I’m going to start off by remarking that watching this episode–in which Archie becomes the ringleader of an almost-all-white juvenile detention center with a gang problem and teaches his fellow inmates to reclaim their humanity with football–and then almost immediately going out to watch KJ Apa in The Hate U Give, a sensitive and honest drama about blackness and racism and police brutality–was a surreal experience.
I have to wonder what KJ Apa thought of this episode himself. There is just such a difference between his work in The Hate U Give — playing a white boy with a black girlfriend who is slow to, but willing to, learn about the racism she experiences — and this episode, which creates a fantasy blithely oblivious to the realities of mass incarceration, a world in which it’s all white kids in the jail and the key to their spiritual liberation is for a white boy to tell them not to act like animals. I mean, at least they didn’t cast a bunch of black kids to play the other boys at the center, right? Because that would be an overtly offensive white-savior narrative, whereas what they ended up with is “just” a bizarrely out-of-touch dreamworld–still, I think, a creation of white privilege, but just more subtly so.
Previously on Riverdale: A kid named Dilton told Jughead that the Goblin King was real, and Jughead found him unconscious in the woods; Veronica’s dad framed Archie; Polly recruited her mother to a farm cult led by a guy named Edgar Evernever, and then Betty had a seizure after witnessing a bizarre ritual; and Archie pled guilty to murder for some reason.
Jughead narrates the first day of Archie’s imprisonment by comparing it to the first day of school, which is … surreal. But the scene does actually show how violent the process of being strip searched is, and it’s pretty disturbing. After being sprayed down and then doused with baby powder (do they really do that?!) Archie is brought into the office of the warden just so the warden can tell him there’s a music room–and so Archie can read the embroidered quote on the wall: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I alone beweep my outcast state.” That’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29… but also the title of what sounds like a much grittier take on prison life. The warden, who speaks in a hilariously throaty voice like he’s in a noir film, tells Archie that he needs to respect that the warden keeps “an orderly house.”
Over at Pop’s Veronica is behind the bar while Fred, FP, and Sheriff Keller talk about getting ahold of the people who testified against Archie. Veronica, who is in full-on Stepford Wife mode this whole episode, declares heroically that she’s doing her part by “keeping the home fires burning at Riverdale High.” No one points out that her job is way less important than the grownups’ job.
At home, a wan-looking Betty drinks orange juice, having been released from the hospital. Polly and Alice do their best to convince Betty that the whole thing where they dropped the babies into a fire was a hallucination, though Betty, wide-eyed, is still clearly terrified. But then she gets a text from Jughead and rushes over to the school–Dilton is dead and Ben, the other boy, is in the hospital. Jughead describes what he saw, and Betty immediately perks up and goes into investigation mode. There’s one surefire way to get these kids to forget their own troubles, and that’s to provide them with an even more surreal mystery than the previous week’s! Getting the opportunity to make out in the empty classroom also helps. “I’ll try to see if Dr. Curdle can get us into the coroner’s office,” Betty says, and Jughead grins, “Have more romantic words ever been spoken?”
OK, that’s adorable.
Archie is brought by a guard to his new cell, where his bunkmate is named “Mad Dog” — who’s like the one black kid in this jail apparently. Archie hilariously tries to make small talk with his bunkmate, which would be naive at the best of times but, given that he was JUST TOLD that the guy’s named “Mad Dog,” now seems just… daft. Mad Dog, who has a healthy stash of books and even a little TV, is too busy doing pullups to answer Archie. After several awkward attempts, Archie–not a very fast learner, is he?–starts to actually lecture this incredibly built person who is literally named after a rabid animal, that “Since we’re gonna be cellmates…” Oh, Archie. Just stop! This is embarrassing. Mad Dog, having flopped onto his cot with a book, interrupts Archie, saving us from more vicarious embarrassment, by curtly announcing, “Nice shoes. I’d keep ‘em tied real tight.”
While everyone else proceeds with their actual investigations, Veronica happily proceeds on her extremely useless mission: taking over the presidency since Archie’s gone. She hilariously goes up to the principal and announces, “As Archie’s girlfriend and former running-mate, I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be stepping in as student-body president.” I love how Veronica thinks that’s how government works. When she finds out that Cheryl has also petitioned to take over, she storms into the girls’ locker room to confront her. “Who would you have lead us through the super dark times of junior year?” Ha, “super dark.” I love this show. Anyway, Cheryl laughs in Veronica’s face at the idea that Veronica would take over. Josie has a little more sympathy, but Cheryl isn’t quite swayed. She needs this for her college applications “a lot more than Archie does!” I mean, I would argue Archie’s gonna really need some good stuff on his resume to overcome the whole murderer thing?
Speaking of whom, he emerges into the yard for some kind of recess and walks through a bunch of hostile-looking groups to the table of Serpents. But Joaquin, who is apparently from earlier seasons (I have little memory of him), outs him as a good boy who only got the tattoo for prison. To get the protection of the Serpents, Archie has to shiv a Ghoulie in the yard. Archie refuses. “I don’t need your protection that bad.” Whether he regrets that as he walks a gauntlet of boys whistling at his shoes, is unclear.
Betty and Jughead show up at the morgue looking for “Dr. Curdle” (what a great comic book name) only to find that the doctor has been replaced by his extremely creepy pale-eyed son. He tells them the body showed “signs of stress” and then reveals the symbols carved on the boy’s back. I mean… I guess that’s pretty stressful, but somehow I don’t think that’s the best description for having shit carved into your back. He says he doesn’t know whether it’s murder or suicide, but “it’s darker than what happened to Jason, or what the Black Hood did. No, what we’re looking at here, I believe, is the true face of evil.”
I laughed hysterically when I heard that, I have to admit. Let’s not get dramatic, Dr. Curdle Junior. It’s just some signs of stress, after all!
Archie’s practicing in the vaunted music room of his detention facility when a bunch of boys ambush him. “Ghoulies,” Archie says. “Crap.” Heh. That’s quite the understated reaction. They grab him and tell them they want his shoes–but the head Ghoulie tells them to avoid his face. Later, when Veronica visits, Archie claims he’s sore from “working out.” Veronica buys this, but doesn’t buy that his shoes are gone because the warden took them when he checked in. I don’t get it — why would a kid entering detention get to keep his shoes if he doesn’t get to keep anything else?
Betty’s alone in a classroom working on her investigation (we know from a brief scene that Jughead, having snapped pictures of Dilton’s back, developed them in a darkroom to some very ominous background music), when a very creepily calm girl named Evelyn shows up. Turns out she’s Edgar Evernever’s daughter. She promises unprompted not to tell anyone about Betty’s seizure, which sounds an awful lot like a threat–and casually confirms that yes, she was there because Alice invited them over “for a cookout, and to burn a few of her things.” You know, just a normal Sunday night in Riverdale!
Kevin tackles his new boyfriend, Moose, for a kiss at the lockers only to get a major brushoff from Moose. His dad works here now, running the ROTC program, so they need to lay low. Well that’s never a good sign for a budding gay relationship is it? Luckily, as we’ll find out, Kevin can’t really take a hint.
Back to Veronica and the lowest-stakes storyline of the episode: Cheryl and some other Vixens show up at Pop’s, only to have Veronica pettily try to kick them out. Cheryl gets her alone and says with an epic eyeroll, “What are you mad about? Because it can’t be that I’m making a play for student body president.” Veronica, impervious to scorn, insists that it is. So Cheryl kindly informs her about the Innocence Project, and suggests she check it out. “A little food for thought,” she says before declaring she’s going to “TGI Thursday’s” instead. I love Cheryl. Have I said that yet this week?
Betty and Jughead show up to the hospital to visit Ben Button (isn’t that name… taken?) and find his sort of milquetoast mom by his bedside. She says she doesn’t know what happened in the woods but claims that Ben’s always been an “odd duck,” and that his piano teacher was murdered (would that be Archie’s child molester ex-girlfriend, I guess?). They find a mysterious talisman hanging on the door, which Mrs. Button claims must have been from a girl who visited with a bow in her hair. Uh-oh.
Sheriff Minetta storms in to bust up the amateur investigation, only to be called away by the news that “an Adventure Scout” is missing who had a connection to Dilton. Betty and Jughead’s eyes practically light up at this new twist.
Veronica, wearing an adorable polka dot tube top, embarks on her new mission by going right to her own mother asking for her endorsement for a new chapter of the Innocence Project. Hermione puts up the smallest of fights before agreeing, and Veronica announces cheerily on her way out that she’s also accepting donations.
Betty and Jughead confront Ethel Muggs, wearing her telltale little hairbow, with the talisman from the hospital room. Like everyone else, Ethel puts up a little resistance before completely caving and admitting she made it to protect Ben. She also claims she’s dating Ben, which both Betty and Jughead try to pretend they don’t completely disbelieve. Ethel brags that they “spend all their time in the bunker.” Jughead latches on to this: “What bunker?” Ethel hesitates and says never mind. Betty, hilariously, makes an “Ughhhh” face and repeats, “What bunker?” which for some reason cracks Ethel. She tells them it’s their secret spot in the woods and they ask her to show them where it is. She insists that they keep it a secret and tells them to meet her at Fox Footbridge at night.
Back in his cell, Archie is still in pain from his little sneaker incident, and Mad Dog–still reading his book–remarks, not particularly interested, “You’re a Serpent. Why didn’t they protect you?” Archie says that’s not who he is, which leads to a hilariously dramatic lecture from Mad Dog that they’re animals now and they have to do what it takes to survive. Archie asks Mad Dog why he gets to have stuff and no one else does, but Mad Dog just repeats that Archie should act like an animal.
This is possibly the weirdest portrayal of juvenile detention I’ve ever seen in media.
Betty and Jughead arrive home to Betty’s place flirting and giggling only to find both their parents — Alice and FP — waiting for them, having heard from Sheriff Minetta that they were kibbutzing on the Dilton investigation. When Jughead hears Alice mention the seizure, he’s shocked; Betty hadn’t told him. But the parents bundle him on home before he can talk to Betty about it.
Veronica, who’s even more of an incorrigible optimist than Archie apparently, comes by with a present: another pair of brand-new sneakers for poor Archie. Wow. She also brings Reggie, who complains that they need Archie on the field. I mean, I think he has bigger things to worry about than your dumb game. Like the fact that when he goes back out to the prison yard in his new sneakers, the Ghoulies are definitely going to beat him up again. Except that this show does not take place in real life, so actually, Archie marches out to the yard in his sneakers and maks a big speech about how they don’t need to be animals. The most absurd exchange is when one guy with a scarred face interrupts him upon the first mention of high school and says, “Not me. I dropped out in the fourth grade to run drugs to support my Nana.” Nothing daunted, Archie actually responds, “That means you haven’t known the triumphs and defeats, the epic highs and lows of high school football.” My ears are about to explode. I cannot believe he’s uttering these words! And that everyone doesn’t slap him silly when he says them! Dude is a DRUG DEALER, he does not care about your football “triumphs.” Everyone is at least considering beating Archie up until Mad Dog suddenly breaks his usual silence to tell them that “they” win if the boys keep fighting each other. Archie offers up his new sneakers as a prize to whoever wins. Now I’m definitely not a sports expert, but how exactly would one person be determined the winner of a football game? Oh, whatever.
That night, Betty’s writing in her journals yet again when Alice brings by some tea and apologizes for letting Betty’s secret out. She hugs Betty tearfully and claims she wants her to be safe, which Betty puts up with–mostly so that she can slip out undetected as soon as Alice leaves, to meet Jughead and Ethel in the woods, wearing her pajama top that conveniently doubles as a ruffly tee. Walking through the woods with Jughead, she insists that investigating a crazy murder with him is the best way to feel normal after her seizure. Though when a giant creature with tree branches for arms appears in front of them and starts making its growling way towards them, you have to assume she doesn’t feel normal as she runs for her life with Jughead in tow!
Later, in the diner, they stare at the drawing on the back of the map Dilton left for Jughead, which does look a lot like the creature they saw in the woods (shocker). Jughead also pokes a whole in the whole concept of this episode by remarking that they should have consulted this map in the first place (yup). Ethel’s not answering her phone, but now they think they can find the bunker on their own.
The next morning, Veronica continues her Stepford Wife-itude by moaning to Archie that she wishes she could be there to “cheer you on” in his weird symbolic football game. Ugh, VOM. This show sometimes acts like it’s all woke and then suddenly Archie and Veronica go back to acting like it’s 1959. Archie agrees that it would be great if these guys could get a pep rally and Veronica suddenly gets a great idea. She finds Cheryl and agrees to drop out of the presidential … race, or whatever it is that they’re rivals in, in exchange for help with something from the Vixens. They share a grin, but… I do not like this. It is dumb.
Moose runs into Kevin at Pop’s while he’s out with the ROTC guys and tries to blow him off. Kevin asks if he’s ashamed of him, which Moose denies–but then runs off to “be with the guys.”
Back in their cell, Archie and Mad Dog are proceeding to have some Male Bonding. Mad Dog tells a sort of nonsensical story about how he used to have a mom, brother, and girlfriend (which he just calls “a girl”) who visited him until the warden forbade it (why? How did he get away with it? Unclear). Also he’s going to prison after he turns eighteen, whereas Archie can have a life, and shouldn’t mess it up.
Jughead and Betty have broken into what is very apparently the bunker. They find the Gargoyle King drawn on the wall and on a random copper coin–then they find a picture of two chalices just like the one Jughead found at the scene of Dilton’s death, with the caption, “Drink from the correct cup and ascend to the kingdom.” It’s written in what is essentially a Halloween style, with drips coming out of every letter, for goodness knows what reason. Then–and this genuinely scared the crap out of me–Betty shines her light under a table, sees a person crouched under there, and shrieks!
After commercials, the person turns out to be the missing Adventure Scout, who was told to wait in the bunker till Dilton returned, as he cheerfully announces while chowing down on canned food. They reveal sadly that Dilton is dead, which doesn’t freak out the nasal-voiced Adventure Scout AT ALL. Isn’t anyone suspicious about that?! But Betty and Jughead are more suspicious about the fact that the kid reveals “Princess Ethelene” is not dating Ben in real life, just the game. “Ethelene”? She might as well be named “Princess Acetone.”
Ugh, and here comes my actual least favorite scene of the episode. The football game is about to start when the Vixens show up and do a sexy cheer routine in their tiny cheer outfits, singing “The Price of Love” (according to Google). It’s a super catchy song, but why are these girls gyrating in front of a bunch of boys? It is just so uncomfortable, especially when the boys press up against the fence in a big crowd. I hate cheerleading. AND football. I actually don’t know which one is more exploitative at this point.
Right in the middle of the cheer, Veronica decides to leave formation when she sees her dad watching creepily from a car parked nearby. He tells her that after today she won’t be able to visit Archie anyway. Veronica says passionately that she’s not in his pocket. Then she adds, “But right now, I need to go cheer my boyfriend on to victory.” Well, at least she’s got her priorities straight?
Then suddenly Hiram nods at the prison staff, who move in on the football game with riot gear and start beating the boys with batons while the warden looks on with a smile. (The warden looks vaguely like Mitch McConnell, and the resemblance only increases when you see him take this much pleasure in people being beaten up by the police.) “It’s an ambush,” one of the boys yells, which for some reason I found hilarious. Can it really be an “ambush” if you’re beaten up by guards in a prison? I mean, you knew they were there, so I don’t think you can call it an ambush.
Anyway, the plot thickens when Archie returns to his cell and finds it cleared out. The guard insists that Mad Dog died in “the riot.” Archie says he wasn’t even there, but no one, of course, is listening to Archie. I wonder if Mad Dog is even coming back or if he was just a one-episode plot device, the perennial fate of black characters on the CW.
At Pop’s, Veronica and Cheryl, who are now all chummy after their silly prison cheer mission, commiserate over Veronica not being able to get into the prison. Cheryl suggests something that really should have occurred to any remotely rebellious teen: a fake ID. Then she eats a cherry for unclear reasons. Still love Cheryl!
Jughead and Betty find Ethel at school and yell at her for lying to them about dating Ben. Ethel insists she’s not, but when they bring up the sheriff, she freaks out, insisting that if she talks to grown-ups, “he” will get angry. Suddenly she has the world’s weirdest seizure, her eyes rolling back in her head and her arm extended upwards with her hand in a claw. And what do you know, Edgar Evernever’s creepy daughter Evelyn (there are way too many E names in this episode, wow) is looking on creepily from the corner. Wouldn’t it be easier for her to be all evil and shit if she weren’t making it quite so obvious to Betty?
Next day, Veronica, having apparently taken Cheryl’s advice, shows up in a blonde wig, a polkadot head scarf, and shades, posing as “Monica Posh” from the Innocence Project. So many questions. Like, if you already have a wig that’s the exact opposite of your usual hair color, why do you need to draw attention to it by wrapping a dramatic head scarf around it? Also, did wearing shades indoors not tip anyone off? Also… Monica Posh?!
Anyway, Kevin shows up at a ROTC meeting, having volunteered. He plops down right next to Moose, who looks about as excited as you’d expect to suddenly find yourself being stalked by your boyfriend, i.e. not very.
Archie gets woken up in the middle of the night by his creepy warden. Archie demands what happened to Mad Dog, but the warden just gently says, “You’ve been tapped. You’re going to be my new Mad Dog.” I feel like if Mad Dog had really wanted to give Archie a useful warning he would have told him not to impress the warden.
And here comes my favorite twist of the episode: Hermione has gathered ALL OF THE GROWNUPS in her office. Alice, Fred, JP, Hiram, Sheriff Keller, Mayor McCoy, Penelope Blossom… it is amazing. Hermione references a vow they all made in high school, and says that the scout is going to start talking, “and that whatever he says might lead back to us. To the secret that we buried all those years ago.” As soon as she mentions the blue lips on Dilton everyone’s like, OH SHIT. They complain that they can’t stop Jughead and Betty from chasing this. Sheriff Keller says that they should stick to whatever vow of silence they made about whatever happened back then, but Hermione says that if “it” is happening to their children, then they’re in danger.
YAY! So, I’m gathering that the grownups were all involved with the Goblin King when they were kids and they’ve been keeping it a secret for decades. But I”m just excited to see them all in a room plotting like this. I think it’s going to be way more fun to watch than all the local politics stuff the grownups have mostly been focused on!
Jughead and Betty are waiting outside Ethel’s hospital room, joking about solving more mysteries, when they decide to go check on Ben. Unfortunately, they find him crouched in the windowsill blathering about rejoining Dilton and how it’s “all part of his plan,” just before he throws himself out the window to (presumably) his death while Betty and Jughead scream and clutch each other.
I actually liked this episode a lot — it made me really excited for the rest of the season, especially with the grownups all getting in on the plot!