Every once in a while, I like to pause to remind us all of some of the goings-on in the demented town of Riverdale so that we might all collectively bask in the chaos that we let into our lives with every passing episode. So let us now reflect on some of the most fucked up things that have happened on the show — specifically when it comes to parent-child dynamics:
+ Veronica’s daddy tried to have her boyfriend Archie murdered in an illegal underground, underage boxing match
+ Veronica’s daddy kept trying to have her boyfriend Archie killed (literally put a bounty on his head) to the point that Archie had to run away to Canada for a little bit
+ Cheryl’s father killed Cheryl’s brother and then killed himself
+ Betty discovered her father is a serial killer and was grooming her to be a serial killer, too
+ Betty’s mother forcibly committed her to an abusive institution that force-fed her hallucinatory drugs
+ Betty stripped to “Mad World” (??!!) in front of a crowd of adults that included her own mother and her boyfriend’s father who is also her mother’s lover
+ Cheryl’s mother forcibly committed her to conversion therapy
+ Cheryl’s mother collaborated with Betty’s father and Betty’s fake half-brother to put the teens through a series of death games in the woods, resulting in Betty shooting her own father (non fatally) and then Cheryl’s mother killing Betty’s father in front of Betty
+ Jughead’s mom came to town to take over the drug trade from Veronica’s dad and often threatened Veronica in the process
+ Jughead burned down his family’s own trailer to pressure his mother into leaving Riverdale
+ Jughead and both of his parents went through a series of ransom challenges to get back ughead’s sister after Kurtz kidnaps her
That is not even close to covering everything! That is a small but telling sampling of all the fuckery that has gone down between parents and their children on this show. And I’m bringing it all up now, because guess what? After over three seasons and countless traumas, the teens in Riverdale are finally! Receiving! Therapy!!!!!!
It is television therapy, so it is not very good therapy, but it is something, and it is also doled out from the episode’s shining guest star Gina Torres. Who doesn’t want Gina Torres telling them how to get their lives in order? Principal Honey decides that Mrs. Burble, the school’s guidance counselor and also a licensed psychotherapist, should work extra office hours given that it’s college acceptance time for seniors (one might argue that the extra office hours should have been added when Jason Blossom died, when Midge was murdered mid-school play, or when kids were offed by the Black Hood at a school dance, but I digress).
What unfolds is a structurally tight episode moving from Betty to Archie to Cheryl to Veronica to Jughead in sessions with Mrs. Burble. Each segment reaches back into the characters’ histories and engages with all they have endured. Riverdale gives weight to each of their realizations. It’s by far the most grounded episode the show has ever done, with a dark, meta sense of humor in the way it brings up some of the more absurd things that have happened on the show but then giving those things real stakes and psychological effects for each character.
Betty kicks us off, and her sessions are made all the more compelling and messy by the fact that Alice is present for them, turning this into a mother-daughter therapy session that has long been needed. Alice freaks out when she finds Betty’s birth control, worried that Betty is “distracted” and going to make the same mistakes she did, but Betty rightfully points out that it’s A. Dumb for Alice to feign shock at her being sexually active when Betty shares a bed with Jughead more often than not and B. Responsible of her to be using birth control, thus preventing the very thing Alice claims she fears.
These sessions with Mrs. Burble tell rich, complex stories by first presenting the surface-level issue and then digging way deep into the dirt, uncovering all the real, long-standing issues at play. Alice over-mothers Betty. She is controlling. She is invasive. In the very first episode, we see her diligently monitoring Betty. Betty knows her mom reads her diary. There are zero boundaries. She isn’t this way with Polly or with her long-lost son Charles, and Alice claims to do all of this out of care, ignoring the fact that Betty is her own person and is becoming an adult. It’s a classically co-dependent relationship (because, yes, Betty is also guilty of eradicating boundaries between herself and her mother). The truth finally comes out: Alice likes Betty most. She is her favorite child. It’s a fucked up thing for a mother to say, but that’s what makes it so fucking interesting. Riverdale isn’t afraid to push boundaries when it comes to inappropriate behavior and bad boundaries, but this moment stands out especially since it isn’t some big plot reveal or part of the show’s more over-the-top machinations. It’s simply a mother stating her ugly, raw truth. It contextualizes a lot of her behavior without excusing it.
Archie, meanwhile, can’t stop falling asleep. He blames it on all the hours spent at the community center and fighting crime in his mask. He blames not pursuing college on wanting to stick around and clean up the town, and he claims that this calling is his way of grieving his father. But Mrs. Burble brings out the underbelly of Archie’s vigilante sidegig. Archie thinks he’s healthily coping with his father’s death by taking on the responsibility of saving the town, but his motivation comes from a place of anger. Grief is ugly, and Archie’s has turned violent. Mrs. Burble points out that comic book superheroes’ origin stories are spurned by tragedy and loss. There are consequences to their actions. In Archie’s case, he and his mother were almost killed in a driveby.
Mrs. Burble thinks Archie might be addicted to his vigilante behaviors, which again, is a pretty compelling and deep revelation that this episode puts forth, but Archie’s solution doesn’t really seem to address the issue at all. He decides to move out of his house and into the community center full-time in order to protect his mother (who is, as always, p much unresponsive) and opens a hotline for people to call into and share their Riverdale woes. Sure, it’s a less violent solution, but it also sounds like Archie is just transferring his obsession to a slightly different process.
Next up: Cheryl Blossom, who Mrs. Burble says has endured lifetimes of trauma. Correct! After Cheryl’s father killed her brother and then himself and her mother tried to kill a bunch of teens and then bounced, this teenage girl has been left to care for twin infants and her elderly nana. Sure, she has a hot loving girlfriend to help out around the house, but there’s an unspoken barrier between Cheryl and Toni right now, especially since Cheryl is worried she might be going insane. Finally, the show deals directly with the fact that Cheryl has been talking to her dead brother’s corpse as if he were alive, and it does so with empathy and prudence. Cheryl is very aware of her behavior, and that’s what makes it all the more frightening. She wonders when she started to lose a grip on her reality: Was it when her twin brother was violently taken from her? Was it when she “fell through the ice” (the self-protecting language she uses for her suicide attempt)? Has she always been fractured? It’s devastating to watch her cycle through these possibilities, and Madelaine Petsch once again masters holding the character’s strength and vulnerability at once.
Mrs. Burble believes that someone is messing with Cheryl’s mind. A chimerism test confirms that Cheryl never consumed a triplet. All the heightened hauntings of Thistlehouse lately seem to have far more nefarious roots than just old family lore. Someone is pulling the strings, and my money’s on the mysteriously disappeared mother. Games, after all, are Penelope’s modus operandi. In any case, Cheryl is on it, and she’s seething with the fury that has long fueled this character.
But “In Treatment” also lets Cheryl be so much more than the scorched-earth vixen who doles out one-liners and fells villains with her bow. We get to see a deeply human, deeply teenaged side of her in how she reacts to the cheerleading squad being taken away from her control. Being the cheerleading captain might sound like such a small thing given everything else going on in her life, but that’s exactly what makes it special. It’s the one normal high school part of her life, and it’s also the only area of her life where she has any control at all (except for her relationship with Toni, where she has perhaps too much control—I know there simply isn’t time in this episode, but it’s a shame we don’t get to see Toni engage with Mrs. Burble).
We’ve seen Cheryl Blossom scream so many times, but usually it’s in the face of a monster, of a tangible threat. This time, she muffles her own scream into her HBIC shirt in the girls’ locker room, an intensely intimate and gutting moment in stark contrast to the more aesthetically driven screams she usually delivers. We’re not watching a great horror moment this time, we’re watching a character lose the most important thing in the world, choking the moment.
Then it’s time for Veronica and her daddy issues. Whew. Mrs. Burble really goes there, comparing Veronica to both Elektra and Oedpius. Veronica believes her life to be the stuff of Shakespeare, but Mrs. Burble forces her to see it as a Greek tragedy (yes, I have some questions about Mrs. Burble’s tactics, but again I’m trying not to overthink the therapy on this show and just be grateful for the fact that it is happening AT ALL). Once again there’s the problem on the surface: Veronica got into Harvard, but Hiram meddled, so she doesn’t know if she got in on her own or because of his influence. But there tragic mess beneath it all is that this is just one small side effect of the tether that binds Veronica and Hiram. She can’t escape him, but maybe that’s because she has never really tried. Any other time Veronica has tried to distance herself from her parents, she ends up coming back somehow. In the past, that has been frustrating from a viewer’s perspective, because it makes Veronica incredibly hard to pin down, blurring her motivations and making it hard to get invested in any of the character’s big emotional decisions. It’s smart of the show to contextualize that waffling here. Veronica has never really committed to turning on her father, and until she does, she’ll never get what she wants: autonomy.
So she turns down Harvard and vows to kill her father…………..in business. Honestly, I wouldn’t put real patricide past this show, but I guess we’ll have to settle for the suspension of disbelief required by a teen starting a rum empire to compete with her father’s rum empire.
Through Jughead, we’re treated to a layered and emotional look at intergenerational trauma and addiction. In trying to solve the mystery of what really happened to Mr. Chipping and its relation to the Baxter Brothers, Jughead has put his grandfather on a pedestal. He’s so consumed by the mystery that he won’t listen to FP talk about how much he suffered as a result of his own father’s addictions. For a while, FP seemed doomed to repeat the cycle, but instead, he has gotten sober and shown up for Jughead in ways his father didn’t. Jughead has a tendency to flatten life into neat little stories, mysteries to be solved, contained conflicts that follow a formula. But that’s not real life; that’s escapism. His conspiracy theory might have some truth to it, but by ignoring his father’s pain in the resurfacing of his grandfather, Jughead is taking the humanity out of the equation. His relationship with his own father certainly hasn’t been perfect, but as far as the parents on this show go, FP is trying to care for Jughead a lot more than the others do with their own kids. And he doesn’t do so at the expense of others.
This is a lot lengthier than my recaps for this show tend to be, but the scope of the episode warrants it. Mrs. Burble might as well start her sessions with “there’s a lot to unpack here.” The episode unpacks and unpacks and lets the results smolder. More than ever before, we’re in the interiors of these characters here. “In Treatment” peels back the layers of the teens and parents alike, contextualizing some of the characters’ more frustrating behaviors and unearthing deeply ingrained ramifications of what they have done and what has been done to them.