Riverdale delivers political indictment with just the right amount of camp


Riverdale delivers on their Black Hood suspense with some uncanny timing and savvy political commentary, but does so with a healthy side of camp.

I don’t know if the Riverdale writers and producers have a crystal ball, a time machine, or are just masters of the coincidence, but this week’s “Chapter Nineteen: Death Proof” feels grossly and distrubingly familiar.

Between Veronica’s #MeToo moment, and Cheryl’s #BurnItDownSis attitude, it’s hard to imagine this episode was written before the Weinstein/Louis CK/etc stories broke. But here we are, watching Riverdale devolve into an all too familiar microcosm in which abuse, denial, and fraud are the established way of life.

Lucky for Riverdale fans, we don’t have to eat our veggies straight. We get them with all the cheese we want. Sure, the political allegory is a little heavy handed. Jughead calls the town a “police state,” for heaven’s sake. But they sure know how to juggle it with good ol’ Americana.

Between the rumble a few episodes ago, Jughead’s initiation into the gang, and this week’s drag race, I am beside myself with campy nostalgia. It just doesn’t get much better than Cheryl standing between two muscle cars,  waving that scarf to start the race. But it’s hard to enjoy when all the seedy goings-on are ripped straight from our current headlines.

Riverdale is excellent at having it both ways. On the one hand, they offer up some pretty straightforward indictments of the culture that led to the current zeitgeist. Nick St. Clair feels particularly familiar, and unfortunately, he’s kind of a stereotype. Cheryl is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in this allegory, standing in as the rep for a lot of women in America right now.

Of course, Nick denies Cheryl’s allegations, blaming how drunk she was and how she was dressed. Even her own mother doesn’t believe her, suggesting, “nothing really happened to Cheryl.” Penelope’s internalized misogyny is tough to watch onscreen, but no less true IRL. If anybody can shoulder the weight of this extended allegory, it’s Cheryl, even though she has to juggle it with the silly Sugar Man stuff.

The polarizing territory war feels particularly timely, as well. As the mayor cracks down on the Southside, the socio-economic lines are being drawn. The parent meeting at the Coopers feels especially timely to me. You can almost hear the chants in the background. While Alice Cooper clutches her pearls on her quiet, suburban street, Sheriff Keller is storming the halls of Southside High, rounding up all the poor kids.

On the other hand, Riverdale serves up this gritty allegory right along side all the soapy teen tropes we eat right up. The town of Riverdale’s worst problems strike a startling parallel to our problems of the moment, but we don’t look away. We lean right on in, bathing ourselves in the melodrama and maudlin camp.

The idea of the Sugar Man is downright silly in its execution. We didn’t even really know Mr. Phillips well enough to have an opinion about his guilt or innocence as a drug dealer. Who cares if he goes to jail or gets shot by the Black Hood? However, if the Sugar Man turns out to be an honest to goodness boogey man, supernatural and all, then I’m there for it. Monsters are always a handy stand-in for larger societal evils. A drug-dealing Frankenstein (or vampire or werewolf) would be an excellent way to call the establishment onto the carpet. I say do it.

Riverdale is resisting, in its own right. Our very own Betty Cooper is morphing into a much more effective vigilante than Archie ever was.  (Archie is evolving into a whiny baby who tattles to the police and cowers in the passenger seat.) She can’t even be bothered with her signature ponytail anymore. She’s too busy running the street, fighting the Black Hood, and taking on drug dealers. She is reclaiming her time, and giving the Black Hood her middle finger. Betty is our hero.

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To put a nice bow on the whole matter, the St. Clairs are run off the road in a crash orchestrated by the Lodges. Veronica doesn’t feel remorseful, and it seems Riverdale is having a little fun with our apparently convenient morality.

While Veronica’s morality and sense of justice becomes even more elastic as the show wears on, it seems Betty’s becomes more clear cut. She didn’t turn Phillips in to the Black Hood, as he demanded. She turned him over to the police. Of course, this caused his certain death, but Betty is not here for his manipulations anymore.

In a moment when it’s proving harder and harder to be a woman, Riverdale is consistently delivering young, female heroes. Betty is the movement of resistance while Cheryl is the crucible in which the new way is formed. Veronica hasn’t come into her own, just yet, but once she gets rid of Archie (and stops calling him Archie-kins), she’s bound to to do great things.

We’ve got you covered, for all sorts of theories and conspiracies. Stay with us for all things Riverdale.

Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.