Riverdale: Soap Opera Drama Meets Gothic Horror

By now, unless you’ve been residing beneath a rock (or possibly just existing offline), and you keep up with any sort of pop culture, you have almost certainly heard of the CW television adaptation of the Archie comics. The resulting series, Riverdale, takes a look at the classic characters, shakes them up a lot, and then drops them into modernity. Die-hard fans of the comics were doubtlessly unimpressed with what appears to be a teenage soap opera crossed with Twin Peaks. I was interested in watching the series largely because I have a fondness for those over-the-top shows, but also because I was fascinated with the premise. I was never even a casual reader of any of the Archie comics, but I was aware of them. I have a cousin who used to love the Betty and Veronica books, and I read a few of them, but it was never really my thing. I tuned into Riverdale with the full expectation of overdramatic scenarios that seem life or death to high school students. What I got was a full on Gothic horror story par excellence. It didn’t occur to me until near the end of my massive binge watch that this is what the creators had slid in beneath all of the teenage drama. I was delighted.

Spoilers to follow!

 

To be clear, the show isn’t what one thinks of when one pictures “horror.” The show has elements that are horrifying in a different sense of the word: a teenager is murdered, a teacher indulges in an affair with a student, hints of incest, questioning of sanity, parents exerting ultimate and absolute control over their children (even insisting that a pregnant daughter abort her child), another teenager roaming the town in a state of homelessness, and the town’s oldest and most prominent family running drugs via motorcycle gang. Each of these things places ugly cracks in the beautiful, wholesome face that the town of Riverdale has attempted to wear. This is horror in the most basic sense: the natural state is broken and unnatural forces are ruling the day.

Unfamiliar with the term Gothic horror?

Gothic Horror is one of the oldest of the horror genres. Darker, edgier and on the Romanticism end of Romanticism Versus Enlightenment, it tends to play on both the thrill and the fear of the unknown, and places a great importance on atmosphere. It’s usually heavily symbolic, sometimes even dreamlike. In addition to being important to the horror genre, the first scifi, fantasy, romance, mystery, and adventure authors drew inspiration from Gothic horror, so it’s sometimes considered the parent of all modern genre fiction. (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GothicHorror)

Some common elements of Gothic fare include remote locations, fallen women, incest, hints of supernatural, dark villains, madness, and decaying locales. Let’s break it down and examine a few of these within the context of the show.

Remote Locations

The city of Riverdale is, itself, a remote town. It’s never truly mentioned where one can find this idyllic little town, but one assumes that it is somewhere in New England, given the weather, the prevalence of maple trees, and the fact that Veronica can order Magnolia cupcakes from New York for next or same day delivery when she attempts to make amends with Betty. Somehow, the town itself manages to have its own set of isolated areas. The incident that sets the entire series in motion takes place at Sweetwater River, away from the town itself. The Blossom mansion,Thornhill, exists in its own lonesome place (the series gets meta and talks about this in an episode and refers to Cheryl as a Gothic heroine).

Fallen Women

Alice and Polly Cooper. Veronica and Hermione Lodge. Cheryl Blossom. “Geraldine Grundy.” For varying reasons, each of these characters represents a disgraced or “fallen” woman. Alice’s story is one that we do not learn until the very end. Like her daughter, Alice became pregnant out of wedlock and was sent away to have and then give up her baby when she was about Polly’s age. Polly, as we learn, is pregnant with the late Jason Blossom’s twins (more on this later). Society can be very unkind to women who find themselves with child if there’s no plan to enter a traditional, heteronormative relationship. In a town as quaint as Riverdale, this situation can be doubly damning.

Hermione and Veronica Lodge have fled to Riverdale to escape the scandal that patriarch Hiram Lodge has brought on the family. Both are hoping for a fresh start — Hermione hopes to shed her society wife persona, and Veronica wishes to atone for her former mean girl ways. It’s a rocky road for both women. Veronica manages to successfully transform into a better version of herself, but Hermione still seems to be stumbling by the end of season one. Hiram, having been absolved of his crimes, is on his way to Riverdale to reunite with his wife and daughter. Sadly, Hermione appears to have retreated into her shell of trophy wife.

Cheryl’s downfall is something a little more complicated. When her part in Jason’s disappearance is revealed, her parents are livid. Her mother grounds her from cheerleading, taking away Cheryl’s main source of power as captain of the River Vixens. This proves to be a temporary setback, however, and Cheryl is allowed to rejoin the squad. She does not retain leadership for long before, sadly (for Cheryl) she is voted down as captain (or HBIC, as her practice shirt proclaims) in favor of Veronica.

Miss Grundy, though that isn’t her real name as we learn at the end of her short arc, is a woman on the run from an abusive ex. She has pulled herself out of disgrace and has begun anew, far away from the person that she used to be. She went so far as to use a false name to acquire a teaching job. Much is implied in her short tenure on the show, namely that she has no problem seducing her male teenage students. Not only does she have an outright fling with Archie, she still can’t seem to keep her eyes off of fresh prey as she is leaving the town in disgrace.

Incest

One of the big reveals that happens late in the first season is that the Cooper family … isn’t the Cooper family. It turns out that their ancestor, the one murdered by the Blossom’s patriarch, was in fact a Blossom himself. That branch of the family changed their name in an attempt to distance themselves, but tragically, one cannot change their blood. This makes Polly and the late Jason Blossom cousins, however distantly. Rather than being bothered by this fact, the Blossom family seems intensely satisfied by this, stating that nothing could be “more purely Blossom” than Polly’s twins (scene below).

Furthermore, Jason and Cheryl Blossom’s relationship, shown in flashback and memory, is strangely close. When we see them together, in various scenes, they’re wearing matching outfits, holding hands, sharing a milkshake, and going on a canoe trip early in the morning on July 4th. Cheryl mentions that Jason has always been her date for the annual tree-tapping ceremony (episode 9). By the tenth episode, “The Lost Weekend,” Veronica says what we’ve all been thinking: that maybe Cheryl loved her brother in ways that went beyond sisterly.

Supernatural Elements

The supernatural is really something that’s more hinted at than anything else. Cheryl sees her dead brother in dreams and hallucinations (giving us the implied insanity that the Gothic demands). These scenes are quite vivid, both for Cheryl and the viewer.

The creators have been very coy about whether or not they intend to dip into the otherworldly for the series after the next season. At first, there were hints that Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a character from the Archie comics and star of her own series, may make an appearance. Given that Sabrina will now be starring in her own series, however, it seems unlikely that we will see Sabrina show up on Riverdale any time soon.

If you’ve been doubtful of this show in the past, due to the Gossip Girl pastiche mask that it wears, I hope that you’ll give it a second look. Season two begins on October 11th, so you have plenty of time to catch up on Netflix.

 

13 Comments

  • Lane Robins October 3, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    I will completely accept that this is gothic horror and therefore spec fic worthy. I was a fan of the comics when I was young, nagging at my mother to buy me Archie and Betty&Veronica, so I was excited when this show came around. Archie as a property strikes me as weirdly plastic in its incarnations–stretching from gentle comedy to superheroism to horror and scooby-doo like adventures. What I’m saying is I didn’t have any trouble with it being made into a weirdly color saturated CW thriller. And I really liked the characters. I haven’t finished watching the season yet, but I will.

    Reply
    • Casey Price October 3, 2017 at 10:38 pm

      There was SO much more that I wanted to get into! I’m afraid to say too much since you haven’t finished, but the oversaturated colors and the extremely deliberate costuming was one thing I didn’t touch on – it felt like a very meta experience overall. The characters KNEW they were characters, so the cliches worked. It was like they were all in on the joke. If I had covered ALL OF THE THINGS it would have ended up as a 10,000 word paper with citations and everything.

      Reply
      • Shara White October 4, 2017 at 10:37 am

        …you say that like it’s a bad thing?

        Reply
  • Shara White October 3, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    This write-up has me completely intrigued by the show. I have no affiliation or nostalgia or connection or anything to the comics or anything relating to the property or franchise, but you’ve certainly convinced me that this fits gothic horror!

    Reply
    • Casey Price October 3, 2017 at 10:39 pm

      And there was a TON that I didn’t cover. I could have easily stretched this out

      Reply
    • Lane Robins October 3, 2017 at 10:40 pm

      Shara, this show is so weird, you have no idea. And then there’s Cheryl Blossom, who seems to wander around in an entirely different world of her own. SO WEIRD.

      Reply
  • Kelly McCarty October 5, 2017 at 12:10 am

    I don’t have any experience with the comics and I pretty much assumed that Riverdale was one of those silly CW teen soap operas. But after reading your review, the show sounds much darker and more intriguing than I thought.

    Reply
    • Casey Price October 14, 2017 at 1:31 am

      It has a HEALTHY dose of teenage soap opera drama, but stylistically it’s got so much more going on.

      Reply
  • Ronya FM October 5, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    I’m glad someone wrote this because I’ve been watching Riverdale, and I wanted to write something about it as well. But I couldn’t figure out how to tie it in. I didn’t even think about the Gothic-horror aspect; I noticed some of the tropes (fallen women, incest, remote locations), but they were so subconscious they flew under the radar.

    As someone who read the comics waaaaaay back when, when Happy Days was still on the air, for a double dose of “goody-two shoes,” watching Riverdale is unsettling. It has its “CW moments,” but I like this version of the Riverdale story so much better. (Maybe I should have known I would like it because even when I was a kid, the “Hot Stuff: The Little Devil” comics were more my speed.)

    So thanks for the nice layout of the Gothic horror elements!

    Reply
    • Casey Price October 14, 2017 at 1:32 am

      There was so much more that I wanted to write about! I’m pondering writing more, honestly! And now that season two has started, the fun just continues.

      Reply
  • Ron Edison October 7, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    I grew up with Archie, reading my sister’s copies when I ran out of my own comics to read, so they have a certain nostalgia for me. A couple years ago I picked up collections Best of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s (the ’40s one has an intro by Stephen King). Like Bart Simpson, the characters never aged. Mark Waid rebooted the series a year or so ago and I liked the updating of the characters. I thought Riverdale would echo these updates but it’s pretty much its own thing. I like the ‘new’ Veronica and Jughead but the new Betty is too timed and helpless. As the season wore on, it became a little too soapy for my taste, too much of a CW thing. I’ll probably keep watching the second season for a bit but my interest and patience are flagging.

    Reply
    • Casey Price October 14, 2017 at 1:35 am

      Supposedly they’re going to be exploring more of Betty and her issues this season. I’m not sure to what extent they’re going to dig into her character, but I hope they break open the shell and mess around with all of the gooey insides, so to speak.

      Reply
  • Riverdale Reactions: Chapter 14, “A Kiss Before Dying” | TITLE GOES HERE, CASEY October 18, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    […] arguing that Riverdale’s first season was, beneath the soap opera drama, a proper Gothic horror. You can read it here, if you are so inclined. There was a LOT more that I didn’t get a chance to write about. I’d really love to pick it all […]

    Reply

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