This week’s Riverdale is centered on a football game rather than a key party, and football games are inherently less exciting than a key party, but alas, I’m kind of into the Friday Night Lights moment we’re having—even if Archie and Veronica are hardly the Coach and Tami Taylor that they WISH they were!!!
The thing about the Riverdale Bulldogs is that they’re bad. Like really bad. Like haven’t scored all season bad. The cheerleaders would much rather be practicing for their own competitions than cheering for them (fair!) and no one is filling out the stands. Archie’s plan to rejuvenate town spirit via a winning football team is not working out so well. Veronica has one solution: Offer the first Bulldog to score a touchdown $10,000. Personally, I find this to be a very weird incentive—not because I don’t think any of these kids could definitely use $10,000 but because this is just kind of classic asshole rich person shit masquerading as philanthropy? If ten grand is such expendable money for Veronica, then in my humble opinion, she should probably just give ten grand to every Bulldog player regardless of how they perform on the field! Her little offer reminds me so much of that moment from the Succession pilot when Roman offers up a million dollars to a kid if he can make a homerun.
Veronica does have one other solution in addition to teasing these kids with her wealth: a pancake breakfast at Pop’s! Tabitha’s up for it and also agrees to make the diner the team’s official sponsor. Veronica taps Cheryl for some maple syrup, but Cheryl only agrees to help out if she can be the center of attention on game day. Sounds about right. The pancake breakfast draws a crowd, and Archie meets the mother of Derek, the Bulldogs’ sole star player, and she brings up that Derek is being stifled at Riverdale.
Sure enough, Hiram ends up poaching Derek for the Stonewall Prep Stallions, and who can really blame Derek? Archie agrees that playing for the better team probably gives him a better shot at a football scholarship and ticket out of Riverdale. Reggie shows up at the pancake breakfast to threaten that the league wants Riverdale to withdraw itself. This prompts Veronica to make a wager with her father that if the Bulldogs can simply score then they will have to be allowed to stay in the league. If they fail to score, they’re out. Hiram Lodge is practically SALIVATING at the notion of making a bet with his daughter, because this is a man who loves destruction and chaos. He goes so far as to ask Reggie to physically sabotage the Bulldogs, and even though Reggie literally calls a bunch of teens “losers” at the pancake breakfast, there are apparently limits to his henchman identity: He says he won’t break a kid’s legs for no reason. At least that’s something. Hiram benches Reggie for refusing the order, and just like that, Reggie’s back to cheering for the Bulldogs. Alliances change swiftly on this show.
Jughead informs his agent that he is writing about aliens but that what he is REALLY writing about is a town’s collective trauma. Meanwhile, he also has a student inexplicably named Lerman Logan who has written a very disturbing short story about abduction, being locked away, and torture. He makes a meeting with Mr. Weatherbee about it, but Weatherbee insists that he has properly vetted Lerman’s parents and that they don’t seem abusive. Weatherbee does not seem to be doing a very good job here. It’s clear that Lerman is dealing with something dark, and when Jughead approaches him about it, he admits that the story is based on recurring dreams but denies that he has experienced any kind of trauma.
Betty gets the call from Glen that the blood at the phone booth is the same blood type as Polly. She doesn’t know how to break it to Alice, who is gradually unraveling. When Betty suggests that she go back to her support group, Alice just pours more wine. Things are looking very bleak at the Cooper household. So Betty seeks out an expert in familial trauma: her tragic cousin Cheryl Blossom. Betty asks if Cheryl was relieved when she found out that Jason was dead, and Cheryl says that while it was soul-crushing, it was still better than not knowing because it gave her a chance to grieve. Still, Betty makes the split decision to lie to Alice, telling her the blood was a different type than Polly’s. Alice turns around almost immediately, waking up the next day to make a bunch of food for her support group. She’s brighter and lighter. But her hope is based on a lie. And the consequences of that lie do come back to bite Betty, whose reckless and impulsive behavior in this episode suggest that she’s spiraling to a dark side.
Listen, I rarely like therapy scenes on television, but at the same time, I’m simply begging these characters to get a therapist! Cheryl plays grief counselor for Betty and then decides to be a couples therapist for Kevin and Fangs, because she feels like it’s her fault that they’re splitting up. Indeed, her manipulative key party led to their breakup, but it also merely uncovered some ongoing issues between them. In any case, Cheryl gets nowhere with them, because she is not a licensed therapist and because her motive for helping them in the first place is selfish: She feels guilty for her actions last episode, especially because it means Toni’s upset with her. Fangs does bring up that he feels like Kevin is ashamed of being gay, and Kevin denies it before storming off. Again, real therapy might do some work here.
Kevin decides to blow off some steam at the sauna where he sometimes cruises, but he misreads a situation and ends up getting beaten up by a homophobic man. He then finally opens up with his father about what’s going on and why he feels like he had to end things with Fangs. Kevin indeed does struggle with internalized homophobia and shame, but he had to come to that conclusion on his own. He’s able to trace some of it back to a memory with his mother: They were back-to-school shopping, and she made a comment about his body that hurt him, and he found validation from a guy in the woods where he subsequently cruised for casual sex for the following years. His internalized fatphobia and homophobia are interconnected, and he has constructed a narrative for himself that is based on these harmful assumptions. He doesn’t think he deserves what he has with Fangs. It’s all very devastating to watch unfold, and Casey Cott gives a deft performance. But I do sometimes wish Kevin had a storyline that amounted to more than just Homosexual Trauma.
Finally, Jug’s mothmen path crosses with Betty’s serial killer path. Even though she lies to Alice about it, she tells Jug the truth about Polly’s likely fate. He decides to help by introducing her to Old Man Dreyfus, but the meeting’s a bust, because Betty clearly doesn’t buy any of his musings on the mothmen and alien abductions. There’s a vast chasm between Jug and Betty’s current obsessions: Jughead is deep in the well of a conspiracy, and Betty’s trying to save young girls from getting hurt. Jughead’s curiosity about the mothmen is almost exploitive, like he’s approaching it from the perspective of a novelist rather than as someone who is genuinely trying to help people.
Betty’s hardly the hero here though. The stakes are higher for her, but her emotions are also clouding her judgement. She decides to go full chaos mode and shows up at the truck stop to beat up guys for soliciting young sex workers. She’s on some vigilante justice shit. She even goes so far as to tie a guy up and point her gun at him, but just as she’s about to possibly make a choice that will upend her life, she gets a call from Jughead that one of his students is missing. Lerman is somewhere wandering the Lonely Highway by himself. Jughead was already reprimanded by Weatherbee and Lerman’s parents for over-involving himself in and making assumptions about the student’s life, but he’s seemingly onto something by being worried about Lerman. Betty and Jughead find him, and he seems confused and scared. Suddenly, Betty does somewhat believe all this mothmen stuff. She thinks it’s too much of a coincidence that people keep going missing and losing memories along the Lonely Highway.
Lerman’s parents tell Weatherbee, Betty, and Jughead that the boy’s a sleepwalker, which explains the fact that he gets injured a lot. They also admit that they lock his door at night, claiming it’s for his protection. And if all of this is true, shouldn’t they have maybe mentioned it in the first meeting? They also casually mention that he disappeared for a week years ago and has no memories of it, so yeah, something extremely fucked-up is happening along the Lonely Highway, and it probably isn’t aliens, but it IS significantly contributing to the town’s collective trauma.
Betty’s arc in this episode, while both frightening and sad, is the standout storyline. There’s a stunning close-up shot of her as she makes the decision to tap into her dark side, finally pushed to the edge by this wild chase to figure out what happened to Polly. Her actions don’t ultimately line up with her mission. She says she wants to protect these young girls, but all she does is beat up some men for her own personal catharsis. But it’s all a very exhilarating depiction of a character in crisis. Her problems are a lot more real than Veronica’s and even Archie’s. This episode engages with zoomed-in personal trauma—like Kevin’s—but also that collective experience that Jughead’s talking about. Riverdale’s wounds run deep. Both Betty and Jughead are in over their heads. The town has been undone, and what does that mean for the people still left in it? Betty, Archie, Veronica, and Jughead all left the town, but it then called them all back, and now they’re stuck in its web again. The whole town is like a haunted house.
The Bulldogs do score at the big game by the way. Britta makes a touchdown, and I’m embarrassed to say that I CRIED about it?!?!? I really am feeling some Friday Night Lights emotions up in here!