” Betty doesn’t need her wig to go dark.
Hear me out: What if Chic isn’t bad?! I know he’s cutting up a family photo of the Coopers one by one, and he has technically threatened Betty multiple times, and there was something off about those crocodile tears when Alice Cooper did a murder. But what if Betty is wildly miscalculating how threatening he really is? He does genuinely seem scared of her, and Alice sort of has a point about how he was abandoned and alone for 25 years. At this point, it almost seems too in-our-faces that Chic is evil, so it would be a lot more interesting if he wasn’t.
We don’t get explicit confirmation yet, but the episode hints that FP could be Chic’s father, a theory I have believed in ever since FP’s incredible “well then leave him… at home” line to Alice. We still don’t know exactly what Betty found out about Chic, but the fact that she jumps right on the fact that Alice admits to having had relations with FP in the past suggests that there’s a question about Chic’s parentage. Alice denies it, but I’m not convinced.
Cheryl’s early scenes in the episode are great, too. First, she looks at Toni like she’s a total snack when she’s dancing for the other Vixens. Then she invites Betty, Veronica, Josie, and Toni over for a “mandatory sleepover” (gay!). “Dinner at 8:00, parlor games to follow,” she says, and as someone who used to make itineraries for sleepovers, I felt that. While we don’t see any parlor games (was crossing my fingers for a spin the bottle callback to season one), we do see the five girls brushing each others’ hair in unison in a hair-brushing train?! As my friend Caroline Framke puts it, it’s Goth “New Rules.” Oh, Cheryl also unveils her nickname for Toni: TT!!!
Things only get gayer from there! Toni and Cheryl naturally end up sharing her bed (it’s unclear where the other girls sleep, but Thistlehouse probably has at least 15 bedrooms and a dungeon even though it’s a supposed downgrade from Thornhill), and when it becomes clear that neither of them are actually sleeping, they roll over to face each other. Cheryl admits to Toni that she didn’t want to invite the other girls, that she only did so because she knew her mother wouldn’t let her have a sleepover with just Toni. Then she says she’s what she craves. The two lean in for a kiss and — BOOM! CRASH! Nana Rose fell down the stairs, interrupting what should have been a moment of bisexual bliss and also ushering in one of the most troubling storylines Riverdale has ever attempted.
Cheryl becomes convinced that her mumsy and “uncle” poisoned Nana Rose and pushed her down the stairs, and Penelope uses that suspicion against her, sending Cheryl away to the Sisters of Quiet Mercy. A “nurse” then tells Cheryl she’s going to rid her of “all those naughty demons” and “awful, unnatural thoughts.” The word “conversion” is explicitly used.
I’m all about the show going to dark places. Again, this is a show that ended its first season with a bunch of kids watching a video of a father shooting his son in the head point blank! It doesn’t get much darker than that! But I’m just not sure Riverdale is equipped to tell a story about conversion therapy without reducing it to some sort of horror trope. Penelope was already evil; did we really have to go here?
Sure, But I’m A Cheerleader found a way to make a story about gay conversion therapy campy and funny, but that was extremely hard to do and even harder to replicate. Plus, Riverdale has an entirely different tone. I was already a little skeptical about the show’s handling of Polly’s psych hospital storyline, but that at least was a very small part of the story that was over almost as soon as it had begun.
Everything is just so off about the scene, and not just in a disturbing way as I’m sure it intends. It’s just… bad. Cheryl sports pigtails, suddenly infantilized. Cheryl often has been portrayed as a victim in the past, and her coming out arc initially seemed like the first storyline for the character in which she really was completely in control of her life. To immediately follow up her coming out with this undercuts a lot of what I thought was good about the coming out story in the first place! Here’s what I wrote right after Cheryl came out to Toni: “Riverdale strikes that delicate balance between acknowledging that coming out and embracing your sexuality can be hard and come with a lot of baggage but also not be completely tragic.”
Well, I take it back! Because this is tragic. And just so wildly disparate from the rest of the episode tonally. Sure, we all wanted queer Cheryl Blossom, BUT AT WHAT COST? None of us wanted this! And no, television writers should not be beholden to the wants of fans. But that’s not really the issue here. The biggest issue really is the timeline, and I think it would be a cop out to just say that everything on Riverdale moves quickly. This is not something that should have been rushed. Because that makes Cheryl’s queerness feel like a plot device.
Look, conversion therapy still exists. And I’m not saying there shouldn’t be stories made about it. But is Riverdale really the right show to tackle this? Is it going to do so in a deeper way than just going for shock value? I just have so many doubts, and this is all coming from a die hard fan of the show. I expect this kind of tonal disconnect from a show like American Horror Story, but not my beloved Riverdale!
Something to think about: The only kiss that has happened between two women on this show was one that was just for show between Betty and Veronica… despite the fact that here are two canonically bisexual female characters on the show. And now one of those two is going through conversion therapy and the other is tasked with having to save her! Things are very grave in Riverdale indeed. I just hope the show can dig itself out of this one.