How Riverdale Has Become One of TV’s Most Topical Shows

Riverdale is avoiding a sophomore slump by asking some tough questions about how America responds to terror.

Warning: This article contains spoilers through Riverdale Season 2, Episode 4.

Riverdale is known for its delightful teen soap shenanigans, but amidst all of the camp lies a surprisingly earnest exploration of America’s current struggle with terror, trauma, and a lack of control. 

Riverdale‘s first season was a fun, fierce teen murder mystery drama, its second season represents a whole new breed of ambition. Season 2 is challenging its viewers to ask themselves some tough questions about how America responds when it feels threatened, and it’s not pulling its punches on the answers.

While Riverdale has only truly begun delving into these topical themes in its second season, the show planted the seeds for their exploration in the Season 1 finale, with Betty’s jubilee speech.

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Riverdale’s at a crossroads. If we don’t face the reality of who and what we are, if we keep lying to ourselves and keeping secrets from each other, then what happened to Jason could happen again … Riverdale must do better. We must do better.

With these words, it felt like Betty was speaking directly addressing the viewers at home, challenging us, too, to do better, reminding us (or those of us who have the privilege to forget) that history does not always move in a linear, upward progression. We have work to do.

So how is the town of Riverdale doing in Season 2? Are they “doing better,” per Betty’s challenge? Um… not so much. In the space of four episodes, Archie has: organized a town militia populated by high school jocks, bought a gun and pulled it on someone, and agreed to a rumble with the teenage members of the Southside Serpents. 

In other words, Archie has been dealing with the trauma of seeing his father shot and being himself held at gunpoint in the way most men are socialized to deal with fear and trauma: with anger, a desire to act as the protector (even when those they are “protecting” are actively asking them not to), and by lashing out with violence.

Archie has canonically been a mainstream representation of the “average” American, i.e. a straight, white man. This is the same demographic that, today, we can talk about in slightly more honest terms as one that is statistically more likely to perpetrate violence. Riverdale is not demonizing Archie, but it is also not shying away from that fact.

Archie’s bad choices all came to a head in this week’s episode, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” Thus far, much of Archie’s behavior has been allowed to go unchecked. His father is still recovering from his near-death experience, and everyone else is handling an obviously traumatized Archie with kid gloves. In “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” it becomes apparent to many (though, notably, not all) of Archie’s friends, family, and neighbors that it’s time to remove aforementioned kid gloves.

Even Veronica, who has thrown herself into being a supportive girlfriend with an arguably unhealthy degree of blind loyalty, describes Archie’s YouTube debut as “lin[ing] up a bunch of semi-naked boys straight out of Lord Of The Flies, put[ting] them in red ski masks, and deliver[ing] some Unabomber-like manifesto” — a description that is funny, but also scarily accurate. 

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For the people on the Southside who don’t personally know Archie, his Red Circle video is understandably terrifying. Even for the people who do know Archie, it is a cause for some fear. When Principal Weatherbee confronts Archie about it, the teenager seems to think think “You have my word: there is only one person who should be scared of that video,” is a comforting explanation.

Archie’s dive off of the deep end is scary for the degree to which his status as the well-liked white dude from a “good family” gives him leeway. When he starts a teenage vigilante mob, Principal Weatherbee initially supports it. When he denies being the ginger Riverdale High kid waving a gun around on the Southside, Sheriff Keller if not believes him, then lets him get away with it. (Imagine if this were Jughead, or any kid from the Southside.)

In the end, Archie isn’t stopped by some institutional authority, but rather by his more level-headed girlfriend. Veronica literally has to shoot a gun into a thunderstorm during a rumble to get Archie to pay attention, to stop him from doing something he can’t take back. Even Archie recognizes that, if Veronica hadn’t been there, someone could have been hurt or killed.

As a white dude from a “good family,” Archie is not someone who is used to being held accountable for his actions, and Riverdale knows that. In different ways than Jughead or Betty or Kevin, the system fails Archie, too. It lets him get this far. It doesn’t stop him. Veronica does that.

While Archie is across town fighting Southside Serpents in the rain, his father is arguing for the soul of Riverdale. Fred, who has also directly suffered at the hands of the Black Hood, is a ray of hope in Riverdale’s response to terror.

Fred defends not just the Northside, as so many Northsiders (including Archie) seem to define Riverdale, but the Southside, too. Alice Cooper, someone who came from Southside herself, calls her former home neighborhood “a blight of empty storefront and vacant lots — a pit of violence, waiting to erupt.”

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Along with Archie, Alice is the representation of America’s worst habits when confronted with terror. Earlier in the episode, Alice delivers an emotional speech to Betty about how scared she is, terrified that her daughters won’t come home.

These are valid fears — the Black Hood is killing people — but Alice Cooper doesn’t strike back at the Black Hood. She strikes out at the Southside. She embodies those people with relative power who, when confronted with terror they can’t control, start swinging at the easiest, most familiar, most vulnerable targets. In this case: the impoverished Southside.

Fred Andrews acts as the voice of reason in the Riverdale town hall meeting (a meeting that is noticeable devoid of Southside residents). 

You talk about the town being divided. Alice, you’re the one holding the cleaver. The Southside is not the issue. The issue is there is a guy out there with a gun and a hood. And he’s bringing out the worst in this town, pitting it against himself.

This response is also what Betty predicted in her jubilee speech when she reminded the people of Riverside that Jughead Jones is Riverdale, too.

Without him, we may not have ever found out what happened to Jason. And yet how do we thank him? By banishing him. Which is what we do when the truth gets too ugly in Riverdale. 

It’s hard not to notice the relative darkness of Riverdale Season 2 as compared to its first season, but what else would you expect from a series about a town canonically meant to be reflection of America? In a historical moment where there seems to be another mass shooting incident everyday, anything less would feel like a lie.

Something less is what most shows go for these days: escapism over catharsis. Riverdale Season 2 is going for both, and, for the most part, it’s succeeding. If Riverdale is a stand-in for the soul of America — a microcosm of our hopes, dreams, fears, and flaws — then Season 2 has become an exploration of how that soul can and has been corrupted. Or, more accurately, how it’s been corrupted all along. Now, we’re allowed to talk about it. We must talk about it.

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