Is the Latest Season of 'Riverdale' Taking a Political Turn?

When most of us started watching Riverdale we expected a somewhat typical storyline: love, mystery and a loose (very loose) interpretation of the Archie comics. Every week, viewers tuned in to the show to watch conventionally attractive, overly beautiful 20-somethings pretending to be high school sophomores. It followed the general formula of most of The CW’s other successful TV shows, most closely resembling the popular Pretty Little Liars series. Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars both feature a mystery murder, an affair with a teacher and several long-lost siblings all set to the semi-unbelievable theme of all the characters attending high school despite their much older appearance and chaotic extracurriculars. With the first season of Riverdale, the creators delivered to our expectations, but in its newest season viewers are getting a different and more complex experience from the show.

Riverdale has started to tackle a variety of topical issues in a way that’s alluring and also surprisingly somewhat rounded. Veronica Lodge’s Latin heritage becomes the main aspect of her plotline while it seemed to be on the sideline in season one. She and her parents use more and more Spanish in casual conversation than ever before and her large family comes into town to celebrate her Catholic confirmation. In this season, her father, Hiram Lodge, is determined to be a mobster, making the focus on their heritage somewhat stereotypical and a little problematic as it’s continuing the idea that ethnic families are involved in organized crime and are not honest workers. Whether or not this was the creator’s intention is a mystery but it seems that the increased representation of Latin culture has come with the unfortunate side effect of criminalizing some of the only people of color in the show. 

Courtesy: The CW Network

However, the show seems to touch on the white-washing of history and the Confederate statue debate that was highly publicized this past summer. Even here on FSU’s campus, there was a push to rename Eppes Hall, named after Francis Eppes, a prominent slave owner. In Episode 11 of Riverdale’s second season, it is revealed that a beloved holiday in the town, Picken’s day, actually celebrates a man who slaughtered hundreds of Native Americans who inhabited Riverdale. Jughead attempts to make this narrative his own and uses it to attack those who celebrate the holiday which upsets the natives who still live in Riverdale. Jughead is brought to understand his wrongdoing and teams up to create a protest in which he is silent but actual native descendants are empowered and placed at the center of the conversation. This discussion of an ally’s place is interesting and refreshing.

Sex work is also intriguingly discussed. A new character is introduced: Betty’s long-lost brother who lived his life in and out of foster care, “Chic,” and is a webcam boy. He explains that he not only cams for a living but also does it to satisfy a need to not feel alone and get in touch with parts of himself he doesn’t completely understand. He eventually introduces Betty to it and she also gets sucked into the complicated world of online sex work that interests many young people. Chic is only criminalized by Hal, the patriarch of the house, but Hal is often the villain and is quickly brushed off by Betty and her mother.

 Ms. Blossom also experiments with sex work to fund her and Cheryl’s lavish lifestyle. But once Cheryl secures a different form of income for the pair, Ms. Blossom continues her work simply because she enjoys it. She even goes after Hal Cooper, which makes for an interesting commentary on how those who consume the fruits of sex work also vilify those who provide the service.

The difficult topic of sexual assault is also handled in this season. Veronica’s older college friend Nick St. Claire stops into town with exciting new party drugs and an intent to use them to his advantage. Nick first assaults Veronica and then later drugs Cheryl and attempts to do the same to her. She is rescued by Veronica and Josie and receives a girl power-fueled beat down which is momentarily satisfying. But of course, the assault is handled like a business transaction by the wealthy St. Claires and Ms. Blossom. Hush money is exchanged to protect Nick, while Cheryl’s own mother almost blames her daughter for the assault. Nick gets off almost scot-free as his victim is belittled and silenced. This closely mirrors the disappointing headlines telling of young men with “bright futures” who don’t deserve to have their lives ruined by one “mistake” that we’ve seen all too often in the recent past.

Whether or not this political narrative shift is an attempt to stay topical, as activism and protests seem to be trivialized as the new “trend,” or a genuine care for difficult issues, Riverdale is starting an interesting conversation that people should keep paying attention to.