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A knife-brandishing Gina Gershon livens up Riverdale's midseason finale

Charles Bramesco Dec 13, 2018. 23 comments
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  

Endings on Riverdale always feel strange, relative even to the normal out-of-body experience that is watching this gloriously reason-averse show. When the writers arrive at a finale (or in this case, a mid-season finale), they must pass off a season that frequently seems to be making it up as it goes in the guise of a carefully plotted long game. The past seven episodes have picked up and hastily dropped plotlines as if they’re delicious, molten Bagel Bites fresh from the toaster oven, but “Chapter Forty-Three: Outbreak” endeavors to make it all look like part of the act. And while this episode does match its opening of new worm-jars with satisfactory closure, as a serviceable finale ought to, many of the concluding passages come out of nowhere.

But the modus operandi of Riverdale has historically been to gloss over its lapses in internal logic, consistency of character, or basic plausibility by firebombing the viewership’s pleasure center until we’re all too heart-eyes-cat-emoji to realize what’s happening. And dear mother of god, do they come in hot with the instant gratification this episode, the words “mother of god” referring of course to Gina Gershon as tough-cookie den mother Gladys Jones. Much like living deity Riley Keough in her woefully brief turn gracing last week’s hour, the one-time Showgirls star (my guess as to what got her hand-picked by camp fanatic showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) vanishes before we can even savor her presence. But right from the jump, when she greets her darling son Jughead and all-grown-up Archie Andrews by presuming they’re a couple, it’s just dayenu.

Aside from occasioning the appearance of some top-flight guest stars, the “Archie ‘n’ Jughead On The Lam!” plotline that’s eaten up the past few episodes has been a tedious trudge. For a storyline driven entirely by the need to continue moving onward at all times, it’s been rather inert from one week to the next; our boys ramble into some new locale, trouble finds them, and they vamoose. At least “Outbreak” fills in this template in its own amusing fashion with the boys’ sojourn to the Jones family’s junkyard keep in Toledo. We get a little danger and a functional emotional beat between Jughead and the mom he sees as a deadbeat. We get the reintroduction of Jellybean — that’s J.B., Kid Kerouac! — as instantly thirsty for her brother’s hunky BFF, because Archie’s pecs evidently exude some pheromone that turns women’s brains to porridge. We get Gershon in sharp-tongued hellcat mode, brushing off her prodigal son’s judgement by muttering, “So what, we jack a couple stereos here and there, boost some hubcaps!” And she also has a cool hat like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. So, lots to consider.

Archie and Jughead continue on with the roustabout lifestyle, their decision to go their separate ways the only element setting it apart from this season’s past repetitions. There’s more going on in the “back at the ranch” component, in which Veronica and Cheryl Blossom share our task of trying to make sense out of the many, many knots of plot that we’ve had to swallow this year alone. “Drugs, gargoyles, mystery men in hazmat suits, and secret school board meetings. How does it all tie together?” Veronica wonders. “Not sure,” responds Reggie, in effect providing a mouthpiece to the folks at home.

Unfazed by her seizure along with four other Vixens early on in this episode, Veronica enlists Cheryl Blossom and Reggie (looking like her odds-on new squeeze, now that it’s splitsville with Archie and Camila Mendes is dating Charles Melton in real life) to bring their investigation to a close. Hiram and Hermione want to send her back to New York to “get some rest” — isn’t it wondrous how the city that never sleeps qualifies as a low-key alternative to the non-stop drama of the rural Pacific Northwest — but she’s not one to be so easily discouraged. She’s seen enough of Narrrrrcos to know what her parents are up to, and finds that her drive has once again exceeded her prudence. She goes in half-cocked with accusations that fall apart once prodded, alerting Hermione that the time left to mount her endgame is dwindling, and inadvertently dooming the town in a scene redolent of Watchmen’s diabolical eleventh hour.

It’s a pretty thin scheme, even by V’s standards, though it capitalizes on the fizzy chemistry between her and Cheryl Blossom. When these two queen bees work at cross purposes, disaster is all but assured, but together, they’re a force to be reckoned with. They don’t accomplish much of anything, but hey, at least Cheryl gets to maple-syrup waterboard her mom while riffing on The Silence of the Lambs. And stomp her high-heeled foot upon a dinner table of “soldier boys.” And Veronica keeps a straight face while delivering the line “I speak for the disappeared Vixens! What of them?” Like so much of Riverdale, a shakily executed premise serves primarily to open up opportunities for free-standing radness. This time, it works.

Though last week’s instantly immortal “Ethelhead?” moment provided fodder for gifs and collegiate theses on extratextuality, Betty’s time as the last sane woman in the madhouse hasn’t been maximizing her potential. There’s nobody for her to bounce off of but Ethel, who’s been a real pain in the keister as of late, high on fizzle rocks and her own power as the Gargoyle King’s purported favorite. Anything keeping Jughead and Betty apart feels like an obstacle in need of removing, and their plan to make a break for it comes not a moment too soon. (Lotta daring breakouts this year!)

Our gal’s gotten pretty good at vomiting up the brain-scramblers the staff feed her, but she has no intention of sticking around until she gets lo-betty-mized. Her exit strategy — and, in a grander sense, the show — requires the newly unpleasant Ethel to revert to her kindly pre-possession state, another speedy backtrack indicative of sloppy writing. But, again, how mad can we be at scenes that grant us the vision of a resplendent Betty as the Gryphon Queen?

There’s some uncomfortable friction as team Riverdale wipes its own slate clean, but everyone’s back where they belong with the notable exception of Archie, afflicted by the timeless TV curse of a series’ protagonist being its least interesting character. The fandom consensus has been that this season’s gotten off to a rocky start, and though they’ve done so in a rather slapdash manner, the writers have repositioned themselves for success in 2019. There’s a new status quo in Riverdale, and though it looks like it’s going to be a while until we get more of the low-stakes hang-outs I hold so dear, there’s ample hope for the future. Of the show, that is. Riverdale’s just about doomed.


Stray observations: 

- Hello! I’m Charles Bramesco, and I’m elated to be taking over for the esteemed LaToya Ferguson on the weekly beat for Riverdale, or as I’ve taken to calling it, Hot Archie Who Fucks. (HAWF for short.) I love this deeply silly show from the bottom of my heart, and look forward to guiding you all through the remainder of this season and beyond. My number-one crush in the cast is a tie between all of them.

-In the opening River Vixen power-walk down the hallway, who’s Cheryl Blossom supposed to be blowing that kiss to? We must know.

- Something readers will learn about me very quickly is that I have a lot of respect for the shamelessness with which Aguirre-Sacasa and the writers fetishize the cast and their characters, an unyielding horniness so powerful it verges on religious worship. Though they’d all rather get down with the profane than the sacred; a hilariously gratuitous makeout between junior servicemen in uniform is, for all intents and purposes, the first scene of a porno.

-Veronica mixes metaphors almost as well as she mixes a vodka martini: “Last year, I helped my parents spin their criminal web and good people, like Archie, got hurt. This year, I’m gonna be a fly in their ointment.” Except that you don’t want to be the fly in this analogy, in ointment or otherwise! Spiders spin webs that catch flies they then eat, and even when the fly makes it into the ointment, it’s stuck! Ointment flies do not survive the experience! Think, Veronica!

- Jughead pronounces “irrevocably” weird. [Hermione Granger voice] It’s ir-RE-vo-ca-bly, not ir-re-VO-ca-bly.

- I like that when Veronica marches into her mother’s office shouting, “Stop it right there! The CDC hasn’t set foot in Riverdale High,” Cheryl Blossom is on hand to back her up with a punctuational“Fact!” I’d like Cheryl Blossom to follow me around all day, gassing me up whenever I’m right about something.

- That’s curtains for the gang until Season 3's back half gets up and running on January 16 with the ominously-titled “No Exit.” Enjoy the month off, happy holidays, and may 2019 bring more elaborate outfits, even quippier one-liners, and a storyline that finally allows Jughead and Betty to share a scene again.

Spoiler time!

- Look, I know that these characters are in no small part vessels both for Aguirre-Sacasa and the fandom to play out their fantasies of adolescence, but what high schoolers move in together? Like, as a step in their relationship? Will they soon be teen brides? Will we be expected to not find that weird? If Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz really want to act like they’re in their late twenties, they should just go all in on the cohabitation bit and discuss buying an Instant Pot, or joke about not wanting to be one of those couples that gets in loud fights at IKEA, or share moments of humiliated intimacy as they gradually reveal all their weird medical stuff to one another.

- Speaking of Cheryl and Toni, strong week for dialogue reminding us that this show has fan-fiction writers on the payroll. “My four-poster bed is your four-poster bed” was outdone only by “As long as I’m the big spoon.”

- It’s supposed to be a serious, dark-night-of-the-soul sort of moment, but there’s unavoidable comedy in Archie’s brooding decision to dye his hair... to K.J. Apa’s natural color. Here’s hoping this doesn’t turn out to be the show’s Felicity moment.

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