“The Last Picture Show” May Shake Your Faith in The CW’s Riverdale

Last Picture Show Plot Summary:

Betty (Lili Reinhart), having found out that Archie (KJ Apa) is in a relationship with Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), sets out to prove that Grundy isn’t who she says she is. Veronica (Camila Mendes) finds out what her mom and dad have been up to. Jughead (Cole Sprouse) laments the closing of Riverdale’s drive-in theater.

For better or for worse, the relationship between Archie and Miss Grundy has been a big part of Riverdale so far. On the one hand, a student-teacher romance is full of the kinds of scandal and forbidden love that soaps thrive on. On the other hand, it’s long been a tired cliché for that very reason, and runs the risk of being deeply problematic if not handled correctly.

On that last point, Riverdale skirted the line up until now, indulging in the salacious details but always carefully implying that Grundy’s interest in Archie was more manipulative and predatory than genuine. Unfortunately, now that it’s come time to shed the storyline, the show has decided to throw that line-toeing out the window and embrace all the most worrying things about this trope.

At first, things feel like they’re moving in a positive direction. Upon discovering their affair, Betty is horrified and immediately starts to investigate. Though the show, through Veronica, raises the possibility that her determination stems more from jealousy than concern, it rather quickly dismisses that idea, and we’re given little reason to doubt that the good-natured Betty is wrong to be worried. And then when she discovers a gun and ID under a different name in Grundy’s car, it feels like her worries have just been validated. The tragic story Grundy spins to explain these possessions rings rather hollow, given her more manipulative actions in past episodes. By then, this all seems to be headed towards a conclusion that, while certainly still silly and melodramatic, avoids most of the pitfalls inherent in these kinds of plots.

Sadly, that was not to be. Instead, Betty’s mom Alice (Mädchen Amick) reads through her diary and finds out everything. The resulting confrontation between Miss Grundy and Alice is more about the latter’s vindictive grudge against Archie and his friendship with Betty than about the actual wrongdoing that has taken place. Accusations of impropriety and predatory behavior are made, but putting them in the mouth of Riverdale‘s greatest villain so far frames them as being hostile and unfair rather than reasonable reads of the situation.

Archie and Miss Grundy are thus cast as tragic lovers torn apart by circumstances beyond their control, a pure romance that was not meant to be, rather than the abuse that it was. A split second scene at the end featuring Miss Grundy flipping her sunglasses at another pair of teens to imply she may not have been so innocent is not sufficient to make up for the way their break-up is portrayed, and it really makes the whole episode leave a sour taste in your mouth.

Disappointing as that may have been, though, there were other redeeming qualities to this episode. After being tipped off by Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), Veronica finally discovers that her mother has been up to some shady business on behalf of her father, which has the added bonus of proving that he’s really guilty of the crimes he’s been accused of.

To make matters worse, it also happens to make her family responsible for the woes that befall Jughead this episode. Veronica’s struggle to become more of a kind and genuine person instead of the spoiled rich girl has been one of the most reliably compelling aspects of the show, and these added wrinkles promise to make it all the more compelling.

Speaking of Jughead, he also gets some much needed development, both in terms of character and plot. For character, we discover that when he’s not waxing poetic on the nature of crime and the dark underbelly of Riverdale, he’s a slightly pretentious film buff who works at the drive-in (though seriously, Quentin Tarantino is “the father of indie cinema?” I love Tarantino too, but you have to broaden your horizons, Jughead). But his quest to find out who’s buying and shutting down his place of employment seems like just your regular overzealous Jughead crusade until the final scene.

The revelation that calling the place his second home was actually quite literal, and that its closure now makes him homeless, puts a much different spin on what we’ve seen from Jughead so far, as well as setting him up for conflict with Veronica and her family. Much like Veronica’s discoveries, it’s very promising for future developments on the show and leaves you wanting to see what happens next.

It should be noted that, beyond the continuing development of its stories, Riverdale has been zipping along with the same terrific sense of pacing and tone that it started with. It almost always knows when to be cheesy, when to be melodramatic, and when to blend the two together.

The show is incredibly dense, fitting in so many plots and subplots that I can’t even find the space to talk about all of them, yet it never feels overstuffed. And the dialogue is just the right mix of corny and clever to be fun without being insufferable. The romance between Archie and Miss Grundy was handled very clumsily, but the episode also marked a definitive conclusion to that plot, so with any luck we’ll be able to move on to better things. Still, you can’t be blamed if this episode managed to shake your faith in this show just a little bit.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Chris Diggins is a staff writer and incorrigible layabout for The Pop Break. He usually reviews TV and movies, although he sometimes writes ludicrously long pieces of critical analysis and badgers the editors to publish it. He cannot be stopped.