Riverdale: A Great Place to Get Away with Dark Thematic Commentary on the American Dream

Our story is about a show, a CW show, and the people who live in the show. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other shows all over the prime time TV block…Angsty.

Dramatic.

A little cliched.

Get closer, though, and you start seeing the intriguing thematic commentary underneath.

The name of our show is Riverdale. 

~~~~~~~~~

I love Jughead Jones, I really do, but his writing style… 

There are two TV shows that I care about enough to watch live every week: How to Get Away With Murder and recently, Riverdale. (I’ll be writing an article soon about The Murder Show™.) You would think that there wouldn’t be enough in three episodes to write a whole article about, but I’m convinced that there’s this deep meaning beneath the surface of this seemingly simple teen drama. 

Riverdale is based on the Archie comics series (one of many comic based shows on the CW). I’m not an expert on Archie comics history and characters, but a quick Wikipedia search has confirmed my long held impressions. Archie Andrews is the all American teenager, Betty Cooper is your typical girl next door, Veronica Lodge is a slightly spoiled socialite, and Jughead Jones is the every lazy yet supportive best friend. It’s a harmless, goofy, colorful comic, not meant to be taken too seriously. 

Riverdale, however, opens with Jughead Jones narrating the death of Jason Blossom. The whole scene is idyllic, aesthetically beautiful, with the Blossom twins in matching pristine white contrasting with their blood red hair. Everything is so bright and pretty and yet there’s this darkness that we don’t get to see: the death of Jason. 

At the end of the episode we learn that Jason had been shot in the head, and Jughead Jones narrates us out of chapter one saying the Riverdale was not the same town after the discovery. 

But I disagree. I think Jason’s murder didn’t mark a change in Riverdale at its core, but rather the first cracks in the perfect idealistic front of the town. 

Our characters are not just the perfect archetypal characters from the comics. Archie, our ideal American teen, is having an illicit affair with his adult music teacher. Sweet girl-next-door Betty is dealing with mental health issues as a result of her abusive mother and absent sister. Veronica is coping with her father’s arrest and being a stranger in a new town. Jughead is a social outcast who shakes down Boy Scouts and writes murder mystery novels. 

They’re undoubtedly based on the characters from the comics, but twisted in intriguing dark ways. 

Meanwhile a character like Cheryl Blossom who you’d expect to embody the mean girl archetype, is given many moments where the audience sympathizes her. She may be mean, but she’s reacting to her brother’s death and whether you like her or not, you feel for her. 

The show also employs some… problematic throw away lines, specifically concerning characters’ sexualities. When first meeting Kevin, Veronica immediately decides that he is gay and that subsequently they must become best friends. This is a trope that a lot of people are done with, because it implies that gay characters are mainly there to support their straight leads instead of possessing their own agencies and motivations. I cringed when I watched that scene, but just a few scenes later Cheryl is there, calling it out with a flippant retort, “Is being the Gay Best Friend still a thing?”

Even later in the episode, to ‘shock’ Cheryl and show that they have the fire to be cheerleaders, Veronica kisses Betty. Once again this trope utilizes the shock of two girls kissing like it’s something strange and unexpected instead of something genuine and normal. Cue another cringe. This time the moment is barely over when Cheryl is once again pointing out the moment, “Check your sell-by date, ladies, faux lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994.”

These are just two examples, but most of the time, when one character says something that makes the audience (me) cringe with its offensive connotation, another is there to make some retort that calls it out. The fact that it’s typically Cheryl, our villainous queen bee, adds a whole other layer of complexity to the shows already muddled lines of good and bad. 

The closer you get, the more Riverdale seems to be shouting out a message through all of its subtext and juxtapositions. Our clean cut American teenagers are not perfect. They have issues that get glossed over and ignored by the plot and the other characters, but that wrongness remains in the forefront of the audience’s mind. Our perfect American ideals aren’t perfect, and this isn’t something that happened suddenly. 

In episode three, Betty decides to start up the school newspaper with Jughead to investigate Jason’s death. “Jason’s death changed Riverdale. People don’t want to admit that, but it’s true. We all feel it. Nothing this bad was ever supposed to happen here, but it did,” she says. I think she’s wrong. Jason’s death didn’t change Riverdale. 

During the episode, she and Veronica decide to fight back against the slutshaming and other misogyny perpetuated in their school by the football team. When they start investigating, they end up with a room full of girls who had been harassed and shamed by just one guy. This is not something new to Riverdale. The difference is that now, it’s coming to the light. Betty and the others are reporting about it, going to principal, not letting the issue hide behind Riverdale’s clean cut facade. 

Riverdale was never a perfect town. It had these problems beneath the surface, being glossed over, hidden from sight. But they’ve always been there. In episode three, we learn that Jason didn’t drown at the river, but rather was faking his own death to run away, to get out of Riverdale. Jason’s death wasn’t the start of the darkness in Riverdale, it was the end of ignorance, of hiding behind pretty suburban aesthetics. 

And that’s only with four episodes of content to examine. As the series progresses, I’m excited to see more of the darkness get called to light by Betty and Jughead and the others. As we learn more about Jason’s death, as Riverdale’s pristine facade crumbles, I’ll be sitting raptly every Thursday night.

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