"No wonder why you're all messed up."

on Riverdale

Let me set a scene for you. Archie — once of the colorful, banal Archie Comics that kept six-year-old me company in grocery lineups; lately of Riverdale, tortured and shredded and unconvincingly hair-dyed — has just returned to high school. He’s had quite the year. After developing a mutual psychosexual obsession with his girlfriend’s mobster father, he witnessed a murder, got framed for said murder by said father, went to teen prison, became part of an illegal teen prison boxing ring, broke out of teen prison, fled on foot to a cabin in the woods in Canada where he lived with no one but his faithful dog, fought a grizzly bear, and then walked back home. From Canada. After fighting a grizzly bear.

Nevertheless, he’s back. He’s in school. And his problems are only just beginning. SAT season is just around the corner, and — surprise, surprise — he’s way behind. Not only that, but he’s found himself in a dual-front power struggle with his one-time bro Reggie: a towering, model-handsome figure, as utterly implausible a lunkheaded 17-year-old as anyone could imagine. In Archie’s absence, Reggie has supplanted him on the school football team; he’s also supplanted him in his relationship with Veronica. The tension is palpable, straining under the surface of every interaction.

No wonder, then, that it is in the post-football locker room, all sweat and skin and testosterone, that the conflict boils over. The night before, Archie, overwhelmed by a PTSD flashback, had run out of Veronica’s performance at her speakeasy — a display of weakness, a perfect opportunity for Reggie to assert his dominance. He storms into the locker room, blustering. When Archie deflects, Reggie only escalates. “I’m talking about how you stormed out of the speakeasy like a little bitch,” he spits, his movements and intonation perfect replicas of every aggressive jock in every teen drama in history.

Archie responds in kind. He slams his locker shut, turns slowly, takes a step forward. “Bro, I’m warning you,” he says, his voice dark with meaning. “You don’t wanna start with me.” He can interact in cliche, too.

But almost before Archie starts speaking, Reggie is running his eyes over his bare torso. Horror and confusion dawn on his face. The teen-drama structure is already disintegrating. He can’t take his eyes off the damage. “Dude, what the hell happened?” he says. “How’d you get those scars?”

“I was attacked by a bear,” Archie responds, his tone unchanged, his eyes steady.

“What?” Reggie’s face crumples. “You serious?”

And with that, the genre has been broken. There will be no inter-jock confrontation, no more futile teenage-boy rage; those beats have fallen away. Archie checks out. He turns away, resumes cleaning out his locker. But Reggie, who was expecting this interaction to go differently — to bring their power struggle to a head, to resolve their thinly-sketched differences — is left in disbelief. “You were attacked by a frigging bear?”

When Archie doesn’t respond (what would he say?), Reggie, finally, realizes that the satisfaction he was expecting isn’t going to come. He shakes his head, disgusted. “Damn,” he says, turning away. “No wonder why you’re all messed up.”

Riverdale is a ridiculous show. Its plotlines, of which there are an astonishing number, escalate and de-escalate at breakneck speed, zipping along in random directions without concern for taste or logic. Its tone is indescribable, veering wildly from deadly serious to utterly flip. Many teen dramas — no matter how heightened and extreme their scenarios, no matter how adult their cast — make their mark by claiming to offer some shocking insight into how the Teens Today really live. Not Riverdale. Riverdale, from the very beginning, is somewhere far from reality, in a world of curated color palettes, dramatic lighting, pop culture references smashed joyfully together like toy dinosaurs in a kid’s sandbox.

Most TV teens are obviously not teens, but the teens of Riverdale are even more obvious than that. They are shiny, beautiful mannequins, impossibly bright composites of quips and tropes. They exist solely for the narrative. They are endlessly picked up and put down, tossed and tugged. Their decisions, when they do have enough agency make them, are often inexplicable, out-of-character, or just stupid. These are not real people, the show keeps telling us. After all, these are the characters from Archie Comics. Archie and Betty, Veronica and Jughead — 2D line drawings caught in those flat-colored pages, reliving the same love triangle, the same juvenile drama, over and over and over. They will never leave high school. Their fundamental traits will never change. They will remain, forever, not teenagers, but someone’s cardboard-cutout idea of a teenager.

And that, more than any other teen drama, is what Riverdale gets right about being in high school. Forced into a space of artificially close interaction; acted on by forces that are out of your control, then blamed for the consequences of your lack of understanding. Getting told, again and again, to be yourself, without ever getting an opportunity to explore what that means. Desperately constructing a personality from half-remembered lines from TV shows, from musical theater songs, from sports, from books, from dreams you are supposed to have but are told will never happen. And this is supposed to be the best time of your life. You’re supposed to be enjoying yourself. What teenager is a “real person,” anyway? How could they be?

And while the stakes of your day-to-day life in high school are pathetically small, almost always silly — does the boy next door like me? Will I do music or football? — they are, at the same time, unbearably massive. They are, in fact, a matter of life and death.

Death is everywhere in Riverdale. From the moment the show begins, it pervades everything, whether in action or in memory. Every absurd escapade carries with it the burden of all the death that has come before. There was Jason Blossom, murdered by his father, who in turn was killed. There were all the victims of Betty’s father, the Black Hood, and, eventually, the Black Hood himself. There were the kids who fell victim to the Gargoyle King, and the various puppet Gargoyle Kings; the people killed in the course of Hiram Lodge’s criminal schemes; the people poisoned by Penelope Blossom; the people whose organs were harvested by the Farm. There was Chic, and there was Charles, and there was the boy in the woods, and there was, most tragically, the accidental death of Archie’s dad, Fred — a moment of tragedy in the show mirroring the real-life tragedy of Luke Perry’s sudden passing. For every mystery solved in Riverdale, for every death whose source is revealed, there are generations of deaths that preceded it — legacies of horror that can’t be erased. There is so much death in Riverdale that, even in this lengthy reckoning, I’ve certainly forgotten some. It comes from every direction, from every conceivable source. It is, really, the show’s main character.

In last week’s episode of Riverdale, the characters did the impossible: They finally graduated high school. Even though, just last week, Betty and Jughead’s half-brother was revealed to be a serial killer — surely a cataclysm that would take more than a few days to get over — the predictable beats had to be hit. There were hugs, cap tosses, valedictory speeches; loose ends neatly tied; recurring characters sent off into the sunset; an earnest, tuneless cover of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”. Everyone celebrated the futures ahead of them: Ivy Leagues, the Hamptons with Andy Cohen, the Iowa Writers Workshop (for undergrad, somehow).

All except for Archie, who never managed to make up for the time he missed, never managed to put aside everything he’d seen, everything he’d lost. He, too, crossed the stage to graduate. When he opened the folder handed to him by the principal, there was nothing inside — just a slow zoom on a dark, dark void.

So Archie decides to go to war. Where else would he go, after everything he’s seen? When you’ve been around that much death — no matter where you go or who you become — it’s bound to come with you.

It’ll probably come as no surprise that my favorite character on Riverdale is Jughead. We have a lot in common. We’re both writers, both prone to tension and melodrama. We tend to over-narrativize our own lives, to view ourselves as necessarily, unchangeably unlike other people. We both have unstable families; we both wear stupid hats.

In the first season of the show, aside from his narration — Riverdale is framed as something Jughead is writing — Jughead is largely peripheral. He is separated from his friends by his poverty, by his conflict with Archie, and, more generally, by his negative view of the tiny world they live in. Even after Jason Blossom’s death, the other characters cling to a belief in some ideal version of Riverdale, a beautiful, peaceful place that will someday return. Betty’s valedictory speech, still, after everything, references that better place: that quiet, sleepy, quintessentially American town, somewhere in the past, close enough to be tantalizing but too far back to quite reach. Jughead, though, never shares that dream. Riverdale is rotten, he writes, over and over. And even as he becomes more integrated with the main characters and the main plots, he is still at a slight remove. As he once said, so stupidly and so memorably, he doesn’t fit in, and he doesn’t want to fit in.

It is fitting, then, that after all, it is Jughead who is the last one left in Riverdale. Archie leaves first, the one who believed so much in the town, only to be traumatized by it again and again. Then Betty, the archetypical good girl, haunted by what runs in her blood. Then Veronica, who never wanted to be there in the first place.

Jughead sits alone, back where it all started: Pop’s, the diner, the site of so many of the show’s rare peaceful moments, the site of some of its most violent. He and his friends made a vow, before they all went their separate ways, to meet back there, in that booth, in a year’s time. Jughead, as he sits there, wonders if they will.

A year later, he sits there again, still alone. More than anyone else, he was aware the whole time of the depth of the sickness in Riverdale — aware that he and his friends were trapped in this town, mercy to the whims of unseen, untameable forces. And he was the only one who came back.

Before the characters leave Riverdale, they create a time capsule, throwing in various symbolic objects. A bobby pin. A copy of the school newspaper. Cheryl’s HBIC shirt; Fred’s hammer. A matchbook from Veronica’s speakeasy; a menu from Pop’s. Jughead’s stupid hat goes in, too.

As ridiculous as so many of these items are, there’s genuine pathos in this moment. They are shedding, in some ways, the horror of existing in high school’s artificially heightened world. At the same time, they are leaving something real behind. There will never be anything quite as intense, quite as vivid, as the relationships that get you through what they have experienced. The trauma-bonding, the first times — those will never be replicated with anyone else. You can go on to live, and to love, and to do so fully. But it’s not the same.

Because when you make that promise, to come back to the same place, you mean it — you really do. But you know it's a lie. It has to be. This place will never leave you, but once you leave, you can never return to the way it was. That vision of the brighter past is all the more potent for the knowledge that it never, ever existed.

Like the Riverdale crew, I spent my years in high school constantly haunted by death. Often, it was my own — the near-daily, sometimes-acted-on pull of suicide. But it was everywhere around me, too. It was in my friends, themselves struggling. It was in my terminally sick parent. It was in the people I knew at arms’ length, friends of friends, dying of overdoses, accidental and otherwise. And it was in the news, in the world, the wars and the threats and the fear. Before I was really a person, as I tried to create myself with Pitchfork reviews and Mad Men quotes and torrented movies, worrying about whether my not knowing how to shuffle a deck of cards made me look dumb, my personhood was being profoundly shaped by death.

The reason I made it through was because I had friends who I loved, who loved me back, with a devotion that was so powerful it still seems present to me, almost six years after we graduated. I knew, then — I was sure — that we would be friends forever. That we couldn’t have made it through the evil without coming out stronger than ever. No matter what happened, no matter the things we couldn’t foresee — new relationships, new crises, moving to new towns, a global pandemic. If we made it through all that, how could we not stay close? How could it be possible, one day, to realize that it’s been years since we’ve seen each other? That, really, we don’t know each other anymore? That we might never know each other again?

The Riverdale gang, of course, will get back together. And even as we were left with Jughead sitting alone, we have only to Google to know that he won’t be alone for long. The teens, who were always adults, are now adults who will always be teens, and they have episodes to fill, adventures to have. They are not real.