Is Riverdale Already Running on Fumes?

(Episode 1.08)

TV Reviews Riverdale
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Is <i>Riverdale</i> Already Running on Fumes?

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

At least, that’s how the saying goes. The idea is that having anything in abundance causes complacency and a lack of appreciation. Therefore, when that abundance is suddenly gone, we come to acknowledge how grateful we are for such a presence in our lives. Riverdale only took two weeks off, but it felt like a lifetime—every span of time kind of feels like a lifetime these days, huh? So, the age-old words of wisdom would suggest that “Chapter Eight: The Outsiders” would leave us finally satiated after such a hiatus, that the episode would come back with all sorts of twists and turns and remind us why this show has consistently left us in such a feverish state of anticipation week after week.

And yet, here’s Riverdale returning with an episode not about Jason Blossom’s (Trevor Stines) murder, or the fact that the last episode ended with a cliffhanger that saw Jason’s school jacket hanging in FP’s trailer, but rather about Fred’s (Luke Perry) failing construction business, and a baby shower that’s meant to once again underline that yes, the Blossoms and Coopers do not like each other. These storylines are by no means bad on paper; they represent the show’s true soapy side, they work to suggest the long line of bad blood between the two most powerful families in Riverdale, and they even allow for Archie and Fred to bond in a way that’s pretty refreshing. But coming off of a two-week break, the focus on these stories is disappointing.

It doesn’t help that, for the first time this season, the characters’ motivations feel particularly contrived. Riverdale has always operated within a slightly heightened reality, meaning that some conflicts necessitate a stretch of the imagination and a flair for the overdramatic, but “The Outsiders” gets into territory where the stretch can’t justify the rewards in terms of plot or character development. While the episode starts off well enough, with Jughead (Cole Sprouse) calling the Coopers the “Stepfords of Riverdale,” followed by Archie (K.J. Apa) and Jughead clearly enjoying their new role as roommates, the introduction of the episode’s conflicts shifts the focus in the wrong direction. Much of Riverdale’s creative success lies in its ability to juggle its murder mystery with more intimate stories. “The Outsiders” doesn’t really bother with either, instead focusing on two stories that, for the most part, are trivial.

It all starts to go downhill when Clifford Blossom (Barclay Hope)—Riverdale’s Richard Gilmore but with a more horrifying hairpiece—steals Fred’s construction crew out from under him, offering them a two-year contract that’s impossible to turn down in a town like Riverdale, where so many seem to be struggling to make ends meet. This kicks off a chain of events that’s meant to enlighten us about who holds power when it comes to the town. Next, a couple cronies show up at the job site, after Archie and his buddies offer to be Fred’s new crew in their spare time, and destroy some generators and then lay a beating on Moose (Cody Kearsley). The rest of the episode attempts to craft an intriguing whodunit, with Hermione (Marisol Nichols) keeping Hiram’s identity as the land’s buyer a secret from Fred while Archie tries to track down who’s been working to sabotage his dad’s already failing business.

I struggle to type all that out, the lack of narrative momentum evident in the fact that it’s hard to care about any of this when, you know, there’s a juicy murder to solve! It’s eventually revealed, after FP does some digging on Fred’s behalf, that Hiram is the one behind the sabotage—having somehow learned about the blossoming romance between Fred and Hermione. But it’s a revelation that does little to make an impact on the narrative or these characters.

“The Outsiders” makes it clear that Riverdale is running the risk of piling up too many mysteries and secrets, so much so that a tertiary story like this one ends up derailing a lot of the previously strong character work. It’s great that the show is trying to build up Riverdale as this town where everything and everyone is connected in some way, but at some point you run the risk of distracting from what should be the central driving force of your plot, and that’s Jason Blossom’s murder. Here, there’s hardly any mention of it at all, except when Polly (Tiera Skovbye) suggests that Jason would still be alive if her mother hadn’t sent her to the Sisters.

The construction storyline, which barely moves anything forward until the very end of the episode, isn’t the only distraction here; there’s also Polly’s baby shower, thrown by the Lodges. It’s an attempt to bring everyone together for the benefit of Polly and the baby, but of course you can’t bring the Blossoms and Coopers together and expect smooth sailing. Eventually Alice (Mädchen Amick) and Penelope (Nathalie Bolhtt) get heated and come face-to-face, but the predictability of it all isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s the way these stories push our main characters to the side. Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes), the standout stars of the show so far, are relegated to being emotional go-betweens for the warring Coopers and Blossoms. It’s frustrating to see Betty and Veronica removed from the search for Jason’s killer in the same way it’s frustrating to see Archie chastise Jughead for keeping secrets. I mean, Archie sure as hell wasn’t running to tell his supposed best bud about his fling with Grundy, but now he’s up on his high horse about Jughead having to legitimately grapple with the fact that his dad is in a biker gang?

It comes across as conflict for the sake of it, and everyone comes off looking bad; Nana Blossom being the exception, as she snags a seat near the food. There’s hardly a forward-moving plot thread in sight. Yes, we get another great Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) entrance, and the idea that Kevin (Casey Cott) is being played by his Serpent boyfriend is an interesting one, but it’s not enough to distract from the fact that “Chapter Eight: The Outsiders” spends far too much time on stories that don’t really enhance the main plot. Coupled with the listlessness of “Chapter Seven: In A Lonely Place,” it’s a worrying trend, a suggestion that perhaps Riverdale is starting to run on fumes.

Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.

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